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Idiot Savant
...what's dis ting do 'gain?

Under virtually all circumstances, they seem to be so stupid and socially awkward that they likely have a mental disorder. But put them in the right kind of situation, and they'll demonstrate outstanding brilliance.

Mathematics (or a certain area of it) is a common area for Savant skills to show up. A few such people in real life are amazingly gifted at calendar-based calculations. Give them a specific date and they can tell you in seconds what day of the week it was or will be. Intuitive mathematical calculations, such as multiplication of large numbers or the identification of primes, also occur. Non-mathematical abilities include precocious musical ability, including perfect pitch and intuitive ability to play an instrument; unusual artistic ability, especially the ability to draw anything after having seen it once; prodigious feats of memory, such as memorizing entire books or a million digits of pi; or even the ability to learn a new language in a week.

When Hollywood uses Savant characters, the most frequent talent the character will have will be something to do with mathematics.

The term "Idiot Savant" is actually outdated, since the term "idiot" itself is no longer a medical term. The term "savant syndrome" is more correct. It refers to someone—usually someone with a developmental disorder, often autism—who has one or sometimes more extremely high abilities that are disproportionate to his normal level of functioning. The other wiki has more information.

See also The Rainman, a subtrope of Idiot Savant in which the mental disorder is autism or something similar. See also Genius Ditz when the person has stupidity outside his field of expertise rather than a mental disorder. All three tropes can be confused with Seemingly Profound Fool. Compare/contrast Bunny-Ears Lawyer, who is functioning properly despite a few quirks.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime & Manga 
  • Komugi of Hunter Hunter can really not do anything at all, due in part to her blindless, general Self-Deprecation and the belief hammered into her by her parents that if she ever lost a game of Gungi ever, she is nothing more than trash... but she is quite literally undefeatable at Gungi to make up for this, being able to lead and control a game of it hundreds of moves ahead of her opponents and always increasing her skill with every match, making anyone she fights completely unable to catch up to her no matter how hard they try.
  • Son Goku of Dragon Ball may very well be a Trope Codifier. He probably wouldn't known how to even tie his shoelaces, but put him in a fight and he's an absolute genius. It's not just that he's stronger than everyone else, although he is - he's an absolutely brilliant tactician, expertly outmaneuvering any of them, even those who otherwise can run intellectual circles around him.
    • Goku is not so much as dumb, but is really naive, take people at their word too easily, and can be dense, although he does get a little better as an adult. He can functional quite well outside of fighting and can even give his friends sagely advise. Goku just rarely use his talents outside of anything but fighting.
    • Goku is also Raised by Wolves, having no contact with the outside world until he was twelve, so he lacks a lot of very basic education and maintains a slightly childish view of the world even as an adult.
  • Luffy and Zoro in One Piece are this, being generally clueless about things around them and need Nami or somebody to explain things to them. This doesn't stop them from being complete badasses who can kick major ass on several levels and quite insightful and creative when it comes to fighting.
    • The mere fact that Luffy came up with the concept of Gear Second (increasing his bloodflow to provide nutrients faster) by himself despite being generally dumb says something.
      • Luffy and Zoro aren't dumb so much as really, really dense. Even outside of fighting they have their moments of being really smart (such as Zoro coming up with a plan to avoid being fooled by Mr. 2's ability). And while Zoro doesn't have the common sense to realize that doing things such as going for a swim in a Winter Island while naked is a bad idea, he can be surprisingly wise at times, on subjects such as taking responsibility for your decisions and the importance of respect between leaders and their followers.
  • Some would say that Genma Saotome, of Ranma 1/2, is one of these. For most of the series, he's basically a lazy coward who refuses to handle his own fights or take any responsibilities for his actions, and whose shown/mentioned training regimes tend to be ridiculous at best and outright dangerous at worst. The casual person would thus be inclined to believe that Ranma got as good as he did despite Genma, not because of Genma. And then, every so often, he pulls off a feat of actual skill or a moment of genuine insight and brilliance that amazes everyone, in the series and out.
    • Ranma is a smaller example. He's pretty Book Dumb, and isn't the sharpest tack in the box outside of school either. However, he is capable of learning new martial arts at incredible speeds, and formulates very clever plans to defeat his enemies. While Ranma is very strong, he outsmarts his enemies just as often, if not more often, than he overpowers them. But his genius is only limited to things that count as martial arts. However, in the Ranma universe, this is actually not much of a restriction.
  • Xu Chu can predict the weather based on the moon's phases. Xu Chu doesn't know that there's only one moon.
  • Naruto. In the academy, he was a dead last, in terms of romance and social graces, he is a disaster, and when it comes to understanding explanations, he just plain sucks, (though how much is because of him and how much is because of a lack of a proper upbringing can be argued.) However, if you show him how to do something, not only will he learn it terrifyingly quickly, he will also improvise and improve said something into heights never thought of before. In battle, very few people have better intuition than him save for those who are not only more experienced but prodigies on their own right. In short, when it comes to survival, strife and war, he is a terrifying prodigy, but for anything else, he is a bird-brained moron.
    • Though for some things, it's less 'he's an idiot' and more 'he didn't have parents or parental substitutes who were really there.'
  • Stella Loussier of Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny is a Broken Bird with mental damage and emotional stunting so severe that she arguably counts as mentally handicapped. Put her behind the controls of a Gundam though, and slaughter ensues.
  • Cowboy Bebop: Ed has distinctly odd behaviors and mannerisms and is fond of silly exclamations and childish rhymes. It is understood this is part and parcel of her transcendent computer hacking skills.
  • L from Death Note has several quirks that may place him somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but also happens to be the greatest detective in the world.
    • As well as the second and third.
  • The title character of Saijou no Meii has some Idiot Savant traits. Though he's a surgical genius with extreme spatial-awareness that allows him to perform incredible medical feats, he's also very childish, obsessed with a Captain Ersatz of Kamen Rider & yammers on about it to anybody who'll listen. The plot of one chapter revolves around him being incapable of recognizing a fellow doctor when she's in civilian clothes.
  • Mashiro Shiina in Sakura-sou no Pet na Kanojo is an internationally famous painter by high school age, but she clearly has zero skills in anything else—she doesn't know how to put on her shoes, or she have to pay for items in a store, etc, etc, together with a long list of oddities (like No Social Skills or having a flat affect) that the speculation of her being autistic has became a Word of Dante.
  • K-On! has a musical version: Yui is usually air-headed, but can perfectly pitch a guitar just based on its sound. Though being a Genius Ditz, she knows neither what perfect pitch actually is nor what a tuner is for (achieving exactly that, perfect pitch).

     Comics 
  • Marv from Sin City. Even he doesn't consider himself very smart but he is capable of solving mysteries and forming battle plans to take down skilled opponents.

    Films — Animated 
  • Punch Clock Villain Kronk in the film The Emperor's New Groove isn't literally autistic, but he displays a continuous mix of near-childlike naivety and razor-sharp competence. Not only that, he's an avid bird watcher, seems to be able to name multiple breeds off the top of his head and can talk squirrel fluently. He's also a pretty good cook.
  • Treasure Planet's B.E.N.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Rainman: Raymond suffers from extreme autism and is usually restricted to a home. However, he has savant abilities with numbers, allowing him to count with lightning speed, do complex calculations in his head, and count cards.
  • The main character of Forrest Gump, particularly with things that require speed (running, loading weapons, ping-pong, etc.) This was actually toned down from the book.
  • The Cube film series:
    • The first Cube has Kazan, a severely mentally handicapped man who, to the rest of the people trapped in the Cube, is a nuisance at first, constantly banging his head against the walls, making weird honking noises and babbling about gumdrops. But later on it's discovered that he could find the prime factors of huge numbers in his head, and he ends up as their savior.
    • In Cube Zero, this is creepily hinted at with Wynn as having become this at the end. He's lobotimized, thrown back in the Cube, and found by some other prisoners, mirroring Kazan's introduction. The last shot of the film settles on his tapping fingers as a computer interface is softly heard in the background...
  • White from Tekkon Kinkreet plays this trope straight. He saves Black's life, perhaps more then once, and is eerily perceptive about some of the people around him: at the same time, he can't tie his own shoes or dress himself without help.
  • Zen, star of the Thai film Chocolate is an autistic girl and martial arts savant.
  • Mercury Rising centers on an autistic child who can intuitively decipher top military ciphers, and a police officer who can convey character with a silent telegenic stare.
  • The film The Wizard features a young autistic boy who is fantastic at videogames.

     Literature 
  • Ton Ton in the novel House of the Scorpion has trouble speaking and is regarded as a dumb ox by his peers, but can work almost any machine.
  • Corporal Beak in Reapers Gale, book seven of Malazan Book of the Fallen. His incredible natural magical ability would've put him on the fast track to High Mage rank, if not for a combination of childhood traumas and a Forrest Gumpish mental state - which combine to give him almost no self-esteem or confidence.
  • One book in the Baby Sitters Club series had Kristy sitting for a girl with autism. The girl, Susan, was mostly non-verbal and was generally not able to take care of herself, but was a brilliant piano player AND could do the "identify the day of the week" calendar trick.
  • Adus of The Elenium is an evil example. A mentally handicapped, barbaric savage, Adus can barely speak, doesn't bathe, is almost illiterate, and frequently eats raw meat. He's also a combat savante, with a talent not only for physical fighting, but small unit tactics. Give him an axe and a manageable number of troops, and no one is more dangerous.

     Live Action TV 
  • In The Lost Experience, the Hanso Foundation uses autistic savants as human computers in the basement of a mental hospital.
  • "Coach" Ernie Pantusso in Cheers is a geography savant, even making up mnemonic songs about countries.
  • One episode of NUMB3RS featured a very Rain-Man-like autistic savant character, right down to being able to count spilled toothpicks quickly and accurately. He was employed by a courier company to help track packages with missing or damaged bar-codes, and when he was off work, they had to bring in at least ten people to do his job.
  • Kyle in All The Small Things displays symptoms of high-functioning autism, being unable to relate to most people, saying very little, and speaking literally when he speaks at all. However, he's a superb singer and guitarist.
  • Rom, a recurring Ferengi on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, goes beyond basic idiocy to the point of being Too Dumb to Live. Somehow he is an extremely capable engineer and at one point, even able to spout technobabble on the level of Spock and Data. His skills seems to have been honed by the Ferengi's natural skill with mathematics and the years working as Quark's personal repairman for anything and everything.
  • In That '70s Show Kelso is able to perfectly calculate how much money they'd make from a Kegger in relation to how many people showed up and paid for beer.
  • One explanation for the odd behavior of Top Gear's "tame racing driver," The Stig. Though some say he's not actually human..
  • On Boy Meets World there's a throwaway gag in one episode in which Shawn refers to himself as one after revealing he can speak French. This was during the period in the show where he got really dumb, which didn't stick as a character trait so this is never brought up again.
  • One episode of Law & Order had a suspect that could do quantum physics but couldn't remember a grocery list.
  • Brittany on Glee is a naive, child-like idiot, but she knows everything about cat diseases.
    • and is one of the best dancers on the show
    • and got early acceptance to MIT because she has "the greatest mathematical mind ever". Can't forget that.
  • Michael Scott from The Office is a combination of this and The Peter Principle. As a manager, he's incompetent at best, but the times that he's shown performing sales, he is extremely skilled at it.
  • Skull from Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers is portrayed as remarkably unintelligent. In Power Rangers Zeo, he is revealed to be an incredibly talented, classically-trained pianist.
    • As a bonus, his actor, Jason Narvy recently received his PHD in Dramatic Arts.
  • Paisley from A.N.T. Farm can't read or remember her name, but she can build a functioning helicopter complete with rope ladder out of balloons, which she can also make into a pony complete with functioning internal organs.
  • Charlie in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the resident moron of the group, but he's taught himself to play piano, saying, "Keyboards just make sense to me."
  • While not terribly bright, Coover Bennett in Justified is very skilled at creating new cultivars of marijuana, according to Hotrod.
  • Pretty much Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. Has absolutely no social skills, but is a brilliant scientist.
  • Patrick, House's patient of the week played by Dave Matthews in season 3's Half-Wit was this due to a car accident he was in as a kid. He couldn't even button his own shirt, yet he was a brilliant pianist despite never having practiced it.

     Music 
  • The Gorillaz singer 2D may well be one of these, depending on how you look at it. A long history of head injuries and painkillers have made him pretty dense, sometimes verging on Too Dumb to Live, and yet he occasionally makes some strikingly philosophical or socially perceptive comments. At the very least he's a musical prodigy, writing and performing beautiful melodies unaided. (He's supposedly responsible for the entire album, "The Fall.")
  • Kanye West. In the words of Todd in the Shadows: "The man's a genius! But seriously, he's a moron."

     Professional Wrestling 
  • WWE once featured a wrestler called Eugene who was billed as an idiot savant. He was mentally and socially way below the norm but his wrestling abilities were pretty good with him pulling off numerous classical moves from the old days of pro-wrestling.

     Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted: The Primordials are often referred to by fans and writers alike as idiot savants. This is directly enshrined in their powers; when acting within their defining themes, even the basic abilities of a Primordial are transcendentally incredible. In any area outside of their themes, they are utterly hopeless. The relevance of these matters is a bit bigger considering that they are the immense and barely comprehensible Titans who forged the world and created all mortal and godly races; since those tended to be group efforts, the Primordials were never really fully capable of grasping the consequences or possibilities of their creations. It did not work out well for them.
  • The Jokaero of Warhammer 40K are basically space Orangutans, in both appearance and intellect. Yet somehow, they are also mechanical craftsman par-excellance.

     Video Games 
  • RPG Arcanum allowed the player to take 'Idiot Savant' as a character trait. It gave a bonus to intelligence and gambling skills, but speech was limited to Hulk Speak.
  • Nikolai from Luminous Arc is more of a Genius Ditz, but it's worth noting that his character class is actually listed as "Savant".
  • Sandal, from the Dragon Age: Origins, is a savant when it comes to enchanting weapons. However, if you talk to him all he'll say is "Enchantment!" and "Enchantment?" (and once, "Hello"), probably owing to the amount of lyrium he's been exposed to. In the final dungeon at the end of the game you also encounter him alone, covered in blood, and surrounded by heaps of slain monster corpses. So he would appear to be a bit of a savant when it comes to unarmed combat as well.
    Warden: "You're surrounded by darkspawn corpses! What happened here?"
    Sandal: "Enchantment!"
    • Sandal may be the first recorded Autistic Badass.
    • The sequel indicates that it isn't unarmed combat that he can do. He froze an Ogre solid, somehow. Through "not enchantment".
    • Sandal is able to speak, as observed in the sequel. He's just shy and inarticulate. (Plus, being graced by the Warden/Champion of Kirkwall would understandably make him a wee bit nervous.)
    • The implication in the first game and then expanded upon in the second is that Sandal is in fact the first (and only) Dwarven Mage, something which is supposed to be impossible. Not only that, but he may in fact be the most brilliant and powerful Mage in the world, it's just a pity that his social skills are so poor and he's so shy that no-one other than the Warden and Hawke are actually aware of this.
      • However, there are also some implications that he may be something else - either an abomination of some sort, or possibly even one of the old gods, reincarnated or otherwise put into a dwarven body, given that he was found wandering by himself in the roads, with no apparent source. He speaks some rather cryptic but extremely coherent lines at one point in the second game, suggesting that there is something more going on with him.
  • Mass Effect 2 has a DLC side mission where Shepard takes on a rogue Virtual Intelligence that has melded to the mind of the project lead's autistic brother. Through a series of holograms projected from the brother's mind, Shepard learns that not only was he a math genius, but he could actually imitate the geth language so accurately that the deactivated geth would respond to it.
  • The Fallout 2 NPC Algernon is an idiot savant with a talent of fiddling with guns and upgrading them. The poor guy lives in New Reno, a city controlled by mobsters, and lacks the character and social acumen to hold his own there, so an unscrupulous gun shop owner hides him in his basement and makes him work for food. If the player character kills said owner, Algernon will help them with their guns for free.
  • The Touhou character Utsuho Reiuji is only recently ascended from being a mere Hell Raven, and is still a total bridbrain, needing examples of things like how long 100 meters is. On the other hand, she's too dim to realize that her extremely thorough understanding of nuclear physics should be entirely beyond her.

     Web Original 
  • Herman Beckett from Out at Home is, by most measurements, an idiot, but a major plot point is that he was apparently the greatest baseball player who ever lived.
  • Sequential Art (pictured above) features a group of ditzy squirrel girls. Just one of them can rebuild a beam weapon by the memory and from randomly picked parts... if nothing distracts her (good luck with this). When the need arises, they can unite their intelligence for frightening results.
  • Ethan in Ctrl+Alt+Del, emphasis on idiot (he think the best way to deal with paperwork is to Kill It with Fire). He claims he's intelligent for only a few seconds a day and created two intelligent robots without fully understanding how, since the only plans he could find were scribbled in sauce on a restaurant menu. When one of them needs to be fixed, he gives a very technical explanation why he can't do it. The next strip shows him wearing all his winter clothes instead of, y'know, putting them on a chair or something because he needed the storage space.

     Western Animation 
  • Ralph Wiggum of The Simpsons can ACT.
    • The male Simpsons can be classified as this at their worst. While being born smart, a gene causes that to deteoriate. However, both Homer and Bart have displayed excellent skills in multiple languages (Homer once speaking penguin)
      • To say nothing of musical talent. Bart showed great skill with the drums, and Homer has repeatedly shown himself to be capable at anything - literally anything - connected to music. Two hit bands, several successful songs both with those bands and independently - he even shows incredible skill as a music manager, for both Lurleen Lumpkin and Lisa.
  • Iqbal in Bromwell High is quite the libertine. He paints in his spare time (although has trouble selling his paintings), can memorize an encyclopedia, works a bit of amateur theater into staff meetings and assemblies, and can dance and sing.
  • It's never directly addressed, but in G.I. Joe, Metalhead, Destro's lackey, is one of the dumbest characters around, but can apparently do complex artillery calculations for his rockets in his head. He also has one of the best accuracy rates of any Joe or Cobra, mostly because he only fires at vehicles.
  • Charmcaster calls Gwen Tennyson this exact name in Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, referring to Gwen's incredible but self-taught magical powers. "I've trained in magic my whole life, and you just pick up my spell book and you're instantly out-magicking me. You're not a real sorceress, you're an idiot savant." Gwen is a more realistic version of a Teen Genius and likely knows what an idiot savant is. Charmcaster was insulting her out of envy for her natural talent (due to being part anodite, a being of pure mana, the substance of magic)
  • Despite his characteristic stupidity, Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force is surprisingly skilled at cooking Italian food, especially lasagna.
  • Lampshaded in an episode of Family Guy when the gang play laser tag and talk about how Peter is amazing at it, all while he's rolling on the ceiling and other crazy stunts.
    Joe: Alright, keep an eye out for Peter, he's oddly competitive at this stuff.
    Quagmire: Yeah, he seems to be weirdly physically fit at this place.
    Brian: Yeah, it's almost like he has unrealistic abilities when we play laser tag.
  • Fry in Futurama it turns out is a naturally-talented composer, at least for the Holophoner. In The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings, he switches his hands with the Robot Devil's and becomes an overnight musical sensation. This may be a result of his strange mind due to being his own grandfather.
  • Niblet from Pound Puppies (2010) enjoys playing with dirt clods and has an imaginary steak friend in his stomach. He is also the best on the team at masquerading as a human and has a near-genius level of emotional intelligence.


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