"What does a guy have to do to get nicked in this town? What does a man have to do to get some attention 'round here?"
— Tez "technically you could call me a serial killer" On Toast, KateModern: The Last Work
A character wants to get in trouble, either for their own reasons (such as enjoying the punishment or to get access to a prison) or to frame someone else. This trope is a combo inversion of Can't Get Away with Nuthin' and Selective Enforcement.
The first form of this trope is often found in doppelganger, shapeshifting, and body-switcher stories. A character looks exactly like their archenemy or rival. Instead of moping or trying to revert, they immediately plan to ruin their enemy's life by getting into all sorts of trouble for which the original will be punished. May also occur in a non-fantastic situation, where the character is never seen, but (unsuccessfully) tries to frame the other.
In the second form of the trope, reminiscent of a Springtime for Hitler plot, a character wants to be punished in order to escape a worse fate. Perhaps they want to be sent to bed without a disgusting dinner, or maybe a homeless person would rather go to jail than starve or freeze to death outside.
Unfortunately for the focus of the story, every single thing they do is appreciated by the intended victims, from telling them their hat looks stupid ("What? Oh! I hadn't realized I'd put on the wrong hat this morning!") to burning down their house ("Thank you! That house was full of hideous artwork insured for well more than it was worth! I can finally buy medicine for my sick children, and a house that doesn't have asbestos leaking from the ceiling!") This even happens when the character would normally get in trouble with the victims for purely imaginedslights. The gratefulness is usually in direct proportion to the heinousness of the misdeed.
A twist on this that's usually done in comedy situations is when the character keeps trying to get in trouble by doing big misdeeds and failing, but eventually commits a small one by accident (jaywalking and littering are common examples) and then gets what he wants.
Occasionally the character will find that the person they are impersonating is the Token Evil Teammate, so anything nasty that they do comes off as nicer than usual. May overlap with Poke the Poodle. See also Get Into Jail Free and Karma Houdini.
This plot can be tweaked by having the characters' opponents realize what he is attempting and seek to frustrate him being preventing from being arrested, or making sure to remove the very point of why he wants to be in prison.
Examples of the first type:
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El Goonish Shive: the first arc involving Ellen (Elliot's misguided Opposite-Sex Clone). She wanted to get Elliot in trouble at school, but threatening bullies didn't result in any punishment, insulting the principal caused him to realize the insults were accurate, and trying to pick an inappropriate topic of discussion when the topic wasn't inappropriate enough just led to a situation that was overwhelmingly embarrassing for Ellen instead.
Danny Phantom: The only reason Danny ever overshadows people, aside from information gathering.
Not a mystical or lookalike version, but often in Baby Looney Tunes and similar spinoffs, one character (usually Sylvester or Daffy) would try to frame another character (Bugs or Tweety Bird, respectively) without being seen. Usually, this would be seen as a misguided yet heartfelt attempt at kindness, such as planting a tree in the middle of the living room rug on what just happened to be Arbor Day.
Happened on the Freaky Friday episode of Jimmy Neutron. Jimmy and Cindy failed each other's tests and then tried to damage each other's reputations.
One episode of American Dragon Jake Long featured Jake and his sister Haley swapping bodies. While waiting for a chance to undo it, Jake tried to destroy her good reputation while she tried to build him a good reputation he'd not like.
Examples of the second type:
Both types are a fairly common plot in The Beano, such as Dennis the Menace disguising himself as Walter and pulling pranks to try and get him into trouble, or Roger the Dodger trying to get himself grounded in order to escape revenge from the last set of people he's pranked.
One Oor Wullie strip has him reading The Beano (also published by DC Thompson) and deciding to emulate Dennis the Menace, but every time he tries to pull off a prank, it turns out to be beneficial (such as a water pistol attack missing and watering his mum's flowers). By the end, his parents are asking him why he can't be this helpful all the time.
The Final Fantasy VII fanfiction The Zor's Pizza Chronicles has a sequence in which the main characters decide to die and go to Hell because there's a creature there that can be used to revive Aeris/th. In order to get there, they need to do something bad first before dying, but Cloud finds that everything he tries backfires - for example, snuffing out Cosmo Candle at Cosmo Canynon, only to be congratulated by a parent whose kids were always getting burnt by the flames.
The protagonist of Cemetery Man has a job that involves shooting zombies in the head when they rise from the graveyard where he works. By accident, one day he kills someone who wasn't already dead. Nobody believes him when he tries to come clean to the cops. The entire last act of the movie is him performing more and more depraved acts in a desperate existential attempt to write his own destiny. The denials from the authorities as to his guilt get more and more bizarre.
American Psycho, both the book and the movie. Patrick Bateman commits a series of heinous crimes including chasing a hooker with a chainsaw, going on a shooting spree, blowing up several police cruisers, and hiding in his office as a helicopter searches for the perp. While hiding, he phones his lawyer and confesses to everything, but later on, nothing has come of this. He meets his lawyer, who laughs the whole thing off and mistakes him for someone else. Bateman becomes angry, (who had just called "Bateman" spineless, after all, Patrick Bateman couldn't pull off a murder, let alone about 20), informs the lawyer that he IS Bateman, and insists the crimes actually happened. He is apparently saved again when the lawyer informs him he had dinner with someone he supposedly killed just a few weeks ago , tells Bateman he no longer finds this funny, and leaves. Bateman slinks down in his chair and delivers a speech about how there are no more barriers to cross, etc.
In both the book and the movie, Bateman is shown to suffer from hallucinations and other psychotic (duh) episodes. It is left unclear whether he really does embody this trope, with the reason being that everyone is so interchangeable to each other that they can't notice when someone dies, or whether he imagined the whole thing.
Played for Laughs in Chopper as mass murderer Mark Reade confesses to shooting a man in self defense to the police, and brings in the murder weapon. When the police don't believe him, he claims that he has "Never been as insulted in his whole life". He later laments that he used to be a dangerous criminal and now can't even get arrested.
That Man From Rio - Adrian rescues his girlfriend Agnes when she's abducted in Paris and spirited away to Rio, where she drags him into an adventure with one hair's-breadth situation after another. As they're driving to Brasilia in their underwear (getting caught in a fierce storm shortly before) he has enough and pulls into a police station. He turns himself in, running off a list of offenses - entering their country without a passport, using a plane ticket he stole from an old pensioner, getting into fights with several people, including policemen, indecently dressed, and driving a stolen car - but as he speaks French the policeman doesn't understand a word. Adrian throws his hands up and exclaims "Nothing - just Rio and Brasilia!" and the policeman cheerfully points the way. Back on the road he mutters "I should take up crime!"
In the 1970 film Some Will, Some Won't, Captain Russell has to spend 28 days in jail in order to inherit 150,000 pounds. He makes numerous attempts to get arrested for minor offences and fails in all of them. For example, he very obviously shoplifts only for a pickpocket to steal the loot off him seconds before he's nabbed by the store detectives. He eventually abandons the whole idea and throws away the brick he was holding, only for it to smash a store window; resulting in his arrest.
Played with, briefly, in Last Action Hero. The newly self-promoted Big Bad gets his hands on a magical ticket that lets him escape his movie into the "real" world. Soon after, he sees two kids mugging, possibly killing, a third to steal his shoes. Befuddled by this (and the fact that they weren't instantly arrested like in the Troperiffic movie he came from) he goes to a nearby garage and shoots the mechanic. Then twice more. Then loudly shouts through the streets of New York, "I have murdered a man and would like to confess!" Someone yells back "SHUT UP, we're trying to sleep!" Cue Aside Glance and an instantaneously hatched diabolical scheme.
The main plot of Bamboozled is an example of this trope. The main character is a Black producer who wants out of his job at a television studio. So he creates the most racist show possible called the Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, hoping he'll get fired. Instead of the show offending people, it becomes a huge hit making the producer rich, much to his shock and disappointment.
In Three O'Clock High, Jerry tries to avert a fight with a bully by getting himself suspended. His efforts to offend his English Lit teacher backfire when she falls for him
An odd Jewish story/joke has a dead man turned away from Heaven on the grounds that he's never sinned, which the system wasn't designed to cope with. He's returned to Earth and given one day to commit a sin so that he can get past the Pearly Gates. Unwilling to do anything really evil, he wanders around in increasing desperation until finally a woman propositions him. They sleep together, but in the morning he freezes in terror when she tells him he did "such a good deed last night."
In the O. Henry short story The Cop and the Anthem, Soapy the bum wants to spend the winter in jail rather than on the street, but can't get arrested for anything. That is, until the end of the story, where he decides to get a job just before his arrest for loitering. This story was adapted into a Freddy The Freeloader sketch on The Red Skelton Show.
In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, there is a character named "Done It" Duncan, for his habit of telling the city watch, "Whatever it was, I done it!" in order to be given a bowl of soup and a night in jail out of the cold. They never believe him, but sometimes let him stay anyway. He is a valuable source of information, as he often reveals who the real perpetrators were. "It was me, not Coalface's boys like everyone says".
In Joy In The Morning, Bertie Wooster tries everything to get Florence Craye to call off their engagement. Finally he kicks her beloved little brother in the pants, and she thanks him: he had destroyed some of her scrapbooks, and she was going to kick him herself.
In one the sequels to Doctor in the House, a character tries to deliberately fail his final medical exam. (If he passes, he will be obligated to marry a woman he no longer loves.) He attempts to deliberately fail the written exam but, never having failed a test in his life, finds he is unable to deliberately write down wrong answers. He gets drunk before his final oral exam and refuses to answer one of the questions. The examiner then realises that he has been using that diagnostic example too much and thanks the student for drawing it to his attention. At this point, he might still have passed if he had not then thrown up on the examiner.
The Good Soldier Švejk features a character called Friedrich Welfer, who receives a yearly allowance until he gets his doctoral degree. Since this allowance is bigger than his payment as a doctor would be, he purposely prolongs his studies as long as possible. However, when World War I breaks out, he has to take a "military exam", and receives his doctorate despite writing "Lecken Sie mich am Arsch!" (meaning "Kiss my ass") to every question.
Wringer has Palmer deliberately getting detention so his "friends" (who take great pleasure in killing pigeons) won't see his pet pigeon follow him home. Played straight when he confesses to spitting on the floor (the first time) and she forgives him (to his dismay). Subverted when he spits again and promptly lands himself in detention.
In Doctor Dolittle's Return, Dr. Dolittle tries in vain to get himself thrown into jail, so that he can write his book in peace and quiet. When he finally succeeds, the animals break him out and he has to start over again.
This is essentially the plot of the short story "The Misguided Halo", in which someone gets a, well, halo due to a celestial bureaucratic mixup. This being not exactly a desirable fashion accessory for a mid-20th century businessman, he attempts first to cover it up (the only hat he can find that's large enough is a piece of a marching band costume that the dog has been using for a bed, so it's both unsightly and stinky) and then to get rid of it by "sinning". Except that everything he does is taken by the angel who gave him the halo in the first place to be either a good deed or an attempt at one.
Live Action TV
On an episode of iCarly, Carly and Sam are planning a big 50th-webcast show. Sam gets detention for the night on which the show was being held, though, so Carly and Freddy decide to broadcast the show from detention. Trouble is, no matter what they do, it backfires (Carly pulls a fire alarm; there was a real fire. Freddy grafitti's a window; it gets washed off. Carly breaks a teacher's chair; she's so happy that she gets a paid vacation she doesn't investigate. Etc.) Eventually, Carly gets detention for slamming her locker in frustration from the failed attempts of getting in trouble, from a Sadist Teacher, and Freddy hides in a closet.
An episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had the Victim of the Week in the B plot turn out to have been a homeless man. He tried to get sent to jail (for free food and shelter) by punching a police officer. Said officer realized what he was doing and left him handcuffed, apparently failing to realize this would lead to his death.
In the earlier seasons of Supernatural, Sam is rather disgruntled by the fact that, despite their tendency to pull the exact same stunts in pursuit of the Monster of the Week, Dean is the one who builds up an impressive criminal record while Sam's name doesn't even appear in any legal database. Despite the advantages in the, you know, not-getting-arrested department. Dean finds the entire situation amusing.
Dean: "You innocent, harmless young man, you!"
In Seinfeld, George needs to be fired from the Yankees to get a more lucrative title with the Mets, but is actively praised for wearing/damaging Babe Ruth's clothes and 'streaking' during a ballgame in a flesh-colored body suit. In the end, he finally manages to do something that would have gotten him fired, except that Mr. Wilhelm barges in at the last second to take credit for it and get himself fired because he was up for the same Mets job.
In Get Smart, Max has to get into jail to retrieve a microfilm off a convict...all his attempts to get arrested backfire, but he finally gets caught for littering - he gets the sentence he needs by insulting the judge.
In Frasier, during the period when Niles was married to Mel, but knew Daphne loved him back, Mel would only agree to a divorce if he showed himself up as a rude, boorish man whom she wanted rid of. Nothing he attempted worked: for instance, when he made comments about someone having a drink problem, he was praised for his insight and courage in speaking up, and the man immediately swore off alcohol.
On an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Reese wanted to avoid going to a formal dance with his girlfriend so he tried to goad her into a fight by insulting her. When that didn't work, he deliberately got himself grounded but his mom saw right through the plan and told him he was grounded after he went to the dance. Finally, he admitted to his girlfriend that he didn't want to go and she told him that he made a promise so he was going to have to attend and, after that, she would break up with him.
There have been at least two comedy programs that have involved people trying to get into prison for some reason by deliberately pulling a fire alarm when they knew there was no fire - only for a fire to break out in the area shortly before the fire department arrives.
Some of the members of the eponymous club in Glee try to improve their reputations by getting in trouble. Even an impromptu musical in the library just gets praise from the librarian and an invitation to perform at her church.
In an episode of Batman, the Penguin, acting as a respected restaurateur as part of a Civilian Villain scheme, has considerable difficulty when he actively tries to get thrown in prison so that he can consult an expert forger criminal colleague. When he was finally sent to prison, he learned the colleague was just getting off.
30 Rock - after attaining A-list celebrity status, Tracy desperately wants out. He tries disgracing himself publicly, but all of his boorish antisocial antics are embraced as the quirks of a genius artist by an adoring public.
In Young Dracula, Ingrid pulls the fire alarm at school, setting off the sprinklers at the same time, in a deliberate attempt to get suspended so she can prove to father how evil she is. A horrified Vlad shows up and turns off the alarm... just in time to get blamed for setting it off.
In an episode of The Red Skelton Show, Freddie the Freeloader wants to get sent to jail for Christmas because it's nice and warm, and he likes the people there. But no matter what he does, he can't get there. Then he meets someone who gives him the incentive to remain on the outside. Only then does he get dragged off to jail.
The A-Team investigates a prison where inmates are forced to fight the death. To get into the jail they plot to get themselves arrested. When BA drives dangerously, the team acts drunk and insults the police they are let loose because the Corrupt Hicks already have federal heat on themselves. So Hannibal demands the keys and drives their van through a window of the sheriff's office.
The Middle: In "The Last Whiff of Summer", Sue attempts to get attention from her father by deliberately misbehaving so he will have to punish her. However, her attempts to be a 'bad girl' fall solidly in Poke the Poodle territory and Mike fails to even notice.
GM: They're all skrull infiltrators. You make the front page of the Times for your heroism.
Sometimes given as an explanation for Wally's behaviour in Dilbert. He knows that his severance package would be greater than his future wages, so he's trying to get fired. The company know this as well, so they just put up with him. This is based on an actual colleague of Scott Adams at Pacific Bell.
At the beginning of a weeklong arc in Foxtrot, Roger declared that he was going to take Jason golfing after school the following day, never mind that Jason was clearly utterly uninterested in the game. The final panel of the Monday comic that week showed Ms. O'Malley, Jason's teacher, on the receiving end of a hailstorm of paper darts, yelling "Jason Fox, are you trying to get detention!?" (His scheme failed.)
The plot of the 1938 musical Leave It To Me! involved a bathtub manufacturer being made an ambassador to the USSR as an unwanted reward for campaign contributions and trying various schemes to get himself recalled.
Although Florence in Freefall had previously been jailed just for her association with a wanted criminal, when she tried turning herself in for tampering with a global robot update (because she's strongly conditioned for Lawful Good acts), the robotic police were too generous.
In Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Bloo wanted to be sent to bed without the awful, casserole-like dinner Frankie was trying to make. Unfortunately for him, everyone else got the blame because Harriman had hidden a stash of carrots in his room and didn't want them discovered. Bloo ended up eating all of the dish.
That's because he was jumping on the bed to try and get in trouble so he wouldn't have to eat it. Unfortunately, every time somebody jumped on the bed (including Herriman), bits of the ceiling fell into Frankie's pot JUST as she finished making it, and Madame Foster made her start over. When Frankie caught Bloo jumping on the bed, feeding him the dinner was the best punishment she could come up with.
An episode of The Pink Panther concerned the titular character trying to get sent to prison so he can get a Christmas dinner.
In Dudley Do-Right, the titular character tries to get kicked out of the Mounted Police so that he can infiltrate Snideley Whiplash's gang, but everything goes wrong, from "You blew up the dam! The irrigation problem has been solved!" to "You burned down that building! We had been trying to tear it down for years and never got around to it!". He finally does manage to get in trouble, though... by eating his peas with a knife, something no Mountie should ever do!
In the South Park episode "Breast Cancer Show Ever," Cartman deliberately gets detention so that he can avoid having to fight Wendy Testaburger after school.
In one episode of Pepper Ann, Pepper-Ann wanted to get into detention (which she normally does) to keep her friend who got detention company, by doing nothing but wearing a bucket on her head and dancing like a moron in all her classes. She fails to get detention, but is referred to the school counselor.
There was a King of the Hill where Hank was trying to get arrested so he could be in jail with Bill so he could apologize to him. Being a very by-the-book character, he walks into a convenience store without a shirt or shoes on, and points this out to a cop there who replies that "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service" is store policy and not the law. Even the cashier says that he doesn't really enforce it. Before that, Hank tried to jaywalk with a cop in sight, but he was busy writing a ticket.
In another episode, Bobby and Joseph are trying out a book full of pranks but they keep accidentally achieving positive results. For example, trying the classic salt shaker spill on Connie causes a nearby girl to invite her to lunch.
A vintage Popeye cartoon has Popeye and Bluto trying to injure themselves so they'll be ministered to by nurse Olive - to their frustration all their attempts are thwarted by dumb luck. Popeye finally pulls out a can of spinach and force-feeds it to Bluto, who becomes a dynamo of flying fists. Popeye ends up happy in a body cast as Bluto looks on jealously.
In the series where Bluto was renamed Brutus, Olive was a sculptress wanting a beaten down person to model for her.
In another remake of the original plot, Popeye ended up being ejected from the hospital because it was for dogs and cats. Bluto started barking while Popeye made cat sounds. The two of them were taken to "Happy Valley Screwball Institute".
This happened in a episode of Angela Anaconda, where Angela forgets to wear green on St. Patrick's Day. She tries to get detention so that she can avoid getting pinched during recess, and fails each time. She manages to escape this fate when she turns her jacket inside out to green.
One episode of Detention centered around the kids who normally got detention trying not to, and Shelley Kelley, a Teacher's Pet who never got it, was trying to get it. Everything the poor girl did only resulted in praise...deflate all the basketballs? Great, now they'll fit through the baskets easier. Flood the gym? "We've been meaning to clean that. Thanks!"
In The Simpsons, Homer tries to get himself disabled so he can work at home, but he doesn't get hurt. At one point, he walks around a hardhat area with no helmet and falling stuff keeps missing him. A wheelbarrow full of bricks falls on someone else, prompting Homer to quip "Probably better that didn't hit me".
In another episode, Bart, who is known to cause trouble 24/7, tries to cause mischief but every single attempt backfires with him winding up doing good deeds.
In one Underdog cartoon, Simon bar Sinister was trying to lure the hero into his Death Trap, but first he had to gain his attention. So he and Cad decided to simply rob a bank. Unfortunately, Underdog was busy stopping a far bigger disaster, which took priority, so while Simon and Cad got away with a fortune, they failed to make him show up. Then Simon decided to try robbing a toy store, hoping that such a heartless act would make him come running. Again, the hero had to be elsewhere, saving actual lives, so the villain failed to make him show up (and wound up with a lot of toys he didn't need). Finally, Simon decided to kidnap Underdog's girlfriend Sweet Polly Purebread and that worked. (Of course, Underdog wasn't busy this time, and he has been known to put her on hold in other episodes if there's a bigger crisis to deal with.)
An episode of Darkwing Duck has Darkwing trying to get arrested so that he can infiltrate a prison for supervillains. After repeatedly failing in his attempt to commit crimes, he is finally arrested for jaywalking. (The police officers only agree to send him to the super-prison when he demonstrates that he can also do scary shadow puppets.) When Darkwing put on the supervillain costume he was wearing when he was arrested, he joked he should be arrested just for wearing such a ridiculous outfit, and that was, in fact, the reason he was arrested for jaywalking. Made even more hilarious when you realize the police, and thus the super-prison, are on HIS side, so infiltration should have been trivial for him.
Lucky Lydia, in What A Cartoon! Show, was dared into kicking an old man's back. When she tried to apologize for this, he told her it put it back into place and he not only thanked but also paid her for this.
In the Rated A For Awesome episode "Club Detention" the guys started a club to make detention more fun, but since Thera never gets in trouble she couldn't join and no matter what she tried she couldn't get detention. It later turned out that the vice principal was making up her own crazy rules to keep the guys in detention and eventually expel them, and she was giving Thera special treatment because she's an honors student.
In a joke from Communist Eastern Europe, a man is so desperate he tries to get into prison. At first, he tries by stealing bread from a (state-run) bakery - but the employees just pity him, knowing well enough how much it sucks to be hungry. Then he goes to a bookshop and steals the collected works by Marx and Engels - but the employees are glad to finally get rid of those doorstops. Now he is so desperate he walks into a party meeting and shouts: "Down with Communism!" After which he gets reprimanded: "Are you crazy? Can you imagine what would have happened to you if there was a single real Communist in here?"
Operation Greylord was a Federal Investigation into corruption amongst cops, lawyers, and judges in Chicago. The FBI wanted to send fake cases through the system as a sting to see if the targets would offer to let them buy their way out of trouble. So, they had federal agents impersonate drunk drivers all over town, trying to bait the CPD into arresting them. This proved maddeningly difficult, as the cops kept telling them to go home and sleep it off.
Pedro Lopez, a South American man who killed over 300 people across three countries, confessed his crimes and was told to push off and stop shitting them. This denial continued until a flash flood unearthed a mass grave containing Pedro's victims.
Robert Beltran reportedly wanted out of his commitment to Star Trek: Voyager so desperately that he was willing to try almost anything to get fired, including deliberately giving his worst performance, and publicly accusing Brannon Braga of being gay.
Donny Osmond tells the story of being encouraged by his agent to rack up a minor arrest or two to get rid of his squeaky-clean image as a young adult. On one occasion, he saw his chance while walking ahead of a random cop, so he turned back nervously and started running. The cop stopped him but let him go as soon as he saw the name on his ID. Osmond later recounted that while it's long been said that a would-be actor "couldn't even get arrested in Hollywood", he had never heard of it being literally true until it happened to him.