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Idiot Ball

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Obi-Wan: [trapped in ray shields] Wait a minute. How did this happen? We're smarter than this.
Anakin: Apparently not.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

A moment when a normally competent character suddenly becomes incompetent — knowingly or otherwise — which fuels an episode, a plot line, or any number of smaller threads.

Coined by Hank Azaria on Herman's Head: Azaria would ask the writing staff, "Who's carrying the idiot ball this week?" This is generally not a compliment. Frequently, the person carrying the idiot ball is acting Out of Character, misunderstanding something that could be cleared up by asking a single reasonable question, or not performing a simple action that would solve everything. It's almost as if the character holding the ball is being willfully stupid or obtuse (or impulsive) far beyond what has been established as "natural" for them. Frequently, it's only because the story (and by extension, the writers) need them to act this way, or else the chosen plot/conflict for the episode won't happen.

Unsurprisingly, this provokes a "What an Idiot!" response from the audience. However, sometimes, the purpose is to help the audience. Sometimes, the holder of the idiot ball asks the dumb question to allow a certain amount of exposition to occur, that wouldn't naturally be talked about, but needs to be stated for the audience.

On the other hand, Tropes Are Tools — making stupid mistakes can be the hallmark of Character Development if the person recognizes it in the end. Seeing someone discarding the idiot ball can be a rewarding moment when they are Taught by Experience. Likewise, Idiot Balls can also deflect a boring Invincible Hero, which is positive for an audience reaction. There is nothing like a "Why on earth did he do that?" to get the fans talking about the show after it's over. In any relatively Idealistic setting, the villains will typically always firmly hold onto the Idiot Ball; instead of just shooting the heroes, expect to see plenty of Evil Gloating because... well, the show would be over otherwise. It's also worth noting that an idiot ball can be in the hands of someone whose personality would likely leave them holding it (the hotheaded type shooting their mouth off at a crucial moment when silence and discretion were necessary, for example).

This trope can be seen as Truth in Television, as everyone makes stupid mistakes every once in a while, frequently without meaning to and/or knowing it.

Temporary (or permanent) Genre Blindness is often a cause of this trope. When multiple characters in the story have to grab the Idiot Ball to keep the plot going, you have an Idiot Plot.

Compare with Ping Pong Naïveté where a character goes back and forth between grabbing and not grabbing a particular Idiot Ball, Forgot About His Powers where a character advances the plot by not doing something expected rather than doing something unexpected, Lethally Stupid if a character remains alive but their actions are disastrous and put others at risk, or Too Dumb to Live where an Idiot Ball kills them (or at least almost kills them).

See also Hanlon's Razor. For the opposite, see Smart Ball. Peruse the Ball Index for similar forms of Out Of Character Moments.

Note that this trope only applies if the person is acting incompetent beyond what we have normally seen of them. If they are continuously that dumb, they're more likely The Ditz or The Fool. Similarly, generally doesn't count if the holder is Driven to Madness or under a Heroic BSoD. Fear-Induced Idiocy and Love Makes You Dumb are subtropes.

Now if you excuse me, I'll be spending my vacation in Chernobyl while all of you tropers look at the many examples of this trope.

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A Wooden Gun

Mr. Fantastic, after tricking Magneto into believing he's lost his powers, tells nearby police officers to arrest the supervillain. The officers then put a dumbfounded Magneto in metal handcuffs, take him to a metal car, to escort him to a prison, most likely made out of metal.

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