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Counting Sheep
"Cowardly Lion: I haven't slept in weeks.
Tin Man: Why don't you try counting sheep?
Cowardly Lion: That doesn't do any good — I'm afraid of 'em."

"STAMPEDE!"

A character desperately needs to get to sleep. Maybe they've been awake for three days straight; maybe they have an important meeting to attend in the morning. But for whatever reason, no matter how hard they try or how much they toss and turn, they simply can't fall asleep.

Cue the character trying to get to sleep by counting imaginary sheep. Cartoons may show the sheep in an Imagine Spot. Those sheep may be jumping over a fence, walking into frame or simply standing in a field; it doesn’t matter. The intention is to drift off to sleep through the sheer boredom and repetition of counting them.

Unfortunately, proven by science to be ineffective in real life.

Due to the fact that most people know (normally through personal experience) that counting sheep does not help the counter to fall asleep, this trope is rarely played straight nowadays. More often it can be found:

  • Deconstructed (with the character concentrating so intently on counting sheep that they forget to sleep. If interrupted, cue swearing and/or recounting)
  • Parodied (flocks of non-imaginary sheep have a soporific effect because people will try to count them)
  • and/or Exaggerated (using some weird method in counting sheep, like counting something else, or the sheep is doing something else other than jumping, or using a calculator, or counting to 338,547 sheep, or setting up an animation of sheep jumping using a computer...)

Very often, it will be Played for Laughs. When it's ineffective, the trope can also be used to show how serious the character's insomnia is. When it's too effective on the other hand, it shows how easily the character drifts off to sleep.


Examples:

Advertising
  • A series of mattress commercials by Serta featured counting sheep who were constantly annoyed that people stopped needing them since the mattress was so comfy, they'd had an easier time falling to sleep.
  • One of the more (relatively) famous billboards for South Carolina roadside attraction South of the Border has a motorized depiction of sheep jumping over a fence with the phrase "Your sheep are all counted at South of the Border" (their classic billboards went for these kinds of puns a lot).

Anime & Manga
  • In the first episode of Haruhi-chan, Kyon has a dream, and Mikuru is a sheep that Haruhi is cruelly trying to force into jumping over the fence through a ring of fire so Kyon can count her.
  • In the second episode of Ah! My Goddess TV, when Keiichi and Belldandy are trying to sleep in a car, he explains the idea of counting sheep to her. He ends up awake all night, as Belldandy doesn't realize why you do it. She ends up counting over 38,000 when we last see it.
  • In an episode of Pokémon, James, Jessie and Meowth are up in a tree spying on a rancher and his field full of Mareep, which are basically electric sheep. As usual...
    James: "One Mareep, two Mareep, three Mareep... *snore* ..."
  • In Kurikosan Konnichi Wa, the titular Kuriko prefers to imagine her husband jumping the fence.
    Kuriko: Ten Yoichi's, eleven Yoichi's...
    Yoichi: Make it sheep, will you?
  • In an episode of Gintama, Katsura starts counting sheep to help himself fall asleep. As is typical of the show's nature, this activity eventually leads him to telling a lengthy and tragic story about some high school basketball players, the only things in the story related to the sheep counting being the jumping involved in the sport, and the jersey number of one of the players being the same as that of the sheep he was about to count (Which he finally does at the end of the story).
    • Okita counts Hijikata corpses when he wants to fall asleep. Hijikata naturally isn't amused when he finds out about this.

Film
  • From The Wizard of Oz:
    Cowardly Lion: I haven't slept in weeks.
    Tin Man: Why don't you try counting sheep?
    Cowardly Lion: That doesn't do any good — I'm afraid of 'em.

Literature
  • In Winnie the Pooh, Pooh tries to put himself to sleep by counting Heffalumps [creatures that resemble elephants] but every Heffalump takes a pot of his honey, and when "the five hundred and eighty-seventh Heffalumps were licking their jaws, and saying to themselves, 'Very good honey this, I don't know when I've tasted better', Pooh could bear it no longer".

Live-Action TV
  • In a brief Bert and Ernie sketch on Sesame Street, Ernie got bored counting sheep, so he started counting fire engines, and finally balloons. The noise of these imaginary objects wakes Bert up.
    Ernie: 43,891... 43,892...
    • One "Number of the Day" sketch had the Count count sheep until an elephant appears, with said elephant indicating that number (for example, if the elephant appears after five sheep, then the Number of the Day is five, for zero only the elephant appears).
    • Yet another Sesame Street sketch had Little Bo Peep at a Lost and Found department, for rather obvious reasons. Once her sheep are recovered, she confesses to the clerk that she doesn't know how many she has, because she's never dared count them. The clerk offers to count them for her, and...
  • Mr. Bean once did this, but instead of imagining them, he uses a photograph of a field full of sheep. After continually losing count, he counts the number of rows and columns of sheep, does a quick calculation, and instantly drops off.
  • In a Season One Kids in the Hall sketch, a kid says he can't sleep and his father suggests counting sheep. The kid starts crying about all the slaughtered sheep. His father says they're live sheep. The kid says, "You didn't tell me they were alive. Dad, I was up all night tagging their toes!"
  • In the Married... with Children episode "Un-Alful Entry", Al is counting hooters instead (meaning breasts, not owls).

Newspaper Comics
  • In Dilbert, a co-worker notes that he used to own a sheep farm. Asked how many sheep he had, he says every time he tried to count them he fell asleep.
  • One Charles Addams cartoon has a creepy-looking bald individual (the genesis for Uncle Fester on The Addams Family TV series) getting to sleep by counting sheep being herded into a slaughterhouse.
  • One comic parodied this by a character counting Veeps. One Al Gore, Two Al Gores, Three Al Gorezzz...

Music
  • Counting sheep apparently does nothing for Adam Young.
  • P.D.Q Bach's "Shepherd on the Rocks, With a Twist" ends with the shepherd dozing off while trying to count his sheep.

Theatre
  • In Once Upon a Mattress, Winnifred, having failed to find any comfortable position on the bed, counts all through the night and by the next morning has reached several thousand without getting any rest.

Video Games
  • In LSD: Dream Emulator, sometimes, instead of starting a new dream, you are instead shown an animation. One of these shows sheep jumping over a fence.
  • In Worms 3D, the objective of one of the missions is to cure your leader from his insomnia by using the sheep weapon to make him count some sheep.
  • The game Pokémon Channel has an entire channel devoted to showing Mareep (electric sheep) jumping over a fence. Pikachu has a tendency to fall asleep while watching it.
  • One microgame in WarioWare: Twisted! is called "Falling Asheep", which has you timing sheeps' jumps over a fence in a boy's thought bubble.
  • Due to their association with sleep, games in the Paper Mario series have this as an item which inflicts the Sleep status.
  • Animal Crossing: New Leaf introduces the Dream Suite, which allows the player to visit other towns in dreams. The character who runs the Dream Suite is a tapir named Luna, who helps the player to fall asleep by counting sheep.

Webcomics

Web Original

Western Animation
  • An episode of Muppet Babies had Fozzie try to count sheep, but was overwhelmed by how many sheep there were. Of course, it was all an Imagine Spot.
  • In Sheep in the Big City, Sheep once got a job jumping over a fence to help insomniacs fall asleep.
  • In The Penguins of Madagascar, Mort attempts to sleep while obsessed with touching King Julien's feet. He counts sheep, but those quickly turn into disembodied feet.
  • Futurama, "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid", when the characters go to a pet show:
    Fry: Man, that's dog's gonna be hard to beat. Look at him bring in the sheep! One sheep, two sheep ... (yawns)... three sheep... (falls asleep)
  • One of the Wallace & Gromit Cracking Contraptions shorts features a device that produces sheep for Wallace to count himself to sleep. The "sheep" are really just Gromit in a sheep costume, being tossed up in front of the bed... 500 times.
  • In Cow and Chicken, Chicken tries to do this to sleep and get over the effects of too much caffeine. He ends up counting mules carrying coffee bean bags.
  • In "How to Sleep", Goofy does this unsuccessfully (As pictured at the top of the page).
  • Ann-Margrock sings a lullaby to Pebbles about counting sheep.
  • An animated short of Ruby Gloom revolves around the characters doing this. Misery's version has the sheep jumping straight into the wall, where Misery counts with "...ow."
  • In the Disney cartoon, Aladdin was having a problem sleeping, so Genie tried to help him sleep by summoning mini sheep for him to count.
  • Johnny Test couldn't sleep, so he had Dukey dress up as a sheep and jump over his bed.
  • On Jimmy Two-Shoes, when Jimmy is trying to conquer his fear of pickles, he sleeps in bed while dreaming of pickles jumping over a fence, with a small yell between each snore.
  • One episode of the cartoon Grimmy features a gang of gangster sheep. How did they rob banks? "Count Us!".
  • In Drag-Along Droopy, sheepherder Droopy leads a massive flock of sheep who mow down all the vegetation in their path, riling the resident cattleman. On the eve of their face-off Droopy dozes, counting sheep hopping a fence. The sheep doze, counting Droopys hopping a fence.
  • In an episode of Garfield and Friends, Bo isn't sleepy, so he decides to count people until he dozes off.
    • There was also an episode where Garfield tries to count sheep, but he winds up counting Odies instead.
  • Done with several tiny Strong Sads in the Homestar Runner animation "A Jorb Well Done."
  • One scene in "Day and Night" had several sheep jump inside Night's body.
  • On Sponge Bob Square Pants, Mr. Krabs falls asleep by counting money jumping into a cash register, but keeps getting woken up by the squeaky boots he gave to SpongeBob.
  • In the Looney Tunes short "The Sour Puss," Porky and his pet cat Pussy go to sleep before embarking on a fishing trip. Porky counts sheep hopping over a fence while Pussy counts fish hopping over a fence.
  • Captain Zed And The Zee Zone, which is based on the concept of a group of RAF-like pilots in a Dream World patrolling to keep kids' dreams safe, has the ground crew consist of anthropomorphic sheep as a Stealth Pun reference to this trope.
  • The Character Of The Day Sandman from Courage the Cowardly Dog can't go to sleep, so he brings sheep over to jump in front of him. But some get bored already and pass the time by either arm wrestling or playing poker, and one even yells at him "Just go to sleep already!"
  • The Bozo The Clown cartoon "Sheep Thief Grief" has Bozo tending his uncle's sheep flock. He does a spot check, counting them off, and proceeds to start getting sleepy.

Other
  • The Hitsuji de Oyasumi series of talk CDs feature an assortment of popular Japanese voice actors counting sheep to help the listener fall asleep. Not just a few sheep, either; most of the counts go up to 400 sheep.
  • On Neopets, there's a game called Maths Nightmare where you have to solve math problems very fast to keep the Babaas (sheep-like petpets) jumping over the fence.
    This wonderful book gives suggestions for counting Babaas and even has Babaas on each page for you to count!

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