shaggy-dog story noun
a: a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous but the hearer as boresome and pointless b: a similar humorous story whose humor lies in the pointlessness or irrelevance of the punch line
I used this expression the other day, but it was not understood by the guy I was speaking to—a fairly sophisticated Washington hand. I then tried it out a few more times, and found that people had heard it, but many did not know its meaning. That’s too bad, since we have all been exposed to shaggy-dog stories, even if we did not know what to call them.
One typical example is frequently told around campfires: Long before the era of cell phones, a solitary woman is driving home late at night and hears an ominous announcement on the radio. A homicidal maniac has escaped from a local asylum, and is said to be wandering the streets.
The woman drives on for awhile (and the story can pointlessly describe various things she passes along the way) but then one of her front tires gets a blowout. This happens on the outskirts of town, and she knows that there is a 24-hour service station about a half-mile away. She has no choice but to walk to the station for help.
She starts walking and soon notices a shadowy figure a block or so behind her. He is walking fast, and she begins to panic. She picks up her pace, but so does he. He is gaining on her! (Again, this whole business can be dragged out.)
He is getting nearer and nearer. Now, she breaks into a full sprint, but it is no use, he has caught up to her! He reaches out to grab her. She sees her life passing by her; it’s all over. Then he does grab her shoulder, and says this to her: “Tag! You’re it!”
Other shaggy-dog stories exist solely to set up a punchline that is an elaborate bad pun. Since the idea in these stories is to give some fractured rendition of a stock phrase, such as “The spirit was willing, but the flash was weak,” “Ah, Sweet Mr. Rhee of Life, at last I’ve found you,” or “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian,” laying down all the elements necessarily will involve a lengthy and otherwise pointless narrative.
One of the best examples of a shaggy-dog story is a tale known to virtually everyone—Rumpelstiltskin. As you recall, the entire point of the story is revealed in its title, and simply comes down to guessing the man’s name. To achieve this, though, there must first be an incredibly elaborate build-up.
A miller tells the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king orders her to do so under penalty of death three separate times, but if she succeeds the third time, he will make her his queen. A strange little man appears each time to help her, and asks some gift in return for accomplishing the amazing feat. The first time, she gives him her necklace, the second time her ring. But, on the third occasion, being poor, she has nothing left. So, she agrees to give him her first child, should she become queen.
Having spun straw into gold the third time, the girl is made queen, and within a year, she has given birth to a beautiful son. The little man returns, demanding the agreed upon payment. The queen’s reaction is so sorrowful that it melts the heart of the little man, who agrees to relieve her of the obligation if she can guess his name within three days. Hedging her bets, she sends out a messenger to discover any odd names that might exist in the hinterlands.
The little man returns to the palace the first day and the second day, but the queen cannot guess his name. The queen is desperate, and when the messenger returns that evening, she asks him if he has heard any new names. He says that he has not, but tells her that he did see a grotesque little man dancing around a fire singing…
“To-morrow I brew, to-day I bake
And then the child away I’ll take;
For little deems my royal dame
That Rumpelstiltskin is my name!”
On the next day, the queen guesses his name, and saves her son. Rumpelstiltskin is so angry that he tears himself in two.
All this for the punchline of his name.
It’s not too much of a stretch to observe that a great deal of contemporary politics seems to be like a shaggy-dog story. It is pointless, drawn-out, and tedious—only it’s not funny at all. And, the joke—if there is one—is on all of us.