Shaggy dog story
In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline.
Shaggy dog stories play upon the audience's preconceptions of joke-telling. The audience listens to the story with certain expectations, which are either simply not met or met in some entirely unexpected manner. A lengthy shaggy dog story derives its humour from the fact that the joke-teller held the attention of the listeners for a long time (such jokes can take five minutes or more to tell) for no reason at all, as the end resolution is essentially meaningless.
The archetypal shaggy dog story
The commonly believed archetype of the shaggy dog story is a story that concerns a shaggy dog. The story builds up, repeatedly emphasizing how shaggy the dog is. At the climax of the story, someone in the story reacts with, "That dog's not so shaggy." The expectations of the audience that have been built up by the presentation of the story, that the story will end with a punchline, are thus disappointed. Ted Cohen gives the following example of this story:
|“||A boy owned a dog that was uncommonly shaggy. Many people remarked upon its considerable shagginess. When the boy learned that there are contests for shaggy dogs, he entered his dog. The dog won first prize for shagginess in both the local and the regional competitions. The boy entered the dog in ever-larger contests, until finally he entered it in the world championship for shaggy dogs. When the judges had inspected all of the competing dogs, they remarked about the boy's dog: "He's not that shaggy."||”|
However, authorities disagree as to whether this particular story is the archetype after which the category is named. Eric Partridge, for example, provides a very different story, as do William and Mary Morris in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.
According to Partridge and the Morrises, the archetypical shaggy dog story involves an advertisement placed in The Times announcing a search for a shaggy dog. In the Partridge story, an aristocratic family living in Park Lane is searching for a lost dog, and an American answers the advertisement with a shaggy dog that he has found and personally brought across the Atlantic, only to be received by the butler at the end of the story who takes one look at the dog and shuts the door in his face saying "But not so shaggy as that, sir!" In the Morris story, the advertiser is organizing a competition to find the shaggiest dog in the world, and after a lengthy exposition of the search for such a dog a winner is presented to the aristocratic instigator of the competition, who says "I don't think he's so shaggy."
A typical shaggy dog story occurs in Mark Twain's book about his travels west, Roughing It. Twain's friends encourage him to go find a man called Jim Blaine when he is properly drunk, and ask him to tell "the stirring story about his grandfather's old ram". Twain, encouraged by his friends who have already heard the story, finally finds Blaine, an old silver miner, who sets out to tell Twain and his friends the tale. Blaine starts out with the ram ("There never was a bullier old ram than what he was"), and goes on for four more mostly dull but occasionally hilarious unparagraphed pages. Along the way, Blaine tells many stories, each of which connects back to the one before by some tenuous thread, and none of which has to do with the old ram. Among these stories are: a tale of boiled missionaries; of a lady who borrows a false eye, a peg leg, and the wig of a coffin-salesman's wife; and a final tale of a man who gets caught in machinery at a carpet factory and whose "widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in..." As Blaine tells the story of the carpet man's funeral, he begins to fall asleep, and Twain, looking around, sees his friends "suffocating with suppressed laughter." They now inform him that "at a certain stage of intoxication, no human power could keep [Blaine] from setting out, with impressive unction, to tell about a wonderful adventure which he had once had with his grandfather's old ram — and the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had heard him get, concerning it."
Another common folk explanation of the phrase's origin likens the story or joke itself to an extremely shaggy dog, which looks quite large until the listener or reader sees that the story or joke is a very small one buried under a large amount of elaborately structured hair.
Examples in literature
Isaac Asimov, whose specialties included both science fiction and humor and who was a self-described "punster", wrote a short story called "Shah Guido G.", referring to the story's Atlantean ruler. As expected, the story ends on an anticlimax.
- Ted Cohen (1999). Jokes. University of Chicago Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-226-11230-6.
- Jovial Bob Stine (1978). How to be funny : an extremely silly guidebook. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-32410-0.
- Leonard Feinberg (1978). Secret of Humor. Rodopi. pp. 181–182. ISBN 90-6203-370-9.
- Michael Quinion (1999-06-19). "Shaggy Dog Story". World Wide Words.
- Twain, Mark. "The Story of Grandfather's Old Ram". pbs.org. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- Jan Harold Brunvand (January–March 1963). "A Classification for Shaggy Dog Stories". The Journal of American Folklore (American Folklore Society) 76 (299): 42–68. doi:10.2307/538078. JSTOR 538078.
- Isaac Asimov (1991). "Shaggy Dog". Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor: A Lifetime Collection of Favorite Jokes, Anecdotes, and... Houghton Mifflin Books. pp. 49–67. ISBN 0-395-57226-6.
- Eric Partridge (1931). "The Shaggy Dog Story". New Statesman (Statesman Pub. Co.). p. 534.
- Eric Partridge (1953). The ‘Shaggy Dog’ Story: Its Origin, Development and Nature (with a few seemly examples). C.H. Drummond (illustrator). London: Faber & Faber.
- Francis Lee Utley and Dudley Flamm (1969). "The Urban and the Rural Jest (With an Excursus on the Shaggy Dog)". Journal of Popular Culture 2 (4): 563–577. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1969.0204_563.x.