Words & Stuff

ccc: Shaggy Boxes (Reader Comments and Addenda)

(9 February 1999)

Scott Purdy reminded me of the "punchline" to the pink ping-pong balls story. I think the story is basically that a boy asks for pink ping-pong balls for every birthday; various people get them for him over the years. He grows up and still that's all he ever wants for his birthday. Eventually he's on his deathbed, and someone asks him why he collects these things. He says: "The reason I collect pink ping-pong balls is..." and then he dies. (Only in Scott's version it was green golf balls.)

Scott also notes that the National Puzzlers League mailing list recently discussed feghoots; a long list of punchlines resulted. There was some follow-on discussion of shaggy dog stories, which included a long story about purple guests at a Bed & Breakfast where everything is purple, leading to the punchline "And the moral of the story is: Two out of three purple people prefer Raisin Bran to Cornflakes." I believe something quite similar (without the "purple" part) was also the punchline to The 999,999 steps.

I'm not going to post the feghoot-punchlines list here, at least not just yet. Some of the associated jokes I've used in the column already, some I hope to use in the future, and some are from copyrighted stories (mostly by Spider Robinson); besides, given that there are hundreds upon hundreds of feghoots, with more being created all the time, a list of 70 punchlines can't be more than a sampler. Nonetheless, it's an amusing list, and I may include it in a column at some future point.

Aaron Hertzmann and Joe Robins provided what I suspect is a more canonical version of the story the shaggy-dog genre is named after. It involves a man who has a shaggy dog and enters it in a local shaggy-dog contest. The judges say "That's the shaggiest dog I've ever seen!" or "That's a shaggy, shaggy, shaggy dog!" and give him a prize. So the man enters the dog in a regional contest. The judges are similarly impressed (you can add more "shaggy"s to their assessment of the dog if you like). Add as many other bigger contests as you like, each time making the judges more and more impressed. Finally, the man enters his dog in the world (or intergalactic, or interdimensional) shaggy dog contest. The judges look at the dog and say, "Eh, I've seen shaggier" or "That dog isn't shaggy at all."

Joe says that this is supposed to be monotonous, using nearly exactly the same words for each contest until the teller gets bored enough to stop. I can see, alternatively, going the other way with it and trying to add new entertaining details to each contest... But perhaps that would violate the spirit of the story.

Lee Daniel Quinn suggests a variant of the herring riddle as a shaggy dog story. (It's too short to qualify by my definition, but clearly there are a lot of different definitions of the term.) Ta suggests that in an ordinary joke, people expect some kind of punchline of some standard form (a pun, for instance, or a surprising incongruity), but that in this form of "joke" the incongruity is between what you'd expect at the end of a joke (a punchline) and what you actually get (something that isn't funny); that incongruity is what creates whatever humor there is in these stories. I'm reminded of the penguin jokes with the non sequitur punchlines.

Dominus provides a shaggy dog story I'd never heard before:

My favorite shaggy dog story is the one about the guy who has been hired to recover a Tizzbottle for an eccentric billionaire. There are only three such bottles in existence. The man has many difficult adventures and recovers one of the bottles, but drops it at the last minute. Then he has more adventures and recovers another one, which he also drops. Finally the last Tizzbottle in the world is recovered safely, and he asks the billionaire what he is going to do with it.

The billionaire carries the Tizzbottle down the steps into his vault, where there is a shelf with a row of similar bottles, and sets the Tizzbottle down in the space that has been left to receive it. Then he takes a golden spoon from a nearby hook on the wall, and, very carefully, strikes the bottles in sequence:


And Ed Bernstein adds his favorite, the Siberian Peach Pie Joke:

[T]his guy ... for various reasons winds up starving and freezing in Siberia, and is saved by a farmwife, who feeds him, among other things, Siberian Peach Pie. This is the most amazing thing he's ever eaten, and he begs the farmwife for the recipe. She tells him the most important thing is that the pie be made with the particular strain of peaches, only available in Siberia. He takes a bushel of peach pits home and devotes his life to growing an orchard of Siberian Peach Trees, so that he can get his Siberian Peaches to make Siberian Peach Pie. Just as the Siberian Peach trees are maturing, however, and he is about to harvest his first crop of Siberian Peaches and have only the second Siberian Peach Pie he's ever tasted, it is discovered that the trees have been attacked by the Siberian Peach Fly, and they are all dead. The trees, that is. Not the flies. Well, the flies too, probably, but the point is that he has to go back to Siberia (extended travel sequence) and winds up freezing and starving and rescued by the same farmwoman. At the end of the sumptuous meal she feeds him (in detail the same as before, but told at greater length if possible), she asks him what he wants for dessert. "Siberian Peach Pie" he replies. Embarrassed, she tells him that she has no Siberian Peach Pie, as the dreaded Siberian Peach Tree Fly has attacked all the Siberian Peach Trees and there are no more Siberian Peaches from which to make Siberian Peach Pie.

Devastated, our hero looks back on a life spent in search of the Siberian Peach Pie, and he knows that now he will never find it, and the years spent cultivating, the money spent on horticulturists and on land, the energy spent...his whole soul was poured into the search for the Siberian Peach Pie, and now . . . well, he covers his face with his hands and doesn't speak for some time. And then, tears streaming down his face, he croaks out the words, "OK, I'll have apple."

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>