In Defense of Shaggy Dog Stories

The following introduction to our web site was posted about 1995.

It appears that this charming art form has gotten more than a small bad rap from history. For example, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1977, G. & C. Merriam) indicates that a shaggy dog story is “a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous but the hearer as boring and pointless; also: a similar humorous story whose humor lies in the pointlessness or irrelevance of the punch line”. Even James Charlton (Bred any good rooks lately?, Doubleday, 1986) indicates that shaggy dog stories are “those interminable stories that spiral downward to a flat punchline”.

I will always say, “Nay”, to this vile characterization of my beloved stories, even though my voice becomes hoarse in the effort. A modern shaggy dog is one that tells an entertaining tale in its own right, and which ends in a ripping pun as the punchline. When done properly, there are clues given through the story that make trying to guess the punchline part of the pleasure and challenge. A special version of the shaggy dog story originated in a long-running series in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This was “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot”. Typically, these would tell a science-fiction story that ended in a PUNchline. Such stories and their imitations became known as feghoots (see Charlton referenced above).

The shaggy dogs in this growing collection are flowers (chickens?) that have been plucked from here and there. Several might be rated PG13. Many have been on the Internet so long, it is difficult to know where they originated. Clearly, very few are new, though I have tried in a few (unidentified) cases. Enjoy them, or run from them as if they were the plague, ’tis your choice.

Addendum as of January, 2000:

Clearly, we appear to be in the Golden Age of what I have called Shaggy Dog Stories. There are many, many excellent examples being produced and the site now contains over five hundred tails with no end in site. This makes us proud. In addition to collecting these stories, I am trying to reference and annotate the sources and authors for these stories as the information becomes available to us.

With reference to nomenclature, I will continue to call these works of punditry shaggy dog stories. However, I must recognize that for some semantic purists, true shaggy dog stories are as described above, endless tales that end up going nowhere. Accordingly, the types of stories I love have been called “groaners”, a usage much more common than I knew five years ago. There is even a groaners listserv for subscription (free). I will try to stay out of the semantic holy wars; however, in deference to what some people call true shaggy dog stories, I will start including some of these in this collection. They will be indicated on their title as being “original-style” shaggy dog stories. Enjoy !

One thing that Brian and I hope to do (eventually) is to add a search engine for punch lines and original lines misquoted. In the meantime, I have a database of the collection in Microsoft Word. I will be willing to search the database for you, or I would be happy send you a copy of the whole word file (please, specify Mac or Wintel).

Addendum as of December 2003:

There are nearly 1,500 groaners, shaggy dogs, and the shorter shaggy puppy stories in the collection as of December 2003. We have been able to implement a Google search engine for the site. The next long-term task is to add cross-referencing for related/variant puns. An even more distant task will be to add a page with explanations of the punch lines.

Almost daily, I send a new story to a “Thought for the Day” mailing list. After several of these have accumulated, they get added to the on-line collection. Many of these pun mailings generate comments. Eventually, I hope to add these as addenda to the tales.

The collection owes a debt of gratitude to Stan Kegel and the groaners listserv, to the many members of the PUNY (Punsters United Nearly Yearly) listserv, to all who have contributed and continue to contribute to the collection, and to those punsters who have generously given permission for us to list their puns.

Addendum as of June 2004:

It is with a great deal of pride and thankfulness that we announce that Alan was named Punster of the Year (POTY) by the International Save the Pun Foundation.

Please, see the announcement at the Foundation’s website.

This award was presented for Brian and Alan’s work in creating and maintaining “Tarzan’s Tripes Forever” — an internet repostory and resource for groaners and shaggy dog stories. Many of the classics can be found here. If your favorite is not here, let us know. In addition, I am particularly interested in documenting the history and sources of these creations.

Alan B. Combs
College of Pharmacy
University of Texas at Austin

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