(31 January 1999)
Some say a "shaggy-dog story" is a short amusing story-joke ending in a pun (usually a Spoonerism). There are many such stories (sometimes known as "feghoots") extant, including the vast collection of Alan B. Combs.
I admit to an intermittent fondness for such stories, and they can be a useful part of one's joke repertoire. Every joke-teller should know the tale of Nate the Snake ("Better Nate than lever!"), the sad story of Mel Famey ("It's the beer that made Mel Famey walk us"), the piano-tuner joke ("Oppernockity only tunes once"), the one about the critter known as a Rary ("It's a long way to tip a Rary"), and the story about the knight riding a dog ("I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this").
But when I refer to a "shaggy-dog story," I'm talking about a long drawn-out story, with details added on the fly by the teller, which ends in something vaguely resembling a punchline except for its total lack of humor.
I once heard that the term came from a story about using a dog for a napkin: "A shaggy dog shall pass among you." A more likely source is the story about the rich man who advertises for a shaggy dog. (As with most written-down shaggy-dog stories, this one is probably best skimmedadd your own details if you retell it.)
Other jokes can be adapted to the shaggy-dog format. I once heard a simple punchline elaborated into a ten-minute story about a man who drops his toast and sees that it falls butter-side up, and embarks on a lifelong quest to discover the meaning of this strange occurrence; at the end of the quest, God tells the man that he buttered the toast on the wrong side.
But a real punchline has no business in a true shaggy-dog story. Real shaggy-dog stories go on and on and end with something pointless. I once hoped to collect a set of such jokes, but have found to my chagrin that I no longer remember most of them. Here are some of the titles, with vague recollections:
And, finally, my favorite shaggy dog story, even though it doesn't qualify by my own rules: the story of The Ambitious Cornflake.
Forrest: Once there was a cornflake. It sat in the bottom of a box of cornflakes on a shelf in the grocery store. But this was an ambitious cornflake; it wanted to be the top cornflake in the box. So it started to climb. It pushed and struggled and fought its way past the other cornflakes, one by one. It was halfway up in the box when someone...
Helmut (pointing): Greta?
Forrest: ...when Greta here came along and picked up the cornflakes box. She wanted to see if the box was full, so she gave it a good shake. The ambitious little cornflake fell all the way back down to the bottom of the box! But it didn't give up. It climbed and climbed and climbed, and was almost all the way to the top when Greta, who'd decided to buy the box
Greta: Hey! I don't even like cornflakes!
Forrest: ...when Greta slammed the box down on the checkout counter at the store. The cornflake fell all the way back down to the bottom of the box. But it still didn't give up! It climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed and
Greta: Get on with it.
Forrest: And finally was just about to reach the very top of the box, when Greta poured it out into a bowl and ate it.
Greta: Good riddance. Can we
Forrest: But it was reincarnated! As a Wheatie. Now, this Wheatie lived at the bottom of a box of Wheaties®, on a shelf in a supermarket. And it was a very ambitious Wheatie. Its one dream was to get to the top of the box of Wheaties. So it climbed and climbed and climbed and was almost halfway to the top when Helmut came along and knocked the box off the shelf.
Forrest: And the ambitious little Wheatie fell down to the bottom of the box. But that didn't stop it. It just started climbing again. [...more of the same elided...] And it was just about to reach the top of the box when Helmut reached in and pulled it out and ate it.
Forrest: But it was reincarnated! As a Cheerio. It was a very ambitious Cheerio
Greta: Stop it! Doesn't this story ever end???
Forrest (grinning hugely): Of course not! It's a cereal!
If you try this story out on friends, you can go one of two routes: make it as entertaining as possible (asking for help from the audience on picking new cereals, for instance); or make it as boring as possible, in hopes that you'll be interrupted soon. If you take the entertaining route, you may have to cue your audience to supply the "Doesn't this ever end?" line; I've seen the story go on for over half an hour without the audience asking that... Whichever approach you take, don't use the word "cereal" until the punchline; especially don't call it "The Cereal Story."
If you happen to know any of the shaggy-dog stories in the bulleted list above, please drop me a note. (You don't have to give all the details; you can just provide a skeleton or sketch of the stories.)
"Cheerios" and "Wheaties" are registered trademarks of General Mills.
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