Often, especially in media with a large ensemble cast, there is one character whose function (in terms of his internal purpose within the cast) is a bit fuzzy. The details of this role are left purposefully ambiguous. Sometimes, the general nature of the character's job is quite evident; for example, the character might be big, intimidating, and good in a fight... but this naturally raises the question of just why the group needs someone who is big, intimidating, and good in a fight.
This is often lampshaded by someone unfamiliar with the group and their adventures pointedly asking "What exactly is his job, anyway?" When the question is Played for Laughs, the answer the newcomer gets is almost always something absurd. This can typically be paired with The Main Characters Do Everything since there are usually recurring characters whose purpose is ambiguous and the Main Characters can easily function without them. It's also common for an everyman, because the lack of specific job allows more of us to sympathize with the character.
Remember, this Trope is about a person's undefined or unsuitable role among the main team; not about how a person earns his keep between episodes.
Compare the Omnidisciplinary Scientist, who has a PhD in Everythingology and awesomeology, rather than merely having to be everything and awesome, and The Chick, who is very skilled in caring and diplomacy in a world whereViolence is the Only Option.
This is being confused forseveral other Tropes:
Jinpei in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Yes, he drives a Swiss Army knife of a vehicle, and he's no slouch in a fight, but he otherwise has no unique skills to display.
Jersey Club from Rinne no Lagrange does exactly this trope. Be it at being an extra participant in any activity or saving the Earth, Jersey Club does it.
Saikawa from Gakuen Babysitters. Is he the secretary? Is he the butler? Is he the chef? Ryuuichi can't tell, and Saikawa remains ambiguous about it by allowing the others to refer to him as they wish.
Zoro from One Piece is an interesting case: He is the only one without an official role in the crew. Luffy is the captain, Nami is the navigator, Usopp is the sniper/cannoneer (previously repairman/gadgeteer), Sanji is the cook, Chopper is the doctor, Robin is the archeologist, Franky is the shipwright and Brook is the musician. Zoro is simply called "the swordsman," which is a fighting style, and not a job on a ship. However, while he is not officially one, he sometimes fills the role of first mate, and is assumed by many (in-universe) to be second in command. The Straw Hats lacks one of these, not having a direct command line besides Luffy being the captain, so it's pretty difficult to say.
A running gag in the comic book Groo The Wanderer is what, exactly does Mark Evanier do (besides answer the letters page). Even his job description on the masthead changed every month to something silly or bizarre (in reality, he is essentially co-plotter and dialogue writer/editor).
In one of the stories of S.O.S. Bonheur, a man got a job in a firm, in which no employee knows the purpose of his daily job. They are analyzing numbers but have no idea what those numbers represent. It is later revealed that the so-called democratic government is a dictatorship, and this company is spying everybody so that the CEO of the firm, who is also the chief of the police, can detect the rebellious citizens.
Living in Oblivion is an independent film, with an ensemble cast, about making an independent film. When the director (Steve Buscemi) goes berserk on his crew after one disaster too many on a shoot, he calls each one out by name and reels off their failures in their jobs. When he gets to a production assistant, wide-eyed with panic, he hesitates and squints at her, "Who are you? What do you fucking do around here, anyway?"
Wag The Dog - Robert De Niro. "What exactly is it that you do for the President?"
Based on the conversation, it seems fairly clear what Tom's job was. When banks and other such companies buy software from places like Initech, they usually have only the vaguest sense of what they actually need. That's where Tom comes in, working with customers to determine what specifications the software needs to fit and what additional features the customer might want added. The problem there was that the Bobs seemed to assume that customers automatically know exactly what they want with no help, and Tom is such a bundle of frayed nerves by that point that he doesn't think to correct them.
The ultimate case is Milton, who hangs around at Initech for five years without even technically having a job there.
The HELP in Samuel Shem's medical novel The House of God are this. The interns are unsure whether the HELP are glorified porters, social workers, janitors or something else altogether. Even the HELP themselves are unsure, and nobody even knows what the acronym stands for.
In Catch-22, no one seems to know what Major —— de Coverly's official function is, and no one is game enough to ask him.
Live Action TV
This was asked of NewsRadio's Matthew from time to time. (He technically was a reporter, but it seemed the only thing he did was play computer solitaire.)
For most of the first season of 3rd Rock from the Sun, nobody knew why Harry was on the mission. They then revealed that he was the radio link with their home planet. He eventually gets sad about this fact, since he's essentially equipment. It was frequently implied that his main function was Team Pet.
Creed from 'asks this of himself during an audit. It was established early on that his job was in Quality Assurance, but he had apparently forgotten due to how rarely his job is focused on.
Creed: What is wrong with this woman? She's asking about stuff that's nobody's business. 'What do I do?' What do I do here? I should have written it down. 'Qua' something. Quaaa. Quarr. Quab. Quall. Qwer. Quobbity! Quobbity ashrance! No, that's not right.... getting close though.
Ryan was a temp, catapulted into a vice-president's position, went to jail, and was hired as a salesmen at Michael Scott Paper Company. Since that collapsed, his job has been fuzzy in the extreme, but he's played by the show's producer, so don't expect him to go anywhere.
Cheers. One of Carla's issues with Diane comes from the fact she seldom seems to do any real work around the bar.
Janet Eldridge: (to Diane) Excuse me, miss. Do you work here?
Carla: How come no one ever seems to know that?
Diane's replacement Rebecca would take this even further once she got fired from her original corporate job and Sam bought back the bar. Despite her position changing every so often (from waitress, to managing day to day operations to actual business partner), the fact that she doesn't do much of anything has become a Running Gag that was even mentioned in Frasier
Ianto pretty much did everything that was not being taken care of by the more specialized members of the team. This made his job description extremely vague but it actually gave him a lot of power. He was the team's logistics officer, office administrator and maintenance officer. The other team members have more specialized areas of expertise but their job descriptions are also fairly vague.
Fanon has made him the team's archivist, and canon would seem to support this, given how Ianto is the go to guy for all the Torchwood-specific information neither Owen or Tosh specialize in acquiring. He also keeps a written diary.
Jonathan Creek has an extremely vague job title (either "production consultant" or "creative assistant", depending who you ask), and is apparently a combination of director, stage manager and general designated person with some common sense.note What he does is he designs Adam's illusions. Whatever Adam is paying him, it isn't nearly enough.
In the HBO mini-series John Adams, the title character laments that the office of Vice President of the United States seems an awful lot like this, which is Truth in Television, as the only official job responsibilities of the Vice President are to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate and to take over if the President dies in office. Some Presidents have averted this by finding other duties for their VP to perform, and others played it straight by essentially ignoring them once the election's over.
In the period in between working for House and becoming Dean of Medicine, Foreman was the team's supervisor, which technically made him House's superior. However, he still earned less than House and almost always deferred to House's expertise when deciding on the patient's treatment. This is lampshaded a few times by House, as well as by Chase, who suggests that his superiority is reflected in nothing but his attitude.
On Necessary Roughness Niko does not seem to have an official position in the Hawks football organization but is involved in most of the big decisions. He is a close friend of the team's owner Marshall Pittman and acts as a general "fixer" for any problems that require extreme discretion and cannot be handled through official channels.
Tomb Raider Legend gives us Alister Fletcher, a man Lara is paying to talk to her over headset in order to...moan about the video quality, argue with his colleague, and generally stand around asking questions about things he should know already. The butler knows more than him. He supposedly does library research and runs errands.
In Shizune's route of Katawa Shoujo, Hisao and Misha have no official positions on the student council. Because of this, and the size of the student council, Shizune's fatherJigoro has no respect for it.
This topic comes up in an early dialogue within Dragon Age II when Aveline asks Varric if he actually does anything except "watch and talk." He answers that "coins flow when I talk and when I shut up. Like if you got paid to guard or unguard." When Aveline says he isn't making any sense, Varric simply replies "Good." If you're wondering what he actually does, he publishes short stories and ends up in charge of his family's businesses (though he avoids Merchant's Guild meetings if at all possible). Oh, and he may or may not have a spy network at his disposal.
Final Fantasy X-2 has Brother: while he's officially the leader of the Gullwings and pilots the ship, Yuna is unofficially The Face of the crew (due to her fame) and is usually the one to make the big decisions, and as Rikku points out, the ship flies better on auto-pilot. She then lampshades the trope by wondering what Brother actually DOES for the crew.
Pac-Man in Namco High mainly seems to butt in on private moments and tell everyone concerned to be true to themselves. Even Principal Dig Dug has absolutely no idea what he's actually doing at their school besides the fact that everyone seems to like him.
During the sixth season of The Guild, Codex gets a job at the Game's offices. Her exact job title was left unspecified, though at one point she was described as the "Creator's Left Hand", whose duties were never actually specified, but primarily seemed to consist of doing whatever her boss told her to do, staying out of everybody else's way, and keeping her boss from doing something stupid while he was having one of his frequent panic attacks.
Initially, Bender from Futurama. It's addressed in an early episode, and he's given the position of ship's cook. Even though he can't actually cook. However in later episodes he has been able to make edible meals.
Hermes: I've been going through our records and it seems that we've been paying you to do nothing but loaf about on the couch.
Bender: You call that a couch? I DEMAND A PILLOW!
Porter C Powell of Transformers Animated is undoubtedly a Corrupt Corporate Executive, but his exact area of expertise is pretty nebulous. He owns his own car company and enough of Sumdac Systems to take over when Professor Sumdac is kidnapped, but he was also shown working with one of Sumdac's direct competitors in season one. In season three, he turns to hawking a line of toys (which he also stole from Sumdac).
Who hasn't seen an advertised job opening with the disclaimer "... and other duties as assigned." tacked on the end?
Some restaurants have someone, called a "roundsman" among other names, who floats from station to station during peak hours helping out where needed. At slower times their presence can resemble this trope.
At Thomas Keller's restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se, they added a secondary sous chef who would work the pass or float around as needed during busy periods, and otherwise just stand around. The cooks began calling it the 'SAS,' for Standing Around Station, but when Keller asked what it meant he was told Second Assistant Sous, liked the acronym, and made it official. So, to this day, somebody is always scheduled to the Standing Around Station, which can be very much this trope.
There is a job called a "Gofer", as in "I need something, so I'm sending you to go fer it. This person has no one single defined job, but does anything that needs to be done. Depending on the person they report to and what the project is that they're working on, this person can serve as a personal assistant, sound board operator, even an unofficial second-in-command.
In film, this is usually the task of any job with the word "assistant" in the title; most notably the "production assistant", who floats around the set doing whatever needs doing at the moment. When things are going smoothly (which is fairly rare) they mostly spend their time waiting for something to inevitably go wrong. And when something does go wrong, if it falls under the responsibilities of a different union...well, it's better to invoke this trope than cross the union...
There are lots of jobs like this in many universities.
At a Military School, the lower-ranking cadets' thoughts toward any position above company commander are often this.
In the Military itself, you have titles like 'adjutant', 'aide-de-camp', and 'administrative officer'.
This is generally the lot of a circus roustabout. Circus contracts usually include the passage "Employee will make himself useful as needed", which amounts to "If the boss comes up with a job, you do it". Circus workers refer to getting forced into random, meaningless labor as "working Chinese" (after the exploited Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad).
The job title of "Project Coordinator" can be vague even for those who have it. Alternatively, "Project Administrator", "Project Developmental Specialist"...really, anything with "Project" in the title, as they are, by design working on special projects that can vary from week to week, day to day, and hour to hour.