The crowd erupts with whistles and gasps as the live band punches out a feverish, stabbing brass sting. The host strides to the centre of the stage, waving as the crowd claps to the beat.
While the band continues, the unseen voiceover man announces, ‘Live from London to the world, it’s Barnyarn! The show where we can walk with the animals, talk to the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals. And here’s your host, Bob ‘Doolittle’ Daniels!’
‘Thank you, everyone. Thank you,’ says Doolittle Daniels, his voice as bright as his signature smile above the crowd’s cheers. ‘Thank you. It’s great to be with you tonight, thank you.’
The audience subdues at his good-natured command and he clasps his hands, rubbing them in anticipation.
‘Boy have I been looking forward to this episode. Joining me tonight is one of the most under-appreciated and misunderstood members of the animal kingdom—at least, that’s what he tells me. He’s fowl; he’s cocky; ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Northumberland, it’s a chicken!’
The chicken pokes his head out from the side curtain, its red comb wobbles as he twitches left and right. Finally, he struts on stage. He is a magnificent rooster with a fiery blaze of yellow and red down his neck, deep brown throat plumage, and green-black tailfeathers that pour majestically from his buxom rump. He takes his first few steps cautiously, the brash sound of the band and cheering crowd is a far cry from his farm. Doolittle Daniels stands at his desk and encourages the chicken to perch on the timber frame beside him which, after a flutter of his resplendent wings, he does. The crowd coos in appreciation.
‘Welcome to the show,’ Doolittle says.
‘Thanks, Bob,’ says the chicken. A smattering of gasps is audible from the live audience.
‘From that reaction, I take it we have a couple of people unfamiliar with our show.’
The crowd chuckles.
‘Please be assured, there is no trick. This is not a highly-convincing puppet or CGI.’
As if to prove Doolittle’s point, the chicken defecates on the stage.
‘Well, there you go.’
The crowd laughs. The chicken clucks and ruffles his feathers.
‘As I was saying, this is very much a real rooster. As some of you can probably smell. My great grandfather, John Doolittle learned to talk to animals and he passed that ability to my father, and him to me. Someday, I hope to pass this gift on to a child of my own.’
The crowd awws.
‘Working with the clever folks at program sponsor Google Translate, we came up with a live digital translator that takes our guests’ barks, bas, and brays then outputs those sounds in English—or whatever language you’re watching this broadcast in. They’ve got something similar at the UN, you know. This is much more sophisticated, though. My guests, I mean.’
‘Most of you know how this works, of course. We wouldn’t be the number one show in the country without you.’ Doolittle clasps his hands in thanks and the crowd claps and whistles. The chicken flaps his wings then resettles on his perch.
‘So without further ado, my guest tonight, a rooster.’
The crowd erupts in a deafening wall of applause and cheers while Doolittle pats the chicken’s head in welcome. The host unbuttons his jacket and takes his seat.
‘Good evening, sir. Great to have you on the show,’ he says.
Doolittle smiles awkwardly, then says, ‘Uh, sorry, folks. It seems we are having a slight technical issue.’
A sound engineer—replete with large headphones, a mouthpiece, toolkit, and soundless shoes—sneaks to the stage and makes adjustments to the tiny lapel mic hidden in the chicken’s feathers.
‘Must have been all that flapping. Never work with animals,’ Doolittle quips. The crowd responds with warm laughter. ‘That’s the trouble with live television; animals tend to follow their own rules with regard to keeping still. It’s a real nightmare for hair and makeup, that I can tell you.’
The sound engineer signals the sound booth with a thumbs up and, with Doolittle’s professional filler completed, the camera goes back to the wide shot of both guest and host.
‘Let’s try that again, shall we?’ Doolittle says. ‘It’s great to have you on the show.’
The chicken’s beak twitches open and closed. The audience hears, ‘Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.’
The crowd claps, relieved the glitch has been resolved and they will get to witness the world’s most famous talk show, live, after all.
Doolittle says, ‘Let’s start with your name if we can?’
‘Certainly,’ says the rooster. ‘Farmer McCubbin calls me Jack but my real name is more difficult to say without a beak.’
‘I see, so you have a chicken name?’
‘Of course. Mine translates roughly as Pozzie Tutu.’
‘Pozzie Tutu?’ says Doolittle. ‘What in the world does that mean?’
‘Nothing to you, I’m sure. But to me and to other chickens it means a great deal.’ The rooster puffs out his chest, cranes his neck and flares his feathered mane.
‘You are an impressive cock, I must say.’
Sniggers from the crowd.
‘Oh, grow up,’ Doolittle says with an impish grin.
The rooster tilts his head, evidently not understanding the host’s juvenile wordplay.
‘Is-is everything alright?’ asks the rooster.
‘Absolutely!’ Doolittle cries, encouraging the crowd to applaud, which they do.
With the rooster appeased, Doolittle takes up a pile of cards and addresses his guest.
‘Now, we don’t have a lot of time tonight and I want to get through a few topics. How about we get started?’
‘Fine by me, Bob,’ said the rooster.
‘I must say, you’re very well-spoken for a Northerner.’
‘I moved there only recently, my parents are from Hertfordshire.’
‘I see,’ says Doolittle picking up his cue cards. ‘So then, Mr Tutu, are you aware of the phrase “rare as hen’s teeth”?’
The rooster responds, ‘This is a term you use to describe something uncommon?’
‘Actually, some of my ancestors supposedly had teeth but that was about 150 million years ago, give or take.’
‘You don’t know any hens with teeth then?’
‘I don’t, no.’
‘Very well, I think we can call “rare as hen’s teeth” a valid simile then.’
The chicken nods and the crowd claps.
‘Off to a good start.’ Doolittle reads his next card. ‘If I was to call another man ‘chicken’, what do you suppose I would be implying?’
The rooster blinks. He adjusts his stance. He clucks, ‘That the man is… astute?’
‘Well, no,’ replies Doolittle.
‘Does it refer to a hen or a rooster?’
Doolittle checks his card as if the answer might be there. ‘As far as I’m aware, the idiom is gender-neutral.’
‘Then I’m not sure,’ says the rooster. ‘There are so many characteristics to be found in even the most unassuming chook, I couldn’t possibly guess. Though I dare say to be called chicken is to be paying someone a compliment.’
The crowd chuckles, somewhat amused but perhaps hesitant to wound the animal’s pride.
Doolittle says with a smile, ‘I’m afraid it’s not a compliment, Pozzie. Typically, if one is called chicken then it means they are considered to be rather cowardly.’
The rooster jolts his head back and shakes his comb in disbelief.
‘Cowardly?’ he says.
‘Timid,’ Doolittle reads from the card. ‘To withdraw from or fail in something through lack of nerve.’
The rooster blinks again, turns his head left and right as if searching for where he fits in. He appears to be lost; as if he wants to be home. Somewhere simple, familiar.
‘To be chicken is to be cowardly?’ he asks in disbelief.
‘I mean, I didn’t come up with it, but yes. That’s what it means,’ Doolittle replies.
‘B-but that’s absurd,’ says the chicken. ‘I could give you ten—no, twenty examples of chickens renowned for their valour. I mean,’ the rooster is flustered and flaps his wings, agitated. He is uncharacteristically lost for words.
‘I didn’t mean to upset you, Pozzie,’ says Doolittle. ‘Let’s move on, shall—’
‘You’ve never heard of Reginald McClellan, the Rhode Island Red?’ asks the rooster.
‘Um,’ replies Doolittle.
‘Whose dawn call summoned the very defenders of the realm even as the northern invaders poured into the valley of my great, great, great grandfather’s lands?’
Doolittle is at a loss. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t.’
‘Or,’ the chicken continues, ‘surely you know of Aberdeen Galloway, the Plymouth Rock who turned the tide in the civil war?’
‘The American Civil War?’
‘But of course,’ replies the chicken. ‘He roused Major General William S. Rosecrans from his slumber before the decisive battle of Vicksburg, Tennessee in 1863.’
‘I did not know that,’ says Doolittle.
‘Aberdeen was not the brightest spark in the roost, I will grant you that,’ the rooster says. ‘But his gallantry in battle is well documented.’
‘I see,’ Doolittle replies. ‘A round of applause for Haberdeen Galloway.’
The crowd claps respectfully and the chicken nods his appreciation.
‘I could go on right through to current day chickens if you like,’ the rooster offers.
Doolittle says, ‘As much as I would love for you to elaborate on the bravery of chickens through history, I’m afraid we have too many other topics to cover.’
‘Perhaps we can catch up after the show?’
The crowd murmurs with subdued laughter.
‘It’s a date,’ says Doolittle. ‘Now, here’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask: Why, Pozzie, did the chicken cross the road?’
The crowd stirs in solidarity. It is a question they, too, have pondered since time immemorial.
‘Which chicken?’ the rooster asks.
‘Well, I’m not sure,’ Doolittle replies. ‘It’s just a saying we have.’
The rooster tosses his comb left and right. He stretches a leg and ruffles his impressive plumage. ‘It’s unusual for a chicken to cross the road,’ he says at last. ‘I’d want to know more about the particular chicken before supposing upon his or her motivations for crossing the road.’
‘It’s just a joke we have,’ says Doolittle. ‘In fact, it’s one of the first jokes one learns as a child.’
‘Crossing the road is no joke,’ replies the chicken. ‘Every chicken knows someone affected by road accidents.’
‘I can imagine,’ Doolittle says. ‘But to us, it’s just a joke.’
‘And what’s the punchline?’
‘To get to the other side.’
The rooster ponders the response a moment.
‘You should know we take crossing the road very seriously, Bob.’ The rooster bows his head. ‘The other side,’ he says. ‘I’ve heard Farmer McCubbin speak to his children of the other side when referring to where his father went when he passed. Could it be that the chicken you speak of seeks to depart this existence in search of another? To leave a life of virtual slavery for the relative freedom of eternal rest? On—as you say—the other side?’
The host and crowd are silent.
At last, Doolittle responds, ‘I had never thought of it that way.’
‘It’s not a very funny joke, Bob.’
‘No, I suppose it’s not,’ the host replies. ‘What about you?’ he asks brightly. ‘Do you know any jokes?’
‘Ah, do you know the joke about the group of deaf cows?’
‘I haven’t heard that one.’
The rooster laughs so hard his falls off his perch.
The crowd laughs in some version of sympathy as the rooster corrects himself and resettles on the perch.
‘Get it?’ the rooster says. ‘Haven’t herd that one?’
‘Oh, right,’ says Doolittle. ‘Very good.’
‘That kills it back home,’ says the rooster.
Relieved to be out of the momentary slump into morbidity, Doolittle clasps his hands and draws out his broadest smile. ‘Tell me, Pozzie,’ he says. ‘Definitively, what came first: the chicken or the egg.’
‘Easy,’ the chicken says, without skipping a beat. ‘The egg.’
‘But didn’t the egg come from a chicken?’
‘No,’ says the chicken. ‘Before chickens like me and Aberdeen and Reginald—back before even the hens with teeth—there was a giant creature that wouldn’t fit in this studio. It had huge claws and fangs and feathers so big you could fit your family beneath them. Back then, we weren’t chickens. We were something else entirely. But they were family. Kin. Our huge, disgusting, monster kin. And before that? Lizards. Or, at least, something like lizards. Then you go back even further—before we were lizards—and we were little slug-like things. Another million years earlier and we’re little tiny single-cell amoebas. So small you can’t even see us.’
‘Right,’ says Doolittle, wondering where Pozzie Tutu is going with this.
‘So, you see?’ says the chicken. ‘Before the chicken was a lizard.’
‘And … lizards are born from eggs?’
‘And before the lizard was the slug.’
‘I’m not sure what slugs are born from.’
‘Also eggs,’ says the chicken.
‘So the egg came first?’
‘But what laid the slug eggs?’ the chicken replies, his eyes keen and searching.
‘A million years before, I mean.’
‘The single-cell amoeba?’
‘Exactly,’ replies the chicken, satisfied. ‘And what is a single-cell amoeba, fundamentally, but an egg?’
‘Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly how I—’
‘Look, Bob,’ says the rooster, getting flustered. ‘You brought me on here to talk about things I know—and plenty I don’t, granted—but I sure as buck know where I came from. And that’s an egg.’
‘Very well, Pozzie,’ says Doolittle, smiling nervously.
‘I’m sorry,’ the rooster says, recomposing himself. ‘Can I swear on this show?’
‘It’s okay,’ replies Doolittle. ‘We bleep it out.’
‘What do you mean, “bleep”?’
‘Well, if you say a swear word like you just did, the translator reverts it back to your native tongue. That way it just sounds like you’re making a chicken noise.’
‘You’re clucking cheeping me?’
‘Nope,’ Doolittle replies. ‘It’s doing it right now.’
The rooster darts his beak from side to side, weighing his options. He would never have the stage again. Never, after tonight, would he have the opportunity to crow the sacred profanities his ancestors had crowed across the battlefields; utterances so crass, so vile, that hens refuse to emit them from their beaks.
The rooster asks, ‘Bob, is there a word that you have, one that you could never, ever, under any circumstances say on television?’
‘Absolutely,’ says the host. ‘That would be the infamous ‘C’ word.’
‘Oh, really?’ says the rooster.
‘Yes, it’s one of those swear words so abrasive that it never seems to lose its impact.’
‘We have the same thing, you know?’ says the rooster, his eyes squinting with mischief. ‘It’s so offensive, no hen has said it for thousands, perhaps millions of years.’
‘Well, go ahead,’ says Doolittle with a grin. ‘It’ll be bleeped out anyway.’
‘Alright,’ says the rooster.
He gathers himself up, his chest swells, and Pozzie Tutu projects from his mighty breast his loudest, proudest, ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’