Karmic Misfire

A Karmic Misfire occurs when a guilty character escapes with a Karma Houdini and has at least one Karmic Butt-Monkey punished in his or her place.

Usually, the character subjected to Karmic Misfire is completely innocent of wrongdoing and just had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 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 uninvolved gets hammered. 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.

When employed on a cosmic scale, Karmic Misfire can be used 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) sadistic 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 Black Comedy, Kafka Komedy or Sadist Show. In these cases, the Karmic Misfire will sometimes be the result of incompetence on a cosmic level.

It's also common for this trope to be Played for Laughs on a milder scale; e.g. the culprit commits an ultimately harmless infraction, like a prank, and the misplaced punishment is little more than a Dope Slap.

The Cosmic Plaything is often someone who's the target of Karmic Misfire. Also see the Misplaced Retribution, Bewildering Punishment, Can't Get Away with Nuthin', No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Selective Enforcement, Fall Guy, The Scapegoat, and Rerouted From Heaven tropes.

Compare with the Guilt by Association Gag, in which the guilty party is deservedly punished along with people who clearly don't deserve to be, and Sins of Our Fathers, where the punishment continues to be passed down to the original wrongdoer's descendants regardless of whether they did anything to deserve it.


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     Comic Books  

  • In Chick Tracts, the unintended message is that God will send even good people to hell for not expressly 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 accept Jesus by saying the correct magic words right before death.
  • Played with in Thessaly: Witch for Hire, wherein, thanks to the meddling of Stalker with a Crush Fetch, a Tharmic Null that had been hunting after an ancient degenerate instead ends up hunting Thessaly. Subverted in that Thessaly ends up escaping the Tharmic Null, whereas the ancient degenerate does not escape Thessaly.


  • In Chicago, Katalin Helinszki is wrongfully convicted and executed of murder, while Velma and Roxie get away scot free.
  • 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 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 Irreversible, Marcus's fiancé Alex is brutally raped by a sadistic pimp, Le Tenia, whom they track down to a gay nightclub. They attack someone whom they mistakenly believe to be Le Tenia and tries to rape Marcus. His friend Pierre bashes in the man's head with a fire extinguisher while the real Le Tenia looks on with a smile.
  • In Ariel, Kasurinen confronts the man who had robbed him, whereupon the man pulls a knife on him. Kasurinen disarms him and starts beating him, and is promptly arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for assault, attempted robbery, possession of a weapon and resisting arrest.


  • 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 recognize 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 and "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."
  • In the Discworld, there is a god of Strong Drink and Partying, Bibulous, who is continually drunk and who has a wonderful time with lots of very appreciative nymphs and handmaidens. He never, ever, throws up or has a hangover, the usual consequence for mere humans who party too hard. The unfortunate deity who gets the karmic feedback which would rightly belong to Bibulous is called Bilious, the Oh, God! of the Morning After. Everything on the Discworld has its equal and opposite quality. It is the fate of Bilious to get all the negative stuff connected with drinking heavily, so that bibulous does not have to. He is described as thin and pail, in a stained toga, with a laurel wreath too large for him and somewhat tatty, which has slipped over one ear. He is frequently ill, suffers from splitting headaches, cannot stand bright light, and lives in a sense of existential dread that he will remember some excruciatingly embarrasing or ill-advised thing he did on some unspecified Last Night that got him into this state in the first place. No, it isn't fair. But nothing on the Discworld is "fair".
  • 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.
  • In Justine by the Marquis de Sade, the title character is consistently punished for her decent behavior while her persecutors experience nothing but boons for their cruelty and selfishness.
  • In Pact, due to Sins of Our Fathers being in effect, otherwise good or at least decent people can have bad things happen to them as a result of their ancestor's actions. This is the case for the main protagonist, Blake Thorburn, who suffers greatly as a result of the large amount of bad karma amassed by his diabolist (demon summoners) ancestors making it so that his fellow practitioners have issues seeing past his karma to judge him on his own merits.

     Live Action Television  



  • 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.

     Western Animation  

  • In some of the Tom and Jerry shorts, one of the leads starts the feud and yet still ends up the victor while the other victimized character faces a slapstick penalty. (Contrary to popular belief, these weren't always in Jerry's favor since Tom manages to come out on top in a few odd shorts despite being the blatant villain.)

     Real Life  

  • The then-Bishop of Durham, an academic theologian with little practical experience of pastoral religion, made a speech not intended for public dissemination, aimed at other academic theologians, in which he questioned the literal reality of the Virgin Birth and hinted that even the divinity of Jesus was up for questioning. This inevitably escaped into the public domain and the suitability of this person to be an Anglican Bishop was questioned. Two days after this got into the press, the cathedral of York, a hundred miles away from Durham, was hit by lightning during a thunderstorm, causing millions of pounds worth of damage in the consequent roof collapse and fire. Britain's more excitable tabloids put out the story that this was divine anger at a bishop "preaching atheism from the pulpit". But York was a long way away from Durham and happened to be the seat of a far more orthodox prelate who literally believed in the Bible story and had no problems accepting both the Virgin Birth and the divinity of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The fact Durham got off unscathed was held, if anything, to be evidence God has both a bad temper and lousy aim.