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Sometimes, a good joke has a great punchline, but none of the characters are witty enough to know it, or a story can't move forward since none of the characters know some crucial skill or fact. What's an author to do? Toss them the Smart Ball!
Characters who catch the Smart Ball become knowledgeable regarding some trivia or discipline needed to deliver a punchline, discover clues, or implement a foolproof solution to whatever problem they face when normally such attempts fail. They may also become far better at effectively communicating information, allowing several character to put their clues together to discover the villain's Evil Plan.
Using the Smart Ball is not necessarily bad. While it can be an Ass Pull if The Ditz suddenly demonstrates a keen skill at molecular biology, it's not much of a stretch to imagine the Jerk Jock also knows the results for every Superbowl since 1975. If a character is tossed the Smart Ball enough times, they may even get Character Development that makes the smarts permanent.
Mind, excessive use of this trope can be considered negatively if an author has to resort to this sort of thing too often, using it essentially as a Deus Ex Machina to get the heroes out of a tight spot or to railroad a plot in a given direction. If it's a comedy though, no one minds thanks to the Rule of Funny.
Compare Informed Ability, when someones is said to have the Smart Ball in terms of a certain field, but it's rarely demonstrated, or Good with Numbers, when a character is suddenly endowed with math skills. Contrast Hidden Depths, which is what this often comes across as. See also Dumbass Has a Point, for what can be a reaction to this. When a character consistently picks the ball up when it comes to specific subjects, he's a Genius Ditz. If the ball is limited to crises or combat situations, he's a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass. This trope is a relative of Sanity Ball, Snark Ball (which is about wit rather than intellect), and the opposite of Idiot Ball. Advantage Ball is a distant cousin. See also Bat Deduction.
Anime & Manga
- Detective Conan: Agasa catches this ball about three episodes into the series and promptly pockets it--going from what Conan himself described (to his face, no less) as "a self-proclaimed genius [who has] only invented junk" to the greatest Gadgeteer Genius since Q Branch, with no intervening development or explanation.
- Depending on your point of view, Kogoro could also be said to catch this ball a few times over the course of the series whenever he actually manages to get a deduction right.
- More than usually justified when applied to the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing of the Fantastic Four, who is often portrayed as a dumbass despite the fact that he is a college graduate and a former military test pilot. (You don't want your geniuses flying experimental aircraft if you can avoid it, but neither do you want dumb grunts to destroy them!) Additional frequent justification: you can't spend all your time around Reed Richards and not pick up at least a few bits and pieces.
- It's occasionally been said that the difference between a good FF writer and a bad one is that the former realizes Ben is the smart one.
- Ben Grimm is at least smart enough that he can sometimes work as a mild example of a Genius Bruiser. A better example would be Johnny Storm, who's even MORE of a dumbass and has no higher learning backstory (he got his powers in high school). Yet on one occasion he was able to sum up a chain reaction streaming from unlocking unstable molecules and think of a way to contain the problem. Again, sharing living space with the smartest man in the world helps.
- Used and lampshaded in Lisa Is Pregnant when, having "noticed for once" that something isn't right, Homer asks why Lisa was in the mountains, where Bart froze to death keeping her warm. She doesn't remember, though.
- In Evolution, the scientist heroes figure out that the life forms are weak to Selenium, but can't think of a ready source they can use. Then Deke and Danny, the resident meatheads, pipe up that
the anti-dandruff shampoo they useHead & Shoulders contains Selenium Sulfide, going on to point out their shiny, flake-free hair. It's just that kind of movie.
- At least the writers had the decency to Lampshade it. "How can you know that? You two don't know anything!"
- To which the idiots reply that they read it off the bottles. "It's right on the ingredients list..."
- At least the writers had the decency to Lampshade it. "How can you know that? You two don't know anything!"
- In Deep Rising, a Jerkass who works for the cruise line spontaneously rattles off a theory as to the man-eating worms' origins, and displays such expertise that you'd think designing computer networks for ships requires an advanced degree in marine invertebrate paleontology. He turns out to be totally wrong. The "creatures" aren't worms. In fact, they aren't even individual creatures. They're the tentacles belonging to a monstrous octopus-like creature.
- Mal in Serenity, after he exhibits a working knowledge of Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Mal: Yes, I've read a poem. Try not to faint.
- Another example: The Operative went by the popular misconception that the albatross was sign of bad luck. (For background, in the poem the misfortunes of the eponymous Mariner comes about because he killed the albatross; it is literally a weight around his neck because his fellow shipmates tie it there as punishment for killing a bird which was both a good omen and which could have led them to shore)
- Ragetti, the skinny one-eyed pirate from the comic duo in Pirates of the Caribbean displayed some quite commendable knowledge of mythology and philosophy in the sequels, though they were out of place most of the times.
- In the third Artemis Fowl book, two of Spiro's nigh-brainless henchmen "cleverly" come up with the idea to use the stolen Cube computer to take down a rival of Spiro's company. Spiro finds this sudden brain activity a bit suspicious, but he can't deny it's a good idea. Of course, the henchmen were hypnotized into suggesting this, because it's exactly what Artemis wanted Spiro to do.
- Unseen Academicals has the loveably Book Dumb Trev Likely informing the Only Sane Woman Glenda on the difference between talons and pounces. And, after a brief moment of awkwardness, attempt to justify his knowing this with "you pick stuff up, ok?"
- In the Doctor Who serial "The Moonbase," Ben Jackson suddenly has considerable knowledge of chemistry, physics, and medicine that he never displays again.
- Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (of Newhart) frequently catch this.
- Sheriff Carter of Eureka often solves the problem of the episode despite the fact that he's in a town full of geniuses and the viewers have already figured it out.
- Usually because for all their genius, the populace has little common sense. Also, often don't think about things outside of their field of expertise. Such as the poultry breeder who fed her cloned chickens a nutrient that was "organic" (and thus, in her opinion, good for you) and not consider that it degenerates your brain.
- In the final episode of Blackadder the Third, the three main characters are trying to come up with a plan to get the Prince Regent out of a duel he's sure to lose, when the plan comes up of Blackadder and the Prince switching places so that Blackadder can fight instead. When the Prince notes that it will never work, because "my portrait hangs on every wall", Baldrick - who thought to solve the problem of his mother's low roof by cutting off her head - offers up this gem:
Baldrick: Well, my cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody, says that all portraits look the same nowadays since they're painted to a romantic ideal rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.
Blackadder: Well, your cousin Bert obviously has a larger vocabulary than you, Baldrick.
"That's assuming time is linear."
- Suzanne and Charlene would occasionally make remarkably insightful comments or unexpectedly understand some abstruse comment on Designing Women.
- An episode of Stargate SG-1 has the team going to a planet where an eclipse is going to darken the sky enough to allow observation of a black hole using an observatory they set up there. After the smart people in the room talk about how cool the spinning mass of...mass getting sucked into the black hole will look, Jack O'Neill correctly identifies it as the accretion disc. Carter and Jackson look at him funny, and his response is that the telescope on his roof isn't just for spying on his neighbors. Of course, many characters state that O'Neill is a hell of a lot smarter than he lets on, but he still tries to explain all advanced technology as magnets.
- On Night Court, this happened often enough that an incidental character lampshaded it.
- In It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mac, Dee, and Dennis play hot potato with the smart ball, taking turns being the reasonable one in different episodes.
- On Friends, Joey picked up the ball to deliver a bit of obscure info about Trump Towers, prompting Chandler's reaction: "What kind of stuff do you know?"
- In another episode he takes forever to finish reading a very short poem, but instantly grasps what its symbolism is about.
- In yet another episode, Joey (who is working as a waiter at Central Perk) brings the group their check and mentally calculates what each person owes, very swiftly and accurately. Chandler remarks, "This, from the man who couldn't divide our $80 phone bill in half."
- All of the officers on Reno 911 are poorly educated morons who get humiliated and defeated by random criminals. But the episodes tend to be...episodic, with the officers taking care of various criminal complaints. In most of these complaints, one of the otherwise moronic cops displays impressive intelligence and insight when dealing with the criminals.
- Boy Meets World has Eric Matthews. Given his Flanderization into an idiot in later seasons, seems to pick up the ball to revert to his earlier characterization in "Brotherly Shove." Lampshaded by his friends by noting that he seemed to be "well-rested."
- Days of Our Lives fandom refers to the local Smart Ball as the Salem Brain. Considering many Days fans love snarking at plot holes, this evidently doesn't show up nearly as much as it needs to.
- In Bionicle Legacy of Evil, Reidak figures what the whole Plan is, given only the beginning. While the Plan wasn't that awesome, it's frightening because Reidak usually needs simple plans to be explained four times. So the other speculate Reidak may have forgotten to act as an idiot, and rest of time he acts stupidly because he want to be underestimated.
- Emiya Shirou of Fate/stay night is not the sharpest knife in the drawer for the Fate route and most of the Unlimited Blade Works route. Then he has an Eureka Moment, figures out how to turn into a Reality Warper entirely by watching Archer, and never drops the Smart Ball again. It's almost a little jarring seeing how quick on the uptake he is in Heaven's Feel.
- The Judge is given the Smart Ball in case 3-5 of Phoenix Wright. It's even lampshaded:
The Judge: But no one could have predicted lightning hitting the bridge
Phoenix: Did the Judge take smart pills over the recess?!
- For the first two Mass Effect games, Conrad Verner has bees seen as little more than an annoyance. Then come Mass Effect 3 it turns out he is actually Dr. Conrad Verner and did a dissertation on dark matter energy, which helps with the construction of the Crucible.
- Fighter of Eight Bit Theater often catches the Smart Ball when Black Mage says something stupid (or isn't around to lampshade whatever stupidity has happened today), or whenever it would be funny.
- Double subverted here.
- A common answer to a question about out-of-character moments on the forums (started by the author and continued by his fans) is that all characters are as smart as they need to be for a joke.
- Thog, the Dumb Muscle Psychopathic Manchild from Order of the Stick has been indicated by Word of God to have his intelligence and maliciousness vary depending on whatever would be funniest. This strip is a quite good example of this, showing Thog using some sophisticated language and big words while still talking in his Hulk Speak style. Appropriately enough, the hero Roy who is Thog's Good Counterpart is kind of grasping the Idiot Ball in the strip.
- Lampshaded by the eponymous character of It's Walky here.
- Caboose from Red vs. Blue occasionally has a good idea. There's also Donut, who, at one point, was able to correctly figure out the ridiculous string of events that led to the Red Team's jeep trying to kill Sarge. Of course, the rest of the team decided that this was a stupid theory. And there was the time Tucker managed to outwit Wyoming, a trained assassin. Half the cast is made up of idiots, so this is bound to happen a lot.
- Brittney in Daria is usually such a big airhead that she could double as a zeppelin. However in the episode the class plays in two teams with paintball, she turns out to be a superb warrior with impressive tactical skills, almost singlehandedly assuring her team victory. This little hidden depth of hers is never referenced again.
- To be fair we never really see Brittney in another situation that would call for tactics. For all we know she's giving the football team advice during games.
- Happened in Futurama when during a Fantastic Voyage in Fry's body, Dr. Zoidberg amazed his colleagues by demonstrating a knowledge of human anatomy to help them survive a sneeze... knowledge gained by watching a TV commercial about a nose decongestant.
- He also astoundingly knew what a pentimento was. When the others are shocked, he explains that his doctorate is actually in art history.
- There's an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is suddenly knowledgeable about the laws of physics for the sake of a joke. His line after Lisa builds a perpetual motion device (that actually keeps going faster and faster)?
Homer: In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!
- Homer has had several humorously out of character Smart Ball moments, that showcase his stupidity at the same time. In one episode he knew who former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren was, but somehow thought he was also a stripper.
- His most common and impressive form of brilliance is when he infrequently appears to be an Omniglot. Homer has spoken Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and even Penguin, amongst others. He has passed this trait onto Bart who has picked up French, Spanish and Japanese himself in different episodes.
- In an alternate reality in which Marge marries Artie Ziff (which of course Patty and Selma would find more preferable), Homer gets the idea of using the time machine that Bart had used previously to summon multiple Homers from throughout history to fight against Artie Ziff so he can win Marge over. After he is defeated, he decides that he’ll simply come back with more Homers...but Marge decides she wants to marry all the Homers.
- He also once corrected Apu on the nature of karma, using somewhat more complex words than usual in this scene.
Homer: You're selling what now?
Apu: I'm selling only the concept of karmic realignment.
Homer: You can't sell that! Karma can only be portioned out by the cosmos! (slams the door in Apu's face)
Apu: ...he's got me there.
- At the beginning of another episode, he predicts that a meteor heading for Springfield will probably shrink to the size of a small chihuahua. At the end of the episode, it gets lampshaded. "Dad was right!" "I know, kids. I'm scared, too."
- For added hilarity, the meteor even lands right next to a chihuahua for comparison.
- Chief Wiggum has had moments of this as well. For example, when Bart decided to host a fake wedding (which resulted in several people nearly suffocating in a tent) in order to make off with the gifts that they gave him, he quickly finds Bart and arrests him before taking him to jail.
- He also managed to catch Mr. Burns
- Bouncing Boy from the Legion of Super-Heroes cartoon suddenly reveals a master strategy to save an entire planet from storms ala The Chessmaster. Second Season, never mentioned again. Similarly, Shrinking Violet reveals a knowledge of advanced technology just in time for fixing LL's arm. Also never mentioned again.
- Similarly, Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants.
- Storm Hawks usually gives Piper or Stork the Smart Ball in regards to finding the solution to a given episode's technobable or wilderness survival, respectively. In Piper's case, she's the resident specialist (as the opening credits helpfully remind us) and Stork is so paranoid he's usually Crazy Prepared with contingencies for most disasters.
- Waffle from Catscratch has about as much common sense as your average brick, but throughout the course of the show, he constantly defines words such as "imprinting", "fulcrum", and "caldera" the other characters, to the point of stopping the action dead just to launch into a spelling bee-esque delivery.
- Winx Club: Stella and Layla's ability to enter Realix and stop Darkar in the season 2 finale hinges on solving a puzzle of color cards. Stella solves it, and it's justified differently depending on which version you're watching:
- Original: With no clue at all what the puzzle is supposed to be, she notices that the colors on the cards clash, and she moves them around a bit... and somehow solves the puzzle, at which point it's revealed to be a color spectrum analysis problem that no one's ever solved that fast. Her reaction: "See? Fashion sense is a vital skill after all."
- 4Kids: This version borders on Ass Pull, as she sees the puzzle and says, "Remember that field trip [to a history museum] we took for magic history class?... Rememeber that civilization that spoke with colors?... They used hue and pattern to communicate, something I'm quite fluent in." She solves the puzzle, prompting one of the non-main pixies to comment, "She's so knowledgeable about magic history. I'm impressed." Having Stella be fluent in hue and pattern allowing her to solve the puzzle is understandable, but for it to hinge on a previously unmentioned, much less seen, field trip (not to mention Stella suddenly demonstrating knowledge of magic history)? Not so much.
- Video (and presenting a dissenting opinion on the dub being an Ass Pull)
- Done for laughs in the Powerpuff Girls when Him tells the girls has the the Professor in "the place where it's boiling and freezing at the same time". The girls rack their brains trying to figure it out only for the Mayor to appear out of nowhere and claim that converting the boiling and freezing points of water into geographical coordinates points to a Townsville street. "Or maybe there's an ice cream truck on fire".
- Happens fairly often in The Venture Brothers, due to many characters being a Genius Ditz to some degree. Hank is one of the more consistently stupid characters, but occasionally pulls out a bit of obscure knowledge that the adults can't even fathom where he would have picked it up. Dermott also surprisingly once gave some very competent advice on relationships to the brothers, prompting amazement from them, as he usually doesn't know anything.
- In Justice League, the Flash is typically portrayed as just a goofball Plucky Comic Relief, but he has instances of outwitting other villains, one of whom was an alternate version of Batman. Granted, the regular Batman admits that he could not predict the Flash either. He has another instance later in the same episode where he tries to convince the alternate Knight Templar Superman that killing him is something he would never do because how the death of his Flash hurt him. That, unfortunately, merely prompts the other Superman to reply "I've done a lot of things that I thought I'd never do these past two years. One more won't hurt."
- Justified in that in his "day job," the DCAU Wally West is a forensic scientist for the police. He just loves cartoons and immature jokes.
- In Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, in "High Heeled Ed", towards the end of the episode, Ed makes a comment along the lines of "Spending an extended period of time in the presence of females can be mentally disorienting and physically confusing." After Double-D and Eddy stop for a second to register this, Ed then proceeds to shout "HUG ME!" for no particular reason. In short, he grabbed the Smart Ball and held it for all of 2 seconds before smashing it on the ground.
- Edd guessed that it may have been because he was pantless at the time.
- In another episode, Ed pulled of a subversion of this of sorts. He figured out Eddy's brother's complicated treasure map like it was nothing (the map was supposed to be superimposed over Eddy's face at a certain angle). When Edd was baffled and asked him how he did it, (essentially) said it was because he and Eddy's brother were both brothers.
- Inspector Gadget has rightly earned his reputation as an imbecile many times over, but even he was perfectly capable of holding the Smart Ball if the plot required it. And not just in the "MAD Trap" episode, either-there are multiple instances throughout the show where Gadget saves himself and/or Penny and Brain quite deliberately...and that's not counting the times when his bumbling make him a Spanner in the Works and enable Penny and Brain to save the day.