Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why are rubber chickens funny?

Who's asking: Matt Prager, Brooklyn, NY

Matt asked me this question a long time ago -- before this incarnation of the blog even started -- and reminded me of it again last week, when he put it out to two other friends we'd met for dinner.

"They're not," was the obvious answer, but that does not explain why rubber chickens have become a universal, immediately recognizable symbol of bad comedy. "The rubber chicken is the pinnacle of humor," says one website that sells them, but why?

In honor of Matt's birthday -- today, so happy birthday -- I've done some real research into this. It's been harder than I'd expected. In fact, the history of humor is a field that could use a lot more work, and might even be worthy of a book proposal of my own.

It's not clear where the rubber chicken originated, but they've been around for quite some time. One source suggests that rubber chickens were props during the French Revolution, when soldiers tied them to their muskets for luck -- this is baffling for a host of reasons, and it's hard to imagine any way the guerrillas of the French Revolution could have been funny. The legendary British clown Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837), whose biography Charles Dickens wrote, pulled a rubber chicken from his pocket as part of a routine mocking the excessive feasting of the time.

A child psychologist once told me that babies find humor in things that are surprising but not scary, and the rubber chicken might fall into this category. Those of us who don't live on farms or in Chinatown never see dead chickens with their heads on any more, so we no longer connect the rubber chicken to anything in our daily experience.

Back when people had to clean their own chickens, though, it must have been one of the nastier chores of the day. The idea of carrying a plucked dead chicken around in one's pocket, just in case, would have been both disgusting and funny. Of course you wouldn't take its head off, because how gross would that be? But you'd take the feathers off to save space. The initial view of the dead chicken -- an 18th century version of fast food -- would have been shocking and disgusting, but once you found out it was a fake, you'd laugh.

What's funny now that will baffle future generations?


JIM LAMB said...

The Senators from Massachusetts! Chapaquidick Ted and Hanoi Kerry

Anonymous said...

Pretty much everything that's funny now will be a head-scratcher within a century or two. Comedy, other than slapstick, travels poorly across time and culture. Words change meanings, political decisions that are absolutely laughable when they're made become more reasonable or much sadder with time, and targets for mockery shift or become obscure to the point that even the intention of humor is missed.

Excellent examples of all three of those phenomena can be found in Jonathan Swift's _Gulliver's Travels_ and _A Tale of the Tub_. It's near impossible to find the jokes in the later book without a very large program. And nowadays, _GT_ is more productively read as a magical realist adventure story for kids than the scathingly satirical attack on nascent European imperialism that it was when it was first published.

As for slapstick, it's funny because the old saw about "humor is pain" is absolutely true. But it's not exactly that Comedy = Tragedy + Time. It's more that Comedy = Other People's Tragedy + Your Distance.

-- Ed

P.S. Sorry for the long post.

Moira McLaughlin said...

Fascinating (who knew Dickens wrote a clown’s biography) and perhaps a bit funnier!


Moira McLaughlin said...

And Happy Birthday Matt!

Anonymous said...

I never found rubber chickens as funny as Groucho Glasses


Anonymous said...

And, you were up at 5:22AM writing about rubber chickens? :-)

AnswerGirl said...

It's that time of year... Dizzy and I get up at sunrise, which occurred at something like 4:56 this morning.

And I didn't even get a nap today.

Anonymous said...

I Love Lucy, The Three Stooges, Little Rascals.....STILL funny! Even for younger generation--CLASSIC. If you don't think so, get a sense of humor, be silly, life is for living!!

Anonymous said...

My own suspicion, that I have never been able to confirm, was that the rubber chicken was actually a sex toy, disguised as something non-sexual, and that this was something you either knew and were in on, or you were uncool and unaware. Given the context of the rubber chicken joke, they are almost always treated with a wink and a bit of risque, but it isn't something you would confess in either writing or a public forum. This is just a theory, but if you imagined that the rubber chicken had a long hollow spot, with a small opening, and a really narrow long head, you could see the potential.