In the 1930s, few of us had any excess of spending money. What money we had was scarce and hard-won. Radio was our great professional source of comedy, with those two titans Jack Benny and Fred Allen dominating the airways. Mostly, though, we generated our own comedy and a favorite form of it was the shaggy dog story, as practiced in the haunts of New York City’s café society.
The professionals worked in nightclubs which were sometimes dingy rooms with a tiny stage, seats for perhaps 100 to 300 persons, and of course, a bar. The people performing there were professionals. We weren’t. We didn’t have furnishings, electronics, or stocked bars, we had very little but our physical selves. Fortunately, we needed nothing more.
We Futurians would collect on the front stoop at the apartment house at 2574 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn. It housed the four rooms we called the Ivory Tower. After a period of talking, joking, gossiping, singing, making noise, we would start to move.
Cyril Kornbluth was likely to take part in one of these performances, Doc Lowndes almost as much so. Chet Cohen, Jack Gillespie and Damon Knight — or, as he preferentially wrote it in those days, damon knight — might be frequent performers, so might any Futurian or, for that matter, any other fan temporarily hanging out with us.
So when there were four or five of us gathered, we were likely to start the move, the narrator continuing to tell the story, and, when he came to the end, one of the others beginning a different one.
Nearly all the Futurian shaggy dog stories are lost to 21st-century performance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. The whole point of a shaggy dog story was that it needn’t have a point. When Futurians told their stories in the presence of ordinary fans, the expressions on the faces of the audience was often a sort of stupefied disbelief. A shaggy dog story was meant to be dragged out as long as possible.
I cannot write down for you the text of a classic Futurian shaggy dog story. It’s not just that my right hand would wither and fall away. You wouldn’t read it, either.
I will instead give you a short synopsis of the classic example of the Futurian shaggy dog story, which gave its name to the whole genre, and also “The Story of the Brass Cannon,” which is about the only story in the catalogue that has actually sometimes caused listeners to laugh right out loud.
The Shaggy Dog Story
A man who owns a shaggy dog has let it run away. He advertises in the all the local newspapers for the return of his dog. He says, “My dog has run away and I want him back. He is a shaggy dog and I will pay a reward for his return.
The next day he appears at the home of someone who says he has found the dog but when the dog appears at the door of the home, the man says, “Oh, not so damn shaggy.”
The Story of the Brass Cannon
This is the story of Lu the Least, the youngest and smallest son of Great Cham, the most important magnate in the province. All of Great Cham’s sons did well, particularly the older ones, who became ambassadors and governors and high military officials. But by the time Lu the Least came along, there seemed to be nothing left for Lu to do.
However, the Grand Cham ordered his officials to find Lu a job. It took some time, but finally Lu the Least found a post.
A curator of the treasury of the Grand Cham searching through some neglected parts of the Great Cham’s collection found an antique brass cannon, which dated from the Cham’s earliest wars. Why not (he proposed to the Grand Cham) establish a shrine with the cannon and put Lu the Least in charge of it? His duties would be light. All he would have to do would be to take the cannon out once a week and rub it with oil. When made the offer, Lu the Least reluctantly agreed. He said it was harder work than he was used to, but he would try it.
And so every week thereafter, he got up early in the morning, filled a flask with a special oil to anoint the cannon and walked to the place in the forest where it was kept. He would then anoint it carefully and industriously rub it till it gleamed with a golden light. Then he would go home and rest for a week.
Then one day the Grand Cham happened to see Lu the Least sitting in the shade of a little wood, apparently having forgotten about the cannon. He said, “Look here, Lu the Least, isn’t this Tuesday?”
Lu the Least said, “Yes, it is.”
“And isn’t Tuesday the day you go out and anoint the brass cannon?”
Lu said, “Yes, it was.”
The Grand Cham said, “How dare you say it ‘was’? Are you not taking care of your obligations?”
Lu the Least gave him a big smile. He said, “I was hoping you would be proud of me. You see, last week I bought a brass cannon, and now I’m going into business for myself.”