And a Chicken Shall Lead Them © 1999 Andy Cooperman
Here’s my favorite joke:
Q: “Why don’t cannibals eat clowns?”
A: “Because they taste funny.”
Defining “funny” is like trying to grab a watermelon seed. Hold on too tight and it shoots away. We laugh at many things: incongruity, pain, surprise, the revelation of unspoken truths. We laugh to belong and we laugh to exclude. Regardless, people seem to fall somewhere between two comedic poles: The Banana Peel and the New Yorker. Most can certainly learn to appreciate either the pratfall or the droll cartoon, but I think that we come from the factory hard-wired to gravitate toward certain types of humor. By nature, I’m not a banana peel kinda guy and, cannibals and clowns not withstanding, I like to think of myself as possessing a more sophisticated comedic palate. The Three Stooges raise a smile but I don’t really find them funny. A good yarn--observation, word play, improbable situations: that’s what gets me. I consider the story a higher form of humor, Homo Sapiens to the Stooges’ Neanderthal. A slowly unfolding, multi-layered tale, well told, brings us together. We’re all on board through the zigs and the zags of the narrative, wrapped in the cozy cocoon of a story whose conclusion seems clear until-- out of nowhere --we’re punched in the gut by the twist that comes out of left field. The punch line is the thing that we didn’t see coming. Sometimes though, it’s not a surprise but instead what we knew was coming all along, the fulfillment of a comedic contract. We laugh at the tidiness of the joke and because we are in the loop. Or maybe we laugh at a blending of the two: the anticipated payoff expressed in a word or phrase that is skewed a little to the side, incongruent, improbable and maybe ironic. That’s where the pun lies.
Humor is my Rosetta Stone. It’s how I understand the world. But here’s something funny: As central to my life as humor is, I rarely employ it in my work. And when I do, it is invariably in service to a pun. A pun… the lowest form of humor. My secret shame. I have made diamond engagement rings (abrasive diamond drills standing in for the traditional center stone), an elegant thorn-studded corkscrew and a savagely spiked wine cork (Unscrewable and Unstoppable) and a neckpiece built from steel chain, a basalt stone and a sour dough bun (Rock & Roll). All were made exceedingly well because I take the business of making seriously and I believe that what I make should stand alone as an object once the joke gets old. Even if it contains a rubber chicken.
Is there anything funnier than a pig bladder on the end of a stick? Apparently, the French didn’t think so. Back in the day it was the height of humor for jesters and performers to shake an inflated pig bladder at the crowd. This is the ancestor of the contemporary rubber chicken. I know this from exhaustive research: I was exhausted after five minutes of research. badum-CHING (cue rim shot). Whatever its origin, the classic novelty chicken is the exemplar of bad humor. I am fortunate enough to have a supply of inch long rubber (actually plastic) chickens that are perfect Lilliputian versions of the original (I could find no miniature pig bladders).
My affair with the chickens was hatched with the first Ring-tisserie (aka Rotisse-ring). With a few snips a standard chicken can be transformed: sans feet and head what was Borscht Belt prop becomes spit-roasted delight. (Getting the carcass just right was hit and miss and the carnage was extensive. Tiny yellow and orange chicken heads-- and even tinier feet-- littered the floor; decapitated test chickens lay strewn about my bench.) The Ring-tisserie was a fairly simple ring sporting one of these trimmed birds impaled on a tiny brass spit turned by a diminutive crank. That ring was incredibly popular. To date I have built four iterations, each more complex and carefully rendered. The last two have featured a tiny silver hibachi and Weber-style grill, respectively, each fueled by carved14k pink gold flames and individually fabricated sterling coals. The inherent dichotomy between shtick and craft, the improbability and questionable wisdom of someone devoting such time and care to a bad joke, is hilarious.
Some pieces just demand to be made and once the proverbial door to the coop was opened there was one pun too delicious to resist. Before I even designed the Chicken Choker I had an elaborate mental fantasy of how and where the neckpiece would be worn and the conversation that would unfold around it.
The scene: a sultry summer evening, a lecture or perhaps a music recital at a small performance hall or museum. It is intermission and the crowd moves outside onto a patio that looks out on a broad, manicured lawn. A woman wearing a simple but elegant dress, whose open neck reveals a brightly colored necklace, stands at a stone rail taking in the view. She is approached by another woman who admires the necklace but is puzzled by the materials. The admirer stoops to peer more closely and our lady thanks her and then gamely explains that the necklace is made from pearls and rubber chickens.
“Pearls and rubber chickens?” the admirer asks, blinking her eyes in confusion. “Why chickens?”
“Well… it’s a ‘chicken choker’.”
“I don’t understand”, the admirer smiles uncomfortably, clearly not getting the point.
Our lady smiles back but furrows her brow, deciding how far to take the conversation.
Like a good story, the Chicken Choker unfolds. First there is the overall absurdity of the piece and comical incongruity of the materials--pearls and chickens; then the title itself: a pun-chline that offers smug satisfaction for those in the know. But the deeper humor is more schadenfreude (a German word that essentially means taking delight in the misfortune of others) and comes with the uncomfortable possibility of having to explain the double entendre (which is just a pun in a negligee). The humor of the piece can be experienced at any of those points. From the person who strung the pearls and chickens to the photographer who documented the finished piece, every person laughed, each experiencing the choker through their own lens.
There are now a fowl pair of earrings, the chickens hanging by their necks in a tiny sterling device that evokes a medical halo or brace. These little ambassadors move through the world much more easily than the larger, more involved pieces and elicit smiles and comments from strangers in even the most inappropriate of places. In an airport restroom a young girl who, staring at the chickens dangling from my wife’s ears, approached her and said, “I like your earrings. Are they supposed to be funny?” Upon assurance that they were, the girl threw her head back and laughed. The little chickens broke down barriers. Which, in my mind, is the highest purpose of humor.
In the end, I suppose the chickens are more Banana Peel than New Yorker. So much for my finely tuned palate… And the cannibals? Well, that’s the final irony. Because there is nothing funny about clowns.