"Ok, this is the most common thing I write. I've said it 34 times in my notes. Nothing else. Just that single word, followed by a lack of any punctuation. Not a question or an exclamation, just a statement of utter disbelief."
A Stock Phrase when it comes to reactions, but a simple one. Although it is just one word, the way in which it is pronounced can speak volumes about how absurd (or mundane) the situation can be, simply by how and where the inflection in a speaker's voice (if any) is used. In written speech, it's supplemented by the punctuation following it. For an example:
"What?" Standard reaction when someone notices that someone spoke to him, but didn't hear well what was said. Common in the real world, little used in fiction as it goes against The Law of Conservation of Detail
"What?" Standard reaction, used in everyday speech; slightly rising inflection (clarify what someone said, being asked a favor, etc.)
"What!?" An accusatory or intimidating statement; "I'm in your face, what are you going to do about it!?", or in defense against accusatory stares if the speaker believes that whatever earned them those glares was normal
"WHAT?!" "WHAAAAAT?!?!?!" et al; New levels of absurdity have been hit (Variations on the length of the word and (ab)use of ? and ! as needed; this is the one most often used for comic effect)
And that's exactly how it's written, too: "what" with a period at the end. On the internet, some people cut this down even farther, going with "wha", "wat", "wut" or similar. Sometimes appears on forums and image boards as the memes "what is this i don't even" and "i am 12 and what is this" (no punctuation whatsoever and the i not capitalized) and the immortal LOL WUT (all caps, spelling of the second word, and no punctuation whatsoever)—more complex, but still indicating that the speaker is too gobsmacked to be capable of a coherent sentence.
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And when Yuki tells him she's an alien. And when Asakura tells him she's going to kill him. He seems pretty fond of this and the Face Palm.
Seitokai no Ichizon has a knocked-out Sugisaki Ken trying to cross the river of Hell to reach his "harem". Hell Girl, who happens to be passing by on her ferry, responds to this bizarre scene with a flat "Oi..." after he passes her.
Greedling of Fullmetal Alchemist seems to pull a Type 1 quite often in the Japanese dub of Brotherhood, though it's more of a blatant "Huh?"
In a chapter of Shin Mazinger Zero -a Mazinger Z spin-off-, Kouji and Minerva-X are together inside the cockpit. During the battle Minerva lands on Kouji on a very awkward and embarrassing position. Sayaka -Clingy Jealous Girl and Action Girl who has just arrived and destroyed three Mechanical beasts in a fit of jealous rage- sees him, and they -after displaying a tremendously comical Oh Crap stares- try to explain it is not what it seems, and Minerva is not human but she actually is a Super Robo created by The Professor Dr. Kabuto to be Mazinger-Z's partner. Sayaka's reaction?
In Toradora!, Ami, Kitamura, and Minorin do a flat what after Ryuuji tells them that he and Taiga are going to run away and get married.
In the last episode of Ladies Versus Butlers!, after Sernia and Tomomi have had one of their biggest battles ever over a ticket to the amusement park Try Aqualand for a date with Akiharu (won by Sernia), the guy is so Oblivious to Love that he completely misunderstands their enthusiasm, and gives the other ticket to Tomomi as a "sort of consolation prize". Cue absolutely deadpan Flat What from Tomomi, followed by some verbal abuse from most of the named cast, and topped with an earth-shaking double Armor-Piercing Slap from BOTH Tomomi and Sernia.
In Corsair, in the midst of discussing Aura's wish to marry Canale, Ayace decides to bluntly let everyone know that Canale is his lover. While the others' reactions vary from awkwardness to surprise, Aura simply says "...what."
Uryuu Minene aka the 9th, a terrorist of some repute, of Future Diary does this when the police officer Nishijima proposes to her while they were on the run from other police officers. He even had a ring.
This is Doctor Nemesis's reaction to an unexpected teleport in the X-Men one-shot Blind Science.
A particularly amusing example from The Invisibles. A Mexican god of death tells to a very young Lord Fanny that she has to give her body/soul to a passage to the next level of her ritual to become a witch. She doesn't want to... so she offers the god a joke. A god of death answering with a flat what its just priceless (mostly because a lot of readers were asking themselves the same).
The Devil's response when John Constantine nonchalantly comments that the candles made booze out of holy water. The booze the Devil just drank, and the candles that Constantine promptly kicks over.
Though in all honesty that should be the reader's reaction to the doujin in general.
Given the frequency of positively bizarre crap that happens in the Pokémon fic Brave New World, one can hardly blame Pikachu for reacting this way often. You know it's approaching critical mass when Leo does it though.
Happens fairly often in the Yu-Gi-Oh! fanfic Skin, more often than not followed by a Big "WHAT?!" when the weirdness factor hits critical mass.
In the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha fanfic Proper Equipment, Yuuno gives one in response to hearing that his new device Raising Heart is designed for long-range offensive magic. Apparently Mazda, the Scrya clan matriarch who gave it to him, didn't realize that he specialized in defensive and support magic, or that he was actually a boy.
Waking to a situation that's already taxing her mind, Keleria is further confused by Ayuri saying she's taken a courier job leading to Stranglethorn Vale.
Keleria blinked, feeling about as intelligent as a suffocating fish, "what."
Draco Malfoy has this reaction in Methods of Rationality when told that Harry needed a bit of cash, after using the money he'd stolen from his own Gringotts vault to buy a gift for Hermione Granger. Exactly which part of that the Flat What is in response to is left to the reader.
Harry also ends the first chapter with one.
In Dragon Age The Crown Of Thorns, people occasionally exhibit this reaction when the protagonist issues some strange command, like telling Branka to make golem-sized pickaxes.
Fanfic writers can get these when they get a review to a long-finished story.
It can also be about the only response possible to a request for a continuation of a very definite one-shot, or a reviewer who is reviewing...something else entirely, you hope, given that the piece they reviewed is a look into the local Cute and Psycho's Gorn fantasies...and the review is for a Romantic Comedy.
In From the End to the Start this was Hermione's reaction to Luna's statement that pudding, according to her mother, "can be served for medicinal purposes for poison consumption and for irritable bowels."
Happens in Ewar's Tale once, when the signature characters meets a pair of bats that he thought were spirits, the Author seems self-aware too for some reason.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The first evil-ex "boss battle" is already beyond absurd to everyone present in the scene, from Matthew Patel's crashing-in appearance to Scott surprisingly fending him off in fantastical fashion, but when Patel breaks out into a Bollywood-esque number (with demon hipster chicks) in the middle of the fight, a disbelieving Stacy Pilgrim can only manage a "what."
Toward the end of Super 8 after Joe is speaking with the Alien, and the Alien sets Joe down very nicely and starts to leave Cary delivers an extremely confounded Flat What.
Joker: I'm trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir!
In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Aragorn does this when Gimli asks him to toss him to the stone bridge leading to the gate of Helm's Deep, claiming that he "cannot jump the distance".
This is also Gollum's reaction when Sméagol tells him to "Leave now and never come back!"
Wreck-It Ralph has this when Ralph says that he doesn't want to be the bad guy anymore, in which Bowser spits fire and Clyde, like the Pac-Man games, turns blue. Cut to the other bad guys, and Kano says that he can't mess with the programming. M. Bison says, "You're not going turbo, are you?" Ralph replies that he is not going turbo.
In A Goofy Movie, Goofy says this in response to Pete telling him that Max had changed their road map so that they are heading to Los Angeles. Pete also uses this when Goofy says that he doesn't believe him on that.
Pete: You're kid's dupin' ya. Goofy: What do you mean? Pete: Well, I heard the little mutant telling PJ that he changed the map so... you're headin' straight to L.A., pal. Goofy: What. Pete: Oh, you tried, Goof. He's just a bad kid, that's all. Goofy: I don't believe you, Pete. Pete: What. Goofy: I don't believe you. Pete: Well, hey, don't take my word for it. Check your map.
Iago: To think we gotta keep kissing up to that chump, and his chump daughter for the rest of our lives... Jafar: No, Iago. Only until she finds a chump husband. Then she'll have us banished—or beheaded! [Both shudder.] Iago: Oh! Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Jafar? What if you were the chump husband? Jafar: What.
In Police Academy, when Lt. Harris is asking who has prior military experience and Mahoney raises his hand:
Harris: You have had prior military training, Mahoney?
Mahoney: Yes, sir, but not in this life.
Mahoney: In a previous life I served with Her Majesty's forces in India.
In The Zigzag Kid, Nono says "What is this" instead of asking, because he's too shocked to "wrinkle his voice at the end to make a question" when he finds out his friend the Con Man is also his grandfather.
Harry Dresden occasionally punctuates "what" without a question mark.
Live Action TV
Family Ties: This was Alex P. Keaton's response to Mallory and Nick's decision to get married.
The Tenth Doctor in second Doctor Who series gets in at least one of these per season. Often combined with a Triple Take.
His first use of it may have been in "Army of Ghosts", when the Cyber-Leader reveals the Cybus Cybermen didn't build the Void ship that broke the barrier between universes.
Used exquisitely in both "Voyage of the Damned" and the mini-episode "Time Crash" (which reuse the same scene). The prow of (what looks like) an antiquated (read: early 20th century) ocean-liner smashes through to the interior of the TARDIS (while the TARDIS is in space!) and the Doctor, as any sane man would, responds in surprise. And then repeats himself for emphasis. Finally, upon discovering that the ship is, in fact, the Titanic, he finishes off in a perfectly flat "What."
Also used in his first encounter with Donna Noble (at the end of series 2's final episode "Doomsday" and again, when the same scene is replayed at the start of the Christmas Special "The Runaway Bride"), when she suddenly, inexplicably appears out of thin air inside the flying TARDIS and starts berating him.
The Eleventh Doctor, too. And Amy.
Eleven's flattest one was probably in "Closing Time"
Sales Lady: "Well there is the silver rat..."
Doctor: *turns around slowly*
The Fourth Doctor was very fond of saying "what", too.
Martha does one in "Gridlock", when she learns that a ten-mile trip on "the motorway" in New New York will take six years.
In "The Eleventh Hour", this is Young Amy's reaction when the Doctor tells her that the blue box he crashed in is actually a time machine.
Neal: Oh, you mean these? (raises arms and straps fall to the floor)What.
The Muppet Show: Sam the American Eagle looses a fine one on learning that his requested concerto would be played by The Electric Mayhem. Sam is rather famous for these. He has a particularly beautiful one while reading "The Ant and the Grasshopper"; he reads the traditional Aesop's fable until he reaches the last line:
"And so it was, dear listeners...that the Grasshopper drove his sports car to Florida, and the Ant got stepped on."
Cameron Mitchell of Stargate SG-1 says "what" with varying inflections so often that he's been accused of using it as his Catch Phrase. Obviously, at least one Flat What has come up.
In Skins, Emily launches one when Katie tells her she does have to ask her who she sleeps with.
In Teen Wolf, Jackson's reaction at being demoted to co-captain... alongside Scott.
Both forms are running gags on Titus; the flat what is often used by Ken Titus, usually toward an unseen observer of his behavior.
Barbara Walters interviewed Herman Cain as one of her most fascinating people of 2011 and gave this when he answered a question about theoretical cabinet positions with he would like to be Secretary of Defense. This from a man who admitted (and demonstrated) he didn't know squat about foreign affairs.
Third Watch: After a bad night, Doc does the math on how much they make on each run. Faith's response to the $13.85 is a Flat What.
David Letterman tends to quickly bolt out one if he hears something over the course of his show that's weird or otherwise catches him off-guard.
Life's Captain Tidwell reverses the usual scenario by using the Flat What as his go-to response to other people's reactions to his odd comments.
At the end of Torchwood: Miracle Day, when the team finds out that because of the blood transfusion, Rex is as immortal as Jack, Jack, Gwen and Rex let out three Flat Whats in a row. Doubles a Call Back to the Doctor Who examples above.
In The Booth at the End The Man, normally unflappable, has this reaction to learning that Willem kidnapped and is keeping prisoner the girl he agreed to protect so he could "be the hero."
In The Catherine Tate Show, Kate (Catherine Tate) insists that Ellen (Ella Kenion) guess how old her salsa instructor thought she was. Ellen guesses 42, prompting a flat "what" from Kate although you can still tell she was restraining her anger.
Uttered by Ironyuppie in AH.com: The Series "Casino Imperiale", after she finds out that Landshark beat her nemesis before she could.
The RPGNet Hive Mind is fond of "man what" (no punctuation) as a response to any completely brain-spraining statement.
Notably inspired by and associated with (by those in the know) a certain photograph of Bob Marley in a state of absolute man what
The hive mind seems to have determined it actually came as a response to someone discussing the Inferi from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince... to the tune of "The Happy Wanderer" (the "Valderie, Valdera" song). "In-fer-iiiii... in-fer-aaaaaaa..." The first post after that was a prematurely-launched post consisting entirely of "man what"
NOTE: The absence of a period at the end of the previous entry is entirely deliberate and proper. The phrase expresses such a profound and utter state of confusion that it eradicates any and all punctuation and grammar within a radius of one post.
Inventing Swear Words 4 has a good example, right after Stag complains to the GM that every other class is more powerful with him, to which the GM responds with a "What." Made funnier by how Stag then demands that every class be nerfed except his, which is, without even a beat, followed by the GM teleporting him away.
Very good one in The Fine Bros.' Kids React to Nyan Cat, at 3:01.
In Charlie The Unicorn 2, Charlie reacts this way when he and his two... um... friends encounter a giant letter Z.
Blue: ˇEl hombre con el sombrero nos envió! Pink: ˇÉl nos cuenta muchas historias asombrosas! Z: (makes pinging noises) Blue and Pink: Hohohoho! Charlie: ...what.
On various image-sharing sites, "what" is used as a tag for bizarre, shocking, or absurd images, usually involving physical or anatomical impossibilities. Most Nearly all examples will be NSFW at the least, so seek them out at your own risk.
In Freeman's Mind, he says this when he is confronted with an elevator that finally goes up, but is blocked by boxes of explosives.
Adrian Shephard in Shephard's Mind does this twelve times in response to unleashing a swarm of snarks.And again:
Jon: I'd be down with a cool black star like that. Emile: Actually, it's official name is Ztar. Jon: ... What.
In Recettear, a very flat "What." is spouted by Tear in a pub conversation where a very drunk Charme says, unflinchingly, that she became a thief out of necessity, but eventually grew to like the whole "being a murderous thug" thing..
In Touhou 10.5: Scarlet Weather Rhapsody, Alice pulls one after being defeated by Remilia in the latter's story.
Remilia Scarlet:To make rain fall, you... control dolls... Alice Margatroid: What. Remilia Scarlet: Hey, Sakuya, that makes no sense! Bring up the next!
A very flat what appears in the intro to WCW/nWo: Revenge, when a truck driver notices that Sting has lit a bunch of barrels on fire in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. Dodgy voice acting may be to blame.
It's important to note that Sarda (Barring Chaos. Who he turns into.) is the most powerful character in the comic and downright omnipotent as well as only about 30 seconds younger than the universe itself and due to a Stable Time Loop has already experienced this same event from his younger self's perspective. He just had his mind broke by a character who managed to Dual Wield longbows with two armstwice resulting in wielding four bows, each with three arrows apiece loaded.
The Lich reacts this way after Black Mage pulls a Not Now, Kiddo on him (discussing killing his son, Vilbert, right in front of him, on his own property, without even bothering to turn around to address Lich.)
The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: Part of a Running Gag is that whenever something on TV mentions him in some fashion (the infamous "McNinja Burgers" from McDonald's, mayor Goodrich fingering him as the partner in the town's zombie defense system), the titular doctor will spend one brief panel staring at the TV in surprise and saying "What." in the next.
Also, this is how Dan McNinja opens his tirade against the pirates in the bar he's hiding in, declaring his intention to burn the place down on the way out.
A sort of extended variation of this trope is used for the doctor reacting to how Dan McNinja wound up on fire. "You. Lit. Yourself. On fire. Why did you light yourself on fire." Punctuated as it was in the comic.
In the Army of One storyline, Doc's reaction to Franz Rainer defending himself against the McNinja clone horde, taking full advantage of the Inverse Ninja Law.
In the Order of the Stick "Snips, snails and Dragon Tales" segment where the members of the Order make up stories (read: Take famous stories from Real Life and parody them in a 3.5 context), Roy's retelling of Hamlet has Hamlet (played by Roy) utter this when the play he set up to make Claudius (played by Xykon) admit to his father's murder gets... Slightly derailed (The leader of the theatre troupe was played by Elan, and the rewrite went slightlyOff the Rails).
Mort the ghost from Gunnerkrigg Court does this one when Annie has her other undead friends scare the bejeebers out of him (as a roundabout way of apologizing) in this strip. (This one is the setup for it.)
Liquid: Say, huh... Why don't you levitate yourself up here? You can do that. Psycho Mantis: Couple of reasons. First, it takes a lot of concentration, and getting blown up sort of threw me off a little. Second, there's a stalactite the size of a goddamned baseball bat lodged in my chest. Vulcan Raven:Stalagmite. Psycho Mantis: What.
This is Axe Cop's reaction when he enters Narnia through a wardrobe... though it should be noted there's nothing special about magically entering a world with talking animals and fantasy creatures compared to what goes in his comic all the time. In fact, his arrival makes Narnia considerably weirder.
Page 86 of Grrl Power: After dealing with Sydney's skittishness for several pages, they finally find out what she's hiding in the tube on her back. Seven unmarked orbs float into the air and do nothing. Maxima looks at this and says "what." It's so much less than what everyone was anticipating.
Obscurus Lupa gave one in her review of "Fatal Deviation", when out of nowhere, with no bearing to the plot, there's a naked man in a cowboy hat taking a bath outside.
Nash uses it so often, it ought to be classified as one of his catch phrases. But then, considering the nature of his show's content, it seems natural.
Used as a tag on the imagesite Danbooru for those images that make no sense whatsoever. A user was quoted as saying, "Does it make your brain shut down for a second when you see it? Then it's a 'what' picture."
On some "booru" image sites there's also a "no seriously what" tag, for when "what" is not enough.
In this review of Eversion one reviewer has already written the game off as a generic Super Mario Bros. clone, when the second reviewer casually mentions 'and then there's your power to warp reality to your whims'. The first reviewer's response is of course 'What.'
Kisenian: Fiore, go! Kill him! He's shitfaced; it'll be easy.
Fiore: But... he's my lover.
Kisenian: ... What.
Dragon Ball Abridged gave us a great one: Piccolo and Krillin use the Multi-Form technique to attack Nappa, but Nappa is still able to dodge their attacks. Piccolo ponders what kind of training Nappa had gone through to be so powerful, but Nappa is simply singing Patty-Cake in time to his attacks. Afterwards we get this:
Nappa: Good effort, but I'm still the patty-cake champion!
Nail: Learn your place earthling! you have some nerve demanding-
Guru: Here take it.
Nail: I... what.
Here's another one from their Bardock Special:
Zarbon: Mm, too bad. And that Bardock was such a dashing rogue.
This was also Shenron's reaction in the Christmas Tree of Might Christmas Special when the group summons him and go on about the forest being devastated by fire. Naturally Shenron thinks they want him to restore life to the forest, but Krillin's response that nah, Krillin just wants a great Christmas tree first makes Shenron do a Flat What, then marks his breaking point from being a Benevolent Genie into a Jackass Genie.
In Red vs. Blue, at the start of Season 10 Church finds out that while he's been in the Memory Unit (Which makes up most of Season 9's plot), Washington has replaced him fully. His reaction is hilarious:
Caboose: We sort of call the new guy Church, y'know, sometimes.
This video collects hundreds of these scenes from various webcomics.
Lisa Simpson is fond of this expression. Notably, the episode "Bart's Inner Child" and motivational speaker Brad Goodman:
Brad Goodman: Young man, what made you yell out that remark? Bart: I dunno... Brad Goodman: You just wanted to... express yourself, yes? Bart: I do what I feel like. Brad Goodman: Why, that's marvelous! 'I do what I feel like'. Ladies and gentlemen... this little boy here is the inner child that I've been talking about. (cut to Lisa, who is wearing an expression of Tranquil Fury.) Lisa: What.
Cartman gives one in "T.M.I." when he finds out that the school actually didn't post the boys' penis sizes.
Cartman also does it in "Crack Baby Athletic Association" when Kyle proposes using 30% of the company's profits to build an orphanage for the crack babies.
In the later seasons the boys' Functional Genre Savvy (especially Stan) has reduced many of their reactions (to ever-increasingly improbable events) to "what." Sometimes they upgrade it to a deadpan "Dude, what the fuck?".
In the second season premičre of The Venture Bros., this is the reaction of The Monarch to escaping from prison through the sewers, grasping the arm of what he believes to be one of his henchmen, and finding that it is instead the arm of Doctor Venture (and that the rest of the doctor is elsewhere, due to a teleportation accident.)
The episode "Troq". Cyborg and Starfire (well, Cyborg's doing the talking) inform Robin that "Troq" is a very offensive anti-Tamaranian slur (they had been assuming it was just a nickname, as they had all been given one). His Flat What is one of the few times it's not intended to be funny.
Robin also gets a Flat What of the second variety in "Apprentice, Part One", as Slade is revealing his We Can Rule Together ploy. Like the first example, it's not very funny.
In "Every Dog Has Its Day" when the Titans decide that what they really need to catch the alien dog-thing they're chasing (which has been constantly jumping on Raven and enthusiastically licking her every time it sees her) is "some bait". Raven gives the flattest "...what." you will EVER hear.
In The Batman's fourth season premiere, "The Batman/Superman Story", Lex Luthor can only manage a strained "Whaaat" when it becomes clear his plans have been foiled and Superman is hovering just outside of his Humongous Mecha.
Kim Possible does this occasionally, such as when she finds out Monique is a huge wrestling fan.
The Powerpuff Girls give a flat "say what?" in "Him Diddle Riddle" when they find that they have gone through white heat solving Him's riddles only to fail the last one, and now the Professor will pay... full price for a pancake breakfast. Even the narrator can't finish his "once again the day is saved" bit.
Adventures of the Gummi Bears pulled one or two. Gusto Gummi had carved a wooden statue of a Gummi Bear that artistically parodied the Statue of Liberty, then it promptly got devoured by a super termite. Cue "What."
In the Phineas and Ferb episode "A Real Boy", Vanessa has this reaction when her father mistakenly says that he wishes he had a son instead of a daughter:
Dr. Doofenschmirtz: What? You're wearing headphones? So you haven't heard a thing I've said all day... Vanessa: Why do you think I wear the headphones? Dr. Doofenschmirtz: So you're not mad at me for saying I'd rather have a son than a daughter like you? Vanessa: What. Dr. Doofenschmirtz: Oh, nothing, nothing! Just... (puts the headphones back in Vanessa's ears) put these back on... there you go. (leaves) Vanessa: Whatever.
Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy: Princess Peach when Mario asks her if he can have a kiss after he rescues her.