Back in the mid-nineties, when the Kardashian girls were only struggling to be relevant to their father, the E! network used to basically only play entertainment trials, Talk Soup and reruns of old TV shows. My favorite of the bunch was the David Letterman show. I watched nightly with my grandfather, and even though I wasn’t getting half the jokes in retrospect, I always thought it was hilarious. Operating on a child’s skewed concept of time, it never occurred to me that the reruns I watched during the day had originally aired before I was born.
One afternoon, Dave’s guest was a guy who brought a chicken that was apparently unbeatable at tic-tac-toe. Several games were played. Each ended in a chicken win or a draw. I was transfixed. The chicken’s home was said to be a video arcade in Chinatown. I promptly informed my mother of my new life goal: to travel to New York and beat that chicken. She murmured something about that show being filmed in 1978 and that chicken being kung pao’ed a long time ago, but I wouldn’t listen. That chicken and I were going to meet. The idea consumed me for like 3 days. Then I mostly forgot about it.
Some time later, my 6th grade gifted and talented class went on a field trip to NYC. Yes, I was gifted. And talented. As we meandered Canal street half-supervised, spending all our souvenir money on fake Tommy Hilfiger watches and X-rated fortune cookies, I spotted something vaguely familiar in a video arcade across the road.
It was the cotdamn tic-tac-toe chicken.
I lost my shit. I try not to curse a lot, but no other phrase can begin to accurately capture my excitement. I approached in slackjawed awe. I looked at the chicken. It looked at me. It did a little dance. I inserted a quarter. The game began.
The chicken won.
I refused to let this critical moment of my life go unwitnessed. I ran across the street and gathered my friends. “YallgottaseethisitsachickenthatplaystictactoeAND THE CHICKEN ALWAYS WINS!” We approached the garishly bright glass booth ready for a fight. We examined the animal as best we could, searching for signs that it was not in fact a robot or muppet. I noticed some red lights and circuitry flashing periodically near the chicken’s feet but wrote it off as the type of computer controls a genius chicken would require to play tic-tac-toe with a group of gifted AND talented schoolchildren. Our minds had been opened to the streets of New York City. We’d seen a dead guy in the subway. We were grown. Surely no chicken could beat us… in such a simple game, at that. I went in for the figurative, non-edible kill. I don’t know how long we were there, but I spent 8 dollars in quarters. All the spending money I had left.
After 16 grueling rounds of defeat, I gave up. Turn by turn, my friends also failed to best her. I just realized the chicken was a her. I’ve been calling it a he all these years. Anyway, as I turned away dejected and noted that my new designer watch appeared to already be showing wear in the leather, I was oddly without bitterness. Yes, I had been bested by that chicken, but I had met that chicken face to face. My sadness gave way to respect. I had no embarrassment. I’d simply met an animal with mental capacities I couldn’t explain. I felt like a better person for having taken the challenge. Cue the Rocky theme. End scene.
Of course, this was the first, if not the only, story I had for my family upon returning home the next day… after showing off my new watch, which by then had completely stopped keeping time. I remember repeating “I just don’t understand how the chicken got to be so smart! How did they teach it??” My mother, ever the pragmatist, always with a bucket full of rain for even the spazziest parade, put me out of my misery. If you feel about this chicken the way I feel about that one scene in The Muppet Movie, I suggest you stop reading now. (If you check that link, you’ll note that she only suffered the “magic” explanation when she didn’t know the answer.)
The chicken, she explained, was shown what moves to play by a computer inside the fowl’s habitat. Those were the red lights I’d noticed. Just like the Tandy TRS-80 in my bedroom, the computer simply could not be outthought by the human mind. Therefore, neither could the chicken. She also reiterated that this was probably one of dozens, if not hundreds, of chickens that had been placed into these cruel conditions day after day since at least the mid seventies for the amusement of children like me. And now I, with my roll of quarters, had become part of the vicious cycle. The chicken had never donned a graduation hat or tiny glasses. It had never been to training in a lab. It was just a chicken. Just like the one I’d be eating that night. There was no magic. Only exploitation of a tasty friend before frying.
She did make me feel kinda bad. But not that bad. Because in the back of my mind, I knew there was a key element her fancy explanation didn’t address. The computer may have shown the chicken what button to push, but how did the chicken learn to push buttons?
Then, a few months ago. I found this.
My mom can, figuratively speaking, go to hell. I don’t care about her advanced science and common sense. After all those years, she could not extinguish the fiery joy that David Letterman placed into my childlike heart and mind. And that says something.
Thank you, Dave.