Sometimes a good joke has a great punchline but none of the characters are witty enough to say it, or a story can't move forward without a crucial skill or fact which none of the characters could possibly know. What's an author to do?
Toss one of 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.
Not to be confused with the video game of the same name.
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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..."
Another example: The Operative went by the popular misconception that the albatross was a 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.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: Ben is able to distinguish the satellite photo of the Silver Surfer from a meteor by noting "The trail's all wrong. This thing's giving out it's own energy." Justified in that, while Ben Grimm isn't as smart as Reed Richards or Victor Von Doom, he is an astronaut with all the education and training that would entail.
Ripcord from G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra figuring out the transmitter was still on. Of course, anyone could've realized the only person who's messed with the transmitter since its deactivation was McCullen. Ripcord just figured it out faster.
In the third Artemis Fowl book, two of Spiro's nigh-brainlesshenchmen "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?"
Blackadder the Third: In the final episode, 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.
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: The 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.
Designing Women: Suzanne and Charlene would occasionally make remarkably insightful comments or unexpectedly understand some abstruse comment.
Doctor Who: In the serial "The Moonbase," Ben Jackson suddenly has considerable knowledge of chemistry, physics, and medicine that he never displays again.
Eureka: Sheriff Carter 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.
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."
And in another one, he actually manages to correct Ross' grammar, prompting the others to give him all surprised looks.
Joey was also not only the first person to learn about Monica and Chandler's relationship, but also the only one to do so by piecing things together and figuring it out.
Newhart: Larry, Darryl, and Darryl frequently catch this.
Night Court: This happened often enough that an incidental character lampshaded it.
QI: Alan occasionally has this, usually when it makes the scene in question funnier.
"That's assuming time is linear."
Reno 911!: All of the officers 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.
In "Sex and Drugs" and "The Children's Crusade", Aaron takes up the role of Only Sane ManDeadpan Snarker after Miles decides to agree with Charlie rather than argue with her anymore. However, not only is he then the target of Charlie's Character Shilling via Nora, but he drops it after those episodes.
He kind of picks it back up again in "Kashmir". He recognizes the symptoms of oxygen deprivation and this is what makes the rebel group realize they have to leave the tunnel network, and quickly.
Stargate SG-1: One episode 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.
It's called Obfuscating Stupidity. By acting like a black ops idiot savant, he can get away with a desk full of paperwork and not being Kicked Upstairs. It eventually fails, though.
This is the guy whose brain can fit the entirety of Ancient knowledge and not immediately die. Even the Asgard say he's the next step in human evolution.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Quark's brother, Rom, is introduced as an absolute idiot who can barely follow basic orders. At one point in the first series, Odo knows Quark is lying because Quark claimed Rom fixed his bar's replicators: Odo claims Rom couldn't fix a bent straw and Quark agrees. Very early in the second series, Rom suddenly reveals to Quark he can get through a computerised security lock faster than Quark can, revealing an aptitude for mechanics. This is an example of a Smart Ball that was used for a permanent upgrade via Character Development. It turns out Rom's an idiot by Ferengi standards: he has no business sense, which is practically regarded as some kind of mental disability on Ferenginar. However, Rom has a natural gift for engineering, something that moving to the station to be with his brother allowes him to discover he has. Encouraged by the non-Ferengi around him, he's allowed to develop his talent and eventually joins the Bajoran engineering staff that work alongside the Starfleet engineers. By the end of the show, he's been playing a major role in protecting the entire Alpha Quadrant through some genius self-replicating mine inventions that stop Dominion reinforcements reaching the Alpha Quadrant.
According to the Star Trek Expanded Universe novels, after Grand Nagus Zek retires to spend more time with Quark and Rom's mother, he names Rom as his successor. You can imagine what Quark thinks of the future of the Ferengi Alliance under Rom's leadership.
In FoxTrot, Paige is usually totally clueless about anything related to math. In this strip, she gains working knowledge of algebra for the purpose of a texting gag.
In BIONICLELegacy 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.
Reidak actually is smart and cunning, but his violent and impulsive nature belies it.
In Skin Horse, noshing on brains gives zombies - even lab-created ones like Unity - a mental boost. Though it's not specified whether any brain does the trick, or if it's the specially vat-grown brains of St. Charlie that does it.
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.
The Agony Booth references this trope (though not by name) during their review of Ralph Baski's Lord of the Rings movie, when Sam (who was pretty much an annoying dumbass throughout the film) suddenly and inexplicably knows that he can find Frodo sailing down a nearby river.
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.
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.
Homer Simpson is a frequent culprit for this, as per Rule of Funny.
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.
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.
Then there was that time where Homer correctly guessed what a Think Tank was, much to the shock of his family.
Homer: Hey can't I get one right?
In "Bart Sells His Soul", Lisa quotes Pablo Neruda ("Laughter is the language of the soul."), and the usually Book Dumb Bart responds, "I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda."
Bouncing Boy from the Legion Of Superheroes 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.
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 Aisha'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.
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 Eddn 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.
On Pinky And The Brain, Brain is astonished that Pinky correctly identifies a Bunsen burner by name. Subverted when he explains that it's for burning bunsens.
How's this for weird: In a Halloween Episode of Codename Kids Next Door, Numbuh Four holds both the Idiot Balland the Smart Ballin the same episode. First, after Stickybeard steals his candy bag (which holds only one butterscotch), he breaks onto the pirate's ship, steals it back, and runs off not realizing until he gets away that he just ignored entire treasure trove of candy while looking for that one butterscotch. However, his Smart Ball moment more than makes up for this. He decoys the pirates with an bag that seems to be loaded with candy (but actually only contains rocks) and when they steal it from him, and are trying to drag the heavy bag back to their ship, he steals the whole ship.