In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline. These stories are a special case of yarns, coming from the long tradition of campfire yarns.
Shaggy dog stories play upon the audience's preconceptions of the art of joke telling. The audience listens to the story with certain expectations, which are either simply not met or met in some entirely unexpected manner.
The archetypical shaggy dog story
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:
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 lengthy shaggy dog story derives its humour from the fact that the joke-teller held the attention of the listeners for a long time (such jokes can take five minutes or more to tell) for no reason at all, as the story ends with a meaningless anticlimax.
An example of this type of joke is "The Purple Doughnut", "Purple Spaghetti" or "The Purple Passion". In this joke, with much detail and narration, a young boy overhears a group of older kids talking about a "purple doughnut/spaghetti/passion". When the boy asks the kids what a "purple doughnut" is, they beat him up. The story continues with the boy meeting other people (teacher, school principal, parents) throughout the day; they each ask what happened to him, causing him to repeat his entire story each time ending with the question: "What's a purple doughnut?"
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