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A character thinks and thinks... then, suddenly, has a bright idea! A light bulb turns itself on directly above the character's head. Often with character pointing one index fingers upwards.
This trope has been subverted for decades -- it became a cliche almost as soon as it was invented (in the 1920s, for the black and white Felix the Cat cartoons).
Often parodied. Most common subversions are the appearances of a broken light bulb to signify someone is thinking of a bad idea; candles, torches, or other sources of light appearing over the heads of characters who pre-date the lightbulb; and a character getting the bulb, but turning it off, indicating they had second thoughts and decided it wasn't a good idea after all. In shows with a weak fourth wall, characters may even grab the lightbulb off of their head and utilize it in their plan, or may happen to be standing under an actual lightbulb that is turned on by another character. Characters Genre Savvy enough will sometimes put an actual lightbulb above their head or someone else's in an effort to give them an idea. A Dead Horse Trope, definitely. Nearly every example here is a parody or subversion. Often used as part of a Rebus Bubble.
Also, this trope may have been invented in reference to a Mr. Thomas Edison having a great idea about something... what was it again? (Or it could just be the concept of enlightenment. Or having a bright idea.)
- In one episode of Rozen Maiden: Traumend, a cell phone signal icon with three bars appears over Suiseiseki's head.
- Not quite the same thing, but the first episode of Ouran High School Host Club uses a set of lightbulbs turning on to indicate the members of the Host Club realizing Haruhi is really a girl. The first bulb to turn on is Kyouya, and the last is Tamaki.
- Parodied in The World God Only Knows: when Elsee gets an idea, a different image pops up each time - firefly!Elsee, traveller!Elsee sighting a star, Elsee powering a lightbulb with a bicycle, etc.
- A little lightblub appears over Asuna's head when she realizes that her anti magic fan (which is useless against all the non magic stuff in this arc) is the perfect weapon for enemies like Takane, who clothes herself with shadow magic and has numerous shadow constructs as her fighting style.
- In Ben-To Zero The Road To The Witch they uses idea LCD light in order to conserve electricity
- In the Nichijou episode, Button, while Yukko and Mio were talking about the fire alarm button, Yukko gets a lightbulb over her head, then evily laughs and tricks Mio into pushing the button.
- In one episode of Suzumiya Haruhi, Tsuruya gets this when she gets an idea about the leftover chocolate.
- This was used yet again in the Halloween episode, in which Haruhi gets this.
- A promotional spot for the animated version of My Friend Rabbit showed the author of the original book, Eric Rohmann, with an idea bulb over his head.
- Asterix uses a burning torch or an oil lamp, since the series plays nearly two thousand years before the invention of the light bulb.
- In the Wuzzles section of a Walt Disney Comics comic book, Croc had an Idea Bulb appear in a thought balloon, but Flizzard swiped it out of curiosity. (Croc still had the idea.) Later in the same story, Flizzard got out the bulb and held it up, hoping it would turn on and trigger an idea. It did.
- In Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, a caveman having a brilliant idea has a light bulb appear above his head. When he reveals the flint knife he's created, another caveman says "Oh, I thought it was going to be a light bulb."
- When Leonard Le Genie has a particularly bright idea, or a series of ideas, he lights up and makes sounds like a Pinball machine or Video Game.
- A Don Martin cartoon in MAD had a brain surgeon cut open a patient's skull and find a lightbulb (in a socket attached to a cord) inside the head. When the surgeon turns the light on, the patient makes the Aha! reaction.
- In one issue of the Simpsons Comics, Homer gets an idea and a bulb appears above his head, but it actually belongs to a lamp Marge is cleaning.
- Played with in the second Home Alone film. The concierge (played by Tim Curry) of the hotel where Kevin is staying gets suspicious and runs a check on Kevin's father's credit card; when he finds the card was reported stolen, a light in an alcove over his head suddenly turns on.
- Although given the devilish smile on Tim Curry's face at this point, the modern, oval-shaped bulb could also (ironically) symbolise a halo, given that the concierge is planning something dastardly.
- In Hot Fuzz, when Nicholas Angel gets an idea towards the end of the movie, he says 'Idea!' in a dramatic voice.
- Edgar Wright used this trope literally before in A Fistful of Fingers with lightbulbs on sticks.
- Parodied in The Movie of Over the Hedge, with ideas appearing as lightning bugs (fire flies to the rest of you) slowing in flight and lighting up over the head of the character getting the idea.
- In the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the bureaucratic planet of the Vogons can detect when someone has an idea and... whacks them in the face with a spade. Originality is frowned upon.
- In Bio-Dome, one character simply shouts "Lightbulb!" when he gets an idea.
- In Wallace and Gromit : Curse of the Were Rabbit when Wallace gets the idea to use his brainwashing machine to make the rabbits he has captured hate vegetables, the light on his van turns on...though that was Gromit's doing.
- In the Inspector Gadget movie, when Gadget tries to think hard, a lightbulb rises out of his hat. When he gets an idea ("Go go gadget oil slick!"), it turns on. Subverted in that it was a bad idea to actually say this out loud, thereby spraying his Love Interest with, inexplicably, not oil, but toothpaste.
- Darla Dimple in Cats Don't Dance actually has her butler hold a lightbulb over her head and say "Ding!" when she has an idea.
- In Bedtime Stories, Skeeter is fixing a lamp as his nephew talks about the bedtime story they told last night. When he notices that it was only the story elements contributed by the children that come to pass in the real world, the lightbulb comes on.
- In Mel Brooks's Silent Movie, Mel Brooks plays a movie producer who's down on his luck. He's produced only flops in recent years, and the evil corporation "Engulf and Devour" is about to shut his little studio down. He sits down dejectedly in a chair against the wall. Suddenly, he gets an "AHA!" look on his face ... and the light fixture on the wall directly over his head spontaneously lights up.
- Less of an idea than it is a revelation, but when Cher in Clueless finally realises that she's in love with Josh, an entire fountain lights up behind her. Granted, it's not a lightbulb, but it's still the same basic idea of external light = inner illumination.
- Gru from Despicable Me also says "Lightbulb!" when getting an idea.
- The Australian children's stories about Bottersnikes And Gumbles feature a variant — there's no bulb, just the "tink" sound that usually accompanies it. It's limited to a particular character, and the loss of his "tink" is a plot point in one book.
- Saved by the Bell: Zack hears that tomorrow is a Jewish holiday; a menorah appears over his head, and he decides to get excused so he can see a baseball game. (Yes, it's in live-action too.)
- Parodied by Dr. Cox in Scrubs: "Either this kid's got a light bulb up his butt or his colon has a great idea."
- One fairly unique live-action example involved no post-production effects at all: the set of the short-lived UK TV series Mr Don and Mr George had several unobstrusive lights on various points on the walls. Through careful positioning of the cameras and actors, whenever a character had an idea, a light would light up behind them, appearing to be just above their heads. This was done so smoothly and effectively that even though the gag was done several times, the audience never saw it coming.
- This exact same thing was done in Detroit Rock City, when the main characters are trying to come up with a way to enable one of their number to get out of tech class to call a radio station for KISS tickets.
- Frasier: When the two brothers are writing a book, Frasier is struck by inspiration (nothing appears):
Frasier: Niles, do you see a light bulb over my head?
- In Red Dwarf: "Confidence and Paranoia", Lister's Confidence shows how great he thinks Lister's plan is by literally holding a bulb above Lister's head.
Confidence: Ding dong! Another great idea from the people who brought you "beer milkshakes"!
- Played with in an episode of Just Shoot Me: Dennis is changing a light bulb on a lamp behind Jack's desk, and it turns on just as Jack gets an idea.
- A variation of this occurs in Engine Sentai Go-onger. Villain Hiramechimedes has three lightbulbs on his head that light up in quick succession whenever he gets an idea.
- One early Kids Incorporated episode has a clip where the gang gets an idea for something to get the word out about their band. However Stacy, being the youngest at just 9, doesn't get her light to come on immediately...but eventually it does come on (not shown in clip).
- Used repeatedly in one episode of That 70s Show. First during a school assembly regarding the President's visit to town, where the various teenagers have actual lightbulbs turn on when one aspect of the speech caught their interest (for instance, Hyde when the principal mentions that they shouldn't cause trouble to make a statement against the government), culminating when the principal says that they don't like it, they can just leave (at which point the "Exit" sign above Fez's head lights up and he walks out the door).
- It came back later that same episode when Red got an idea and the porch light behind him turned on. Played with when he turns around and tells Eric to turn the light off.
- Hannah Montana plays with the trope when Mamaw buys her a goofy hat with lightbulbs in it for an awards show. When she hatches up a Zany Scheme in mid-conversation in the wardrobe closet to convince Mamaw and Aunt Dolly to get along, the hat lights up, spooking out Lilly.
- In Dinosaurs when Charlene comes up with the idea that the world is round a light bulb appears above her head, which is actually just Earl fixing the lamp in the background.
- Same joke happened in Kenan and Kel.
- Kamen Rider Fourze parodies this. The eponymous hero, Gentaro, has a Eureka Moment during a special test, and as a visual, an Astro Switch was shown when the realization hits. Instead of the Flash Switch as an appropriate Visual Pun, we instead see the Hand Switch. Probably has something to do with Gentaro being an Idiot Hero...
- Starflyer 59's "Lose My Mind":
Is there a lightbulb between my ears?
- Garfield once had the candle variation with Odie, the explanation being that he wasn't too bright.
- Parodied in FoxTrot when, with Paige alternately struggling with her report on Thomas Edison and her father's attempts to help her, a lightbulb appears just over her head - held by her dad, who begins to reel off Edison's inventions. (The look on her face sells it.)
- Or another where Jason makes a mobile out of lightbulbs.
- In yet another Paige tries to invoke this trope by taking the bulb out of her lamp and holding it over her head; Peter says that he only does that with 100-watt bulbs.
- Or another where Jason makes a mobile out of lightbulbs.
- Parodied in the comic Pearls Before Swine, where Pig comments that they don't have an extra lightbulb to replace a dead one. Rat then states he has an idea and uses the bulb that appears above his head as a replacement.
- My Cage Parodied; when Jeff has an idea about making the office more green, he conjures up a compact-fluorescent bulb.
- Dykes to Watch Out For: Sydney has an idea depicted (and labelled) as a "PC compact fluorescent bulb."
- In Drabble, Ralph gets an idea, complete with bulb. His wife glares at him, and in the next panel, the bulb is one of those squiggly energy-efficient ones. He looks annoyed, and his wife is now smiling.
- In Conkers Bad Fur Day, a lightbulb will appear above Conker's head whenever he's in a context-sensitive area.
- In the SaGa Series from the fifth game onward, this was used as a signal for whenever a new technique was learned in battle.
- The Idea Bulb is an unlockable Emote in Runescape.
- In Animal Crossing, when a neighbour gets an idea, a cartoonish lightbulb appears over his/her head. By talking to psychologist Dr. Shrunk, you can learn to do this as well.
- Spoofed in Nintendogs; when a puppy gets an idea, you can drag the lightbulb over to her/him, and (s)he'll eat it.
- Played with twice in Wallace and Gromit 's Grand Adventures: The Last Resort. As Wallace gets an idea in the first act, a few sparks in the plug behind him go off above his head. In the second act, it's a sun lamp.
- Golden Sun has a lightbulb as an emotion bubble.
- In a Puyo Puyo spinoff game starring Seriri, in one part,  Seriri gets this.
- In this Order of the Stick comic, Elan gets an idea and a lit candle appears over his head, and here a lantern.
- Bob and George uses this when we are introduced to Bright Man (who has a huge light bulb built into the top of his head; it's his weapon) when it comes time to cover Mega Man IV. His first full sentence is a bad pun in a slew of already bad puns.
- In the comic strip Drabble, Ralph gets an idea, with idea bulb... and his wife glares at him. In the next panel, the bulb has been changed to an energy-saving squiggly bulb.
- Two Kinds plays with this by having one character's hair on fire and using that as a replacement lightbulb.
- An energy-efficient example appears in Dandy and Company via a compact fluorescent light.
- The same is done in this Dawn's Dictionary Drama strip.
- Spoofed with unsettling implications in this Edible Dirt strip.
- This comic takes the trope about as far as it'll go, with a lightbulb having an idea about... oh, just read it.
- Near the end of the original run of Narbonic, Dave gets an idea on how to get back together with Helen. Since he's just gone mad, he gets a cracked light bulb.
- Played straight in this page of Gunnerkrigg Court.
- The lit candle is used in this Nodwick strip.
- And in, this one Piffany, being a cleric, has a burning bush.
- Brawl in the Family: In the middle of this comic, Table Etiquette, Kirby and Jigglypuff were thinking of another way to finish their food more quicker, until Jigglypuff gets an idea, and she has an Idea Bulb appear above her head.
- Wapsi Square: Deitzel gets one of these when he comes up with a way to wake up Monica.
- Squid Row Looking for inspiration
- Played with in this Friday 4 Koma.
- Played with in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob Bob is trapped by villains in a small room, and thinks about how he desperately needs an idea. Then he glances up and sees there's an actual mounted lightbulb directly above his head. He smashes it and escapes in the darkness.
- In Sinfest,
- In the Mega Crossover fancomic Roommates Erik has a time-period appropriate idea candle and Jareth idea crystal.
- 5 Second Films presents "Resourcefulness"
- A Youtube video, Gardevoir Goes To The Convenience Store, has Gardevoir getting this, and guess where it appears.
- Betty Boop: In 1935, Fleischer Studios introduced a new character, Grampy, in Betty Boop and Grampy (available for download at archive.org). In this and subsequent episodes, when Grampy is called upon to solve a problem for Betty, he puts on his mortarboard Thinking Cap with light bulb mounted on top. The bulb lights up when he has the solution.
- Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, "Cookie Dough": Bloo tries to come up with an idea... and dismisses Bulby, who had snuck up behind him.
- The Simpsons often parodies this to reveal Homer's idiotic thought processes. A variation often has his ideas represented by the antics of a pair of chimps in his skull.
- The Show Within a Show Itchy & Scratchy has had the psychotic mouse Itchy actually stab perennial victim cat Scratchy with a broken Idea Bulb.
- When Homer realizes he could from a bowling team with Moe and Apu in "Team Homer", pin lights go off over his head.
- Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, "High-Heeled Eds": While trying to think up a way to scam Sarah, Nazz and Jimmy, Eddy gets an Idea Bulb, though it flickers out briefly until he adjusts it.
- In the episode "It Came From Outer Ed," Ed gets an idea for a scam and holds up some turf over his head while saying, "Boing! It's a lightbulb!"
- A broken light bulb appears frequently over Billy's head in The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, indicating he's thinking of a really bad idea.
- In an episode of The Fairly Odd Parents, things go back to Colonial Times, and candles are used in lieu of bulbs. So, Timmy gives people ideas by holding candles over their heads. Wax often falls on the characters' heads, after which they say something along the lines of "I have an idea! ...and wax burns!"
- Similarly, early on in the low-tech Avatar: The Last Airbender, when Sokka comes up with an idea (one his first instances of later becoming the The Smart Guy) for opening a sophisticated chamber door, he has his back to a wall and there is a lantern above his head.
- Sometimes appeared in Beavis and Butthead with the bulb replaced by matches being struck, this was eventualy dropped along with Beavis' pyromania to appease Media Watchdogs.
- Whenever the Idea Bulb appeared in later episodes, it was usually depicted as a small, noisy, flickering bulb (giving the viewers an idea of the soundness of the idea); it apparently had to shatter before the idea could be verbalized by the character who had come up with it.
- In Darkwing Duck, the villain Megavolt has a literal lightbulb attached to his head, as an indication of his thought processes.
- Animaniacs had a light bulb appear over Yakko's head at least once. Wakko promptly ate it, which hilariously resulted in Yakko forgetting the idea he just had.
- Don't forget the "Good Idea, Bad Idea" segments.
- In The Pink Panther (the animated shorts), "Psychedelic Pink", the Pink Panther (the cartoon character, not the gem) is trying to read "The Love Life of a Panther (uncensored)". He finds a room with a chair and a lamp. As with most light bulbs he encounters when he's trying to do something, however, it has a habit of turning off when it's least convenient to turn it on again. He sees a vending machine for lights, and having the wrong kind dispenses three times, he gets the idea to use the Idea Bulb resulting from the idea as a regular light bulb. It is unknown whether or not it would have worked, though, because it gets a quarter-second of operation before the lampshade falls down, causing the rest of the lamp to disappear.
- In an episode of Duck Dodgers, a lightbulb appears over Dodgers' head when he gets an idea. So he stops explaining his idea to complain to the Cadet that the hologram projector is acting up again.
- In an episode of the Super Mario World cartoon, Bowser had three lit candles that played the NBC chimes.
- Histeria! played with this in the sketch about the inventor of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison. Throughout the sketch, he tries to think of a good invention and a light bulb appears above his head with each thought. After quite a while, Loud Kiddington points it out to him, and he decides to call it "the thing that clicks on over my head when I get an idea" (after which Toast tells him to "lighten up" and call it a light bulb).
- Secret Squirrel: The supervillain turned off every single light in the world and covered it in absolute darkness. Then Squirrel thinks of an idea to get a bulb on his head so he can have some light.
- Back to The Future The Animated Series: Doc gets an idea of how to test his new invention. A lightbulb is behind him - but then Doc walks away, revealing he is standing in front of a lamp, which Verne then switches off.
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Jimmy gets an idea, and the bulb lights up. The bulb then goes off, as a worker at the school needs it because a light went out in the teacher's lounge (or something).
- Heloise on Jimmy Two-Shoes gets one. It turns into a flame as she puts on a Slasher Smile.
- PB&J Otter! Whenever a character, usually Jelly, got an idea at the end of a Noodle Dance, a lightbulb would appear. Curiously, though, it would generally appear off to the left, rather than directly above the character's head.
- In the animated series of Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice gets an Idea Bulb, but has no idea why it's there. He looks up at it and wonders if it means he's gotten an idea.
- In Rocko's Modern Life, Heffer gets an idea, but no bulb appear. He quickly asks Rocko what's the "idea symbol." When Rocko answers that it's a lightbulb appearing over your head, Heffer actually makes one pop out the top of his head.
- In one Disney cartoon, Chip and Dale are trying to think of a way to get even with Donald Duck. Dale has and idea, a light bulb appears over his head, and he shows it to Chip, who rejects it. Trying again, Dale comes up with a bigger bulb, which Chip approves.
- In the Veggie Tales episode, "The Star of Christmas," Bob the Tomato's character is wearing a lightbulb on his head that Pa Grape's character is trying to get working (It Makes Sense in Context). He then gets a Cheshire Cat Grin as he hits on a brilliant idea. The next instant, the bulb lights up.
- In the Will & Dewitt story "You Bet," the frog Dewitt gets an idea, but an Idea Bulb appears over Will's head. Dewitt gripes, "Hey, I'm the one who got an idea," swipes the bulb and places it over his head. He then notes "Hey, we're trying to save energy" and the standard-style bulb changes into a CFL.
- On Dexters Laboratory it was parodied with Dexter and Dee Dee getting simultaneous ideas. Dexter's was represented by two atoms undergoing fusion and producing light. Dee Dee's was represented by two rocks banging together and making fire. Of course, since the previous is a natural process, while the latter represents one of the first ideas from which all science descends...guess which plan turned out better?
- A student film called "Employee Of The Month" entirely centers around this conceit. The Boss is looking for big ideas -- there's even a chart for comparison, although most of the protagonist's ideas don't match up (not even the one he uses to steal his rival's idea, which is bigger than he is). The Stinger reveals that The Boss is a giant moth in a business suit, who wants big ideas because he likes the pretty glowy things.
- Fanboy and Chumchum: In one episode, Fanboy gets an idea bulb, but it burns out. However, Chumchum fixes it by walking up invisible steps with a new lightbulb, and replaces the burned out one with the new lightbulb.
- In Dan Vs. "The Salvation Armed Forces, Dan demands Chris come up with an idea. As Chris gazes across the street, a truck for Idea, Inc. drives by, complete with a smiling lightbulb mascot painted on the side.
- Used in an episode of Ruby Gloom when Iris and Misery try to think of ways to get Skullboy's attention (Love spell, long story) a couple of idea candles appear above their heads.
- In the My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic episode "Family Appreciation Day", Scootaloo excitedly jumps into the air when she gets an idea of how to get out of Apple Bloom bringing Granny Smith to Family Appreciation Day, and she just happens to jostle a lantern hanging over her and turn it on.
- Oddly enough, the human brain uses about 100 Watts -- enough to light one of the largest standard lightbulbs (or several compact florescents).
- Oh yes! The phonograph. The lightbulb? No, he didn't actually invent that one.
- Which has Masked Satan in said part.
- In the same exact comic, earlier, Dark Matter gets a lantern when realizing that The Shelter is the protection place, and that were will not be any protection if he smashed it with Crazy Hand. Note: Getting controlled by Dark Matter maybe caused the creation of Crazy Hand.