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?