Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Random Thoughts On Chickens and Ducks

I have just come off the phone with a woman arguing about chickens. Chickens it seems are big again and I’m the man that everybody want so to speak to about this most glamorous of domesticated fowl.

Being big in chickens has made me realise that for too long I’ve been not been making the most of my talents. While people are out there selling books about chickens, documentaries about chickens, and even t-shirts about chickens, my own encyclopedic knowledge about chickens is going to waste. I am, you might say, somewhat chicken about the chicken.

Clive James writes some of the only poetry I tend to read these days. He writes some of the only prose I choose to read too. He wrote this beautiful verse for ‘The New Yorker’, which this morning led me to this cartoon about a chicken. I would suggest you go watch it except I don’t think it’s worth your time. I think my own chicken cartoon is funnier.

But, actually, if you look carefully, you'll see that my chicken cartoon is about a duck. I originally wrote it about a chicken but had drawn in a duck’s beak. Despite the cartoon working better with a chicken, I was too tired to change the beak. Which again proves that I don’t know my chickens. Or that I don’t understand other people’s chickens and my own ducks.

I don’t know if Clive James has ever written a poem about a chicken but I once wrote a novel about a duck. Ducks are like chickens but their comic effect is quite different. Simply saying the word ‘chicken’ can induce a smile. ‘Duck’ requires hard work. ‘Chicken’ has the proximity of the soft ‘c’ sound against the hard ‘k’ but its effect lies in that hard termination of the ‘n’. It is a laugh within seven letters. ‘Duck’ is a straightforward attack word and only works in the context of other words. The humour lies in using it to cut across a line that hints towards the eloquent. Comically, the ‘duck’ has to be timed just right. It terminates a sentence well. Almost too well. It is always funny to put it into a context where it does harm to the line: ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s duck’. Though, in this example, you expect the ‘duck’ so it’s probably not that funny. It might have been better if I’d used a chicken instead.

I also suspect that more ducks appear in films than chickens, though I don’t recall if any ducks actually appear in ‘Duck Soup’ other than the opening shot of ducks swimming in a stewing pot. Ducks are comic props, to be passed between principals. They can also go ‘quack’. Chickens, on the other hand, are there to be kicked away or driven towards at high speed. Film chickens are the forgotten heroes of cinema. They are often reduced to squawking around the farmyard or thrown unceremoniously from a barn as a biplane goes crashing through the roof. I can think of no live action film in which a chicken has had a major role. Sylvester Stallone chases a chicken in ‘Rocky’ and Harpo Marx seems to have an endless supply of chickens to pull from his coat pockets. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ opens with chickens buried alive in the sand and having their heads blown off for target practice. (I’m tempted to make a joke about Pecking-pah but there’s nothing worse than a chicken pun.) But these are all bit parts, which seems rather sad given that chickens have played support for so long. After playing a supporting role in ‘Pat Garrett’, even Bob Dylan got a chance to star in his own film. The film was ‘Heart of Fire’. I can’t help but think that it would have been a better film if Dylan’s role had been played by a chicken.

10 comments:

James Higham said...

I prefer Peking Duck, truth be told, with those julienned cucumber pieces and plum sauce.

Brit said...

Yep, I think you've pretty much covered the duck/chicken territory, Dick.

Fish are inherently funny, especially the haddock. Monty Python was largely based on this insight.

Dick Madeley said...

Brit, you're absolutely right about fish, though I've always found the herring to be my favourite for comedy.

Brian said...

Great cartoons over the past couple of days Dick.
As for chicken appearances in films -Not exactly a starring role, but one of the oddest endings to any film I've seen, courtesy of the wonderful Werner Herzog...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUcTvhyof8I

Dick Madeley said...

Thanks Brian. Kind words and always encouraging. Your suggestion about Searle has cost me a small fortune but I'm delighted by what I've found. he uses such simple lines with such great effects. I'm so hooked on the St. Trinian cartoons that I haven't even taken 'Molesworth' out of its bag. I've been doodling during my black period (hence the silence for a few days) but I'm now considering what to do with them. I think there are a few gems and I'm wondering if I might earn a few pence for them if I send them out.

Great clip. I agree. Herzog is fantastic, yet never in ways I expect. Though I loved his last film (the one about the crashed US airman) but his odder films can just be so surprising. I keep meaning to buy the box set of his more obscure films. I'm strangely drawn to the one about the midgets.

Brian said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I detect a new confidence in your most recent cartoons. You're clearly making progress, both in style and content. I'd seriously consider sending them out for professional approval.
I'm so glad you've picked up some Searle. His drawing style influenced me greatly and still does. I love those Molesworth books.

Welsh Girl said...

Aaaah, Molesworth! I don't know that there is anything better, even St Trinians pales in comparison.....

Dick Madeley said...

Now you're both making me eager to get home and start it.

Brian, confidence perhaps. I think I'm developing more of a routine, allowing myself to sketch things out. I'm also helped hugely by people thinking they're funny. Humour blogging is so much harder than 'real' blogging because it's easy to dismiss, takes such effort, and the rewards are so slight. Cartoons lend themselves to more feedback and that helps. I think studying other cartoonists helps. Just seeing some of the New Yorker cartoons and realising that you don't need to be a great draftsman allows me to relax. I think as Nige put it: sometimes the best artists aren't always the funniest cartoonists.

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