Follow TV Tropes


Orphaned Setup

Go To
Honestly, I'm not sure I want to know how this ends...

"A naked blonde walks into a bar, with a poodle under one arm and a two-foot salami under the other. She lays the poodle on the table. Bartender says, 'I suppose you won't be needing a drink.' The naked lady says-"
John Bender, The Breakfast Club

When characters tell jokes, the whole joke is rarely told. We hear either the punchline or setup. In this case, only the setup.

Most commonly a limerick ("There once was a man from Nantucket"), a "Knock Knock" Jokenote , something involving Noodle Implements, or a combination of the above.

The Inverted Trope of Orphaned Punchline.

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.


    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • Asterix: Asterix and the Laurel Wreath has Vitalstatistix dragged to dinner with his Nouveau Riche brother-in-law Homeopatix. His wife Impedimenta mentions Vitalstatistix wanted to bring a menhir as a gift.
    Homeopatix: Come on, old chap, what do you want me to do with all your menhirs?
    Vitalstatistix (with an evil grin): You really want me to tell you?
    Impedimenta: VITALSTATISTIX!
  • Subverted at the end of one chapter of The Demon, where we hear the setup (two Halfwitted Hillbillies each buy a horse and try to find ways to tell them apart, but their manes, tails etc. were already cut), but when Etrigan asks for the punchline, it isn't shown to the reader. It is revealed at the end of a later chapter when a Fourth Wall-breaking imp asks him for it (they take the horses to a vet, who tells them the black one is slightly bigger than the white one).
  • The Mickey Mouse comic "Topolino e la dilagante scherzelletta" features a villain that creates the ultimate joke (known as the "prankjoke") that induces everyone into endless laughter, allowing him to steal everything without being interrupted. For the whole story only the setup ("A very tall guy enters a bar...") is heard: this actually was used by the magazine it was first published to launch a contest where readers could create their punchline to the joke. Surprisingly subverted sixteen years later, where the original story's author revealed the prankjoke's actual (and kinda disappointing) punchline inside another, completely unrelated story ("...with a very low ceiling and...Ouch.")

    Comic Strips 
  • 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: "An ostrich walks up to a farmhouse with a monkey under its wing..." Garfield promptly eats the bird.
    Garfield: Heard it.
  • 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!"
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Film — Animation 
  • 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 Last Unicorn, Schmendrick the Magician tells a riddle to another character to keep him distracted. The other character eventually returns, saying, "I give up. Why is a raven like a writing desk?" The punchline is never given.
  • In Wakko's Wish, Yakko is putting Dot to bed and she asks him to tell her a story. Yakko begins with the classic "There once was a man from Nantucket..." line before Dot says that's not the one she wants to hear.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • 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. That hasn't stopped some people from making up their own punchlines.
  • Cannibal! The Musical has the town's drunken sheriff say "You Know What They Say about sunrise?" After a long, pregnant pause, he simply 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.
  • 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.
  • Solaris (2002): In a flashback to happier times, Chris and Rheya are in a bookstore, and Chris does the "There was a young man from Nantucket" variety when Rheya asks him what his favorite Dylan Thomas poem is.

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: The famous "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" is never given an answer (a common answer is "Poe wrote on both of them"). Lewis Carroll eventually came up with the answer "Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!"
  • In the young adult book Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, one of Anastasia's friends complains that her older brother frequently begins to tell jokes at the dinner table, but is always hushed by her father. So she has heard many setups, but no punchlines. Some of the brother's jokes include: "A man goes to the psychiatrist, and says: 'Doctor, you have to help me, because everything I see reminds me of breasts.' " and "How do you make a hormone?" The punchline to the second one? "Refuse to pay her."
  • Blabber Mouth by Morris Gleitzman briefly mentions a joke about an octopus and a combine harvester, which is apparently only funny if you tell it in sign language.
  • Discworld
    • 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 Carpe Jugulum, there are two references to Nanny Ogg's joke about the priest, the old woman and the rhinoceros. We never hear anything more (and since Nanny didn't understand it until she was forty, it's probably just as well).
    • In Jingo, Nobby, Disguised in Drag, is telling jokes to the other women. Colon interrupts him just when he got to "Have you heard the one about the ki... the sultan who was afraid his wife... one of his wives... would be unfaithful to him while he was away? [...] Well, anyway, he went and saw the wise old blacksmith, right, and he said—" The women say that "Betti" has already told them about the "the man who went into the tavern with the very small musician" and "the man with his arms and legs in plaster" although we get a bit more detail when Nobby adds that these were difficult to translate because Klatch doesn't have pianos, or the same kind of doorbell.
  • A Running Gag in The Dwarves, a fantasy series about dwarves (by Markus Heitz) is the joke about the orc asking a dwarf for the way. It never got resolved.
  • Harry Potter:
    • 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 and/or racist. (Which makes you wonder why Vernon was actually telling it to a potential customer...) In the book, we only read Vernon saying "You ruined the punchline of my Japanese golfer joke" but in the film we also hear some of the setup.
  • I, Jedi: Wedge's joke, "So a Bothan walks into a bar with a gornt under his arm," because Luke's using the joke as a distraction to put Corran in a meditative trance for a mind probe. Lampshaded later by Corran's friend Iella, who's apparently heard several variations on that joke in New Republic Intelligence (given their penchant for espionage, NRI has more than its share of Bothans), but naturally doesn't tell us any of them.
  • 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.)

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 one episode of The Charmings, the family is hosting a Halloween party. When a giant shows up (long story), Prince Charming and Snow White go off to handle the situation, leaving Luther in charge.
    Luther: What should I do?
    Prince Charming: Tell them a ghost story.
    Luther: (to kids) OK, two ghosts walk into a bar...
  • Annie on Community took a class on joke-telling at Greendale but never learned anything past set-ups. The professor was so old...
    Jeff: Hey, uh, while I'm doing this, does anyone know any funny jokes?
    Pierce: An Irish and a Jew walk into a Chinese laundry. With a gay duck.
    TITLECARD: Three jokes later ...
    Pierce: So you're telling me they're not good at basketball?
    (crowd boos and throws paper balls at Pierce)
  • 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.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, to explain away Alyson Hannigan's maternity leave, the show has Barney tell Lily a "hilarious boy joke" that causes her to shun Barney (and the cameras) for several weeks. The setup is, "What's the difference between peanut butter and jam?" Future Ted does not reveal the punchline of this joke to his kids (or the audience) but it's a real joke with a punchline along the lines of "I can't 'peanut butter' my dick up a girl's ass."
  • 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] —Well, I didn't know that he played the violin.
  • The Late Show with David Letterman: 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.
  • 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.)
  • In M*A*S*H:
    Col. Blake: There was a young lady from Kent, who took off her...
    Hawkeye: Steady, Henry.
  • 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 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:
    Abderite: How many children do you have?
    Eunuch: None, I'm a eunuch!
    • For a punchline, Clive Anderson suggested: "How many grandchildren, then?"
  • Seinfeld:
    • "The Comeback" surrounds George's attempts to recreate the situation that led to a colleague quipping to him, "The ocean called, they're running out of shrimp" so that he can deliver the comeback he came up with after the fact ("The jerk store called, they're running out of you!") When he finally gets his opening only to for the offender to deliver another zingy comeback on the spot, he falls back on Kramer's suggested comeback—"I had sex with your wife"—only to be told that the man's wife is in a coma. The episode ends with George, on his way home, coming up with a retort that begins "The life support machine called..." and turning the car around.
    • "The Yada Yada" has two jokes that each have an orphaned setup and punchline, with the middle left to the imagination (one about a rabbi and a farmer's daughter and one about the Pope and Raquel Welch on a lifeboat).
  • 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.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Fraggle Rock: In one episode, it's Joke Day, when the Fraggles wear silly costumes and tell jokes. A Running Gag has Wembley forgetting the punchline to his joke: "Why did the radish kiss the banana?" Subverted when he finally remembers at the end of the episode: "Because it had appeal! Get it? A PEEL!"

  • Cheech & Chong Not really a joke but one of the "Sister Mary Elephant" sketches has her reading some poem that goes "The sun kisses the morning sky/the birds kiss the butterflies/the dew kisses the morning grass/The (whole class is talking and not paying attention so she says "Class? Class! SHUT UP") she doesn't finish the poem, but it's pretty obvious the missing fourth line ended with something about kissing someone's ass.
  • 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 
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • Dwarf Fortress: If you have your adventurer tell a joke to an NPC, the game randomly provides either an incomplete setup or an incomplete punchline. The subject of the joke is always randomly selected.
    So, the fluffy wambler and the giant hippo...
  • MechWarrior 4 has a mission where, if you take a certain lancemate, he starts telling you a joke until cut off by another person reminding him radio silence is required for this part of the mission. After the need passes, the guy decides not to finish it. The part he does manage to say sounds like a variation of the classic "a man enters a bar with weird companions he got due to receiving Three Wishes from a Literal Genie".
  • 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)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".
  • 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.

  • Layer 955 of Awful Hospital leads with Dr. Balmer telling a joke to Staphelia. He gets as far as "So I said to the imbecile, 'We don't even serve sausage so do take your hands off my'-" before being interrupted by Neckslob freaking out due to Fern having had her core transferred into it.

    Web Original 
  • 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.
  • Joueur du Grenier:
    • A common joke is for an Unfortunate Implications situation where the obvious punchline involves racism or prejudice where Fred is interrupted by a big [JOKE ABORTED] klaxon.
    • A JDG doll (supposedly the reason the show even exists) is shown to not do much except speak random messages like "look both ways before crossing the street!". Then as Fred wonders why it never sold, it starts saying "So a black guy, an Arab and a communist-" and Fred hurriedly throws the doll away.
  • 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?
    • And
      What has three legs, a tail and drinks martinis from a mug?
    • Sadly, we may never know.

    Western Animation 
  • 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..."note  before the bears jump on stage and maul him.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • The Simpsons uses this trope a lot. Examples:
    • In "Black Widower", 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 12-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 "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)", 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.
    • In "Milhouse of Sand and Fog", Homer gets Krusty to perform at his pox party, but only pays for 20 seconds. Krusty begins telling a joke ("Moishe caught the chicken pox, he scratched all night and day! He asked the rabbi what to do, and he said—") before a timer goes off and he leaves.
    • In the "Treehouse Of Horror XVI" segment "Survival Of The Fattest", Mr. Burns is hunting some of Springfield's men. As Burns shoots Krusty, Krusty tries to tell a joke, saying "Dying is like golf, except in golf—", when he's shot some more.
  • Spongebob Squarepants uses this to to begin his famous opera opener, "There once was a man from Nantucket..." Cue the crowd gasping before he can say a bad word.
  • One of the reasons the Japanese DVD releases of Transformers: Animated are a case of Bad Export for You is because it completely omits the live action Otoboto Family segments that play at the beginning and end of every episode. Since the characters in the show occasionally set up a joke and the punchline is delivered in the ending Otoboto Family sequence, this trope occurs as that segment is no longer present in the DVD releases. Conversely, because sometimes a joke is set up in the beginning Otoboto Family segment and the punchline delivered during the actual episode, Orphaned Punchline also occurs. It doesn't help that the Otoboto Family segments are just not very funny.