From the archive
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 so 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 Blaine is properly drunk, and get Blaine to tell “the stirring story about his grandfather’s old ram” (Chapter 53). Twain, encouraged by his friends who’ve already heard the story, finally finds the man in his cups to the proper degree, and Blaine, an old silver miner, 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.”