In an ideal universe, good and bad Karma
would be fairly and judiciously parceled out and distributed to everyone according to their actions.
Works with the Karmic Misfire trope do not take place in an ideal universe.
With a Karmic Misfire, a character who escapes with a Karma Houdini
will have at least one Karmic Butt Monkey
who'll be punished in his or her place. And, to make matters worse, the punishment inflicted on the poor undeserving sap can be far greater than the crime the actual guilty party committed.
Usually, the character who receives Karmic Misfire is completely innocent of wrongdoing and just had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, sometimes Karmic Misfire can also hit characters who were involved in the real guilty party's actions albeit unknowingly, reluctantly, or to a significantly lesser degree. In any case, the common factor in all these instances is that the person who is primarily responsible karmically gets off lightly or scot-free while someone else who was slightly involved or not involved at all gets hammered.
The Karmic Misfire trope can be the unintentional result of careless plotting
. Other times, it can be due to Values Dissonance
between the era and/or culture that produced the work and the present day.
If Karmic Misfire is deliberately used in a story, it can be employed to demonstrate that the universe is basically an unfair place
. If any supreme authority or authorities exist, they are either (at best) indifferent or (at worst
in how they parcel out justice. Other times, a creator will use Karmic Misfire for no other reason other than to be funny
. This will often happen in a Kafka Komedy
or Sadist Show
. In these cases, the Karmic Misfire will sometimes be the result of incompetence on a cosmic level.
The Cosmic Plaything
is often someone who's the target of Karmic Misfire. Also see the Bewildering Punishment
, Can't Get Away with Nuthin'
, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
, Fall Guy
, and The Scapegoat
Compare with the Guilt By Association Gag
in which the guilty party is
deservedly punished along wtih people who clearly don't deserve to be.
- In The Parallax View, the protagonist Frady (Warren Beatty) not only fails to publicly unmask the true nature of the Parallax Corporation and prevent their assassination of a senator but is also killed at the scene and ends up being blamed for the assassination by the official investigation committee. Meanwhile, the Parallax Corporation is able to continue its murderous operations unscathed.
- The main character of Arlington Road, Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), tries to prevent his right-wing terrorist neighbor from bombing the FBI headquarters but, like in The Parallax View, he ends up dying and being blamed for it as a result of the orchestrations of the neighbor.
- Inspector Clouseau in the original The Pink Panther ends up in prison after being framed for stealing the eponymous diamond while the actual culprits - Sir Charles Lytton, his nephew, and Clouseau's adulterous soon-to-be-ex wife - get to drive off into the sunset, laughing. And the reason the innocent Clouseau gets nailed while they get off scot-free? The princess who owns the Pink Panther knows that Lytton tried to steal it, but she doesn't want him to go to jail, so she herself frames Clouseau at the last possible moment!
- In Chick Tracts, the unintended message is that God will send even good people to hell for not vocally accepting a very specific set of Independent Baptist teachings while people who unapologetically live their entire lives in a manner that's destructive to themselves and others will get off with no punishment or consequences of any kind if they say the correct magic words and accept Jesus right before death.
- Two men are playing golf, when one misses his shot and starts swearing. The other, being a priest, tells him to stop taking the name of the Lord in vain. The man apologizes and they keep playing. A while later, he misses again, starts cursing, with the priest begging him to stop as storm clouds gather. Still later, the man misses again, starts cursing, and as thunder booms and skies darken, a lightning bolt kills... the priest. And a voice comes out of the clouds saying ‘Oh Me-fucking dammit! Fucking missed!’
- In an Israeli joke, a religious man decides he wants to experience secular hedonism for once. He takes off his yarmulke and heads out to a nightclub, but a car runs over him on the way. When he gets to Heaven and meets God, he calls him out for this Disproportionate Retribution, and God answers, ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t recognise you...’
- In Joel Chandler Harris's Brer Rabbit story 'Mr. Rabbit Nips the Butter', Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Possum are out in the woods together when Brer Rabbit steals their butter supply while the others are sleeping. He eats it, and then smears it on Brer Possum. This results in an argument the next day, resulting in a strange 'trial'. A fire is set up, and all three of them have to jump over the fire. The one that fails to make the jump is declared the guilty party. Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox make it over the fire with minor singing, but Brer Possum lands straight in the fire 'Keblam! And dat was the last of ole Brer Possum.'. The little boy to whom Uncle Remus tells the story objects to this injustice, saying that Brer Possum didn't steal the butter. And Uncle Remus replies that 'in this world, lots of folks gonna suffer for other folks' sins.'
- This is discussed in Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The gods, by their nature cannot be punished and so the penalty for their misdeeds often falls upon their children. This is the source for a great deal of bitterness among demigods, and part of the reason so many followed Luke.
- Pick pretty much any episode of Drake & Josh in which the two titular heroes try to get Megan punished for something she did wrong. Chances are, the parents will not believe their true story, and instead believe Megan's lies and punish them while Megan gets off scot-free.
- Conversed in The Stinger of one episode of The Vicar of Dibley. Geraldine tells Alice a version of the above joke about God aiming for Sir Swears-a-Lot and hitting the priest instead, and Alice, Comically Missing the Point as usual, complains that the joke is stupid because God wouldn't miss, "and he certainly wouldn't swear."
- In one version of the Medusa myth, the god Poseidon defiles Athena's temple by raping the priestess Medusa there. Athena is so enraged by her temple being violated that she curses Medusa by turning her into a gorgon whose appearance is so hideous that it causes on-lookers to turn to stone. Of course the real guilty party, Poseidon, escapes without even the slightest punishment because he's a god.
- In one of the Platonic Dialogues, this trope is used to illustrate the question of whether morality comes merely from reward and punishment or from some deeper source. In his example, Plato uses a theoretical "loved tyrant" who gets one Karma Houdini after another as the counterpart to a "hated philosopher" who is a perpetual Karmic Butt Monkey. In Plato's view, the philosopher is still better off because through his well-ordered rational soul, he has found Eudaimonia (true happiness) despite having his eyes gouged out with a hot poker and being sent to Hell by the Greek gods who are just as susceptible to false propaganda as the mortals.