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Subverted Punchline

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"Never go for the punchline. There might be something funnier."

A gag where a character teases an obvious joke...and says something else. This might be because they're The Ditz or Giver of Lame Names, and the potential joke honestly didn't occur to them. It can also be used by a character with a bit more wit to inject some sarcasm into a simple pun or be used as part of a Last-Second Word Swap if the speaker wants to avoid a Lame Pun Reaction. The gag can be split across two characters by having one Comically Missing the Point of another's implied joke (sometimes combined with Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?). To make sure the audience expects the looming joke, it is typically more heavily telegraphed than the Stealth Pun, with emphasis placed the relevant words to make sure that the audience gets it.

Compare Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion (which does something similar with obvious rhymes), Subverted Catchphrase (which relies on an established phrase) and Stealth Pun, (which is left unspoken so the audience can figure it out themselves rather than be subverted). Contrast Obligatory Joke (which usually involves making a pun because the opportunity is just too good to pass up). Subtrope of Bait-and-Switch and Anti-Humor (which is when you set up a punchline or a gag... and there just isn't one, or there's something serious or boring in its place).

Compare Orphaned Punchline, which is for when we don't get the setup.


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  • One of the Friskies "Dear Kitten" commercials features a cat looking in a mirror saying there should be a word for a cat that copies everything you do. He settles on "Impersona-cat" or "Mimic-kitty".
  • There's a series of commercials for Wonderful Pistachios showing someone doing what they normally do, only with nuts involved. The narrator then says that they "do it" ("it" being eating nuts) with some specific reference. ("Keyboard Cat does it purr-fectly." "Manny Pacquiao does it...with a knockout." "Lewis Black does it like Lewis Black.") One commercial shows Psy dancing and singing "Gangnam Style" with the narrator saying "Psy does it...and we all go nuts."
  • Students at Class & Islamophobia, where the expected punchline is "A Terrorist" or something":
    What do you call a Muslim flying a plane?
    A pilot.

  • Brian Regan's routine "Stupid in School" deals, in part, with his childhood self confronting Perplexing Plurals. On the first try, he's preceded by a smart kid named Irwin who's asked to give the plural for "ox" ("oxen"), which causes him to give the plural for "box" as "boxen." On the next try, Irwin is asked the plural for goose ("geese"), and Brian is asked the plural for "moose," to which he blurts out..."MOOSEN!"

    Comic Books 

    Comic Strips 
  • In this Frazz comic, Frazz makes a reference to a song by The Who without saying the name of the band, hoping that Caulfield will ask the question of "Who?" as in "who wrote it?" He goes for proper grammar instead and asks "whom?"

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne / Batman is given a new device by Lucius Fox which allows his cellphone to emit sonar pulses to map a room. The expected punchline is "Bat", because he's Batman, but:
    Bruce: Sonar. Sorta like a-
    Lucius: Like a submarine, Mr. Wayne. Like a submarine.
  • In Wayne's World 2, Wayne awkwardly avoids using anything that sounds like the word "eye" when talking to a character with a very noticeable eye condition (acute partial ocular albinism), ending when he promises to "make sure to cross my Ts and dot my... lower-case Js."

  • In Discworld:
    • Leonard of Quirm's dialogue has a lot of these jokes (from the perspective of the reader, since the names don't exist In-Universe) thanks to his status as a Giver of Lame Names for his inventions.
      "Well, because it's submerged in a marine environment, I call it the Going-Under-The-Water-Safely-Device."
    • In Witches Abroad Granny Weatherwax repeatedly attempts to tell a (fairly well known) joke about a man ordering an alligator sandwich, but never gets the punchline right (and it's never given in the book either, leaving the reader to figure out that a man who orders an alligator sandwich and wants it fast, tells the cook to be quick about it, etc. is telling them to "make it snappy!").

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrested Development: Actor Judge Reinhold appears on a Show Within a Show version of Judge Judy. The title? Mock Trial with J. Reinhold.
  • The Daily Show
    • A segment with then-correspondent Ed Helms involved him coming up for an idea for a "gay radar", which he decides would be called the "homometer."
    • A segment with Buck Henry was titled "The Henry Stops Here."
    • Jon Stewart on Mike Huckabee: "Let Huckabee hucka...exist."
  • On an episode of The Colbert Report Stephen mentioned a story about Burger King advertising Windows 7 and said that Apple needed its own fast food tie-in that would be "big...for mac." He decides it should be Carl's Jr.
  • A Big Train sketch has an employee in a large food company attending a presentation, where someone is explaining that they found their cakes sold better when they were heated up. The character quips: "You could say that they sold like hot cakes!" - which is met very coldly from everyone present. He's transferred under a cloud to the broth department, where his new boss explains that they recently ruined a batch of broth by having too many chefs in supervision, to which he starts to quip "You could say that... you've bollocksed it up."
  • In one episode of Game of Thrones, the Affably Evil Roose Bolton is talking to Jaime Lannister, who just had his hand chopped off by some of Roose's men. When Jaime starts insinuating threats, Roose comments, "I would have thought you'd learnt not to overplay your... position."
  • From The Good Place:
    Shawn: Humans are very reticent to torture each other. Even getting them to do simple things like pulling out each other's teeth is like... I can't think of the right analogy.
  • From the Key & Peele sketch "Continental Breakfast":
    "And who are you, my little friend? Not a spoon, not a fork, but something in between...a fpoon!"
  • On an episode of Virtually Famous, James Acaster came up with the game "what's under my hat". He hid things that could be found in a kitchen under his hat and each time it was revealed he would make one of these gags.
    "Until next time, keep it [anything but under your hat]".
  • One contestant on America's Got Talent, a performer named "Piff the Magic Dragon" (a guy in a dragon costume doing magic) showed up. He then said that you've probably heard of his brother...Steve.
  • In The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball, a benefit for Amnesty International, the Monty Python's Flying Circus played this to the point of subverting the entire routine. The stage is set for the famous parrot sketch, the crowd is giddy with anticipation, John Cleese as Mr. Praline begins by declaring the parrot he purchased is dead...
    Mr. Praline: It's dead, that's what's wrong with it.
    Shopkeeper: So it is. 'Ere's your money back and a couple of holiday vouchers.
    [audience goes wild]
    Mr. Praline: [looks completely flabbergasted] Well, you can't say Thatcher hasn't changed some things.
  • Barney Miller: An arrestee is running for President:
    Royce: What do you think of my campaign slogan?
    Barney: [reads] Albert Royce, the people's...candidate.

  • This was a staple on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. For example:
    Butler: This is Lord Bedside.
    Lord Bedside: How do you do. Welcome to Bedside House.
    Butler: I thought you were going to say "Manor", sir.
    Lord Bedside: Yes, so I was. Welcome to Manor House.

  • From Fly by Night:
    Joey Storms: For decades, the Storms family has taken Broadway by... well, we've been very successful.

    Video Games 
  • In APICO, the first chapter of the Liquids section of your guidebook starts with this:
    What's brown and sticky? Well... okay yeah I guess so but I was thinking more about Tree Resin!
  • In "Episode 2: Memory" of Code 7, META seemingly sets up but then subverts a dick joke when asking Raven (who is disguised as Mr. Palakiko, one of Oriens Receiver Station's employees) a few questions to prove she isn't a spy or shapeshifter.
    META: Tell me three personal things of your choice, like your favorite movie, your birth date, the name of your first-born child, what you had for breakfast, your latest travel destination, the length of your-
    Raven: I get it!
    META: ...favorite pencil. Please don't interrupt...
  • An Easter Egg Prank Call in Undertale opens with Sans asking the well-worn question, "is your refrigerator running?" But he's not making a pun — if you say "yes", he says "nice. i'll be over to deposit the brewskis.", while if you say "no", he says "okay, i'll send over someone to fix it. thanks for letting me know. good communication is important." In other words, he actually wants to know if your refrigerator is functional. (The "prank" in this prank call is half the subversion of the joke, and half the fact that you're a visitor to the Underground and don't own a refrigerator in the first place.)

  • Sometimes used in Arthur, King of Time and Space. One Sunday Strip spends multiple panels carefully setting up the punchline "I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this", before Lancelot derails it by asking, if the dog has no nose, how does it smell?

    Web Original 
  • The first episode of Friendship is Witchcraft has the phrase "Talk about eye candy!" as an unexplained running gag, usually in response to some mild Eye Scream scenes. A few episodes later, a character shows up in an eye-patch:
    Newt Pippington Britishhooves: Ever since I lost my eye, I've been craving nothing but candy!
    Twilight: Talk about holiday spirit!
  • From TomSka's video Meanwhile 4D:
    Narrator: Meanwhile, in a universe where spaghetti is pronounced "My Ass":
    Tom: Hey Chris, what's for dinner?
    Chris: The last thing you need, Tom, is more food, you fat piece of sh-
  • The alternate commentary track featuring Mr. Plinkett that RedLetterMedia released for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has a gag where Plinkett explains that the movie's producers were worried about placing the actor DeForest Kelley in the woods... because his last name sorta sounds like "killer".
    • In the Revenge of the Sith review, Plinkett sets up that if you rearrange the letters in "Sith", you get another word... "Tshi", which he claims is Chinese for "disappointment in the cooking of the duck meat."
  • In Arfenhouse Teh Movie Too, Woogy mangles an old joke whose punchline is supposed to be, "Well, then, you'd better go and catch it":
    Wuzzer: YEZZ INDEEEeEee!D!!!
    Woogy & Wuzzer: LOLOLOLOLOL!!11!1
  • Alasdair Beckett-King's "Highbrow Cop Shows" parodies the Name and Name title formula by pitching combinations whose names make classic novel titles: Detectives John Pride and Ian Prejudice in Pride & Prejudice, Detectives Joe Crime and Emilio Punishment in Crime & Punishment, and Inspector Jim Far and Constable Nancy Fromthemaddingcrowd in... CrimeGuys Miami.

    Western Animation 
  • King of the Hill:
    Connie: My dad makes me learn three new S.A.T. vocabulary words every night. He's such an autocrat.
    Bobby: What's a... "S.A.T."?
  • Thirteen from Numberblocks once said “I jump through a hoop, and step in the… puddle.” For context, 13 Is Unlucky, and it seemed like he was going to say “step in the poop.”
  • The Simpsons:
    • Channel 6's traffic reporter is Arnie Pie. His news report, done while reporting from a helicopter over the traffic, is called "Arnie in the Sky" (instead of "Pie in the Sky").
    • In the May 2022 episode "Poorhouse Rock", Marge downloads a podcast for Homer on "beers that you don't hear about much anymore". You'd expect one of them to be Corona... only for Homer to listen to an episode on Löwenbräu.
  • In the Steven Universe episode "Future Vision", Steven quips that his middle name is "Danger". At first, it looks like Garnet's suffering from Blunt Metaphors Trauma, but instead she playfully "corrects" and tweaks him on the nose:
    "That's a lie, your real middle name is...Cutiepie!"
    • The subversion is subverted in the episode "Together Forever", wherein it appears that it actually is his middle name.
  • On SpongeBob SquarePants, there is one scene which involves SpongeBob and Patrick annoying Squidward and others at Goo Lagoon by playing "Small Plastic Disk That You Throw". SpongeBob comments that the name is a bit too long, and wishes it was easier to say. Patrick immediately comes up with "Small Plastic Disk That You Toss", which SpongeBob praises him for. The expectation was "Frisbee" — although that would be copyrighted.
  • On The Replacements, Dick Daring's stunt coordinator / engineer's name is Phil Mygrave (just say it out loud). He's still a good, decent guy, though. C.A.R., for his part, is flabbergasted that none of the other regulars can bring themselves to joke about Phil's Unfortunate Name.