Puli “Ch Banhegyi Ancsa with Mornebrake” Photo by w:en:User:Sannse.
 

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.”

14 Comments

  1. Lars says:

    I always wondered where Heinlein got that story, the one about the brass cannon. To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t make much more sense that it did when I read his version in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

    Did the Futurian’s shaggy dog stories ever end in very bad puns?

  2. Tod says:

    Sorry to sound like a moron…
    I don’t get it.

    Alan Dean Foster’s “Shah Guido G” I got…
    sadly, but yours?… I need some hints.

  3. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    Heinlein uses essentially this story, even more abbreviated, in one of his books; I think it’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Ah, yes, here it is; Prof to Manny, while they’re down on Earth:

    He reached out and stroked shiny barrel. “Manuel, once there was a man who held a political make-work job like so many here in this Directorate, shining brass cannon around a courthouse.”
    “Why would courthouse have cannon?”
    “Never mind. He did this for years. It fed him and let him save a bit, but he was not getting ahead in the world. So one day he quit his job, drew out his savings, bought a brass cannon–and went into business for himself.”

    Any idea if he might have gotten it from a Futurian? Or was something like this story in common circulation sometime before, hmmm, the mid 1960s?

  4. Ace Lightning says:

    At least the stories weren’t Feghoots!

  5. Bald Guy says:

    Jim Morrison was known to tell stories like this. He might have been a Futurian? :-)

  6. simon says:

    I thought the Shah Guido G story was from Asimov?

  7. Pat Berry says:

    “Shah Guido G” is NOT by Alan Dean Foster! The author is Isaac Asimov. You can find that story in his collection “Buy Jupiter and Other Stories.”

  8. simon says:

    I always thought the Shah Guido G story was a bit, well, rubbish. Thank you Mr Pohl for providing me with the context needed to properly appreciate the tale.

  9. Jen says:

    ‘damon knight’ made me giggle :-) One of the great thing about your reminiscences is that they humanize our heroes.

  10. Tod says:

    Maybe they BOTH got it from the same source?…
    ALAN DEAN FOSTER!
    “With Friends like This/These…’
    Approx early ’80’s
    AND (he, he, he) he EXPLAINS the Shaggy Dog reference to the title.

  11. Tod says:

    He even TELLS you to “say the name out loud, really fast.

  12. bostonEddie says:

    Hummm…when I heard it, it was a dozen apples.
    Do you know the shaggy dog story that that ends, “Oh, where are you going,oh boyfoot bear with teaks of Chan…?”
    (Don’t worry about spoiling it–it’s not how it ends, it’s how it gets there)

  13. Karen Anderson says:

    I knew the Brass Cannon story long before I read _The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress_. Thought everyone did, in fact. The version I heard involved, as I recall, a Revolutionary or Civil War monument in a small town. I have a tiny brass cap-firing cannon, somewhere, modeled on the horse-drawn kind with big wheels. Heinlein himself had a small but functional naval cannon on a wooden carriage, acquired I think some time after he moved from Colorado Springs to Santa Cruz.
    — Karen Anderson
    (OK to use my full name)

  14. Anton Sherwood says:

    What, there are people who don’t know what a shaggy dog tale is?!