Saturday, May 13, 2006

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Intrigue! Action! Drama!

This was to be stuff of my greatest writing opus yet: my script for “Fine Feathered Fiends: Murder by Bird Flu.”

For years I had been writing the world’s greatest artistic tribute to the world’s slowest and least deadly epidemic. It was, as I wrote it, a script for a four-hour Cinemascope-style epic film, a tale of poultry’s inhumanity to man. In it, the winged scoundrels conspire to wipe out everyone in the world, vegetarians included. Only one man — a mild-mannered executive city editor — stands between humanity’s salvation and its demise.

I don’t mean to oversell it, but “Fine Feathered Fiends” was a screenplay of unequaled genius. As I pecked away at it night after grueling night I pictured the success — finally! — it would bring. My name above the title in lights! The royalty of Tinseltown at the premiere! Me making a bold red-carpet fashion statement! I saw the trailer: Laugh at the highest jinks yet captured on film! Thrill to the spectacle of the world’s deadliest air attack by albatross! Cringe as you watch through your fingers an abominable display of sweaty pigeon romance!

That didn’t happen.

The jerks at the ABC network beat me to it. This week, ABC broadcast a film called “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.” Starring Stacy Keach. And there went my dream.

Couldn’t watch it. Just kept throwing up.

“Maybe it’s bird flu,” my wife said, holding my hair back. “You can catch it just from writing about it, right?”

I laid my forehead on the toilet seat. “In all my minutes of Wikipedia research, nowhere did I find projectile vomiting as a bird flu symptom. No, this feels more like ambition to artistic glory going down the drain.” I flushed the toilet and leaned shakily against the medicine cabinet. “How could ABC do a bird flu movie? Now I’ll never be famous,” I said, uncapping an Aqua Velva and raising it to my lips.

“You’re already famous!” my wife said. “Don’t they recognize you at China Star? You don’t need Hollywood.”

I shrugged. “Well, they would just dumb down the plot and tame the sex to a PG-13...”

Confidence suddenly bloomed like a mentholated alcohol fire in the pit of my stomach. I set aside the aftershave and, all at once, I knew what I had to do:

What follows is my pitch for “Fine Feathered Fiends.” To hell with ABC. My film may not have a $250 million budget, it may not be eligible for any Oscars, and it may not star Stacy Keach — but it’s out there now for the world to enjoy. And so is bird flu. Beware of both.


The film opens on a mysterious island off the coast of Turkey (pun!), where several well-intentioned but deranged scientists from Purdue University are studying the effects of psychological trauma on the juiciness of chicken white meat. The poor creatures are forced to do complex math puzzles and never praised when they solve them, and often given warm gravy baths to keep them uneasy.

At night, in their cells, the chickens whisper through the bars to each other, hatching plans for revenge. (Here, I’d like to use computer-generated chickens voiced by Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, but I may have to settle for actors in Big Bird suits…)

CHICKEN 1. Man, this dump’s a real rathole! Those Purdue jerks today? Gave me a perm. Just to see what I’d look like. It’s humiliating — and that’s all I’ll say about it. They laughed over and over. That’s all I’ll say about it. Say, what would you do if you ever busted out of here?

CHICKEN 2. (sneezing fiercely) Ugh. (feels his own forehead) Is it warm in here?

Chicken 1. (oblivious) Yeah, right on, man. That day could be sooner than you think. Some of the guys and me are planning a little chicken surprise — you in?

CHICKEN 2. I dunno. I should prob’ly get some bedrest…

CHICKEN 1. (still oblivious — he’s a chicken, for Chrissake) Seven-thirty Friday it is. To freedom!

Now we meet the Purdue U. scientists! They’re your standard baddies: British accents, mustaches all around. The main villain, Dr. Marvin von Vile, has a fake leg from where a duck bit it off some years ago. Long story. Explained in a flashback. Anyway, you can tell it’s a fake leg because he’s constantly taking it off and using it to open doors, rest his chin, crack peanut shells, etc., etc.

We pick up the story as Dr. von Vile and other scientists are forcing a group of chickens to play a complicated piece of chamber music they’ve barely had any time to learn. They’re sawing away at violins and trying desperately to get their beaks around bassoon reeds, all as the Doctor conducts off-tempo with his fake leg. Meanwhile, one scientist is looking dismayed, as played by…well, I see I’ve written in my script “a topless Jessica Alba.” It’s a breakout role.

DOCTOR. Play — play! (conducting faster) You repulsive blots on God’s creation!

JESSICA. Doctor, must you insult the chickens? Sometimes, it seems so … well, so cruel.

DOCTOR. Cruel to be kind, my dear. I must find out how much angst these birds can take before their breast meat gets stringy. Man has long endeavored to discover their secrets! And soon they shall be in my grasp and mine alone!

He cackles malevolently until Chicken 2 finally throws down his French horn in disgust.

DOCTOR. Pick that back up!

CHICKEN 2. I can’t. I think I got the flu. (sneezes) There any Advil around here?

DOCTOR. The flu? (repelled) Not the famed bird flu?

CHICKEN 2. (rubbing Vicks Vapo-Rub on his white meat) First I’m too hot, now I’m cold…

DOCTOR. Curses! The bird flu! The disease that might one day spread to humans and given enough time evolve into a strain for which we don’t yet have a flu shot! Tens of people could die! Alack! Science has been my undoing! The irony!

He spontaneously combusts from overacting, and the chickens seize the opportunity to revolt!

To summarize the rest of the story, the chickens escape from the island and news of the bird flu leaks into the world press. Striking fear into the hearts of humans everywhere, Chicken 2 nurses his flu with hot lemon tea and generous naps. But his fellow birds, corrupted by power, attempt a takeover of Earth. They mostly accomplish this by flying over people and shitting on them.

Meanwhile, Jessica Alba — who still can’t find a blouse, according to my original notes — meets up with an executive city editor of a small daily newspaper, the only media outlet still functioning in the chaos! They form a plan to save humanity from certain doom! From here on out, it’s wall to wall action, man! Exploding pet shops! Ostrich attacks on the streets of Manhattan! Grown men being pushed into Fryolators! Parrots and toucans and pelicans gumming up the treads of Army tanks! The president running from the White House, only to be carried away by a ticked-off bald eagle (metaphor)!

Somehow the war ends — I’m still fuzzy on the specifics, but it involves cracked corn laced with Sudafed — and the executive city editor and Jessica Alba bring peace to all the lands of Earth. The film closes with a legal disclaimer: “Several hundred thousand birds were harmed in the making of this film.”

This column was previously published in The Herald News in slightly edited form, and is reprinted here with permission.

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