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There's a newcomer in town, and everyone agrees that he's a marvel, perhaps of Purity Sue proportions. He's friendly, well-spoken, and clearly In Charge but never throws his weight around. Everyone says he's a genius, and rumor has it that he's a Chessmaster, an expert linguist, and the most sought after consultant in the country. He's a bit peculiar, but hey, as brilliant and philosophical as he is, his odd quirks must indicate just how deep he really is, right? He's the guy who is sure to know the answer when you come to him with a problem.
Except that he doesn't have the answer. In fact, he doesn't even understand the question.
Often, the most brilliant visiting expert, or most beloved substitute teacher, or most canny enemy agent is really The Fool. He's usually either a harmless imbecile or mental patient, who, simply because he has the right appearance and is at the right place at the right time, is assumed to be someone other than he actually is. Because everyone assumes that he's a genius, their odd meanderings and banalities are taken for profundities. Oddly enough, his advice is almost always spot on, because the real problems are actually very simple -- so simple that everyone has been overlooking the answers all along.
The Seemingly-Profound Fool is a human Rorschach test: Other people project what they most want to find onto him, and will insist on their interpretation of his words and deeds with a desperate will no matter how outrageous they are from an objective point of view.
An example of Feigning Intelligence, and a subtrope of both The Fool and Mistaken for Special Guest. Contrast with And You Thought It Was a Game, who may act like this out of temporary ignorance of the true situation. Compare with Blank Slate, in which other characters have a greater effect on him than he does on them, and Silent Bob. A variation on Becoming the Mask as others put a mask on him to serve their needs.
If he is mentally challenged, unlike Idiot Savant, Genius Ditz, and The Rainman he will have nothing that serves as "compensation" for his disability, and Inspirationally Disadvantaged won't apply to him because the others don't know he's disadvantaged. May overlap with Man Child, as in the trope namer's case, and/or be Mistaken for Badass. In extreme cases, the Seemingly-Profound Fool may become a Fake Ultimate Hero, purely as a consequence of how other people react to him. May well result in One Dialogue, Two Conversations.
- An episode of The Irresponsible Captain Tylor features this. Several of the ship's female crew members come in to ask for advice while Tylor is preoccupied and takes his comments regarding his task as the desired advice. In truth, all Tylor was doing was desperately trying to stop his VCR from recording over the porno tape the ship's marines had given him with explicit instructions to return intact.
- In the Gintama episode "Dango Over Flowers", local homeless man Musashi is presented as a "famous gourmet" and the judge for a sweets-eating competition. The Andromeda team raises three objections, and Musashi's response each time - "You better eat while you can!" - is interpreted differently in each context.
- One of the deleted scenes of Galaxy Quest fully exemplifies this, but it's pretty much the whole point of the movie.
- The trope used to be named for the character of Chance the Gardener in Peter Sellers' social satire Being There based on a novel by Jerzy Kosiński. Raised and kept isolated from the outside world that he only knows through his incessant TV viewing, Chance is abandoned after his old employer dies and he wanders through Washington, D.C.in a daze. He ends up a major political figure -- under the name of Chauncey Gardiner -- without ever understanding what is happening to him (or so it seems: the Twist Ending leaves room for the possibility that he was really more than he seemed).
- It's worth noting that Sellers wanted to play the role upon reading the novel because he saw himself in it. The film's ending wasn't in the book or script, but was conceived by director Hal Ashby as a response to how the film was developing, especially Sellers' performance. ( It was believable that Chance would walk on water).
- Mr. Gower in the film Teachers, a harmless schizophrenic whose bizarre antics make him the best teacher in the school. His presence is a scathing dramatization of the old adage, "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps."
- Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey describes this as essentially his job. He goes to a bar, people sit down and tell him their worries, and he introduces them to Harvey. By the time they're done talking, the people walk away feeling better and never talk to him again.
"My mother once said, 'Elwood, to get along in this world you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.' For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me on that."
- "Hi, my name is Forrest, Forrest Gump."
- Bean toys with this trope when he has to give an impromptu speech on the Portrait of Whistler's Mother. Observations like how it's good that the painting is large because "if it were very small... microscopic... then hardly anyone would be able to see it," are taken by the attending crowd as the brilliant statements of a prominent professor of the arts. Subverted, however, in that several other characters quickly recognize that Bean is anything but a genius.
- German movie Didi -- Der Experte by/with comedian Didi Hallervorden. Car mechanic Willy Schulze (an apolitical guy) is mistaken for the political expert Willy Schneider. They both have lost their memory in a car accident and starts successfully helping the mayor of Berlin with slogans like "We have to pull on the screws" or "Why change the engine?". Until he regains his memory and decides to take revenge. This ends in a massive landslide loss for BOTH major parties.
- Zelig played by Woody Allen evolves into this, because his only real skill is the ability to blend in and feign expertise. This leads him to meet famous people and bed numerous women.
- John Candy played exactly this character in Who's Harry Crumb?. Harry (Candy) is almost in Ralph Wiggum's league. He was sent in by the Corrupt Corporate Executive because the executive wanted to send the worst possible detective in the world. Eventually, some characters do catch on to Crumb's stupidity, but by the end are wondering if it was Obfuscating Stupidity. It probably was not.
- The driving concept of the comedy The Man With One Red Shoe, in which a clueless musician (played by Pierre Richard in the original french film and Tom Hanks in the american remake) gets mistaken for a powerful and highly competent spy. Everything he says and does for the rest of the movie is spied, filmed, analyzed and dissected by real government counterintelligence agents who become more and more convinced of his so-called cunning when he is in fact none of those things.
- Subverted twice in the Discworld novel "Interesting Times", when Rincewind is claimed as the Great Wizzard, who will lead the Red Army to victory. Firstly, because Rincewind does understand the question and knows he doesn't have the answer, but can't convince anyone of this; and second, because the leader of the Red Army knows this as well, but thinks they need a symbol. And, of course, double-subverted when he does, though a combination of chance and cowardly cunning.
- In That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, the villains find a man they believe to be the reawakened Merlin. Since they want Merlin on their side as an ally, they treat him with great respect, addressing him stammeringly in Latin, which they believe to be his native tongue. They are unsurprised when he does not deign to answer them. Little do they know that he's actually a hobo who just happened to be wandering around the area where they thought Merlin was, and who knows better than to disabuse them of their illusions about his identity.
- The short story "El Diente Roto" by Pedro Emilio Coll is about a troublesome boy who, after he broke a tooth in a fight becomes devoted to touching his tooth with the tip of his tongue shutting off any other thought and becoming eerily quiet. The people around him interpret his sudden change and his apparently reflective attitude as great genius.
- Mr. Dick serves in this capacity to some extent to Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield.
- In a book of Jewish Jokes there is this joke. An antisemitic priest was in charge of a town, and challenged the Jews of the town to a sign language debate with him, with a catch: if the person they pick to debate loses, all the Jews must leave. No one volunteers for the debate except a poor fool. At the debate, the priest draws a big circle in the air. The fool stamps on the ground. The priest holds up three fingers. The fool shakes his head and holds up one. The priest takes out bread and wine. The fool begins to eat an apple. The priest then declares that the fool had won the debate. The priest's explanation: "The circle meant that God was everywhere in the world. The stamp on the ground meant God was not in Hell. The three fingers represented the Trinity. Holding up one finger meant that God was one and indivisible. The bread and wine represented the blood and flesh of Jesus, but when he reminded me of the original sin, I knew he had won." The fool's explanation, on the other hand: "The priest pointed far away, meaning that all the Jews must leave. I stamped on the ground, to say that we're staying right here. The three fingers meant that we had three days to get out. The one finger meant that not one of us was leaving. Then, I guess he gave up, since he took out his lunch, so I took out mine."
- Here is another version. The king holds out his hand with the fingers spread, and the fool puts up a fist. The king puts out two fingers and the fool holds up one. Then the king takes out a piece of moldy cheese, and the fool takes out an egg. The king meant for the outstretched hand to mean that the Jews were scattered over the world, and the fist meant that they were united in God. The two fingers meant that there were two kings, on in Heaven and one on Earth, but the fool signified that there was only one king, God. The cheese meant that the religion was old and falling apart, but the egg meant that it was fresh and whole. Or... the king tried to grab the fool and he held up a fist to ward him off, the two fingers were to poke out his eyes and the finger was to stop him, and they both brought out their lunches.
- There's a Zen koan variant of this, where the foolish one is a one-eyed man who assumes the other guy is making fun of his deformity.
- A short story by Richard Fuchs tells about a timid man who is henpecked by his wife, exploited by his boss and bullied by his co-workers. After having surgery to the mouth his speech becomes near unintelligible... and the people who try to understand what he says, haunted by their bad consciences, interpret it as him finally having grown a spine. They nervously start to try accomodating him, giving him a happy ending of sorts.
- Flashman builds his reputation on this - he misses an opponent in a duel in such a way that he looks to have pulled off a trick shot, then he passes out while trying to surrender the British flag so that when he's found it's assumed he was protecting it. As a result, he becomes a military hero. Being a Magnificent Bastard, of course, he plays up to this.
- In a short story by Patrick McManus, He smokes a pipe and looks "Bemused" in order to hide is ignorance. This causes people to think he is doing some serious intellectual pondering.
- James Thurber's Fables for our Time has "The Owl Who Was God", where a bunch of forest animals make an owl their leader when this trope makes them think he's The Owl-Knowing One, with the result that most of them (including the owl) get killed by being run over by a truck.
- Happens to Bertie Wooster quite a few times. In The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie's friend Bingo Little claims that Bertie is the true author of his uncle's favorite series of romance novels. The uncle spends the rest of the book thinking Bertie is a literary genius with unparalleled insight into the human condition, until the real author shows up and Jeeves saves the day by telling everyone Bertie is insane.
Live Action TV
- Every other plot in Fawlty Towers.
- Summer Roberts in The OC impressed fellow students at a college fair by her seemingly profound, but actually clueless question "What is a jihad?". A reviewer at Television Without Pity snarkily, but not implausibly, wondered if she got her unexpectedly high test scores a few episodes earlier by writing "What is 'multiple choice'?" on her answer booklet.
- In Father Ted, Father Dougal has this conversation with a bishop which later leads to the bishop losing his faith and becoming a hippie, proclaiming Dougal a great insightful mind, when really he's a simpleton.
Bishop Facks: So, Father. Do you ever have any doubts about the religious life? Is your faith ever tested? Anything you would be worried about? Any doubts you've been having about any aspects of belief? Anything like that?
Father Dougal: Well, you know the way God made us all, right? And he's looking down at us from heaven and everything?
Bishop Facks: Uh-huh.
Father Dougal: And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that?
Bishop Facks: Yes.
Father Dougal: And when we die we're all going to go to heaven?
Bishop Facks: Yes. What about it?
Father Dougal: Well, that's the bit I have trouble with.
- In the same episode of Father Ted, in preparation for the visit of three bishops, Ted teaches Father Jack two new phrases to supplement his usual vocabulary of "Drink", "Feck" and "Arse": "Yes" and "That would be an ecumenical matter". The visiting bishops end up believing Father Jack is a theological genius.
- Arrested Development invokes this trope, ending with an homage to Being There. Michael, stunned, asks GOB if that was just one of his tricks, to which GOB responds it was not. It was his ILLUSION! (A trick is something a whore does for money.)
- Or cocaine.
- Or candy, if you're watching the censored version.
- In The Tenth Kingdom, the dog impersonating Prince Wendell is asked a number of tricky questions to test whether he was worthy of being king. First, his bravery is challenged, and he describes tearing the troll king's throat out with his teeth. Next, he is asked for wisdom, and he describes finding a hundred bones and burying most of them, which the audience takes as a metaphor for conserving precious resources. Finally, Cinderella asks if he's really Wendell White. He breaks down, admits he's unworthy of the name, describes himself as not a leader but rather a "retriever," and says he will never be as great as Snow White and should not be named king. Cinderella thus pronounces that he has passed the test by showing humility.
- One gets the impression that the tests were a formality and everyone was looking for an excuse to pass him.
- In one episode of Leverage, the entire crew (save Nate, of course) is convinced that a museum's head of security is a obsessive, nearly militant force to be reckoned with. Instead, it turns out he's a bumbling Woobie with a crush on Sophie.
- In Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy the main characters are awaiting a ridiculously wealthy, deaf German art lover who is coming to appraise the male lead's sculptures. As they are preparing, a fuse blows and they are plunged into darkness (hence the title). The electrician who is called to repair the fuse is German and after being shouted very loudly at he corrects them that he is not deaf, which they interpret as meaning the newspaper articles were wrong. They then get him to offer his opinion on the lead's art; the mistake is undiscovered until he reveals that he can't afford to buy the piece.
- Actually a subversion -- for a mere electrician, he has an Encyclopedic Knowledge of and appreciation for art, but everyone dismisses him once they discover his identity.
- In The Inspector General, a lazy, good-for-nothing officer, Khelastakov, travels to a small Russian town which is expecting the arrival of an Inspector General from St. Petersburg. He is mistaken for the Inspector General and treated like royalty, despite his boorish behavior.
- "Dr." J. Bowden Hapgood in the musical Anyone Can Whistle. Asked to separate the townspeople from the members of the local insane asylum, he instead puts the entire town under his thrall in one 13-minute musical sequence where he uses "the principles of logic" to place everyone in two groups, neither of which is all that sane. It only comes out later that he's a mental patient, not a doctor...
- Raz in Psychonauts believes that the absent-minded but constantly-babbling Crueller is actually undergoing some kind of secret assignment. However, he really is just that impaired. Or rather, his split personalities are. Crueller himself is still a sensible and powerful psychic.
- The manner in which Largo of Megatokyo gets his teaching job in Japan despite not even speaking Japanese. He does get found out when the new English teacher he was mistaken for shows up, but is brought back by popular demand. Apparently, speaking l33t in the classroom, teaching students how to customize their home computers, and dragging them on a "field trip" to the arcade to learn to battle the impending zombie invasion makes "Great Teacher Largo" the most beloved instructor in the school.
- From The Onion: Machiavellian White House Groundskeeper Gaining Influence Among West Wing Staff
- In the Time Squad miniseries of Blockhead, the eponymous character is strung along on a time-traveling sci-fi adventure to stop a Mad Scientist from destroying time and space itself. As the series goes on, he inadvertently becomes The Heart in the Five-Man Band that is eventually formed as well as the Worthy Opponent and Arch Enemy of the Big Bad, despite being nothing but a Cloudcuckoolander Talkative Loon throughout the entire series. He ultimately does save the universe, but even then it seems more like one of his random fits of insanity than anything.
- The title characters play this role in several episodes of Beavis and Butthead; in typical plots they are mistaken for job-site replacements or new hires, given control of vehicles or put in front of microphones when other characters, ostensibly smarter, take the giggling idiots entirely at their word.
- Pinky of Pinky and The Brain would fall under this trope whenever he interacted with the general public.
- This is also the basic premise of the Chicken Boo sketches from Animaniacs.
- The Simpsons: In "E Pluribus Wiggum", the Republicans and Democrats battle to secure Ralph -- a rather dumb eight-year-old, -- as a presidential candidate.
- One episode of Goof Troop featured Goofy applying for a job at the local NASA inspired science lab. He thought he was applying for the Janitor position; the scientists thought he was a brilliant eccentric scientist on the level of Einstein, and kept mistaking all his random comments and actions as profound advice for their floundering space program.
- In the Phineas and Ferb episode "She's the Mayor", Candace wins a competition with with an essay titled "Why My Little Brothers Should Be Busted". Roger, the mayor, praises her use of metaphor for financial matters. In reality, Candace is just obsessed with busting her brothers. Other characters continue to take everything she says as a metaphor throughout the episode.
Man: Hooray for busting little brothers being a perfect metaphor for our times!
Candance: NOT EVERYTHING IS A METAPHOR!
- In Sixteen, Jonesy gets Jude to pretend to be a guru simply because Jude can make totally inane statements sound like wisdom.
- Happened sometimes in Duck Dodgers when other characters thought that Dodgers really was the wondrous personage he claimed to be.
- Happens to Daffy again in The Looney Tunes Show whenever Foghorn Leghorn gets involved, although Foghorn sees Daffy as an Honest Advisor (which he is, but not in any kind of intelligent way).