Also sometimes known as "playing dumb", a tactic whose effectiveness is predicated on characters convincing others they are complete oafs and therefore harmless. Acting like an ignorant hayseed, misinformed tourist, Handsome Lech, or Funny Foreigner is popular.
A variant of this, primarily found in teen comedies, is the popular student (almost invariably a girl) who acts like The Ditz in order to avoid being stigmatized as a nerd; in such cases, the character may be willfully ignorant, but inevitably faces a situation where she needs her native wits to escape a problem.
This differs from the Genius Ditz in that the latter is brilliant in a single field (or multiple obscure fields) but genuinely ditzy otherwise. Another variant is of someone who is a genuine genius but who pretends to be The Fool in order to avoid responsibility, either because they are lazy or because of some trauma which has undermined their confidence. May appear to be The Fool until the viewer realizes he's just so good at making intentional actions seem like total coincidences that it appears to be blind luck. If done well, you may not be able to tell if the character is an Almighty Janitor, a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass, a not-so-Inept Mage, or a Bunny-Ears Lawyer. Or, for that matter, Too Dumb to Fool, especially if the character is good at noticing what is too obvious to be seen.
A favorite tactic of The Trickster. The opposite trope is Feigning Intelligence. See also the Old Master, to whom using this trope comes as natural as breathing; Covert Pervert, where the "stupidity" may be in reference to a particular subject; and Rich Idiot with No Day Job, a special case of this trope. See also Fauxreigner and Bilingual Backfire. Compare Obfuscating Insanity. Blondes may exploit the Dumb Blonde stereotype to help with the obfuscation. Another tactic characters doing this will use is pretending to be Easily Impressed to make it seem like they have no sense of judgment of quality. A Good Is Not Dumb character is often accused of using this trope.
This can backfire in a big way if the person using Obfuscating Stupidity needs people to trust him or her—only to realize that no one will believe the "idiot". Inversely, if other characters think the person is being obfuscating but he really is simple-minded, then he's a Seemingly Profound Fool. Occasional lapses might be dismissed with Too Dumb to Fool.
This may lead to someone Underestimating Badassery.
This is not to be confused with Smarter Than You Look, where that trope has no intention of appearing to be unintelligent; the character simply can't help the appearance of stupidity they have.
- Anime and Manga
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Films — Live-Action
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Web Comics
- Western Animation
- Norm MacDonald does this smiling, stuttering, dopey weirdo routine on stage and in interviews, but a brilliant quip is just around the corner. He won half a million for charity on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, too. In fact, the only reason he didn't get the million was because he was talked out of answering by a nervous Regis, concerned that Norm was only guessing (he was), but his idea was correct. After choosing to walk, he was asked for what he thought the answer would be. Solemnly, he was told that he would've been right and gotten the million.
- The late English magician/comedian Tommy Cooper was an undeniable master of using Obfuscating Stupidity in his magic acts. He intentionally botched his own tricks and acted incompetent 90% of the time until he'd pretend to foul up yet another, only to pull off the trick perfectly.
- Ray Romano suggests that guys screw up shopping as badly as possible so they're never asked to do it again. "They were out of lettuce, so I got a hammer."
- Similarly, in "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast", Bill Cosby so horrified his wife by going along with the titular request that she told him to go back to bed.
Bill: Which is where I wanted to go in the first place. So you see? We are dumb, but we are not so dumb. It takes great thinking and work to keep from working.
- Larry the Cable Guy. In-character, he's a not-too-smart Southerner. Out of character, he's Daniel Whitney, a reasonably-intelligent satirist. This trope is best exemplified in his book Git-R-Done, where he makes deliberate typos as a form of Stylistic Suck, yet launches into Shown Their Work territory whenever he rants about something that bugs him. (To name just one example, he explains Darwin's Theory correctly.)
- Calvin and Hobbes:
- Calvin is apparently a user of this trope, as he once told Susie that it's far easier to keep people's expectations low, and wow them every now and again, than to keep them high and wind up disappointing at some point.
- A cloning storyline in which Calvin (supposedly) creates a personification of his "good half" to take his classes for him proves this: if the clone is real, then it demonstrates that Calvin could do well in school if he bothered to try; if it's an extended game of make-believe then Calvin really is doing well for a change (if only for the sake of keeping the game going.) Then again, any of Calvin's musings to Hobbes on the nature of existence and reality during any given 'sledding' strip should tip even the most casual reader off that the kid's a freaking genius, it's just that school bores him senseless.
- Roger Fox of FoxTrot is usually a quite legitimate Bumbling Dad. However, from time to time he is able to use this apparent cluelessness to get what he wants. For instance, in a week-arc where his wife forces him to go to an aerobics class, he spends the entire time doing embarrassing things like doing the wrong moves and singing along to the music. She gets so mad that she tells him she's never going to take him to another class...which, as his thought bubble points out, is just what he wanted in the first place. In another strip he messes up cleaning the dishes so badly that Andy declares that she will handle all dishwashing in the future. Roger then silently muses that "sometimes having no knowledge is power". Andy then discovers that Roger messed up another chore...
- In Master and Pupil, the wizard rejects the boy as a servant because he can read. So the boy turns his jacket inside out to disguise himself and lies the next time, that he cannot read. Then he learns wizardry by reading the books. Other fairy tales with the hero in the power of the evil wizard have someone warn him to feign incompetence at a lesson even though he gets beaten. Thus, he manages to master all the spells while the wizard thinks he's stuck, and use them to escape.
- Samantha "Sam" Sparks in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was secretly a nerd in her school days but hides her brains behind the facade of the pretty, ditzy weathergirl for fear of being stigmatised. It adds another layer to the character that she is voiced by Anna Faris who is more well known for playing genuinely ditzy characters.
- Ice Age 2: The Meltdown: Sid kept going on about how Diego is afraid of water, and subtly teaching him how to swim, saying that most animals can swim when they're babies. It comes in handy when the area is flooded, and Sid's unconscious. Diego jumps into the water, swims to Sid, Crash and Eddie, and hoists them onto a rock. Sid then states that everybody can swim when they're babies... except tigers.
Sid: I left that part out.
- Big Hero 6: At the beginning of the movie, Hiro goes to a back-alley robot fighting competition with a pathetic-looking robot, and shyly asking if he can fight too. After getting beaten in a couple of hits he asks if he can bet more money for a second chance. When the second fight starts he drops the shy attitude and shows his robot's true talents by utterly destroying the rival's robot.
- Kung Fu Panda 2: Subverted in that Shen believes Po to be using this; Po is actually just being his usual Comedic Hero self.
- Iago from Aladdin pretends to be a normal parrot in front of everyone but Jafar. At least until the climax.
- Folk legends of various European peoples speak of entire towns and villages of unusually-smart folks who purposefully feign stupidity. This article on The Other Wiki sums it up pretty well.
- The story of Hamlet is based on the legend of the Danish Prince Amled, whose father was murdered by his Evil Uncle Fenge. Amled took to sitting near the fire and carving wooden hooks all day, telling everyone that he would use them to avenge his father. Fenge thought he was crazy—until the night where Amled used the hooks to pin down Fenge and his men under their sleeping blankets and burn down the palace over their heads before they could get free.
- A female version of the legend has a man kill his tribe's chief and take his place, shortly before lusting after the former chief's daughter. Said daughter knew full well who murdered her father, but pretended to not know anything. Then the murderer asked her to meet him in his tent one night, and she brought a knife with her... and cut some bread?
- According to his legend, Saint Simeon the Holy Fool. He was a simple ascetic monk whom God himself asked to act like a madman so he could save souls, and lo did he make honor to that.
- One old story tells about a guy who owned someone else a big amount of money and would be thrown into debtors' prison if he couldn't pay. However, he found an Amoral Attorney who promised him to bail him out for four gold pieces, to be paid after a successful acquitting. So the lawyer advises his client: "When in court, say nothing but 'bleh!', whatever happens!" The process starts, and the client indeed answers nothing but "Bleh!" no matter what he's asked. Finally the judge has enough:
Judge: Why does your client say nothing but "bleh!"?
Amoral Attorney: I'm sorry, Your Honor, he's an idiot, when I was talking to him, he also said nothing but that!
- So the judge comes to the conclusion that the defendant can't be condemned and lets him go. Now the Amoral Attorney demands his money. But the client, again, just says "Bleh!"
Amoral Attorney: Are you joking? You promised me four gold pieces! I want them now!
Client: [tips on the table] Bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh!
- The 16th-century Teutonic legend of the Schildbürgers says they were great sages who went far and wide to advise princes—until their wives got sick of them going far and wide and they needed to get the princes to stop seeking their advice.
- According to legend, the Roman Lucius Junius feigned stupidity (earning the name "Brutus", Latin for "dullard") to avoid being killed by the evil king Tarquin. When the time came, Brutus dropped the mask and led the overthrow of the monarchy, establishing the Roman Republic. (Centuries later, his descendant, Marcus Junius Brutus, followed his ancestor's example by participating in the assassination of Julius Caesar.)
- Socrates was so good at this, they had him killed.
- Residents of Wiltshire, England are also known as Moonrakers, based on a 200 year old story about a pair of smugglers sneaking french brandy across the county. The smugglers hid their stock in a lake and went back to retrieve it one night but were encountered by authorities. In an attempt to fool them, they played the fools themselves by taking a pair of rakes and swiping at the reflection of the moon in the water, claiming they were trying to rake in a round cheese. The authorities laughed them off as idiots and went on their way, leaving the smugglers to make a clean getaway.
- Stories about the Sufi Muslim trickster Nasreddin Hodja sometimes portray him as a clever person who pretends to be foolish to teach people lessons or get away with doing things he shouldn't (then again, others portray him as kind of a dim bulb in general).
- One joke recounts the tale of a kindly shopkeeper and a little kid named Billy (other variations have it as the village idiot and a tourist). On many an occasion, the shopkeeper would witness older boys teasing Billy by offering him a choice between a nickel and a dime, then laughing at him choosing the nickel, supposedly because the nickel was larger and Billy was too slow to realize that the dime was worth more. Eventually, the shopkeeper took pity on Billy, and took him aside for a quiet word on the matter... only for Billy to reveal that he was playing this trope all along: he knows very well how much the two coins are worth, but if he ever picks the dime, the kids will stop giving him free nickels.
- It's a common theme on the internet, often related to "And that's when the fight started." The images, playing on the stereotype that husbands play dumb to get out of helping around the house, show the results when a wife asks her husband to:
- Put some spaghetti on the stove, and she'll finish up the cooking when she gets home. The photo shows a pile of uncooked spaghetti placed directly on the stove top, sans cooking pot.
- Peel half of the potatoes and put them in water. Each potato in the pot is exactly 50% peeled.
- Label the plugs attached to the power strip. He does, but he labels them all "PLUG."
- A few Dumb Blonde jokes fall into this territory, with the apparently stupid blonde playing on the stereotype to trick people:
- A beautiful blonde ends up sitting on a plane next to an arrogant professor. He's amused by her ditzy attitude, and the two start playing a trivia game. The blonde agrees to pay a dollar for every question she gets wrong, and the professor, feeling pompous, offers to pay a hundred dollars for his incorrect answers. After missing the first question, the blonde asks something along the lines of "What goes up a hill wet, then comes down the hill dry?" The professor spends the whole ride trying to solve the riddle, but eventually gives up and hands the blonde a hundred dollar bill when the plane lands. As she stands up to leave, the professor asks "So what does go up a hill wet, then down a hill dry?" ...at which point the blonde takes out another dollar and hands it to him with a wink.
- A blonde walks into a New York City bank and asks for a small loan of $2,000 for her upcoming vacation. When asked for collateral, she offers up her brand-new late-model Ferrari, which is worth at least $100,000. The bank manager accepts the terms, and he and all of his employees laugh at how stupid the woman is for making such a deal while a valet parks the car in the bank's underground vault. A month later, the blonde returns to pick up her car and pays back the $2,000, along with the $15.71 that she owes in interest. The bank manager takes her aside and comments that he looked up the woman's records; she's actually a multimillionaire, so why on earth did she need to borrow such a paltry sum? With a smile, the blonde replies, "Well, sir, where else could I park a brand-new Ferrari in New York City for a month, know that it would be kept totally safe, and only have to pay $15.71 for it?"
- In some online material, Pawn Stars host Rick points out this is a fairly common tactic used by some people at his shop. He has a few regulars that will bring in seasonal recreational equipment (ATVs, Snowmobiles, etc) during the off season and pawn them for a small loan. They always come back right before the new season for said item with the loan and interest. Unlike the Bank, the Pawn Stars are very much aware this is going on and see it as more of one of their services they offer rather than anything sneaky on the part of the customer.
- The fact that the Amateur Transplants often affect a stage persona reminiscent of ignorant chavs just makes it all the more impressive and hilarious when they rattle off lengthy amounts of obscure medical terms in their songs.
- Shy Ronnie from the two songs by The Lonely Island featuring him. When his partner Rihanna's around, he's a wimpy-looking nerd who mumbles everything he says and is prone to pissing himself. Whenever Rihanna leaves, he turns out to be an aggressive, in his own words "twisted as shit" gun-lover.
- Van Halen was known for offering tour contracts requesting a bowl of M&M's with all brown candies removed. If they found a brown candy, they would proceed to trash the whole place. This had a stealthy purpose: failure to get the bowl of M&M's right implied not reading the contract or failure to get power and safety requirements right.
- Maria Kanellis was The Ditz as a backstage interviewer to start off, always asking the wrong questions and getting wrestlers' names wrong. Then she had to testify at Eric Bischoff's (Kayfabe) trial...
Maria: Last week Bischoff abused his power in a way that was both malicious and capricious, and it's this rash of discourse that ultimately led to a locker room of disdain and mutiny, and it should be grounds for his immediate dismissal.
- She went back to the ditzy gimmick for quite a while afterwards. In a subsequent appearance, Bischoff flat-out accused her of using Obfuscating Stupidity based on what happened at his trial, saying she pretended to be "stupid and sweet" to curry favor from the crowd.
- LayCool could count. A pair of bubbly ditzy Valley Girls who have managed to dominate the division for over a year, capturing four sets of titles for themselves. The ditziness also (somewhat) concealed their extreme cruelty, making them Faux Affably Evil Alpha Bitches as well.
- During a brief feud with Maryse, Gail Kim appeared oblivious when Maryse started talking to her in French, appearing to be trying to be friendly. Anyone who understood French knew Maryse was secretly trash-talking and Gail looked to be falling for it. Then Gail dropped the bombshell that she spoke fluent French and hadn't been fooled by the game.
- Batista played this role to some extent during the first two years or so of his career, serving as the Dumb Muscle of Evolution and remaining more or less in the background; he was the last member to receive a serious title opportunity. He even played along with Triple H and Ric Flair for a while after turning face. Both in kayfabe and out, many people probably didn't expect him to defeat Triple H for the world title, especially considering his (relatively) advanced age.
- In the Legend of the Five Rings franchise, this is the basis of the Scorpion Clan's modus operandi, as revealed to their founder Bayushi by the great sage Shinsei. Shinsei told Baysuhi a parable that Bayushi believed he already knew, about the scorpion and the frog, which normally ends with the scorpion stabbing the frog while they're crossing the river and both of them drowning because it's the scorpion's nature (this parable also appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Scorpion"). However, at the end of Shinsei's version the scorpion's answer is different: "I can swim."
- The Space Wolves in Warhammer 40,000 are not as stupid as they act, especially their Chapter Master Logan Grimnar. There is a reason he ends up running most of the wars he gets involved in, even if it's from the sidelines.
- The Wolves don't really act stupid. It's just that they're entirely Boisterous Bruisers.
- The Horus Heresy novels place the Legion in a new light. Leman Russ frequently puts on the persona of being the rough barbarian king. This isn't just a convenient affectation for political purposes; it's also a coping mechanism for the things that he has to do. In a similar way, the Space Wolves socially act like ancient Norsemen but plan their attacks with complete and total precision.
- Likewise, Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!, isn't so much "stupid" in his obfuscations, but he makes it clear in his monologue that he needs to pretend to be much more of a gung-ho Emperor-lover than he actually is if he hopes to stay alive and maintain his heroic reputation. This actually makes him something of an Unreliable Narrator; he frequently mentions doing this with his "humble hero" routine, but the entire series could easily be seen as him doing the same to the reader...
- The Wolves don't really act stupid. It's just that they're entirely Boisterous Bruisers.
- Psionics: The Next Stage in Human Evolution gives us Tony. Tony, who is legitimately a genius and a somakinetic, pretended to be less intelligent in school because being too smart was considered a negative quality where he lived. Considering that espers have a higher wits cap than humans, the player might have to do this to avoid arousing suspicion too.
- Homestar Runner: Although most of the time Homestar seems just plain dumb, in the Strong Bad Email "stupid stuff", he tricks Strong Bad into using reverse psychology in order to win a bet and make Strong Bad lose his. Then, in "Kick-A-Ball" he seems to have made an outrageous scheme to use Strong Bad's own cheating against him. When they were picking teams at Kickball he picks Pom Pom and whispers Strong Sad as well, which appears to be his wacky non sequitur. However, he then goes on to go through nine innings with himself and Pom Pom alone and is two points ahead with only one out left. He gets Strong Sad to hold out his arms and catch the last ball of the game because Strong Bad didn't know he was on Homestar's team. This only works because Strong Bad cheated a long time ago by adding "double side-mouth whisper drafts are totally legal!" to the rules. Homestar has officially stolen Strong Bad's claim to Magnificent Bastardry.note
- In Sims Big Brother 6, Alison's strategy was to appear to be incredibly stupid, so people wouldn't think she was a threat and never nominate her. She unfortunately went a tad far with it, since managed to misspell "Apple" and people begun to suspect whether or not this was an act or not. It was also surprising when she suddenly spouted a college-level description of an organelle after a montage of stupid questions. ("Controversy? What does that mean?" "Influenza? What's that?" "How do you work the elevator?")
- DSBT InsaniT: Andy acts like a complete idiot because he thinks its funny, not to catch enemies off-guard.
- Dice Funk:
Austin: I like to think we're creating a dynamic, that we suck so much of the time, when we're actually good it surprises everybody into doing what we want. They never see it coming!
- Royal Fool Marco is this for much of the first half of Fooled, especially when he wants to find out more information from his royal friends
- A favorite trick of Sarah's in lonelygirl15 and LG15: the resistance. Chapter 3 of the resistance is a good example. Furthermore, while she appears to be The Ditz a lot of the time, she's arguably the smartest member of the TAAG.
- In The Salvation War, Jesus first appears to be a shiftless stoner. Then the angels leave, and he reveals himself to be a skilled strategist as he improves on the battle plan the angels gave him.
- The Nostalgia Chick during Kickassia, where she went from sane (or as sane as she can be) and opinionated to a Sarah Palin parody who agreed with N. Bison about everything. When Part Four came around, it was found out she was just pretending to be sweet and stupid while trying to kill him off and take charge for herself.
- And then there's Kevin Baugh, who fakes being taken over by his alternate personality so he'll be allowed to keep hanging out in his conquered nation, then sets to planting doubts about the Nostalgia Critic's leadership skills. Bonus points that everyone knows he's doing this but roll with it anyway.
- Sometimes Akinator will ask a logical series of questions leading to your character, then suddenly start asking random unrelated questions, apparently having been thrown off the scent. In the end, though, he gets the character right. He figured out what your character was early on, and was just using the remaining questions (and you) to learn more about the character in question.
- The Unusual Incidents Unit from the SCP Foundation. The Foundation and other groups view them as losers who are completely out of their depth, while the rest of the FBI see them as a crap division you get sent to because the guys in charge don't want you to screw things up. In reality, they're actually pretty competent in their own right; they just don't have the proper funding to deal with the legitimately-dangerous anomalies and SCPs. They're well-aware of this and are happy to just let the Foundation take care of that stuff while playing the part of Butt-Monkey if it means their agents aren't getting slaughtered by the dozen.
- The Foundation's own Ethics Committee pretends to be a bunch of meek bureaucrats with no actual power who rubber stamp every containment procedure and research proposal that comes their way. In reality, they have full access to unredacted SCP case files so that they can make absolutely certain that containment procedures are as humane as possible and can remove Foundation personnel who are using anomalies for their own benefit (up to and including getting them executed for crimes against humanity, in rare cases), to insure that the Foundation doesn't cross the line from Pragmatic Hero to evil. The milquetoast act is so that the kind of people they're looking for will drop their guard and reveal who they really are.
- Cracked: "The 5 Craziest Ways People Have Defeated Terrifying Regimes" lists "A POW Saves Himself and Everyone Else by Playing Stupid" at #3. Douglas Hegdahl pretended to be a gleeful, sweet idiot who couldn't read or write, so his captors would underestimate him. It worked so well that they nicknamed him "The Incredibly Stupid One" and refused to torture him. Even better? He proved how smart he really was by memorizing the names, ranks, locations, and health status of every single POW in his camp. Which he then sung to US authorities in the style of "Old Macdonald" as that was how he remembered it. Because of that over 700 POWs didn't have an "accident" or "escape" as everyone knew exactly where they were.
- In October 2015, a theory on Reddit began to circulate online proposing that Jar Jar Binks, one of the most reviled characters in Star Wars history, is actually a Sith Lord and the true mastermind behind the Emperor's rise to power. The theory posits that, much like how Yoda acts like an annoying swamp creature before revealing himself as a Jedi Master in The Empire Strikes Back, Jar Jar was meant to be his Evil Counterpart, appearing to be an inept yet innocent klutz to gain the Jedi's sympathy and avoid suspicion. Further analysis suggests that his staggering movements in action mirror legitimate Drunken Boxing techniques, and that his hand-waving at all his pivotal plot moments (from his inexplicable promotions to granting Palpatine total control of the Senate) are actually Jedi Mind Trick gestures. Either all that is true, or he's just a dumb character to provide humor, take your pick.
- Whateley Universe: A tactic used by Sunburst, among others.
"you take in her looks and her Malibu beach bunny persona, and you think that she’s an airhead. She’s NOT; it’s a ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ act. Check this out: she takes in hundreds of thousands a year for endorsements, personal appearances and things like that, but she doesn’t OWN anything. She arranges it so that she lives in elegant housing, drives top-end cars, dines at the big name restaurants, and goes to all the A-list parties; but none of it costs her a CENT. She has no real secret identity, so there aren’t any handles on her. Yet, for all that, she isn’t regarded as a mooch. Everyone’s always glad to have her around.
- Silent Nacht Chapter 2: As Nacht says: