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A story where no matter how well-meaning, reasonable and cautious a character is, everything he does has awful repercussions for him and makes him look like a horrible person. Attempts to set things right just blow up in his face and aggravate the situation further, and generally the story ends when things are at their worst.
The afflicted characters are held to be entirely to blame for their own misfortune. Despite this, they are otherwise decent, nice and perfectly pleasant people who would be well-liked and respected... if they didn't have the misfortune to be living in a Kafka Komedy. Here, the universe punishes even the whitest lie or mildest of indiscretions with completely out-of-proportion ruthlessness.
It doesn't help that in a lot of these comedies the people around the protagonist seem incapable of feeling any kind of sympathy or empathy for them at all, despite how blindingly obvious it should be that this person isn't (entirely) responsible for the hideous chain of misfortunes crashing down around them, and would never be responsible for the horrible things they've been mistakenly accused of.
The trope is named after Franz Kafka, whose characters are well-meaning, reasonable, and cautious, but horrible things happen to them not only despite but usually because of their perfectly-nice actions. Whether or not Kafka's work qualifies as funny, on the other hand, is a matter of taste and serious academic debate. Kafka himself read chapters of his books to his close friends, and the comedy aspect was a big part of the readings.
Of course, this trope doesn't necessarily have to be used for comedic purposes. It can also be used to turn the recipient of the abuse into The Woobie. At the same time, it can also be used to turn the audience against the character who blames the recipient of the abuse for problems, turning them into The Scrappy.
The subtrope of Black Comedy least likely to involve death. Contrast with Plague of Good Fortune, where good things keep inexplicably happening to the character's chagrin, and Springtime for Hitler, where a character deliberately does something bad but is met with greatness for it, or Karma Houdini where the villain gets off scot-free. May occasionally overlap with Somebody Doesn't Love Raymond and definitely Butt Monkey and Sadist Show. See also Can't Get Away with Nuthin' .
Not to be confused with KefkaKomedy.
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Anime & Manga
Ranma Saotome of Ranma ½ has this happen in many stories, often revolving around potential cures for his curse.
It's not just his curse. The whole series is a Kafka Komedy. Ranma's problems frequently happen because of the machinations of other people (his father engaged him to multiple women before he was old enough to know what was going on, and VIOLENT women at that, he's frequently blamed for panty thefts committed by Happosai, etc.), but all the responsibility for solving the mess gets shoved on Ranma. All of this is because of the creator's sense of humor. If you're not watching the show or reading the manga with an extremely big sense of humor, it's very easy to write off almost everyone as a cast of complete monsters. A lot of the darkest fanfiction for this series came from fans who didn't realize this was supposed to be a comedy and therefore not taken literally. The only other meliorating factor that's meant to make the series funny is that Ranma himself can be insulting and rude, and can't make up his mind about his "fiancee problem". Whether Ranma's jerkass behavior justifies everyone else's or not, Kafka Komedy still applies.
Detroit Metal City. The main character lives a double life as an aspiring pop musician (which he loves, but sucks at) and being the songwriter, lead guitarist and front man for a Death Metal band under a false name and identity (a role he hates, but is extremely good at). However much he wants to quit doing the latter, he is unable to do so because he's too good at being said Death Metal frontman. The metal persona also ends up surfacing at the most inopportune at times in his normal life as well.
Actually, the whole series revolves around the fact that Tomoko is socially awkward and just convinces herself that she is not responsible for anything. While she tries to be more sociable, she never really gets punished for the effort and just gives up too soon.
Buster Keaton's 1922 two-reeler "Cops" takes this trope Up to Eleven — the protagonist's attempt to earn an honest buck ultimately leads to his being chased by what appears to be the entire LAPD.
In the film The Graduate the entire plot is a Kafka Komedy since any and all actions he makes are against authority figures but he never intends to do anything bad. He begins the movie loved by those around him and by the end of the movie he's despised by almost everyone who once liked him.
In the Scorsese comedy After Hours, the protagonist already pursued by an angry mob that thinks he's a burglar, looks through a window and sees someone get shot. "I'll probably get blamed for that," he says.
The protagonist of The Tenant (in both the Roland Topor novel and the Roman Polanski film) is mercilessly tormented by his neighbors to comedic effect.
A Serious Man. Poor Larry Gopnik just wants to find some spiritual satisfaction in life when everything in his life is going to hell.
Bill Murray's character in Quick Change spends the entire film dealing with this sort of thing. Of course, he did commit a bank robbery - but he's a decent enough guy despite this.
Practically all the jokes in films such as Father Of The Bride, Just Married, Meet the Parents and Duplex are based on everything going wrong for the protagonists and schadenfreude.
Brazil has a lot of Kafkaesque elements, many of which are presented as comedy - even if they end up Played for Drama.
The beginning of the film Anger Management is a prime example of this; the more Adam tries to apologize for his mistakes the more everyone gets upset. Deconstructed in the end, since nearly all of these circumstances are revealed to be an act to test his character, except the guy with a taser, who was just in a bad mood.
The works of Franz Kafka are maddening, nightmarish, and deeply depressing. Kafka's friends recorded that he used to roar with laughter when he read them his writings.
Cloud Atlas has The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish which involves a book publisher being tormented by a bunch of east end thugs, his older brother and an evil nurse. This is also the lightest segment of the book, thanks to its playful narration and its absurdity.
The beginning of Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zwiebel is this. Later on, their every action is viewed as heroic.
The character of Bouncy Normo, the Funniest Clown in the Discworld, a man who could make people die of laughter even whilst shaving in the morning. He was confined to the Guild of Clowns on orders of the Patrician, after eight people died laughing whilst he was only walking down the street to the tobacconists. A man who in himself had no discernable sense of humour, he left a sucide note plaintively asking "Why does everybody keep laughing at me?" His suicide became an unintended work of physical comedy, involving bathtubs, a blow-up bouncy castle, a trampoline and buckets of custard. He didn't intend it to, but that's how it worked out. Another fifteen people who witnessed his suicide were themselves laid to eternal rest shortly afterwards.
Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork chief cashier Mavolio Bent - a man who ran away from the circus to join a bank - is explicitly described as another of this type, a giftedly funny clown with no sense of humour whatsoever.
Live Action TV
30 Rock inverts this trope with Tracy Jordan after he earns respect from his peers for making a really artistic film but doesn't want it. He tries to act like a Jerk Ass in order to go back to being in comedy TV but everyone mistakes his awfulness for humility, clever artistic commentary, and bravery.
Often played straight in Liz's storylines, however. Whenever Liz tries to do something nice, someone will inevitably take issue with some part of it and everyone will act like she's the worst person in the world.
The standard for this type of plot is Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which everything Larry David does costs him money, destroys his aspirations and generally makes people revile him. While Larry is sometimes an awful person, he's often hated for his acts that are intended to be benevolent, like placing an obituary or indulging a little girl playing with her doll.
Two of the most egregious cases occur in the same episode. Larry buys an effeminate young boy a gift and, after asking the kid what he wants, buys him a sewing machine. The mother reacts badly and Larry gets chewed out by his friends for buying the kid something that he clearly wanted. Later in the episode, Larry is explaining to his manager the replacement gift he bought the kid. Michael J. Fox is delivering a speech at the time and Larry, unable to be heard, mimes playing a violin. Due to his earlier confrontations with Fox, this is misconstrued as belittling his condition and leads to an entire crowds turning on Larry and the Mayor of New York kicking him out of the city. Most episodes usually make Larry's downfall a product of his own behaviour but this episode seemed unusually, and unfairly, mean to him.
In Father Ted, after Ted offends the Chinese community of Craggy Island, his attempts to prove to them that he is not a racist meet with increasingly more extravagant failure.
Doug and Carrie of The King of Queens, especially Carrie, are cynical and often uncaring of their surrounding (IE, typical New Yorkers). As a result, whenever they try to go out of their way to help someone, it only makes things worse.
Their attempts to overcome their insecurities and anxieties are examples of such well-meaning ineptitude that they invariably make the perceived problem ten times worse.
An entire character relationship is founded on this in Scrubs, between JD and the psychotic janitor who takes everything JD says or does as a taunt or insult.
For a period of time, it expanded to everything JD did. Because JD is the show's Butt Monkey, this is Played for Laughs. And when JD (justifiably) complains about how bad his life has become, the show treats him as a whiny loser who needs to learn how to stand on his own two feet.
A recurring character played by Colin Mochrie on The Drew Carey Show took this to the extreme, as everything he said offended whoever he was talking to — even "Hello".
IIRC, he even tried just being silent, and ended up having THAT taken as a terrible insult by his boss
In one episode, he remained silent, everyone thought he was great, he even got promoted without speaking a word. However, upon promotion, he said "Thanks!" which was somehow taken the wrong way by Mr. Wick and he fired him.
Every episode of The Worst Week Of My Life is like this for hapless protagonist Howard Steel; he can't even get away with things that he didn't do because people automatically assume the worst of him, and his attempts to explain matters and clear the air only end up making things seem worse. With some people — like his father-in-law, who detests him immensely anyway — this is understandable, but even people (such as his wife) who should know better seem primed to automatically think the worst of him at times.
Green Acres is often mentioned to have Kafka-esque elements. One of the most frequent plotlines has Oliver trying to improve life for the people of Hooterville, only to have it backfire at every single step until he is driven to near-insanity. The townspeople generally react with anything from hostility to lukewarm sympathy of the "gee, that's too bad" variety. Despite it all, Oliver never learns to stop doing this.
Basil Fawlty, John Cleese's character in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, embodies this trope. Despite being generally rude and sarcastic, he comes across as an otherwise sympathetic character who is always scheming to get himself out of a minor jam but only succeeds in making it increasingly worse.
This often happens to Fish out of Water Lacey in Corner Gas, to the point that during one entire episode she refuses to get involved - and everyone else involves her anyway, either by misinterpreting what she says when she declares that she doesn't want to be involved, or by simply assigning her a position because she's from Toronto.
Victor Meldrew of One Foot in the Grave is usually seen as an irrationally angry man, but series creator David Renwick always said he was a perfectly ordinary person, in a universe that seemed specifically designed to make his life as difficult and unpleasant as possible.
The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is an interesting variation of the trope. While Todd is a pretty unpleasant person, and a lot of his problems stem from his poor decisions, he still doesn't deserve most of what the show puts him through, like being sentenced to be drawn and quartered for crimes against humanity. The second season gradually reveals that most of the misfortune was actually planned as a part of an elaborate revenge-scheme.
Pretty much every moment in every episode of Arrested Development, mostly surrounding Michael. He's always trying to do what's best for the family, and he's pretty much the only person working to keep everything from falling apart. But every time he tries to get cooperation from his family members he's met with more irresponsible behaviour, animosity, and sometimes outright hostility. They constantly mock him for being the 'good' brother, and they spend all their time either ignoring him, walking all over him, or leaving him to deal with the fallout of their bad behaviour.
Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation; she loves her town but often misses the mark on what they want. For instance, she nixes a new fast food restaurant, only to find out later in the season that many citizens of Pawnee were upset by this move.
Much of Peanuts was one big Kafka Komedy devoted to tormenting Charlie Brown, but even more so in the TV specials.
Garfield's Jon Arbuckle. The only good thing that's ever happened to him is hooking up with Liz after years of rejection, but other than that he's an extreme Chew Toy.
Exactly the same stuff above also goes for Peter Fox from FoxTrot. He is a Butt Monkey taken to the extreme. A notable example is an arc where Peter punches a guy at school for making a joke about his relationship with Denise. Although Peter was provoked into punching him, he is given 2 weeks of detention, clean-up detail and 3 months of probation as punishment. He then accidentally spills the beans to Andy when he gets home, and then the story ends.
Even better is when he tells his girlfriend that he got into a fight, and she thinks he was childish. Once he reveals that the guy made fun of her, suddenly it's "And you JUST punched him?!"
Dilbert and several other sources of office humor have been described as Kafkaesque.
Its Been A Bad Week... was a BBC comedy show using real-life stories of people's woes and tribulations for comic effect; a staple of the show involved people whose well-meaning attempts to do good, or whose attempts to get out of trivial problems, made the situation a thousand times worse. The most outstanding hard-luck tale received the The Worst Week of the Week Award, Awarded Weekly on a week-by-Week Basis
Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party has been described by many critics as 'Kafkaesque'. Though whether any character can truly be seen as 'good and reasonable' varies depending on the reader's interpretation, due to the play's overriding themes of ambiguity and intentional decay of language.
Phantasy Star 2 Pretty much runs on this. Try to rescue the daughter of a man robbing people to pay her ransom and reunite them? He kills her because he can't recognize her and won't pay him. Try to stop an outbreak of monsters? The girl who's practically your sister gets killed for it and the world floods. Thinking about stopping those floods? Off to a prison in space, that gets hurled into, and destroys, another planet because you were there. Try to kill off the people who did all this to you? Well...
John Marston, the main character in Red Dead Redemption is often the butt of this. He stops to help a distressed bystander? They steal his horse. He frees an indentured servant so he can reunite with his fiancee in his home country? He never makes it back because of his opium addiction. He saves a woman from an abusive relationship? She quickly goes back to her abuser, only to be murdered for leaving him in the first place. He tries to help an eccentric inventor build the world's first flying machine? The inventor is killed in the first test flight. The list goes on.
The Indy Game "The Visit" by exotworking is a trolling epitome of this. A man is trying to visit his girlfriend, and his trip is plagued by crabs that all have death wishes, scrambling around, getting underfoot. It's nearly impossible to avoid stepping on one. And when you do, suddenly the police surround you, and you find yourself on trial and convicted of murder, treated as a monster, and rotting away in jail.
You Suck At Photoshop. Donny is not a very nice person at all, though it's clear a lot of his unpleasantness is an act for his web show, but his attempts to be decent usually create much more pain for him than his dreadful behaviour. By the end of the series, due to misunderstandings and bad coincidences, everyone he knows has vowed to kill him, including his online friend sn4tchbucl3r and his girlfriend, who until that point were the only people who cared for him at all.
The entire plot of The Simpsons episodes "Homer Badman" and "Bart-Mangled Banner" revolve around Homer and Bart (later the whole family) respectively being publicly demonized for something they really didn't do. Thanks to any form of media assuming their guilt to keep with the public favor and maintain ratings, anything they say or do is twisted to be as incriminating as possible and accepted as gospel truth by a credulous public even if it's obviously fake, like Homer's interview on "Rock Bottom" having sound-bites edited into a confession (even though you can see the clock and scenery in the background keeps jumping around).
Of course, both these episodes rely upon some pretty insane circumstances that sound silly to begin with. In the former, Homer is accused of grabbing the babysitter's butt, when in reality he was trying to retrieve a piece of candy that was stuck to her pants. In the latter, Bart accidentally ends up mooning the American flag during the national anthem (a goat ate his shorts and he was temporarily deaf so he didn't know the anthem was playing), leading people to think he hates America. Things get exacerbated when the family goes on a Fox News parody to explain their case and the loudmouthed host annoys Marge so much that she sarcastically says she hates America.
This also occurs in the season 8 Simpsons episode "Homer's Enemy" involving Frank Grimes: "the man who had to struggle for everything he got in life."
Bart in the infamous episode "The Boys Of Bummer". He drops a fly ball costing the Springfield the Little League Championship and what follows is a Kick the DogHumiliation Conga by everyone with a nearly fatal end. Even Meg Griffin never got this much abuse.
An episode of The Fairly OddParents begins with the main character doing various difficult good deeds for the people in his life like doing as much yard work as he can and painting a backdrop for a guy trying to run a play. Regardless of how good a job he does, the person would pick one thing they didn't like about it and immediately scold him for it (the guy said everything was ruined because the shade of blue he used for the sea was off). With friends like these, it's less of a wonder he immediately returns to Jerkass mode the next episode.
Inverted on Dan Vs., where the titular character thinks that everything that happens to him is the fault of some obscure thing, when in reality he's just a Jerkass (most of the time).
Oddly enough, 90% of the time, he's right. The first episode alone has him chasing down a real live werewolf, after roughly half the episode his friend understandably tries to convince him that a werewolf didn't scratch his car.
The segments of Animaniacs featuring Buttons the dog chasing Mindy, the little daughter of his owner, always feature Buttons busting his butt trying to save Mindy from a different hazard every two seconds, and succeeding, but in the end he tends to be blamed for whatever Mindy was doing or otherwise punished. Thankfully, he finally earns his happy ending in "Wakko's Wish".
Not really. The loop had ended when she finally took a test she was trying to duck out of but when she thought the loop was still going, she snapped. However, this trope was in effect when, after spending the entire day making up for it, she found herself in ''another'' loop.
Doug fell victim to this trope when he and the rest of his class were doing volunteer work at a local nursing home. He tried to be nice to the lady he was working with, Mrs. Whackhammer, but she chewed him out on his first day there. The next day, at his mother's suggestion, he brought her milk and oatmeal cookies. She ended up chewing him out again. As it turned out, she couldn't have dairy and oatmeal made her queasy.
Usually Spliced is a karma-based show, but it tends to turn into one of these whenever Fuzzy shows up.
Frizz and Nug lean somewhat as victims of this in The Dreamstone. While they are villains, they are incredibly unwilling and docile ones, and spend almost every episode trying to get out of another nasty mission, which usually involves abuse from Zordrak, slave dragging from Sgt Blob and Urpgor, merciless punishments from the heroes (who for the large part are convinced they are genuinely nasty pieces of work) and pretty much everything else they interact with, living or not, causing them pain or scaring them silly somehow.
Some (actually, most) episodes of Rocko's Modern Life exemplify this. Rocko is a kind-hearted, well-meaning individual who constantly gets beat-up, screwed over, and cheated. Of course, even his temper has its limits. The majority of the first season drives this home.
No matter how much Zoidberg tries to help someone, it always blows up in both his and their face somehow. Especially if he's trying to save their life.