CSotD: Puns, Magic and Shaggy Dogs

Discussion in the comments section the other day revealed quite a bit of confusion around the term “pun” and the term “shaggy dog story.” I promised to try to straighten it out today, and, by sheer luck, Pearls Before Swine (AMS) offered not only a festival of puns on Sunday but skipped its usual last-panel apology in favor of celebrating their achievement.

As well they might: This is a triumph of punning, and I’ll admit I only got 18 of the 19 state capitals in this strip.

As I said the other day, there are people who resent being made to feel foolish by a subtle pun they didn’t catch, but I was happy to search out the ones I found and I’ll likely come back to look for the other one. (Ooo — I just spotted it!)

It’s a bit like close-up magic: I get a kick out of figuring out how the trick works, but only if the magician is skilled enough to make it challenging. And if I can’t figure it out, I don’t want to be told. I want to continue to puzzle over it, even if I never get how it happened.

Being told or (gasp!) looking up answers is a spoiler.

None of which has anything to do with shaggy dog stories, even though a pun can take a long time to set up.

My elementary school principal loved long stories that ended in puns, and I remember once in high school when we ended up in a crowded barber shop at the same time and we swapped complex puns while we waited, each determined not to crack a smile as the stories wound out, until the punchline drew a laugh from the whole place.

In fact, that was where I first heard this one.

Similarly, Pearls fans know that the comic is noted for Sunday strips that stretch out a complicated storyline that turns out to be a set up for a ridiculous pun.

Listening to elaborate puns is, indeed, not unlike watching close-up magic, because, as the magician is talking and shuffling cards or whathaveyou, you’re not simply watching, but trying to anticipate where he’s going, why he makes a particular motion or says a particular phrase and how it’s all going to come out at the climax.

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Most close-up magic happens fast, but back in the days of VHS recorders, Penn and Teller set up a do-it-yourself card trick that could take hours or even days, if you wanted it to.

The set-up was that you would try to perform an “Is this your card?” trick and fail miserably.

What the mark didn’t know was that you had taped a short segment from Penn and Teller and edited it into some other programming. Having “failed” at the trick, you’d turn on the TV instead and at some point later, while you were watching something else, Penn Jillette would suddenly appear on the screen, say “Is this your card?” and hold up the correct one.

It was long, and it certainly involved a lot of set up — including learning how to force a card — but it was not a shaggy dog story: It was a magic trick.

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A shaggy dog story, by contrast, does not end in a punchline or an amazing magic trick and, in fact, it barely seems to have any ending at all.

In “Roughing It,” Mark Twain recalls a fellow whose interminable stories never went anywhere, and it’s frequently cited as a shaggy dog story, though I think it lacks the form and substance of the true thing.

Listening to someone who can’t focus on their narrative is simply annoying and tiresome. You don’t wonder where it’s going because it obviously isn’t going anywhere.

A true shaggy dog story keeps you engaged, because it’s so finely crafted and well-told that you’re sure that, like a magic trick, it’s going to suddenly end in a crescendo of wonderfulness that makes it all worthwhile.

But it doesn’t, which is the point.

Granted, it amazes you at the end, but only with the incredible bathos of the whole thing. The trick to a good shaggy dog story is that the quality of the storytelling makes it all fascinating until … well, nothing.

Here, according to an old book cited by Stephen Greensted, is the original story from which the term “shaggy dog story” is taken.

However, it has been significantly shortened. I’ve heard a good storyteller stretch it out to at least 10 minutes, with far more details and far more stops along the way.

A tramp was walking along a London street when he picked up a copy of the Evening Standard. And there he read a small advertisement which said, “Lost shaggy dog. Distraught millionaire offers £1m reward for return of said mutt. Easily identified. You will never have seen a shaggier dog. 100 Cheyne Walk, London, SW10.”

At that precise moment a dog walked by. It was the shaggiest dog the tramp had ever seen, and it was by itself. Without hesitation, the tramp apprehended the dog and went straight to Cheyne Walk.

“I am so sorry, sir,” said the lady who answered the door, “but that is an old advertisement. Mr Linebacker has left for Montevideo.”

So the tramp and the dog stowed away on a ship, got off at Montevideo, and went straight to the Linebacker address. “Oh, so sorry,” said the maid who answered the door. “He’s on holiday in Sydney.” Without a word, the man and the extraordinarily shaggy dog ran to the harbour and stowed away on a second ship, bound for Australia.

Alas, they missed the millionaire there, too. The butler who opened the door said, “It is my duty to inform you that Mr Linebacker has returned to London to count his millions.”

So, the tramp and the fantastically shaggy dog returned to 100 Cheyne Walk.

They were immediately ushered in to the presence of the great man, Mr Ebenezer Linebacker The Third.

“Have you got my shaggy dog, the shaggiest in the world?!” he cried. “I swore I’d pay a million pounds for his safe return, and that, indeed, I shall.”

Triumphantly, the tramp revealed the dog. “Here, sir,” he cried, “is your dog! The shaggiest in the world!!”

Mr Linebacker looked at the dog and said, “Oh, no! That’s not my dog. He’s nowhere near as shaggy as that!

10 thoughts on “CSotD: Puns, Magic and Shaggy Dogs

  1. If you relish long stories ending in puns, you need to become acquainted with the BBC Radio series My Word. The series ran from 1956 to 1988, and in the last round Frank Muir and Denis Norden were given a quotation that they needed to use at the end of a story. The line “a penny plain and twopence coloured” had Frank Muir on a quest for lanolin, which he was told comes from wool. He drove to the village of Wool and bought some, but then on the way back home the lights went out on his car so he pulled into a parking lot to have a look. When he got out of his car he fell into a puddle. Fortunately there was an all-night dry-cleaner where he had parked…

    To my great delight, I just discovered that the Internet Archive has a huge (complete??) collection. For this story, see https://archive.org/details/bbcmyword/Loblolly.mp3.

    (I credit My Word for getting me my graduate school 50% scholarship. The beginning of each programme had the panelists define a word each. That did wonders for my GRE verbal score.)

    There’s also the series My Music, but that’s for another day.

  2. The most elaborate and lenghty shaggy dog sorry I’ve experienced happened on the CW from 2020-2022. ARROW actor David Ramsey, who appeared as John Diggle (aka Spartan) on that series, began an elaborate multi-series crossover storyline that encompassed eight appearances on five different CW series (one of which was a complete red herring appearance on LEGENDS OF TOMORROW as histioric Texas Ranger Bass Reeves, right in the middle of the storyline), following the final episode of ARROW in January of 2020. At the end of that episode, Diggle sees a meteor plummet to Earth and is drawn to it, eventually extracting a box from the crater which glows with an intense green light. From that point, Diggle began his worldwide (and eventually interdimensional) guest appearance run on BATWOMAN, THE FLASH, LEGENDS, SUPERMAN & LOIS, SUPERGIRL, BATWOMAN again, FLASH again, and SUPERMAN & LOIS again, running from June of 2021 through June of 2022. Each step on the journey intimated that Diggle was searching for some means to reopen the box, which had closed after he first opened it. Any viewer who was following along and who had any knowledge of the DC comics that the series were based on, was absolutely certain that Diggle (whose stepfather’s last name had been revealed to be “Stewart” on ARROW) was about to become the TV version of the Black Green Lantern, John Stewart, who had been chosen by the Guardians of the Universe as Earth’s back-up to their original choice, Hal Jordan, way back in 1971. Indeed, as the sixth appearance was blurbed in TV GUIDE, it seemed to be on the brink of happening. But in that FLASH appearance, just as he managed to get the box open and the glow seemed to beckon him to remove its contents (the power ring, right?) he fights the impulse to do so–and throws the box away, citing his desire to concentrate all his future on his family, with the box’s contents and purpose never to be revealed. He then appears on SUPERMAN & LOIS the very next week, and instead of learning anything more about the FLASH events, we instead discover that that guy, as well as the one who’d appeared in the previous season on SUPERMAN & LOIS was a parallel-Earth version of Diggle because SUPERMAN & LOIS is happening on a completely different Earth from the Superman who’d been appearing on SUPERGIRL–this despite Diggle’s having specifically cited multiple events from the aforementioned series in that first 2021 appearance. And that was it. No conclusion to the storyline, no explanation of what was in the “Green Lantern” box, and why he’d gone through all of that series-hopping. And to string us along even further, Diggle reappeared on THE FLASH two weeks ago, again revealing nothing regarding the box. If you believe the IMDb cast list for the episodes airing in the next three weeks (and I don’t trust them at all at this point because they’re pure conjecture), he’s supposed to appear on the last two episodes of the FLASH series…where, no doubt, nothing further will happen to conclude or explain the storyline.

    Now THAT’S a shaggy-dog story!

  3. A good dhaggy dog story wasw penned by the great punster, Issac Assinov. Check out the short story “Shah Guido G.” (Hint, the title of the story flags it as a shaggy dog story.)

  4. Have you ever heard of Feghoots? Science fiction shaggy dog, but usually only a page long, and usually is setup for ending pun.

  5. Let me try another approach:

    Whales are not fish.
    West Side Story was not an opera.
    Ceres is an asteroid, not a planet.
    Shaggy Dog Stories do not end in puns.

  6. Yes, that is indeed the original shaggy dog story. A version of it appeared in an article in Esquire, in 1937, which the Oxford English Dictionary cites as the earliest known use of the term. (I submitted the antedating to the OED.)

    I am very much of the view that shaggy dog stories do not end in puns. However, the belief that they do is so widespread that I fear that, like the use of “literally” as an intensifier, it is becoming the dominant usage.

    1. Alas, I agree. I’m so old, I remember when words had meaning. We used to use them to tell things apart. Oh well.

    2. With Asimov’s pun-ending story having been published in 1951, the distinction about what qualifies as a shaggy dog story was already confused by then. Only 14 years after the 1937 story in Esquire (which is briefer than the one Mike posted above).

      The 1937 one is here: https://books.google.com/books?id=17YcAQAAMAAJ&pg=RA2-PA237.

      The Congressional record for Jan/29/1953 (page A332) contains the joke about leaving a knight out on a dog like this, and calls it a shaggy dog story.

      I also find mention of the Shaggy Dog story, possibly attributed to a “Judge” Conway, in what appears to be a 1919 trade magazine for the banking industry: https://books.google.com/books?id=Fcn9pg3jSzwC&pg=PA247&dq=%22shaggy+dog+story%22&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjpj-KN8ub-AhUvFlkFHSeiDOYQ6wF6BAgHEAE .

      The 1954 book by Eric Partridge, “The ?shaggy Dog? Story: Its Origin, Development, and Nature (with a Few Seemly Examples)” might shed some light on the pun issue. However, I can’t find that book online.

      1. Thanks, Fred. I’ve skimmed through that now. Partridge give plenty of examples, and I didn’t notice any ending in puns, not did he mention puns (not that I noticed).

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