S*#% a Chicken Says

Recently, Lowbrow Reader Little Rock correspondent Jay Jennings checked in about the state of chickens in Arkansas….

Consider the chicken, the Rodney Dangerfield of fauna. It gets no respect.

Its simple attempts to cross a road are a bad joke. The famous chicken of childhood fable, Chicken Little, is demeaned as the very embodiment of a liar. The word itself is a schoolyard taunt for a fearful child, and the underpaid worker earns only “chicken feed.” The list goes on. On the whole, the chicken resides at the bottom of the pecking order.

The recent passing of Don Tyson got me thinking about Arkansas and chicken. Lesser wits have called him a “chick magnate,” but I’ll not stoop so low. (Especially since I found that I was the 5036th lesser wit who thought of that term when I Googled it, though my ranking may be higher because Google doesn’t account for those who actually meant ”chick magnet” and spelled it wrong.) But what is the state of chicken in the place that Tyson arguably made the State of Chicken?

In Rhode Island, where it is the state bird, the chicken is respected. But in Arkansas, we elevate the hog and denigrate the chicken. Pigs here are lionized, chickens are maligned. Our hogs are a near pro team, while chickens are mere protein.

How do chickens themselves feel about the low esteem in which they are held in Arkansas? I decided to investigate by seeking out our most visible fowl, the spokeschicken on that ubiquitous television commercial for a certain gold-exchange business. That ad was the subject of a recent condemnatory letter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. ” ‘This is a rubber chicken,’ ” the correspondent wrote, quoting one line from the spot. “And this is my mute button,” she quipped. In the course of the commercial, the role calls for the chicken to jut suddenly into the frame from all angles, repeating the words “They buy it!” and “Pwawk, p-p-p-p-PWAAAWK!”

I met with the actor over a lunch of scattered organic seeds at her expansive country home near Rogers.

Q: Why would you choose to do such a role, one that seems to perpetuate the stereotype of chickens as inarticulate and annoying?

C: For starters, I want to make it clear that I’m not actually a rubber chicken, I only play one on TV. For an actor, it was an opportunity to stretch, but I also want to make it clear that I was not happy with the final cut.

Q: The role wasn’t what you thought it was going to be?

C: Well, the audition notice went up at the Tyson plant that some producers were looking for a chicken to be in a starring role, and this time, it was not a pot pie. Every coop was wild with excitement (and not one of us with our heads cut off yet). “Prepare a three-minute monologue,” the notice said.

It mentioned a plot involving cash and broken gold, so we thought, Caper movie! Like Ocean’s Eleven. Or we suspected that the Coens were coming back to do Charles Portis’s Norwood, looking to fill the role of Joanne the Wonder Hen, the College Educated Chicken. It seemed like a highbrow thing, at least as highbrow as it can get for an animal with no brows.

The competition was fierce. Since some 42 million chickens are processed every week at Tyson plants across the world, so there were 42 million birds signed up to audition that week. I knew I had to do something to set myself apart from the crowd. So I prepared some of Ophelia’s lines from Hamlet – the scene where she goes insane — and, when the time came for the audition, I plucked myself bare of feathers in my crazy grief. That won the producers over, but not, I later found out, because of my acting. They wanted a real chicken who looked like a plucked rubber chicken. Or maybe they just liked my large breast.

Q: So you were surprised by what eventually appeared on the screen?

C: Surprised and disappointed. Most of me ended up on the cutting room floor. Just four lines: three “They buy it!”s and one “Pwawk, p-p-p-p-PWAAAWK!” Hardly Hamlet. It’s a double-edge hatchet, though: It doesn’t help the reputation of chickens here but I can hardly complain about the money. Every time it airs I get some scratch. And I can use that money to help further our cause: I’m a member of the Foundation to Restore the Image of Chickens in America (South/Southeast Extension), or FRICASSEE. Wherever chickens are looked down upon, we’ll be there protesting and chanting, “I am chicken, hear me roar!” and “Stop Wingstop!” Except, of course, those of us who’ve been debeaked.