Chickenman & Bruno Gerussi
Do yourself a favour, go somewhere quiet, slip on some earbuds and listen to archived episodes of Dick Orkin's Chickenman here. Go ahead. I'll wait.
See what I mean? C'mon! Chickenman is the best. You cannot be in a bad mood after listening to Chickenman.
In case you missed out on him, Chickenman was a popular radio series in the 1960s and 70s. I listened to it from Kamloops BC. Little did I know it was produced out of Chicago, Illinois by creator and voice talent Dick Orkin.
When I was a kid, just hearing the opening sequence was enough to send anyone in my house lunging at the radio to turn up the volume. And you had to be quick, they were very short episodes, about two minutes each. Turns out, we weren't the only ones turning up the volume. Chickenman was loved by millions around the world. For me it is Mr. Orkin's dry, earnest delivery of the Winged Warrior that made it so funny. The other voices are great too, the scripts are tight, but it is Chickenman's deep, sincere voice that gets me every time.
After recently listening to a few of these two minute super episodes, it occurred to me that Chickenman influenced my sense of humour more than I realized. I mimicked Chickenman's absurdity in a few stories I wrote in high school. One in particular featured talking chickens. Specifically, a talking chicken with a dream of flying long distances. Sadly, the story ends in tragedy for the chicken, McDonalds had just launched their Chicken McNuggets and I wove that into the story.
In the story, my avian hero heads to the local airport, straps on a parachute and boards a plane to prove that he can fly, really fly. We learn of his quest through the voice of a passionate journalist reporting each step of the journey. On the way down, after leaping from the plane the chicken hits 'the deep fry zone' and lands as a pile of Chicken McNuggets.
I know. Predictable. But it made me and my best friend Sharon laugh, which for me, was most of point of that class. The silly spirit of Chickenman also emerged in another story I wrote about a chocolate Easter bunny factory. One of the bunnies stands up and leads the others in solidarity away from the evil factory owner who is (they have just discovered) making them for people to eat. Sadly, the bunnies' escape-route skirts past the furnace and they melt before freedom is theirs. You get the idea.
Another pop culture influence, though not so comic, was The Beachcombers. If you did not grow up in Canada during the time Beachcombers was on the air it would be hard to understand it. Though Mike Myers describes it perfectly in his recent Mike Myer's Canada,
'[Beachcombers] was set in British Columbia, and it was about a coastal community that had to deal with the scourge of driftwood.'
Myers definition is bang on. As a kid watching the show I remember being mostly confused about the fuss around the massive logs floating in the ocean that Nick Adonidas (Bruno Gerussi) and Relic (Robert Clothier) were constantly fighting over. My dad, who loved the show, I'm sure was annoyed by my incessant questions to understand the motivation behind the driftwood-based plot. Why all the fuss about logs in the water? Why were the logs in the water? How did they get there? Who pays money for logs?
For a few years my family spent summer vacations on tiny Mudge Island in BC's southern Gulf Islands. I recall one visit being so bored, my brothers and cousin and I decided to 'play Beachcombers'. This was not an established game, we just made it up. Today's parenting experts might describe it as 'landscape-induced-imaginary-play'.
We did not have a motor boat, but our 1970s parents had left us alone on the shore with a row boat and a piece of rope and there were massive westcoast logs bobbing in the waves all around us. It was perfect. We quickly assigned roles, tied a log to the back of the row boat and then tried to row away as quickly as Relic's power boat might go when stealing one of Nick Adonidas's coveted logs. We spent days doing this, each of us taking turns being the log-stealing Relic and the indignant hero Nick Adonidas. Clearly we had nothing else to do.
Though to mix things up a bit at night we put on a show. The only remnant of this show I remember is my Uncle Harold doing a ridiculous 'magic' show with just his fingers and a little faux vaudeville exchange number he taught me to do with him that included the infamous: '
Me: Who was that lady I saw you with the other night?
Uncle Harold: That was no lady that was my wife.
From below the stage (a large sandstone rock jutting out over the beach) Auntie Melda enthusiastically cheering us on and chiding us at the same time. Loving the joke at her own expense. That great energetic laugh of hers carrying out over the sea and revving us up. All the adults drinking something out of their plastic camping glasses. The melted-marshmallow-encrusted kids still wearing life jackets. Golden moments came out of that boredom.
The human imagination is an amazing thing. And childhood experiences so impactful. It is often memories of these early influences and childhood play that give me perspective when things get a bit heavy in my adult world. And thank goodness for that. I'm going to go listen to a little Chickenman.