Analysis / Stealth Pun

The flexibilty of Stealth Pun and the varying levels of stealth

First, let us be clear on the trope we are talking about. A Stealth Pun is a joke punch line that has a set up, of varying levels of subtlety, without the final delivery so the audience must themselves piece together what the joke is in their own heads. It is crucial to note that the pun is never stated.

That varying level of subtlety can range from telling a well known or obvious joke and then having the punch line cut off (for example, a cut short dirty limerick) to having several events or facts revealed over a broad range of time until at the end, you have a situation which could, by an alternative choice of words to anything used in the text, be uttered as a pun (see Terry Pratchett's use of Yellow Sick Toad). Which end of the range the writer goes for is usually affected by the purpose of the Stealth Pun.

Take our dirty limerick for instance. It's Getting Crap Past the Radar, may work as a Parental Bonus, in which case you only really need it to be just below the surface. You can also use it in concert with an Incredibly Lame Pun, let's say the pun is very obvious but you cut it short with some obstrusive noise or the pre-emptive groans of another character. This works as the labelling of the joke as an Incredibly Lame Pun, it signals to the audience that they should be groaning (with a slight sense of guilt), in the same way that a Laugh Track is meant to induce audience laughter. Note, these simpler uses are helping to set up the concepts right at that moment and make an instant reaction.

As you make the joke more hidden, you can change the view of it; an Incredibly Lame Pun can become less lame. If you hide it more, you force the audience to start putting their mental power into figuring it out. This little mental work out has its own entertaining side, when you finally get it, there's a sense of revelation — the Late to the Punchline moment — and the work that the writer put into it gets more focus than how lame the actual joke was. Remember, there was a reason people kept confusing "Incredibly Lazy Pun" with Incredibly Lame Pun, they connect the lameness to going for the easy shot, the lazy punch line. If it's not that easy to get to straight away, it's not lazy, so it's not lame. The aforementioned Yellow Sick Toad joke was in fact used both explicitly and stealthily, which took things a step further because it became a reference to a previous use of a groaner, so once you figure it out and you realise that it is the hiding of a really lame pun and things come full circle.

The more complicated treatment is not just lovely for averting Viewers Are Morons, but also gives significant Replay Value. When you first read something, you'll be trying to move along the plot, figure out what's happening, and imagine an abundance of descriptive details. The small dropped-in details that contribute to the joke can be looked over until the second viewing where you are now trying to look for the small details to fill in your broad memories, revelling in the writing more and perhaps picking out points for analysis.

So when using a Stealth Pun, you have the flexibility of time scale and subtlety. You can also introduce additional pun and stealth tropes, e.g. displaying it visually to make a Visual Pun without explicit statement of what the pun is or hiding the information in another language to make it a Bilingual Bonus. The Bilingual Bonus can also have variations in stealth. Maybe the pun comes straight out after translating; then again you could make the words that come out be synonyms for the pun. Say your favourite anime has someone shout out 'Follow Mr. Something' where something turns out to be the Japanese for Yolkish Frog, i.e. a yellow toad, and that character is ill, so we have our Follow the Yellow Sick Toad joke. However, when it gets to foreign made works, classifications can get harder. Remember our crucial point — the pun is never stated. Well, what if the character's name was literally Mr. Yellowsicktoad in the original Japanese? To us it's explicitly stated, but a Japanese viewer would have to make the pun connection in this language and then translate it back. Inversely, the character's name could be an explicit pun in Japanese for Yellow Brick Road but an English speaking viewer can't make that translation. There's an interesting case in the examples of the page:

  • In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Nanoha is pursuing Jewel Seeds, which grant wishes. One such Jewel Seed had possessed a tree that was near a couple's confession of love, and it responded by turning into a massive murdering monster, trapping them inside itself and trying to consume everything. The pun comes when you realise what the guy must have been wishing for: wood.
    • A less dirty way of interpreting this was that they pined for each other.

Here's the question to take home with you, do you think that the Japanese phrase for 'pining for each other' in any way involves trees? (it does) Do you think that matters?