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Clipboard of Authority

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"[A] clipboard is as good as a skeleton key."
Michael Westen, Burn Notice

When the characters are engaging in a Bavarian Fire Drill, are Impersonating an Officer, need to infiltrate the enemy base and/or pose as surprise inspectors to do so, or are Dressing as the Enemy, their credibility is greatly enhanced if one of them is holding a clipboard.note  Nothing terrifies human beings as much as an Obstructive Bureaucrat on the move.

See also Refuge in Audacity. As shows like The Real Hustle can attest, this is Truth in Television.


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    Anime & Manga 

  • Played with in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. To enter a Yakuza hangout, Kusanagi pretends to be picking up the garbage. When the Yakuza refuse to let her in, she insists they have to sign the required paperwork (Japan has strict recycling laws) which is on a clipboard too large to pass through the peep slot, so they have to open the door.

  • Commando: Inverted in "The Silent Strike" when a British diplomat has to meet a Rebel Leader, so he enters a British oil refinery in his official capacity and exits dressed in overalls in the passenger seat of a truck, holding a clipboard, so the Secret Police won't realise who he is.
  • Modesty Blaise uses what Willie calls the 'universal passport' in "Garvin's Travels" to infiltrate a spy ring hiding in a resort. She adds to the effect by asking the first employee to see her if he's new; he chalks it up to the place being so large.

    Fan Works 
  • In Inspected by No. 13, Harry discovers that flying near a nesting dragon is pretty much suicide, which screws up his only plan for the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament (remember, he's only a fourth-year and does not know sufficiently advanced magic to cope with the task), so he decides to try to bluff with a clipboard and badge the Weasleys gave him as a souvenir of a trip they took. Turns out it's not just a souvenir....
  • In Voyages of the Wild Sea Horse, Ukyo muses that being dressed as waitstaff while carrying an expensive bottle of wine is practically a free pass to wander around a noble's mansion. She even manages to steal from the lord's office without anyone suspecting her.

    Film Animation 
  • Food Fight, which literally has a character named Mr. Clipboard who intimidates people into buying his products.
  • In Hoodwinked!, Wolf uses a clipboard as part of his disguise as an evil lair inspector.

    Film Live-Action 
  • James Bond
  • In Sneakers, Robert Redford claims (and demonstrates!) that all you need to get into any building in the world is a clipboard and a confident wave.
  • Michael Keaton says (and does) the same thing in The Paper.
  • In The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, the titular character managed to successfully become part of an advertising agency by going in with a clipboard, looking like he knew what he was doing and saying he was with "efficiency", and everyone buys it!
  • The Dream Team: This eases Christopher Lloyd's character in doctor-impersonating.
  • Sherlock Holmes (2009): Watson grabs a clipboard to infiltrate a factory, briefly acting like an overseer while Holmes, carrying a barrel, plays the common worker. They do this without exchanging words, implying this is a trick they've used before.
  • In Chappie, while the villain Vincent secretly uploads his virus at Tetravaal's high security area, security guards enter the room, which prompts Vincent to grab a random clipboard in hope it makes him look like official staff. The trick works.
  • Lampshaded in Tenet along with Reflective Vest of Authority (ironically just when the Protagonist comes up against a door he can't get through).
    Barbara: With a high-vis vest and a clipboard you can get almost anywhere. Almost.
  • Downplayed in Wonder Woman 1984. Diana Prince and Steve Trevor briefly pick up a box and papers when slipping into Maxwell Lord's office, but abandon them on seeing the employees are too busy fielding calls to pay attention to intruders.

  • In the Dexter novel Dearly Devoted Dexter Kyle Chutsky points out that "No one ever stops a man with a clipboard."
  • Discworld:
    • In Moving Pictures, it's said you can get into anywhere with a piece of paper, rolled-up sleeves, and a purposeful expression.
    • Nobby Nobbs uses a sheaf of papers (Colon's shopping list), a purposeful expression, and a constant shout to bluff the guy running the city armory in Men at Arms.
    • A similar point is made in Interesting Times. Discworld protagonists use the Bavarian Fire Drill a lot, so it's not too surprising.
      Truckle the Uncivil: Why're we carrying pieces of paper?
      Teach: Because no-one looks at you in a place like this if you're carrying a piece of paper.
  • In Doom, Fly and Arlene need to get to a radio they don't have access to. Arlene hands Fly a clipboard and he plays inspection sergeant all the way to it.
  • In the Dortmunder novel What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Dortmunder and Kelp are able to gain access to almost every area of the Watergate complex by dressing as engineers and carrying clipboards.
  • In the Dragonriders of Pern novel Dragonseye, Weyrleader S'nan always carries a clipboard around, which is rumored to have been handed down by the first Weyrleader, Sean Connell.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has this with towels
    "If you have your towel, everyone automatically assumes that you are an extremely on-top of it person, and thus will be happy to lend you anything you may have misplaced (food, money, etc.)."
  • No clipboard, but in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul Dirk Gently gets into a crime scene by being right behind a uniformed policeman, and when that policeman got stopped to show his ID Gently just walked by and said "He's with me."
  • Lampshaded and riffed on in The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross. A think tank of investment bankers discover they've become vampires, so set about investigating in an organised manner how they'll get blood and what their powers and vulnerabilities are, turning up at hospitals and butcher shops wielding clipboards (even to church mass or nightclubs, where it's completely unnecessary).
  • Robert B. Parker's Spenser does this at least once, while commenting on the phenomenon.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • One of the tricks Qui-Gon teaches Obi-Wan in the Jedi Apprentice books.
    • The Thrawn Trilogy: In Dark Force Rising, when Luke is rescuing Karrde from a Star Destroyer they use a Data Pad to this effect.
    • During the X-Wing Series, Iella and Mirax pull this, with Iella as the exec and Mirax as the hapless technician having to guide her around.
  • Disturbing variant in one of the Sword of Truth novels. When The Imperial Order conquers a city she's in, Jebra hides out for several days in a cellar, managing to avoid the invading army. When she finally comes out, she finds them doing their usual thing but they leave her alone, apparently on the assumption that if a woman isn't being brutally raped already, then she's a woman they're not supposed to brutally rape.
  • In the BattleTech novel I Am Jade Falcon, while infiltrating a secret laboratory, main character Joanna tells the warrior helping her to "pick up a clipboard and look like you are annoyed by something" in order to avoid being hassled if they're discovered. The ruse works.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Discussed by Liz and Carol on an episode of 30 Rock, though not about an actual clipboard: "You walk briskly in a pilot's uniform, you can go pretty much anywhere. I've been inside the Lincoln bedroom."
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "Goodbye Iowa" Buffy infiltrates the Initiative's Elaborate Underground Base by posing as a scientist with a clipboard and Nerd Glasses. The clipboard actually comes in useful when she uses it to stop a door closing.
  • Angel and team used this trope a couple times to infiltrate the evil law firm of Wolfram and Hart. This nearly backfired on Angel when another lawyer points at him accusingly only to start talking about a business deal he thinks Angel had a part in.
  • Michael and his colleagues put this to use more than once in Burn Notice, usually accompanied by being so loudly bureaucratic that everyone listens to them without question.
    • They can also use it to be seen as a harmless, self-important nobody when they need a distraction. A pushy representative of the Homeowner's Lawn Association gets told to sod off, not shot at.
  • Invoked by the Leverage team nearly every time they need to infiltrate a corporate headquarters. Clipboards, suits, and maintenance gear have allowed them to walk right past armed security while said security is actually looking for them.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Doctor's psychic paper, carried in a wallet, credentials-style, often functions as this. The Doctor isn't the only one to use this tool, as Rose Tyler and Clara Oswald also made use of it from time to time. The paper is most often used to make people think that the Doctor, Clara, etc. is a person of authority who is not to be questioned.
    • "The Woman Who Fell to Earth": As part of a Bavarian Fire Drill to evacuate a construction site, Graham and Grace don reflective vests and grab themselves clipboards.
    • "Kerblam!": The Doctor takes note of executive Jarva Slade's clipboard when she first meets him. Later, she and her companions wonder why, in a company that does everything electronically, he's using paper: because he thinks that the computer has something to do with the mysterious employee disappearances, and wants a record only he can access. Head of people Judy Maddox also carries around a tablet that looks like a clipboard.
  • On Good Girls, Annie has a one-night stand with a guy working at a Costco-like store who steals a paper with his phone number containing crucial information the girls need. Annie doesn't know much about him so at the store, sister Beth grabs a clipboard and marches up to a veteran employee, making it sound like she's from a major corporate office and demanding information as part of some checks. While Annie and Ruby are impressed, Beth lampshades "it's the clipboard."

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 

    Web Comics 

    Real Life 
  • Two words: Milgram experiment. 65% of completely normal, mentally-stable people "killed" another person by "excessive electrocution" just because a guy with a lab coat and clipboard told them to do so.
  • Lab coats (or scrubs) are nearly as good as a valid photo ID badge in hospitals, as long as you act like you know where you're going.
  • Proven true in a number of circumstances, making this Truth in Television. One of the ways to convince people you belong there is to look and act as though you do. Doesn't always work, but moving with a sense of purpose and giving the appearance that you belong there is one of the most effective ways to avoid drawing attention.
  • DJ Kenny Everett claims to have infiltrated The BBC in order to obtain an audition by carrying a large reel of tape.
  • When he was filming In the Loop, Armando Ianucci convinced the State Department that his BBC pass was "access all areas". He spent the next three hours taking photographs of the US State Department.
  • Poet Rives has a performance piece about trespassing on a construction site. Before starting he explains that this is very illegal, and if you want to do it you should grab some safety gear and a clipboard so no one tries to stop you.
  • A couple waltzed in to a White House state dinner and met President Barack Obama by simply looking the part according to the Secret Service after they'd been embarrassed about letting in two uninvited people into the most highly secure building in the world. They wore a suit and evening gown respectively and simply acted like they belonged. When Secret Service agents didn't see them on the guest list they assumed such well dressed folk must have been somehow accidentally left off the guest list and let them in.
  • A CompTIA A+ textbook by Mike Meyers (no, not that one) tells the story of how a former college classmate challenged him to gain access to his employer's server, having convinced them to stump up for some new and very flashy security softwarenote . Meyers then proceeded to drive over to his friend's workplace wearing a boiler suit and an old photo ID badge on his lapel, and pushing a parcel trolley, he talked his way in without the slightest difficulty and walked out with the server.
  • On Air Force flightlines, a clipboard is the universal sign for QA inspectors. Many maintainers will actively avoid drawing attention from anyone carrying one, regardless of whether or not they're actually QA.
  • Generally, you can just waltz into any rail yard in a high-visibility vest and do as you please, as long as you're not wearing an action camera such as a GoPro on your head.
  • Richard Ankrom "vandalized" (read: made much clearer) a sign on a stretch of LA Highway in broad daylight simply by wearing a high-vis vest and knowing what he was doing. The California Department of Transportation apparently liked his sign.
  • Variation: A BBC journalist once claimed to have gained access to a sensitive facility behind the Iron Curtain because a confidante had told him it was unthinkable for anyone to be there without authorisation. In other words, once he was there, everybody had to assume he was authorised.
  • Günter Wallraff is a German undercover journalist, who, in his most famous exploit, managed to pass as a Turkish low-paid worker for a few months, with nobody realizing anything, including actual Turks.
  • While it certainly depends on the circumstances, one way a soldier might avoid being given orders while on base basically amounts to "grab a clipboard and act like you know what you're doing".
  • This was actually par for the course for Allied resistance members and POWs during WWII: If you had a convincing appearance and spoke fluent German, you could pretty much get away with almost anything so long as you acted like you belonged there. There's even a recounting of a group of American POWs who escaped using nothing more than a clipboard and measuring tape: they would inch towards the camp's gates (kept open to allow labor and supply trucks to pass freely during the day) and every time a guard would approach them they would act like workers taking measurements. They did this across the camp grounds, out the gate, and even through the German/French countryside until they were finally able to meet up with the French Resistance and secure passage back to England.
  • For all the reasons mentioned here, this is part of the repertoire of consultants hired to test a building or organization's physical security measures. For consultants hired to test network security, getting into the building tends to be the most difficult step.