Rubber Chickens?
December 8, 2005 1:19 AM   Subscribe

What's the story with rubber chickens? Why are they funny? Where do they come from? What are their origins in comedy?
posted by sam and rufus to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

The first I remember is the spitting image chicken song,
but then again, I was 11 at the time so I'm bound to remember it. All together now...

"It's the time of year, now that spring is in the air
When those two wet gits, with their girly curly hair
Make another song, for marronic holidays
that nausiate-ate-ates in a million different ways
From the shores of Spain, to the coast of southern France
No matter where you hide, you just can't escape this dance

Hold a chicken in the air, stick a deck-chair up your nose
Buy a Jumbo-Jet, and then bury all your clothes
Paint your left knee green, then extract your wisdom teeth
Form a string quartet, and pretend your name is Keith.

Skin yourself alive, learn to speak araphahoe
Climb inside a dog, and behead an Eskimo
Eat a Renault 4, wear salami in your ears
Cassarole your gran, dis-embowel yourself with spears

The disco is migrating, the sound is loud and grating
It's truly nausiating - let's do the dance again..

Hold a chicken in the air, stick a deck-chair up your nose
Buy a Jumbo-Jet, and then bury all your clothes
Yes you'll hear this song, in the holiday discos
And there's no escape, in the clubs or in the bars
You would hear this song, if you holidayed in Mars

Skin yourself alive, learn to speak araphahoe
Climb inside a dog, and behead an Eskimo
Now you've heard it once, your brain will spring a leak
And though you hate this song you'll be humming it for weeks

Hold a chicken in the air, stick a deck-chair up your nose
Buy a Jumbo-Jet, and then bury all your clothes
la la la la la la la...."
posted by handee at 1:42 AM on December 8, 2005

Oh my god I copy and pasted those lyrics and I've just realised that the transcriber couldn't spell moronic, casserole or nauseate. Please do not take the previous comment as an indication of my spelling ability.
posted by handee at 1:44 AM on December 8, 2005

I guess the question could be rephrased as, "what is the earliest use of a rubber chicken as a comedy prop"? Monty Python's Flying Circus dates back to around 1970 - can anybody beat that?

You don't need to ask why rubber chickens are funny. They just are.
posted by salmacis at 2:24 AM on December 8, 2005

Following on from this question, it seems that the rubber chicken was a traditional prop in two-man vaudeville (1880--1920) comedy acts.
posted by chrismear at 2:59 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Python knight used a real chicken, not a rubber one, to thwap people.
posted by briank at 5:31 AM on December 8, 2005

Using a rubber chicken is funny because using a real one isn't.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:07 AM on December 8, 2005

Why are they funny?
below this, we will go on and on about why rubber chickens are funny. people will postulate, guesstimate, and proselytize about why rubber chickens are funny.

however, unless you've hauled off and whacked someone across the face with one, you'll never know for sure the answer to thine question.
It's that hurt look somewhere between indignation and guffaw that's funny, not the chicken.
posted by carsonb at 6:42 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

I agree that it definitely goes back to Vaudeville.

Total speculation: There might be some attempt at ethnic humor -- carrying around large food items (live pig, salami, cabbage) was often used to signal a dumb immigrant or hillbilly character. But I have no source to suggest that's what the chicken was about.
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Back after some poking around. Like so many of these questions, there's some seriously interesting leads, if not answers.

I discovered that the Negro League ballplayer Satchel Paige was famous for entertaining folks with something called the "chicken pitch", where he would do a long, exaggerated windup before lobbing a rubber chicken at the batter. From the Sport Literature list:
Paige also had thoughts on a variety of other people, such as medicine show huckster Milton Bartok. On several occasions Paige recounted the vaudeville stories of Mr. Interlocutor and Mr. Bones. In one, Paige was Mr. Interlocutor while the master of ceremonies played Mr. Bones, who asked the famous pitcher to demonstrate his hesitation pitch. Paige stretched the windup out so long Mr. Interlocutor wondered if his arm had frozen. Charley Davis, who played two years in the Negro League before quitting baseball, was with Paige and Fox at this interview, and encouraged Satch to talk about his chicken pitch, a skit in which instead of the ball he threw a rubber chicken to the catcher.

Following up on this, I noticed several citations of something called a "rubber chicken dinner". In this story, the reporter talks about how minor-league ballplayers were often hosted at Rotary Club and other civic association dinners, where they were exposed to speeches and served what they jokingly called "rubber chicken".
Salary-poor ballplayers and reporters looked forward to meetings of local civic organizations. The athletes would speak, the reporters would record their words and then everyone would enjoy the rubber chicken dinner.

"All of us were the same age and sometimes that was the only meal we had for the day," says Frank Traynor, who was press secretary for Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991-92 and went on to become an executive with Bloomberg Financial News. "We'd compare the last time we ate.

"The only other option was the $1.10 special at Bonanza steakhouse, which consisted of a grilled cheese, fries, soda and a lollypop," says Traynor, who worked at the Bluefield TV station in 1977.

So it appears there was a joke about the common experience of being served overcooked, unappetizing chicken. Not a giant humorous leap to accusing the chicken of being rubber.

So my next speculative theory, based on 20 minutes' Googlestudy: People like ballplayers and reporters, who ate a lot of meals at large social functions, were used to being confronted with nearly inedible, rubbery chickens. The meme transferred itself into show business through contact with journalists and sports figures and became a standard comedy trope. Just a guess.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Using a rubber chicken is funny because using a real one isn't.

Oh, I dunno. Someone being hit with a real chicken seems like it would be pretty funny.
posted by BorgLove at 8:54 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

lobbing a rubber chicken at the batter

Poultry in motion!
posted by Aknaton at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2005 [4 favorites]

Aknaton owes me a new keyboard AND monitor...
posted by SpecialK at 9:47 AM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

You couldn't carry around a rubber dildo back in the day to slap people in the face with, so a chicken was a good substitute.
posted by spicynuts at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2005

Wow, the answer to this question remains maddeningly elusive. I can only contribute the fact that most of the rubber chickens in the United States come from Utah.
posted by macinchik at 10:35 AM on December 8, 2005

> Yet despite the contentiousness of the play's historical context, political, theatrical, and literary, The Skin of Our Teeth is a tragi-comedy where the comedy is so broad it borders on farce. Wilder himself claimed that he got the idea for it when a rubber chicken flew off the stage and landed in his lap at a production of Hellzapoppin, the hit 1938 vaudeville review written by Ole Olsen and Chick Johnson.

Some Comp. Lit. level theatre discussion about that, not very relevant to the AskMe.

Here, though:
The story begins in 1939. George Loftus saw a need for novelty items and magic tricks in Salt Lake City. So he and his stepson Gene Rose opened a tiny shop on Main Street between First and Second South. Business went well for Gene, which led him to start manufacturing his own line of merchandise. One of his first items was an electric nose cleaner made from a rubber finger and a cord. Shortly thereafter, Loftus Novelty produced and marketed the first rubber chicken made of Latex rubber. The product spread nationally, and Gene bought the rights to the original rubber chicken mold.

And Penn and Teller on Hollywood Squares:
Tom: Comedians have been using this gag item for years. The Loftus Novelty Supply Company in Salt Lake City is the only U.S. manufacturer of them. What are they?
Penn: Never mind all that.
Tom: Okay.
Penn: Pick a card. Just tell me when to stop. Tell me when to stop.
Tom: Uh... tell you when to stop?
Penn: Stop. Any time.
Tom: Okay, go.
Penn: Right there. Okay. There's the card it is. (the 3 of clubs)
Tom: All right. It looks like...
Penn: There's the card. Don't say it aloud, stupid.
Tom: I'm sorry, it's not, all right.
Penn: There it is right there, we've got it, and now I will give it one shuffle and it will appear miraculously in the air. Watch this.
(Penn causes all of the cards to fall to the ground)
Penn: And... okay. Wait a second. Teller, can you help me out here? And... is this your card?
(Teller removes his sunglasses. His right eye displays the number three and his left eye displays the clubs symbol.)
Penn: The three of clubs.
Tom: That's so freaky. That's very freaky.
Penn: The three of clubs. Okay. Now you asked me what comedian thing there was there.
Tom: Only place you can get it.
Penn: We have a mnemonic device sitting right below us.
Tom: Yes?
Penn: A very good mnemonic device. It is the whoopee cushion. The whoopee cushion.
Tom: The whoopee cushion.
Valerie: I'll agree.
Penn: You fool! You fool! I'm lying to you!
Tom: The rubber... rubber chicken is what it is.
Penn: The rubber chicken!

posted by dhartung at 9:32 PM on December 8, 2005

Man, I've been having fun with this question. Applying some historical/folkloristic analysis to it, my theory has developed further.

OK, so it's established [dhartung] that the rubber-chicken joke was in use by the late 1930s. The question remains: Why? Why was a chicken made out of rubber something that would be considered funny?

It had to come from the rubber-chicken dinner. I've explored the Satchel Paige connection exhaustively, and now think he was just adding his spin a meme which was fun and funny for everyone in public life. Googling "rubber chicken dinner" or "Rubber chicken circuit" shows that the phrase has long meant a dinner for political, community-service, and fraternal organizations, and is still used and understood in politics and philanthropic circles.

So I'm holding with the theory that the funniness of a rubber chicken is based on the widely shared experience among early 20th century Americans (show business people, reporters, sports people, or even just voters) of being served bad food at civic functions. A Scholastic page on political jargon defines the Rubber Chicken Circuit as:
The endless series of public dinners and luncheons politicians must attend to raise funds and make speeches. The food often includes chicken, which is cooked hours earlier and then reheated, giving it a rubbery texture.
Noting that Hellzapoppin debuted in 1938, and that the Loftus co. didn't start producing rubber chickens for commercial sale until 1939 (which is late for Vaudeville, and presumably in response to a broad understanding of what the joke meant) lends support to the idea that the humor in it arises from civic and political dinners. The political machines of the 1930s were notorious for luring voters and building allegiances with free dinners and the like. Chicken was a special-occasion food until the 50s, so it worked as bait ('a chicken in every pot').

It's not a great leap to 'get it'. A slapstick vaudeville comedian produces a dead chicken made out of rubber, and the audience chortles "Look! that's where rubber chicken dinners come from!" It's the same type of humor that compares Army mess-hall biscuits to hockey pucks, and wants to protect the endangered Nauga. What would be very interesting would be to comb through newspapers and magazines to find the earliest citations of "rubber chicken dinners", and then to explore vaudeville scripts and stage reviews for mentions of the rubber chicken. I have a feeling the context in which the chicken appeared in the vaudeville skits would bear out the connection -- lampooning politicians onstage (always a favorite in the U.S).

As time went by and the culture changed, the joke would have become overly familiar and tired, and so its meaing would have changed. By the 1960s, rather than being about the shared experience of eating a bad dinner and enduring politicians' speeches, it became about comedians who had been plowing the Catskills and casino circuits for too long rehashing old jokes, and were old-school and out-of-touch. That's why it would be funny to the Python and Laugh-In generation - the joke was on the older comedians, and the joke was the stupidity of slapstick in an age where good comedy was considered to be anti-establishment, shicking, and absurdist.

What's funny about the rubber chicken now is that most people don't know why it's funny, or why it was ever funny, including me until this thread appeared. But we associate rubber chickens with comedy, having seen comedians running around with the things for 70 or so years, and we seem to have agreed culturally that it's a funny thing, even though we don't actually get the joke anymore. How postmodern is that?
posted by Miko at 8:09 AM on December 9, 2005 [3 favorites]

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