When characters tell jokes, the whole joke is rarely told. We hear either the punchline or setup. In this case, only the setup.
A subtrope of Nothing Is Funnier, as the punchline is left entirely for the listener to imagine. Compare and contrast Brick Joke, when the punchline is revealed a long time later. Often overlaps with Riddle for the Ages. See also Stealth Pun, when the missing punchline is meant to be discerned on its own if you stop and think about it. And when the lack of a payoff after a lengthy setup is the punchline, that's "Shaggy Dog" Story.
- In The Breakfast Club, Bender tells a long complicated joke to himself while crawling through an air duct, but then falls through the ceiling before he can finish. - No real-life punchline, Judd Nelson ad-libbed the setup.
- In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Matthew starts telling a joke to Elizabeth, but she cuts him off before the punchline. Director Philip Kaufman explained the joke on the commentary:
"The English Camel Corps are trapped in the Sahara Desert. They've been surrounded by Rommel for forty days and have run out of food. The Captain makes an announcement to the men: 'Men, I have some good news for you and some bad news for you. The bad news is, we have nothing left to eat but camel poop. The good news is, there's plenty of it.'"
- The Muppet Movie: Fozzie has bad luck with his act at the El Sleezo Café
Fozzie Bear: There was this sailor who was so fat...
Fat Sailor: How fat was he? (Breaks bottle and threatens Fozzie with it)
Fozzie Bear: Um, he was so fat... that everybody liked him, and there was nothing funny about him at all.
- Cannibal! The Musical has the town's drunken sheriff say "You Know What They Say about sunrise?" then pause and walks off without making his point. The actor was apparently drunk and forgot his lines, but Trey Parker thought it was funnier than the actual line.
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: The famous "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" is never given an answer.
- In Reaper Man, Ridcully, making a speech at Windle Poons's "going away party", starts out "You know, seeing old Windle sitting here tonight puts me in mind, as luck would have it, of the story of the cow with three wooden legs. It appears there was this cow, and —" at which point the Bursar stops listening because he's heard it before and the Archchancellor always gets the punchline wrong anyway. If you were wondering, the punchline is, "Well, a cow like that, you don't eat all at once!"
- In Sourcery, when Rincewind and Nijel are in the snake pit, Rincewind asks if Nijel knows how many trolls it takes to change a lamp wick? Since Nijel is more interested in escape, he never learns the answer.
- In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore starts to tell a joke about a troll, a hag, and a leprechaun who all go into a bar, but McGonagall convinces him not to finish it. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a joke about "the hag, the healer and the Mimbulus Mimbletonia" is mentioned.
- There's also Uncle Vernon's "Japanese golfer joke," which was orphaned for good reason, as the joke he's talking about is possibly one that's Not Safe for Work. (Which makes you wonder why Vernon was actually telling it to his boss...) In the book, we only read Vernon saying "You ruined my Japanese golfer joke" but in the film we also hear some of the setup.
- In Perry Rhodan this trope kinda saves the universe. (A somewhat Chaotic Good entity so wants to hear the end of the joke that it becomes a powerful ally.)
- A Running Gag in the fantasy series about dwarves (by Markus Heitz) is the joke about the orc asking a dwarf for the way. It never got resolved.
- In NewsRadio, Bill runs a knock-knock joke by Dave.
Bill: Knock-knock!Dave: Who's there?Bill: Bill.Dave: Bill who?Bill: That's all I've got so far.
- On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ted also starts working on a knock-knock joke, and runs it past Murray before he has a punchline. The payoff then leaves this trope: Ted not only comes up with a punchline—very unlikely given the setup is "Anna Maria Alberghetti"—but the punchline is actually funny. (Assuming you've heard the old pop/jazz standard it references, which the characters then sing.)
- On Alice, Mel's mother comes to visit and on multiple occasions tries to tell Alice's young son the Nantucket limerick but gets cut off by Alice after the first line.
- In "The Naked Now" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data is cut off before he can finish a limerick about a woman from Venus.
- On QI mention was made of an ancient Greek joke (#114 in the Philogelos) that was orphaned in this fashion, involving a eunuch and an Abderite, the Acceptable Target of the day:
Abderite: How many children do you have?Eunuch: None, I'm a eunuch!
- For a punchline, Clive Anderson suggested: "How many grandchildren, then?"
- Annie on Community took a class on joke-telling at Greendale but never learned anything past set-ups. The professor was so old...
- A sketch in A Bit of Fry and Laurie has Stephen Fry try to tell a joke to his girlfriend, but keeps getting interrupted before he can tell the punchline.
- In M*A*S*H:
Col. Blake: There was a young lady from Kent, who took off her...Hawkeye: Steady, Henry.
- In How I Met Your Mother, to explain away Alyson Hannigan's maternity leave, the show has Barney tell Lily a "hilarious boy joke", i.e. a dirty joke, that causes her to shun Barney for several weeks. The setup is, "What's the difference between peanut butter and jam?" It's a real joke with a punchline far too risqué for network television: "I can't peanut butter my dick up her ass."
- Are You Being Served?: Mr Spooner tries to tell a limerick that starts "There once was a girl from Prestatyn / Who said 'look here, I couldn't put that in'". He is cut off by the seniors but explains that she's packing her suitcase for the nunnery.
- David Letterman did something along these lines when he gave a list of the top ten Bill Clinton jokes. He never actually got to the punchline, he just would trail off and look at the audience, who could figure it out for themselves and were hysterical by that point.
- An early episode of Madam Secretary has Liz's theologian husband Henry repeatedly testing out a joke he was going to tell at a convention that begins, "Thomas Aquinas walks into a bar." He's interrupted the first time; the second time it cuts away to Liz busting out laughing on the other end of the phone line.
- Before his time on Monty Python, John Cleese had a special called How to Irritate People, known most famously for the airline sketch, but before that, he tells the following joke, adding in an Orphaned Punchline for good measure.
Cleese: Have you ever heard the one about the two beautiful blondes who were on their way to a nudist camp? One of the blondes suddenly noticed that— *audio cuts out for several seconds* —while I didn't know that he played the violin.
- Game of Thrones has the famous Running Gag of Tyrion trying to tell a story about what happened when he took a honeycomb and a donkey into a brothel, only to get interrupted. Fans have wracked their minds trying to finish the joke, and some have come with pretty good answers (NSFW). The final episode acts like it's going to finally reveal the punchline in Tyrion's last scene... and then abruptly cuts away mid-sentence, just as he's starting the story.
- Hägar the Horrible once had the jester start a "cute ethnic joke." First he asks whether there are any Burgundians in the audience - "no use offending any sensibilities." Hearing no answers, he starts his joke. "Everyone knows how slow Burgundians are, right? Okay, so there's a Burgundian who wants to peel a fig..." He gets a few lines into the setup, but is interrupted by an audience member: "Hey, wait a minute...I'm a Burgundian!"
- Pearls Before Swine has a Running Gag where the characters will spend the whole strip to build up to a pun, then in the last panel Rat will give a Lame Pun Reaction to author Stephen Pastis. On one occasion we got the first panel of a pun strip, then Rat went and clobbered Pastis with a baseball bat.
- In Peanuts, Snoopy as the flying ace starts to tell Marcie the story of the ten nurses, the four pilots, the case of root beer and the barbed wire, but laughs uncontrollably just after he starts the joke.
Snoopy: Well, there were these ten nurses, see HA HA HA HA HA! Hee hee hee hee hee. [Marcie dumps her root beer on him] I didn't realize that her father owned a barbed wire store.
- One strip of Garfield began with a bird telling Garfield to stop him if he'd heard the joke already, then proceed to begin his joke. Garfield promptly eats the bird.
Garfield: Heard it.
- The National Lampoon Radio Hour once did a skit about an audition for comedic "straight men", with one setup line after another being delivered in rapid-fire fashion. Finally one guy blurts out a punch line by mistake ("Okay, you're a cab"), prompting the derision of everyone else in the room.
- During the usual Take That! against pianist Colin Sell in an introduction to "One Song to the Tune of Another" on an episode of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Humph read out "Even after all these years, the sound of Colin's playing still makes me want to clap"; this alone was enough to get laughter and a round of applause from the audience, and he decided not to bother with the punchline.note
- In Quest for Glory IV, you have to distract the Big Bad by telling him "the Ultimate Joke", which is funny enough to incapacitate anyone with helpless laughter the first time they hear it. The player learns nothing except that it's "the one about the wizard and the farmer's daughter".
- Medal of Honor: Airborne has one as a Mood Whiplash in the introduction to the penultimate level.
Paratrooper: Hey, guys! I got a good one! What do you get when you cross a Nazi and a cockroach? You get-(bullet promptly punches through the plane and kills him instantly)
- Wildstar devspeaks all include a disclaimer at the beginning, which were originally serious but became more and more of a pretext for humour as time went on. One video's disclaimer is an overly elaborate story with an excessive amount of details and lore, which requires freeze-framing to read each one of the huge blobs of text. The last panel cuts just before the punchline and the actual devspeak begins.
- One of the videos on TBS' Department of Humour Analysis is about a man who wrote some of the funniest jokes ever. To safeguard them, he wrote the setups in one book, the punchlines in another. Tragically, when he disappeared in Mexico, the book containing punchlines was never found. The setups were discovered in a motel, and contains setups such as
What do you get when you cross a giraffe and a dead Socialist?
What has three legs, a tail and drinks martinis from a mug?
- Sadly, we may never know.
- An early episode of Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk has the Enchantress mention "the joke about the drunk orc" to the Dwarf, only to get interrupted. The joke appears in full in the comic book version, told by a drunk orc to another.
- Spongebob Squarepants uses this to get crap past the radar to begin his famous opera opener, "There once was a man from Nantucket..." Cue the crowd gasping before he can say a bad word.
- The Simpsons uses this trope a lot. Examples:
- While filming Selma and Sideshow Bob's wedding, Marge asks Krusty to tell a joke, and he begins, "A man walks into a bar with a small piano, and a twelve inch pianist whooaaa hooaaa I can't tell that one!" (This is a well-known joke involving a genie with poor hearing and a pun on the word pianist.)
- In "Deep Space Homer", after a newly-sober and very competent Barney proves his newfound fitness by doing several athletic feats while reciting a few lines from the Major General Song, Homer tries to prove his worth as well by doing a cartwheel and beginning "There once was a man from Nantucket" but he falls over and hits his head before he can finish.
- The syndicated version of "Day of the Jackanapes" has Marge's comment about it being "good for a show to go off the air before it becomes stale and repetitive." In the original release, this results in a haggard-looking Smithers coming in to announce that Maggie just shot Mr. Burns again, resulting in little-to-no reaction from the family. The syndicated version cuts out everything after Marge's line, resulting in it becoming this.
- In another episode, Bart starts telling Lisa about something he told Mabel when he's interrupted by Homer. As Homer leaves, Bart starts telling the story again before the scene switches.
- Rugrats has an episode where Grandpa tries to explain an event that had happened to him 15 years prior, during a bowling competition. He gets interrupted so many times that, at the end of the episode, when they're finally willing to hear his story, he no longer has the motivation to do so.
- In the Looney Tunes short "A Pest in the House", Daffy Duck bursts in on a sleeping hotel guest to tell him a joke he just heard, which takes too long because he's laughing so hard. During the set-up, the guest goes down to the lobby to punch manager Elmer Fudd in the face (a Running Gag throughout the cartoon), then comes back to the room just as Daffy is getting to the punch line... which he's forgotten.
- In Finding Nemo, Marlin, because he's a clownfish, is often being asked to tell a joke. He tries, but he keeps getting the set-up wrong and has to backtrack, never getting to the punchline. In the end he finally gets the joke right, but that time we only hear the punchline ("With fronds like these, who needs anemones?")
- In the Phineas and Ferb episode "One Good Scare Ought to Do It!" Candace is practicing talking on the phone before she can call Jeremy for real and tries telling a joke to break the ice ("What do you get when you cross a yak with a Martian?"), but Linda interrupts her before she can finish.
- In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy movie, Irwin is forced to live out his worst nightmare: having to perform stand-up in a room full of bears. He starts with, "So a bear and a rabbit are pooping in the woods..." before the bears jump on stage and maul him.