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Finally, I Have an Opinion

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I think ducks are the funniest bird.

This is an issue I've been wrestling with in my professional life for several years. It started when I did this cartoon for the New Yorker,

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"Have you ever thought about becoming a duck?" (Two ducks talking to a man.)

Image courtesy of cartoonbank.com

Suddenly I was faced with the need to make a decision. The idea was there, but it needed the right bird. I went through all the options I could think of. "Have you ever thought about becoming a vulture." wasn't funny enough and "Have you ever thought about becoming an albatross." was a little too funny. Ducks seemed funny just right.

Flash forward five years or so, I'm putting together a book of cartoons called The Rejection Collection. I include a questionnaire section in the book that each contributor has to fill out. Among the many other weighty questions is this simple multiple choice:

Circle the funniest bird:

Chicken

Penguin

Pigeon

Tufted titmouse

It was just one of many questions and I can't say I gave it that much significant consideration. Maybe my subconscious was still undecided on the bird issue and this was its way of continuing the debate. What gets me is that for some reason it didn't occur to me to include ducks. It had been five years since I had worked the bird thing out for myself, but still. Had I just forgotten my previous conclusion? Or was I subconsciously trying to keep ducks to myself, like I had discovered the secret to avian comedy and didn't want my colleagues to know about it. I don't know. I don't remember even considering ducks. I was just caught up in the mad dash to slap this thing together and get it out to the cartoonists.

So anyway, the questionnaire goes out to thirty of my illustrious colleagues, all professional cartoonists for The New Yorker magazine, who can be counted on to make correct funny choices on a daily basis. The results come back to me a week or so later. Of the thirty cartoonists who filled it out, four had to be discounted at the outset because they left that particular question blank or otherwise failed to follow instructions. Mick Stevens, for instance, wrote in the word "hippo". It isn't necessarily a wrong answer, (since hippo is indeed a funny bird) but it isn't an answer that helps much in the current study. That left me with 26 quantifiable answers, which I will share with you now. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one voted for the humble pigeon as the funniest bird. To non-comedy professionals, however, it may come as a surprise that the chicken was the clear winner with eleven votes or roughly 42% of the total. Tufted titmouse edged out penguin by one vote with seven and six respectively.

Now then, this is where the subjective part of my judging process comes in. Kim Warp (no doubt wrestling long and hard, but ultimately unsuccessfully with the quandary) marked it down as a tie between penguin and chicken. If I count this as a vote for each, which I do, then it brings the chicken to a total of twelve votes and the penguin and titmouse tying at seven apiece, but that's not all. William Haefeli never came to a clear answer on which bird is the funniest, but did come to a definitive opinion about which one is the least funny. He says the tufted titmouse is the least funny because, as he says, it tries too hard. I see some sense in that response, so I hate to discount it in the overall standings. If I count that as a vote against titmouse, which is what my gut instructs me to do, then we have a final tally in order of funniness of:

Chicken 12

Penguin 7

Tufted Titmouse 6

Pigeon 0

So this all brings me back to reconsider my original theory that ducks are the funniest bird. While I agree with the findings of the group that chickens are the funniest choice given these four options, I'm still convinced that ducks are a tiny bit better. I'm just kicking myself now for not putting ducks among the options in the place of pigeons. If I had just done that, I firmly believe we'd now have the definitive, empirical evidence of the comic superiority of the duck. But some things can be taken from this chicken winning result if we look at it further. The real question is: why did chickens edge out the others? What's funny about chickens?

I think it's a number of things: first of all I think it's because of the name, "chicken." It's got the hard "k" sound that comedy writers have always gone on and on about. It's also because the chicken looks funny. They're sort of fluffy and chunky and out of shape as far as birds go. (It also might help that we've all seen them naked.) Chickens also walk and talk funny. Lastly, I think chickens just embody a charming normalcy, a Charlie Brown like character, an "everybird", if you will, that makes them likeable and funny --much more than say penguins or pheasants.

But here's the point I'm getting at: I think all these qualities that make chickens funny apply even more so to ducks. Starting with the name. "Duck" also has the hard "k" sound and what's more, it's got a built-in pun and if that weren't enough, it also rhymes with a rude, bad word, so right there, they beat out chicken in the funny name department. I think ducks look funnier than chickens too. It's hard to beat that bright orange bill and those webbed feet. It's like a chicken wearing Groucho glasses and snorkeling flippers. Besides, have you ever really seen a chicken? I mean really looked at one up close? They're creepy. The sounds ducks make are funnier too. I don't know any reasonable person who would contend that a cluck is funnier than a quack. And as far as walking funny, ducks win hands down. Their walk even has a funny name: Waddle. I mean, come on. That's comedy gold. The best you can come up with for a chicken is a "strut", and strutting is only funny if it's followed by tripping and falling. Then there's the whole eating business, the way ducks do that mooning thing where they stick their feathered rumps up into the air when searching for sustenance beneath the surface. That just kills me. And then they come back up and look around as if to say, "What? What are you guys laughing at? Did I miss something funny?" Then they proceed to do it again and again. Coming up always completely unaware that they are the fluffy butt of the joke. I'm sorry, but that's about as Charlie Brownish as a bird can get.

All I'm saying is, there must be a reason why the Marx's Brother's film is called "Duck Soup", not "Chicken Soup", and why Steve Martin wrote the short piece called "What to Say When the Ducks Show Up". It wasn't chickens. Steve knows where the funny is. There is also very good reasons why the famed Peabody Hotel in Memphis does the daily duck parade to entertain their guests and why there are two classic ducks in the animation world, Daffy and Donald, and only one chicken that I can think of. Is that a coincidence? I say, I say, no boy.

I say it's because ducks are funnier -by at least 4%.

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