Who hasn’t been around the proverbial campfire and struggled to remember a good joke? And when we do pull one out of our back pockets we tend to remember the short easy ones. Being funny isn’t about how good the joke is, it’s about how well you tell it. Comedy is all about timing and detail.
The documentary The Aristocrats tells the story of an infamous joke called, well, “The Aristocrats.” In the joke a man tells a club promoter about a new act he has with his family. He goes into an overly elaborate, long winded description of a horrid incestual, scatological show in great detail. When the promoter ask the name of the show the man says, “The Aristocrats!” There is no one way to tell the joke and everyone adds their own spin. Comedians used to try to outdo each other backstage at comedy clubs with their own renditions. It was a joke that no one dared tell on stage.
“The Aristocrats” belongs to a tradition of something called a shaggy dog story. At its most basic it’s a joke with a short set up, an absurdly long and detailed middle, and an anti-climax or non sequitur instead of a traditional punchline.
There are many variations and arguments about the the origins of the shaggy dog story, but it mostly goes something like this: A rich family is looking for their lost dog, the most shaggy dog in the world. A boy finds a lost shaggy dog and goes on a great journey to find the shaggy dog’s owner and at every point it is commented about how shaggy the dog is. When the boy finally reaches the dog’s owner and says, “I’ve found your shaggy dog and brought him all this way.” The owner replies, “Our dog’s not that shaggy.”
On the surface these jokes don’t seem funny. And that’s the point. They’re meant to be narrative frames for the teller to explore the reaches of his or her imagination.
Shaggy dog stories come in all shapes and sizes and aren’t just jokes. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a type of Shaggy dog story. Two tramps in the mud are waiting and waiting for a man who never shows up. One critic called it a play where nothing happens, twice. William Faulkner is another Shaggy Dog Storyteller. The digressions within digressions in his novels like the Sound and the Fury are more about the telling than the tale.
What I like most about shaggy dog stories is the way they play with the expectation of the joke or the story. The narrative keeps building and building to a point where you’ve lost all sense of why you started listening, but you can’t stop. They are intentionally challenging and are always, by design, a let down by traditional storytelling rules and yet, they’re completely gratifying. They defy everything we’ve come to expect about jokes and stories.
My absolute favorite shaggy dog story is Norm Macdonald’s telling of the Moth Joke. It’s not a straight Shaggy Dog because you could, I suppose, tell the joke with a short middle and it would still be funny, but Norm takes the story to such a horrible place you hang on his every word not sure if you’re supposed to laugh. You’re exhilarated by the strangeness of it, but also a little bit scared that the whole thing is going off the rails. How exactly is he going to pull this off? That’s the best part of the shaggy dog story. The suspense. Even if it got its name from a story about a shaggy dog, the stories themselves are shaggy. That’s what makes them great. Even if they’re not that shaggy.