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Fence Painting

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Today's Tom Sawyer, he will ply on you
And these trades he is making get by on you
Calvin: Can I run the vacuum cleaner?
Calvin's Mom: No. Not until you're older.
Calvin: I'm old enough! I could do it!
Calvin's Mom: Well, maybe just this once, if you do a good enough job.
Calvin: [vacuuming] That suppressed smile worries me.

Bob cons others into helping him with a tedious, thankless, or otherwise unpleasant task. Usually, Bob was meant to do the chore himself, and runs this con to drop the work onto another person's shoulders. The victim may or may not realize that he's been had.

How Bob pulls off this impressive social feat varies. Reverse Psychology is popular, as is pulling a Bavarian Fire Drill, or making a Chain of Deals (but anyone with enough guile to do this usually has many tricks up his sleeve). If the "fence" is a dangerous or potentially lethal thing to "paint," Bob might appeal to the victim's sense of honor, pride, nobility, or religion while simultaneously downplaying the risks involved. Sometime no deception is needed when this overlaps with Only One Finds It Fun, as they already genuinely enjoyed the task and often volunteered themselves for the task.

Notable Fence Painting activities include being in a Mad Scientist's experiment, any Deal with the Devil, or joining a war against a country you didn't even know existed. Or painting a fence.

Based on the famous whitewashing scene in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom not only tricks the local kids into doing his chore for him, he convinces most of them to pay him for the opportunity. This makes it Older Than Radio.

Compare Stone Soup, Wax On, Wax Off, The Compliance Game, and Briar Patching.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Urusei Yatsura, Lum and Ten are excited about seeing their first typhoon. Ataru convinces them to greet it properly by boarding up all the windows for him.

    Comic Books 
  • In one Archie Comics story had Archie finding his friends digging up a yard. They explain that Reggie had found a gold nugget there, and they were looking for more. It then transpires that Reggie was being paid to dig up the yard by the owner, and he planted that nugget to trick the others. After a discussion on the 1849 Gold Rush and Gold Fever in general, Moose "convinces" Reggie to share his pay with the rest of the gang.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: In "Vacation at Grandma's", Huey, Dewey and Louie visit Grandma Duck's farm and go on a treasure hunt where each step is found by doing a farmyard chore. At the end, Grandma Duck admits that she made up the "Treasure Hunt" so the chores would get done while her normal farmhand Gus Goose is away. But since she's a Cool Old Lady, she does give the triplets their reward, tickets to the county fair.
    Grandma: I figured if I made a game out of it, you wouldn't think you were working!
  • Green Lantern Corps had a sub-plot about Kyle Rayner painting a large mural depicting the history of the Corps on the interior of a building. He spends the first days of work priming and realizes it would take a very long time to finish. As numerous other Lanterns keep coming to question him about what he's doing — and since many of them are aliens who have never painted before — he gets them to prime the building for him. Guy Gardner even calls him out on using the "Tom Sawyer" trick, though it was very much a labor of love for everyone involved.
  • Monica's Gang had a story with this plot, in which Jimmy Five's dad chores him with painting the wall. He manages to get several children to paint in his place in exchange for stuff, but it's not long until things go wrong. It starts with Smudge painting an Elephant Monica, and ends with Jimmy's dad running into a gang covered in paint. Jimmy's friends run away, and his father now chores him with raking leaves. When Smudge teases him once more about having to work, he claims that he's having fun playing farmer and nobody can join.

    Comic Strips 
  • In one Andy Capp strip, Chalky comes to visit Andy, and finds Flo painting the ceiling. As they head to the pub, Chalky asks Andy how he gets away with leaving all the chores to Flo. Andy replies "I tell her she might be getting too old for it."
  • In a Calvin and Hobbes strip, Calvin wants to run the vacuum cleaner, Calvin's mother wouldn't let him use the vacuum cleaner, until he's "old enough", prompting Calvin's protests until she "lets" him clean the living room.
    Calvin: That suppressed smile worries me.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In Drive a Crooked Road, Steve gets rid of a drunk guest who keeps interrupting his conversation with Eddie, and who has been trying to 'help' him all evening, by 'allowing' her to do all the dishes. She starts but then seems to realise that she has been tricked just after Steve leaves the kitchen, but this was all Steve needed, as now he can whisk Eddie away to finish their private conversation.
  • Nick in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids convinces his friend Tommy to mow the lawn for him, and pay him for the privilege, because he gets to use their remote-controlled lawnmower, which he thinks is really cool.
  • Paul from The Sense of Wonder suggests that Louise keep her pear orchard afloat by going into ecotourism, which involves letting customers pay for the privilege of doing farm work.

  • An incident in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the Trope Namer as well as the Trope Codifier. Punished for disobedience, Tom has to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence. But, when another kid named Ben comes along, Tom acts like it's an enjoyable activity that his Aunt Polly is very particular about, and that he now sees it as a privilege. By making it seem like he really wanted to do it, Tom ends up getting Ben, and soon most of the kids in the neighborhood, to perform the chore for him. All the while, Tom treats painting the fence like something he'd be proud to do. In at least one adaptation, the kids eventually realize they've been had and turn on Tom. But in the original story, Tom's plan goes off without a hitch. It serves as the Establishing Character Moment for Tom as a boy who gets by on his wits.
    "[Tom] had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain."
  • Feet of Clay features Nobby's resistance to being volunteered, and he ruminates on military attempts to convince people to volunteer. Specifically, he says that if the sarge asks "Who here likes good food" the person who answers is going to end up Peeling Potatoes.
  • The main character for The Great Brain books was pretty good at this. Tom is a budding con artist; while he's home from boarding school he asks his younger brother John (the narrator) if there's anything new in town, and on receiving a negative reply, bets that if John's wrong and there is something new in town, John will do all Tom's chores while Tom's home on break. John being a 1900s US young male, hadn't thought about babies being born.
  • There's a short story by Italian writer Italo Calvino that plays with the idea in a weird way, where a man continues to shout the name Teresa at a building, and when she doesn't come out, people gather around and help him of their own volition, and eventually form a cohesive group. At the end, someone finally asks, "Are you sure she's home?" The original shouter says, "Who?" "Teresa." "I don't know anyone named Teresa." And everyone wanders off.

    Live Action TV 
  • On 3rd Rock from the Sun, when the Big Giant Head assigned another alien to be Dick's wife, Sally managed to convince her that domestic duties were incredibly fun and a huge privilege.
  • The Amanda Show has a Blockblister video in which "Tom Zawyer" (Blini) manages to convince a boy (Biscotti) to paint the fence, despite his actress' Bad "Bad Acting" when pretending to have fun. The boy also breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewers, "Little do I realize I am being duped!" Naturally, the Blockblister patron who wrote his book report on this, instead of on Tom Sawyer, ended up receiving an F.
  • In The Big Bang Theory episode, "The Collaboration Contamination", Sheldon is jealous that Amy is collaborating with Howard on a project, and Bernadette uses this to get him to do chores around the house, telling him that Howard loves doing chores and Sheldon doing them for him would upset him. She even mentions the Trope Namer when she asks Sheldon if he's read Tom Sawyer. Played with in that Sheldon genuinely does enjoy cleaning and organizing tasks that most people try to avoid (and admitted to Bernadette that he was having fun) but he was still upset over the deception.
    • In "The Meteorite Manifestation", Sheldon mistakes Howard and Bernadette complaining about spending all day at the zoning office for bragging and rubbing his nose in it, doubling as Only One Finds It Fun, because Sheldon extremely eagerly volunteers to go with them to help them solve their issue. Unlike the previous example, no deception was involved, just Sheldon's weird idea of fun working to their advantage.
  • An episode of Boy Meets World has Corey trying to trick his friends, until Minkus reminds them of Tom Sawyer.
  • In an episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Sookie are pressured by their Butt-Monkey friend Michel into helping decorate Lorelai's garage, and end up making him do all of the hard work, including painting, and when Michel notices, Lorelai remarks, "Just like Tom Sawyer..."
  • In It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mac was putting gold spray paint on Frank's chair. Partway through, Mac asked Frank why he wants him to do it & Frank said he wants people to think his chair has been dipped in gold. Mac then criticized the idea & asked Frank how he got him to do it, to which, Frank replied, "If you make my chair look real nice, I'll tell you."
    Charlie: Has that chair been dipped in gold?
  • Averted in "The Garage Painters" episode of Leave It to Beaver, when Ward introduces Wally and Beaver to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When Wally and Beaver offer to paint the garage doors, most of the other kids are too wise to be gullible enough to fall for the scheme, and Benjie Bellamy pours a can of green paint all over himself, which leaves Wally and Beaver to paint the garage by themselves.
  • A M*A*S*H episode has the thankless job of collecting charity donations passed around in this manner.
  • In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Marked Twain", Higgins pulls rank on a recently demoted Crabtree by instructing him to interview a suspect who lives ten miles out of town. Crabtree consoles himself by suggesting he can get a look at an attractive woman who lives nearby, which inspires Higgins to pull rank again and conduct the interview himself. Visiting Historical Domain Character Mark Twain himself approved.
    Mark Twain: Too bad you don't need a fence painted.
  • An episode of Rules of Engagement has Jeff trick Adam to clean up a store he rented for Audrey using this trope, first asking Adam if he ever read Tom Sawyer and then actually explaining Sawyer's trick.
  • In Shtisel, when Shulem's struggling to attract students to his new cheder, he has his son Zvi Arye spread the rumor that he made his own grandchildren take a test to be accepted, and he's only taking the best of the best. Suddenly, every parent wants their sons to get into the elite, selective school.

  • This is at least Older Than Radio, if not older: It was the primary modus operandi of Anansi The Spider, the West African Trickster, for whom conning people into doing his hard work, or out of their hard work to his benefit, was practically an art form both used by him and turned against him by people wise to his game.

    Video Games 
  • Billy vs. SNAKEMAN has a recurring quest in which for one of your rounds of training under MC Stripeypants, you wash his car. This will take a while; newer players may need more than one real-life day. At the end, it turns out the reason was that he had a hot date and wanted his car clean. Your reward is getting introduced to a cat.
  • Subverted in The Next Big Thing. The task to be done is, in fact, a dangerous and untested Mad Scientist's experiment, so you would think you need to scam someone into testing it... but the Mad Scientist is more responsible than most, so he doesn't want you anywhere near the thing. In fact, he's only accepting volunteers who are aware it's a terrible idea, but are suicidal enough not to care, and who meet the standards he's set for being worthless to society. The scam is you need to convince the scientist that you're worthless to society, so you can test his experiment and abuse it for your own ends.


    Western Animation 
  • Camp Lazlo: In Bowling for Dinosaurs, Scoutmaster Lumpus tricks the Bean Scouts into clearing the space for his new bowling alley by getting them to dig for dinosaur bones.
  • The Fairly Oddparents: In "Shelf Life", Timmy wishes for the actual Tom Sawyer to come out of his book, thinking that he can convince Tom to write a school essay for him. Thanks to Timmy holding the Idiot Ball and letting Cosmo oversee the whole thing, Tom has no issue conning Cosmo into handing out his magic wand for the task of painting a fence... in the middle of a library.
  • A Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends short has Mr. Herriman punish Bloo with the chore of sorting the trash. Mac comes up with the idea for Bloo to make the other imaginary friends think that the job is fun so they would wanna do it and the two of them can sneak off and play (having been inspired by the Tom Sawyer book). This actually works; however, Bloo starts to think maybe sorting the trash really is fun, and forces everyone else to leave so he can have all the fun to himself. After chasing them all off, he quickly recalls that oh yeah, they were tricking everyone, and now he's stuck doing the job himself.
  • From Futurama, when characters enter books to hunt down a giant brain...
    Brain: Tom Sawyer, you tricked me! This task has been less fun than previously indicated. May this corny slice of Americana be your prison for all eternity.
  • In the Kim Possible episode "Car Trouble", Dr Drakken kidnaps a cybernetics expert to help build an army of robots. His attempts to coerce the captive fail, but Shego's insulting suggestion that he simply lacks the ability to help (with Drakken joining in when he sees that it's working) manipulate him into proving himself by cooperating fully.
  • In the Mission Hill episode Hot for Weirdie, they start a fake nightclub in an electrical closet with a 100% reject rate. Naturally, this makes all the hipsters in the neighborhood insane to get in.
  • In the Muppet Babies (2018) episode, "Gonzo's Clean Sweep", Gonzo tricks his friends into doing his chores for him so that he can practice his latest stunt. He tricks Kermit and Animal into putting the blocks away by pretending the blocks are gems and the toy box is a treasure chest, Fozzie and Summer into sweeping up the leaves by pretending they're fallen stars covering the moon, and Piggy into setting the table by telling her she's serving lunch for the Queen. As a result of doing Gonzo's chores for him, his friends are behind on their chores and don't get to have their ice cream, which results in a My God, What Have I Done? moment from Gonzo and him using his new stunt to help his friends finish their chores.
  • In The Simpsons parody of Tom Sawyer, Bart (as Tom) tries this but Milhouse doesn't fall for it. So Nelson (as Huck) threatens him with physical violence, which works much better.
  • South Park: Cartman manages to make a dying amusement park thrive by creating ads telling people they aren't allowed in. This false scarcity creates booming interest in the park. However, this was completely unintentional on Cartman's part; he really didn't want to let anyone in and wanted to keep the park all to himself, only creating the ads to troll people. But then, one of the rides breaks, so Cartman is forced to let in two customers per day so he could afford to hire a repairman to fix it. Then, he has to let in two more customers per day so he could hire a security guard to stop people from sneaking in. Then he has to let in more, and so on and so on, until the park was totally packed all day every day. Cartman was making tons of money from the now-thriving park, but he didn't even care, because all he wanted was his own private amusement park where he didn't have to wait in line for rides.
  • The Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? episode "Chapter and Verse" has Zack and Ivy crash-land in Hannibal, Missouri, breaking a picket fence. A local Mark Twain impersonator orders the duo to fix and repaint it. In order to resume their pursuit of Carmen, Ivy takes inspiration from Twain's Tom Sawyer, and leads Zack in convincing some children to paint the fence for them. He even manages to trade his brush for a skateboard and some fishing wire.

    Real Life 
  • One of the most effective ways to get people to join a group is to gather together a large number of people mildly interested in joining said group, then telling them that space is limited and only a few people will make the cut. Mass job interviews, Greek Week, and volunteer rallies all depend on participants seeing how many people want to join, being told there's only a few spots available, and watching people fight for the spots.
  • Lobster was actually considered a poor person's meal until a few fishermen got the bright idea to send small amounts of them to the inner United States where rich people wouldn't know the stigma against eating it. It also helped that lobster ended up being scarcer than people thought after all, helping its popularity among the wealthy even further. It helped, too, that the railroads were looking for a new entree they could serve right about the same time, and also new techniques in storage and preparation for lobster were being discovered that dramatically improved the flavor and shelf-life. All of this ended up turning lobster from a ocean pest into a rare delicacy.
  • Mark Twain himself points to his inspiration being in England, where wealthy gentlemen would pay coach-drivers for the privilege of taking over the reins.


Video Example(s):


A Dollar a Minute

To get out of Br'er Fox's trap, Br'er Rabbit tricks Br'er Bear into taking his place in the snare by saying he's making a dollar a minute keeping the crows out of the cornfield.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / FencePainting

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