Chickens have a surprisingly large footprint in our culture. From movies like Chicken Run and Chicken Little to the slang of calling a frightened person “chicken.” Why is the chicken such an integral part of our pop culture? Part of the reason may be that chickens are really funny.
What is the first joke you ever learned? I’m betting it was “why did the chicken cross the road?” This has become the common generic joke, when really it’s a non-joke. The listener presumably would expect a punchline but instead gets the obvious answer. This joke dates back to (at least) 1847 when it appeared in The Knickerbocker magazine.
The rubber chicken is also the typical generic comedy prop. Chickens make us laugh.
However, the noble chicken is more than just the jester of the animal kingdom. Chickens are associated with helping us when we don’t feel good. What did mom give you when you stayed home from school? A bowl of chicken soup. The concept became metaphorical in the 1990s with the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help book series.
To fully understand the chicken’s place in pop culture we must try to understand the chicken. I say “try to understand” because no one can truly understand the chicken. This is why mankind has perpetually been puzzled with the dilemma of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
The one thing we need to understand is that chickens can be male or female. A male chicken is called a rooster and a female chicken is called a hen. Still, both are chickens.
The oldest pop cultural reference to the chicken comes way before people were asking “why did the chicken cross the road?” Back in the middle ages, the story of Chanticleer and the Fox started to be told and retold. It tells of a cocky rooster who is trapped by a fox and must outwit him to save his own life.
The story inspired the 1991 film, Rock-a-Doodle, but the film had a much different plot.
The most famous chicken of them all is probably the Looney Tunes’ resident rooster, Foghorn Leghorn. Foghorn debuted in the 1946 short Walky Talky Hawky and has appeared in dozens of shorts, and the feature film Space Jam. Foghorn is a recognizable character to most consumers and his beak has appeared in commercials, on toys and even amusement park rides, including Foghorn Leghorn’s Barnyard Railway at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Foghorn Leghorn National Park Railway at Six Flags St Louis and Foghorn Leghorn Stagecoach Express at Six Flags Great Adventure.
Foghorn Leghorn was inspired by Kenny Delmar’s radio character Senator Claghorn. Senator Claghorn was a southern blowhard who’s vocal style and catchphrases of “I say, I say” and “it’s a joke, son” were parodied by the Looney Tunes rooster who eventually eclipsed the character in terms of relevance in pop culture.
There have been other famous cartoon chickens, like the titular chicken in the Cartoon Network show Cow and Chicken, Jay Ward’s Super Chicken and the cartoonish Alfred Chicken in the Super Nintendo game of the same name. Alfred wasn’t the first chicken themed video game. That was the Atari game Freeway. This Activision title had gameplay that was somewhat similar to Frogger, but instead you were piloting a chicken across a road. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because the algorithms and code were correctly navigated by player one.
Today’s gamers may be more familiar with Blaziken in the Pokémon franchise. This bold chicken has fire powers. Fire and chicken do go together, but usually not to the benefit of the chicken. Chicken is a popular meat and is expected to become the world’s most consumed meat (ahead of pork) in the coming years. In 2014 it officially became more popular than beef in the United States. There are a lot of people that can be credited with the popularity of chicken meat, but no conversation about poultry consumption can be had without discussing a Kentucky Colonel.
Colonel Harland Sanders is one of the most recognizable Americans in history. It’s a good bet that, behind Presidents Lincoln and Washington, he is the American most often gazed upon by the public. Sure, he doesn’t appear on currency like Abe and George, but his face adorns signage dotting the highways and byways of this great land.
The company he founded, Kentucky Fried Chicken, was the first to send chickens to space. The experiment was originally scheduled on the 1986 launch of Space Shuttle Challenger. Tragically, the ship broke apart and the nation mourned.
In 1989 the experiment of “Chix In Space” was tried again onboard Space Shuttle Discovery. Chicken embryos were sent into space and tests were done to see how they developed without the earth’s atmosphere. After landing, the first “Space Chicken” hatched. It was named Kentucky and gifted to the Louisville Zoo where it lived the rest of it’s days.
Kentucky wasn’t the only famous “real chicken” in American history. President Theodore Roosevelt had multiple chickens including a one legged rooster and a hen named Baron Speckle.
Perhaps the most unique celebrity chicken was Mike the Headless Chicken. Owned by a farmer in Colorado, this chicken was headed for the dinner table in April of 1945. However, after being beheaded he ran around like a proverbial “chicken with its head cut off.” Unlike most chickens, who do this for a matter of seconds or minutes, Mike survived for almost two years without his head. In fact, he didn’t seem to even know it was missing. Mike left the farm and toured the U.S.A.
There are other farm stories about chickens that have become part of pop culture. The phrase “rose colored glasses” comes from chicken-sized goggles that were sold to farmers in the beginning of the 20th century. These rose tinted lenses were thought to keep the chickens from attacking each other. Chickens have a nasty habit of becoming cannibalistic when they spot blood on another chicken. These glasses were said to cut down on the pecking because the chickens couldn’t see the blood anymore.
The hen house isn’t always the happiest place and has been depicted as such on occasion in pop culture. Disney made the cute family film Chicken Little in 2005, but previously they had made a much darker telling of Chicken Little in 1943. The short film was an anti-Nazi film designed to warn the public about mass hysteria. In the end of this film, a fox eats Chicken Little and all his friends.
Disney used another chicken to teach the value of labor in a short film 9 years earlier. The Wise Little Hen was a retelling of the South African story of The Little Red Hen. This fable tells of a chicken who interacts with some lazy animals as she tries to prepare food. The animals refuse to help with any of the work so she refuses to share her food. The 1934 Disney version was notable for the introduction of Donald Duck as one of the lazy animals. Donald Duck would go on to become a worldwide star and eventually co-star with another chicken, this time a rooster named Panchito Pistoles, in The Three Caballeros.
Chickens have had many other moments in television, movie and literature. Instead of having a dog named Toto, Dorothy has a chicken named Billina in some of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. Gonzo of Muppets fame is always pining after Camilla the chicken, baseball fans cheered the antics of the San Diego Chicken, viewers cried at the death of a chicken in the series finale of M*A*S*H and every wedding ever attended seems to have time set aside for dancing The Chicken Dance.
Chickens have always been part of our pop culture and I think it’s a safe bet they always will be.