Life is a shaggy dog story

Or, the opposite of an aphorism

Does life sometimes feel like a drawn-out, ridiculous, pointless narrative more likely to be followed by groans than laughs?

That’s because we’re all in the middle of a gigantic shaggy dog story. Which is good! It means life isn’t nasty, brutish, and short! We can all relax into a meandering, detailed, and long existence with an ending that’s sure to underwhelm.

The shaggy dog story is the opposite of an aphorism. Mark Twain described the proper proportions of a maxim as “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense,” and the shaggy dog story flips that script. Whereas pithy phrasing provides a satisfying click in the brain, the shaggy dog story is distinctly unsatisfactory. Twain was a master of both forms, though he knew the shaggy dog as simply a humorous story and described it as a particularly American invention that “may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular.” Many of them take place in taverns and are best told there.

The best shaggy dog story does not actually feature a canine with lax grooming standards. Instead, the protagonist is a teenager working up the courage to invite his sweetheart to the big dance. He waits behind a long line of suitors to ask her, and to his relief she says yes. Then — and this is the part you describe in intricate detail over the course of an hour — he sets out to obtain corsage, tuxedo, transportation, prophylactics* (*depending on your audience), etc, each taking a great deal of time and waiting. Finally, they arrive at the dance and the sweetheart needs a drink. Our hero spies a punch bowl in the auditorium and to his great relief: There is no punchline.

And then you groan.

In the cost-benefit analysis for the listener, it’s all cost — and that’s the benefit. Shaggy dogologist Eric Partridge calls it a psychological non-sequitur. Your brain can’t help doing what it’s designed to do: Follow the story, note the telling details, anticipate where it goes next, and prepare for the satisfying payoff … that never arrives. Our narrative bias causes us to look for stories where there are none, find causes for every effect, and see morals in every sequence of events. We’re so addicted to narrative that we feel cheated. Ain’t that life?

Is there a bigger point? Upon learning of the existence of the Shaggy God story, I thought that might be it: The ultimate philosophy of life, a sort of witty existentialism. Perhaps we are all shaggy dogs waiting for the great groomer in the sky who never comes. Alas, the Shaggy God story turned out to be a minor sci-fi conceit in which they discover it was Earth all along, Planet-of-the-Apes style. Woof.

Since this newsletter is all about the satisfying payoff, here are the best shaggy dog tails, all set loose of their setups:

This dog is no genius. That’s the third time this week he’s forgotten his keys.

Oh, this Labrador retriever isn’t that good at chess; I beat him in the two games before that!

A mouse sticks his head out of the man’s pocket and yells, “And that goes for your cat, too!”

And a final underwhelm: In the story that gave the format its name, an aristocrat’s shaggy dog goes missing. A substantial reward is offered and the world takes notice. An enterprising boy searches high and low and, yada, yada, yada, locates the beast. He shows up on the aristocrat’s doorstep and presents the dog to the butler. The butler looks down at the dog, bows, winces, and exclaims:

But not as shaggy as that, sir!


Quick quips; lightning

Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours.”
— Benjamin Disraeli

“A good listener is not someone who has nothing to say. A good listener is a good talker with a sore throat.”
Katharine Whitehorn

“Life is like an onion. You peel off layer after layer and then you find there is nothing in it.”
— James Huneker

Get Wit Quick No. 101 is looking forward to tomorrow, when all the shaggy dogs in this particular jurisdiction may legally be shorn. If communication were only about exchanging information, we could just hand each other USB keys. The Walt Disney Company called their first live-action film The Shaggy Dog, and while it had nothing to do with the joke format, it created the gimmick comedy format that spawned generations of parent-trapped love bug computers in freaky tennis shoes. Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was not as shaggy as that, sir. Get to the point by tapping the ❤️ below.