What are shaggy dog stories?

Shaggy dog at his desk.
Shaggy dog takes a break from writing his story.

Over the years I have heard the term “shaggy dog” story and I decided it was time to really understand what that means. After doing some internet research I learned that a shaggy dog story is basically a long-winded joke with an anti-climactic ending. It involves an extensive build-up, featuring many details and challenges to the subject of the story. But the punchline doesn’t resolve anything. It actually renders everything that occurred prior to having been pointless.

The origin of the name “shaggy dog” is up for debate. It first appeared in the 1930s. After reading various examples, I have created a brief version that works for my purpose.

A wealthy Englishman loses his beloved dog, which happens to be quite shaggy. As he is a man of means, he puts out a worldwide notice offering a fabulous reward for the return of the dog. In America a fellow finds a shaggy dog wandering about his hometown. He feels certain this must be THE dog. He puts all his available funds into transporting himself and the dog across the Atlantic. After many trials and tribulations, he finally arrives at the estate of the dog owner. He knocks at the door.

The butler answers the door, and the man presents the dog. The butler simply says, “He’s not that shaggy” and closes the door in his face.

The ending of the story may be an anti-climax, but it is definitely an ending. And a good ending can leave an impression on the audience. It really helps if the audience never sees it coming. Comedy is often about revealing human folly, and a shaggy dog story will do that. The more energy a character puts into a pointless endeavor, the more foolish he looks in the end.

This type of story construction works very well for animation. I could have described the man’s journey with the dog in a series of comical misadventures. The dog could have a personality that makes everything more difficult. Anything could happen because, in the end, it’s irrelevant.

In the western-themed Tex Avery short Deputy Droopy, two crooks try to steal a safe from the sheriff’s office while the sheriff is asleep. While they try to be absolutely quiet, Droopy pulls painful pranks on them that cause them to run to the hills to scream. There seem to be infinite variations on how they suffer. In the end, they quit trying and willingly enter the jail, only to learn the sheriff’s hearing aid had dead batteries and he wouldn’t have heard them anyway.

Tex Avery's Deputy Droopy

There is a great example in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Roger is goofing around and he handcuffs himself to the detective Eddie Valiant. Eddie does not have the key for the handcuffs. This causes lots of problems for the two of them, and finally, they get to a secret room at the bar where Eddie struggles to hacksaw off the handcuffs. Here is a video of how it finally ends…

Roger’s response is my favorite line from that movie. I said before that the punchline makes what came before pointless, but in this situation, there was a purpose for this whole story event. The handcuffs motivate the two of them to move from Eddie’s apartment to the bar where Eddie believes he can get them out of it, so it actually does serve a purpose, but in a funny way. Had Eddie simply sawed off the cuffs, it wouldn’t be funny, right? The right punchline makes it all work. STORY ARTISTS AND WRITERS TAKE NOTE OF THAT.

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For more examples of shaggy dog stories in animation, visit THIS PAGE at tvtropes.com

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Comedy for Animators on Amazon

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