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November 23, 2015

Shaggy-Dogs, A Much Maligned Tale

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As a lover of storytelling, it is hard not to have a love/hate relationship with the “Shaggy Dog” format. The things that distinguish the “Shaggy Dog” from the “Classic Feghoot” is both the length, (Shaggy Dogs are made deliberately long), and an abrupt ending which may or may not be satisfying. The Feghoot ends with a pun based on a spoonerized cliché or common phrase. By the end, the listener (or reader), has checked their watch at least once and wondered, “Where is this all going?” When executed properly, storytellers are rewarded with an eye-roll and groan from their audience, who know they have been expertly strung along.

Everybody knows somebody who can tell a good shaggy dog story. As a boy, I was privileged to have a father, uncle and Godfather, who loved all forms of the oral tradition of jokes, story telling and story-singing.

Everybody knows somebody who can tell a good Shaggy-Dog story

Into adulthood, I found myself drawn to literate, well-read friends, who shared my love a great story.  I still enjoy finding new friends of a similar bent; it is probably why I have so long associated myself with the theatre; there is nothing like a good story, well told.

So why are such stories called “Shaggy-Dogs” to begin with? There are several references to the archetype that can be found, but probably the most authoritative comes from Mary and William Morris (no relation) in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.

That dog is not so shaggy…

They relate a long-winded tale that refers to a contest to find the worlds shaggiest dog.

Along the long, circuitous path to the titular punch line, the listener is treated to a long exposition detailing the length of this search. By the time the judge utters the line, “That dog is not so shaggy…” the audience is suddenly and acutely aware, they have been well and truly had.

The Exquisite Artistry of the Shaggy-Dog

The subversive beauty of the Shaggy-Dog comes from the rising expectations of it’s victims. The longer the joke goes on, the greater our expectations of a brilliant, blow-out ending. When that doesn’t happen, we are left dangling, sure in the knowledge that our time has been well and truly wasted. Invariably, the audience will figure out the point of the joke was not to deliver a gag line, but to string them along and skewer their expectations. It all boils down to a wink and a nod from the teller, and a “I see what you did there” moment from the listeners/victims as they ponder that person’s grisly demise.

When describing exactly what a Shaggy-Dog is, I prefer the analogy of an actual, shaggy dog. Have you ever seen what a hairy mutt looks like after he’s been sheared of his messy coat? He looks a scrawny runt, and not at all what you might expect. So it is with the story-form; after fighting your way through layers of wholly unnecessary fluff, you are left with glorious disappointment.

There are several, fine examples of Shaggy-Dogs to be found in literature. Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, foisted a delicious feast of a Shaggy-Dog on his readers in his Roughing It, rendered as a story told by old Jim Blaine, about his grandfather’s old ram. Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant, stands as an excellent example of a long-drawn out story that has no definitive point, but at least that one leaves us entertained.

Par Exemple

Naturally, I can’t have gone on this long without providing at least one example of a Shaggy-Dog. Actually I could; by leaving you flat, I would be going for some sort of shaggy-dog inception. I am, however, above such base abuse of my readers, thus this morsel retrieved from a Reddit user with a very rude name

So there was this old boy who was working for the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad some time back in the day, when there was such a thing as the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, that august outfit having been disassembled and/or renamed or something such that it’s basically unemployable under current conditions and you’d be hard-put to find anyone working for them nowadays; which is a sorry state of affairs, I should think, given the hard case of the economy and the high unemployment rates. But back when some of those who would otherwise have gone unemployed were instead working for the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, our chappy was one of them, and we’ll call him Myrmidon even though I’ve forgotten his real name; it would be sort of rude to talk about him behind his back if it WEREN’T under a false name, anyway, don’t you think?

So Myrmidon was working for the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad and in the course of his employment he began to see a way that he could, as it were, sort of skim the take. You see they were still taking your pennies right there on the train in those days, if you didn’t have a ticket on you; of course those who did have a ticket would be turning those over but a fair number of people would get on and pay cash when the fellow came around to ding them, and Myrmidon hit on this brilliant scheme of slipping the cash into his pocket as he continued on his rounds. He was circumspect at first, and didn’t take EVERY fare, only a couple here and there; and in this way he amassed enough money to be able to treat someone to a nice night out.

With this ill-gotten gain clinking merrily away in his trousers Myrmidon hied himself over to the little ivy-covered brick cottage inhabited by one Philomena Hasselthwaite, the apple of his eye for lo these long years. “Philomena,” he asked at the door, “are you free this Friday night?”

Miss Hasselthwaite thought about it for a moment and finally allowed that while she couldn’t say for certain quite so early in the week it certainly seemed likely that she could keep Friday night free for him; and so the date was made, and Myrmidon went to work all that week with a light and merry heart, and a heavy pocket from slipping all that change into it.

Friday night came around and Myrmidon picked up Miss Hasselthwaite in a two-door horseless carriage he’d borrowed from his little sister’s husband Ernesto. They went out to dinner first. The restaurant was only middling, but neither Myrmidon nor Philomena were particularly particular, and the tables had candles stuck in the sort of wine-bottles with the rope wrapped around, so it was terribly romantic. Next they drove to the theater and saw a very good vaudeville lineup, except that it had a ventriloquist in, and you can’t in all conscience call anything good when it has a ventriloquist in. After all that they stopped in at the druggist and had an ice-cream soda – just the one – they shared it together, with two straws, in a manner most picturesque.

Myrmidon drove Miss Hasselthwaite home and walked her from the car to her front door. They stood on the steps a few minutes and discussed what a lovely night it had been, while Myrmidon pondered to himself the weighty question of whether he ought to lean in and kiss her. Finally he worked up the courage to do just that; and that dreamlike moment when their lips touched seemed to lift him up right up off the ground onto a fluffy little cloud of hopes, upon which he floated all the way back to the car.

Sadly, Myrmidon was so very distracted by the love-lights dancing in his eyes that, on the way home, he struck and killed a pedestrian.

At the ensuing trial everything seemed to go just as horribly for Myrmidon as it had all seemed to go wonderfully on the date. It was revealed that the pedestrian was actually another fellow who’d been courting Miss Hasselthwaite, and the prosecutor – a lively fellow from the state of Connecticut, who wore the same blue suit to court every day of the trial, yet paired with it an array of shirts and ties as bewildering in its rainbow of hues as it was beguiling – was so avidly attentive to his career that he managed to build up an entire case painting Myrmidon as a malevolent Malvolio out to rid the world of his romantic rivals, running down his victims in cold blood; and such the jury swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, and duly our poor Myrmidon found himself sentenced to death.

Capital punishment in the state of New York at that time was via electrocution, and so Myrmidon was led to Old Sparky and given the old sponge-and-wire treatment with a colander or something on his head and all of that sort of thing, and finally they asked him, “Have you any last words?”

Myrmidon thought and thought, because he hated to go out without something witty, but nothing seemed to occur to him. Finally he stammered: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,” because he remembered reading that in English class once upon a time, and it seemed a nice weighty sort of statement to go out on.

With that, they threw the switch – and nothing happened. Myrmidon was fine.

They threw the switch back off again, and a flurry of activity took place, with prison guards and electricians and what-have-you all buzzing about like so many penitentiary bees; and, having certified that the chair was working just fine, they took a step back and prepared to try again.

“Can’t I have a second go at some last words?” asked Myrmidon hopefully. He’d managed to come up with some good ones while they were fussing. Yet in this he was denied; and they threw the switch – but nothing happened. The electricity was running, but Myrmidon was fine.

Once more the flurry of activity took place. This time they called in the Head Electrician, and it took him half an hour to drive up, because he’d been home having supper at the time. He was very cross about being interrupted, as it was spaghetti night, which was his favorite. He certified that the chair was working just fine, but in order to make his contribution seem worthwhile, he unplugged it and then plugged it back in before they threw the switch – but nothing happened. The electricity was definitely running, but Myrmidon remained perfectly unharmed.

“I think I know what the problem is,” said Myrmidon.

Everyone looked at him, curious.

He explained: “I’m a conductor.”

You cannot say I did not warn you.

 

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