A character with a guilty conscience reacts to the appearance of an authority figure with a cry of "Wait! I can explain!" and launches into an explanation of how whatever-it-was wasn't their fault.
Often, it turns out that the authority figure really wanted to talk to them about something else or is objecting to some minor unrelated infraction, and wouldn't even have known about whatever-it-was if they hadn't tried to explain.
The next step in the evolution of this trope is also common: a parent will confront their kid in a vague way, and the kid will confess to whatever he or she has done. The parent either knew the kid was up to something, but had little idea of what the specifics were; or, the parent was just making a routine surprise inspection.
A Discredited Trope as the line is rarely played straight nowadays. And considering the number of times it's been parodied/subverted, it's well on its way to being a Dead Horse Trope. As such, a common subversion is for the character in question to deliver this line... then resignedly admit that no, actually they can't explain it.
- Rika in Digimon Tamers saying this in episode 24 when her grandmother gets the chance of seeing Renamon.
- Mana in DokiDoki! PreCure said this when her friend, Alice, caught her and Rikka's transformation.
- Higurashi: When They Cry: Keiichi to Satoko, during the Curse Killing Arc. Satoko arrives back on the scene just in time to see Keiichi holding a bloody axe, with Rika's mutilated body on the ground next to him. Understandably, she's a little more than distressed at this. Keiichi proceeds to chase her and yell variations of this and Not What It Looks Like at her. He really didn't do it. He was just holding the Idiot Ball at the time.
- In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Joys of Seasons episode 4, Wolffy uses a variation of this phrase when Wolnie gets angry at him after she discovers her new cloak has a time bomb attached to it, which Weslie says was made by Wolffy:
Wolnie: What on earth are you doing making a time bomb? Why are you trying to get rid of me?!Wolffy: I have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
- Alt-Hero. Captain Europa demands to know how Dynamique ended up a magazine covergirl when he specifically told her never to use her outfit for commercial purposes. Dynamique says she can explain. Her explanation? She was offered a lot of money. Cue Captain Europa Face Palm.
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series fanfic Once Upon a Farmhouse, Kirk says this word for word to Amanda when he realizes she caught him and Spock sneaking out. His explanation, however, is mostly, "It was my fault, not his."
- In Integration Twilight learns that the human version of Bon Bon is named Sweetie Drops and tries to ask her about this. Bon Bon panics and makes a break for it, demonstrating her acrobatics and revealing she has Runes that let her resist magic before being caught by Twilight's guards. She has this reaction afterwards.
- In Aladdin just after his treasonous plot against the Sultan has been revealed, Jafar tries saying "All this can be explained." Exactly how is a mystery for the ages, since absolutely no-one is willing to listen to him by that point.
- At the end of Balto: Upon being exposed as the dirty, callous liar he truly is, Steele tries to justify his actions, but the others won't have any of it and they storm out.
Steele: Okay, okay, I can explain. You see, you guys weren't there, so you don't—wait a minute, guys! Wait just a second! Please?
Random Dog: GET LOST! (they slam the door in Steele's face)
- Ultimate Avengers has Bruce Banner's plot of using the Super Soldier Serum on himself so he could control the Hulk has been discovered so he gives out this explanation before being pinned down by Nick Fury.
- Subverted in The Usual Suspects, where Verbal's attempts to evade giving information to the police turn out to be an elaborate strategy to get the police to believe him when he actually does provide (wrong) information.
- Subverted in Iron Man when Pepper walks in on Tony apparently being molested by robots:
Tony Stark: Let's face it, this isn't the worst thing you've caught me doing.
- Said by Dr. Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show before he sings his final song ("I'm Going Home"). Unfortunately for him, Riff Raff and Magenta don't buy his story and promptly shoot him.
- The Mask:
Stanley Ipkiss: Wait, I can explain everything!
Lt. Kellaway: Oh yeah? You can explain everything? [gets the rubber mask from the jacket] Explain this.
Stanley Ipkiss: Um...
- It should be noted, that was a fake mask the Big Bad slipped into Stanley's jacket to make him look like a liar.
- The Departed when Maddy, the psychiatrist, finds out Sullivan working for Costello.
Maddy: You know, I thought I was the liar.Sullivan: Hey, I can explain that!
- Played for laughs in The Blues Brothers where the 'explanation' turns out to be a series of increasingly unlikely excuses. Amazingly enough they do the job and let the brothers make their escape.
- The 1982 and 1999 film versions of Annie include the scene from the musical where Miss Hannigan defends herself regarding Annie's escape attempt, thinking that Grace Farrell came to the orphanage to investigate that incident.
- Dark Shadows: When Barnabas catches Dr. Hoffman giving herself a transfusion of his blood, she quotes this trope verbatim.
- Making Money features Moist von Lipwig's first words to Lord Vetinari when he has been summoned as "look, I can explain." Vetinari's actually summoned him for something else entirely, but Moist does have to spend some time why there were mongooses in the posting boxes. (Someone had come up with the brilliant idea of Summon Bigger Fish to take care of snakes, who were introduced to eat the toads, who were introduced to eat the snails, who were eating the glue on the postage stamps.)
- In the Hank the Cowdog book "The Case of the Measled Cowboy", Hank begins to rehearse his explanation to the woman of the house, Sally May, for the tremendous mess that he and her son made in her absence. Subverted in that he admits he can't get any farther than "I can explain."
- Game of Thrones: Jorah Mormont attempts to explain and make excuses for his actions, but his queen refuses to accept any of them.
- Several times in Smallville:
- Lex Luthor, in an attempt to convince a female friend that she deserves better, got her to a nightclub, where she found the man she is engaged with when he is supposed to be on a business trip. The guy says the line repeatedly. To quote a reviewer, "If you are just going to say that, it is clear that you can't explain s***."
- When Chloe and Clark are both not themselves, they do some intense making out right under Lana's nose. When Chloe strips Clark, the red kryptonite is removed and he is back to normal. He says this to Lana who slams the door in his face after Not What It Looks Like. He can't explain anyway as he must save Chloe before she get herself killed as some parasite makes her dangerously impulsive, and Clark can't tell Lana about the red kryptonite anyway.
- Lana once says this when Lex finds out she stole his car. There is absolutely nothing she could explain, really.
- Jimmy says this when Chloe, who is at the time his girlfriend, walk in on Kara and him alone but not doing anything suspicious. Chloe's paranoia is somewhat justified given her meteor infection.
- Clark tells this to Lois when he "accidentally" left her in the rain for three hours.
- And again in "Echo" when he didn't show up for a date.
- And again in "Escape" when Lois caught him in the shower with a naked Chloe.
- A primary Catchphrase on Get Smart subverts this: "I can explain nothing!"
- Almost a Catchphrase for Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie, to the point where he once said, "I'm not sure what I did, sir, but I'm positive I have an explanation for it."
- A priest disturbs Sam as he's performing a seance in the church basement.
Sam: I can explain actually, no I can't.
- A couple of Hunters discover Sam's role in starting the Apocalypse and declare they're going to blow his head off. Sam says he can explain, then flounders because he is in fact guilty as hell. So they kill him. Again.
- A priest disturbs Sam as he's performing a seance in the church basement.
- Much British humor (Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean, and Jeeves and Wooster being prime examples) is based on this sort of thing, although the three examples are set about it in different ways. Basil Fawlty comes up with an explanation that is even more unbelievable than the truth, Bean just pretends nothing is happening, and Bertie Wooster gets too nervous to explain.
- Stargate SG-1 episode "Upgrades". The protagonists are specifically told to remain on base by the general and promptly disobey their orders due to their superpower-giving and super-stupid making armbands. This leads to the following exchange:
General: Can you explain to me why several witnesses put you people at a restaurant in town last night?
Daniel (interrupting Jack): Sir, I can explain everything! (Pauses) No, I can't.
- From BlackAdder Goes Forth, Blackadder assuming that his commanding officer has realized his glamorous showgirl is actually a "strapping six-footer from the rough end of the trenches":
Blackadder: I can explain everything, sir!
Melchett: Can you, Blackadder? Can you?
Blackadder: Well...no, sir.
- And of course, he thinks Blackadder is saying he can't explain "the mystery of love" and he remains blissfully unaware that the woman he loves is one of his underlings.
- Another one earlier in the same series; Blackadder has been repreived from his death sentence by George's uncle, and then learnt that George and Baldrick got drunk and never actually asked his uncle to do so.
Baldrick: I think I can explain, sir.
Blackadder: Can you, Baldrick?
- The earlier Blackadder II had a similar gag where Blackadder is entertaining his fiercely Puritanical aunt and uncle while simultaneously holding a drinking competition. Things seem to be going well, until one of the drunks (dressed as a monk) bursts into the room, vomits in the fireplace, and leaves, saying "Great booze-up, Edmund!" When asked if he can explain, Blackadder spends the next minute staring into space and working his jaw as he tries to come up with an explanation, then finally says "...Yes I can." And he does.
- Incidentally, the man really was a monk, although one of extremely ill repute. Considering that puritans couldn't stand monastical system, that probably didn't do Edmund any favours, either.
- Later in the same episode Blackadder returns to the room, completely 'faced, wearing a cardinal's hat, fake breasts and a feather up his bum. When his Aunt demands he explains himself, he just pauses a second and replies "....I can't. Not just like that." However, he goes on to explain that he can't explain himself, he is too complicated a person.
- Father Ted
- Inverted when Ted is caught with a stolen whistle and attempts to explain everything with a hastily-improvised sob story about a crippled boy attempting to train a horse to win the Grand National. He stops halfway through when Dougal reveals that they found out the real culprit while Ted was out of the room.
- Played entirely straight, however, in "Are You Right There, Father Ted?", featuring the collector of Nazi memorabilia who has left his collection to Ted in his will for various farcical reasons - a collection Mrs Doyle has put up in the house, believing it to be the expected delivery of new furniture - just before Ted returns from the pub with the inhabitants of the island's Chinatown. Uses the seemingly common "I can explain everything... Actually, no, I can't" delivery.
- Subverted in Coupling when Susan accuses her ex Patrick of filming them in bed together and keeping the video. Patrick responds with "I can explain.....Yes I did".
- Blurted by Nate in an episode of Leverage. When his ex-wife finds him after he came to Kiev when he heard she was in trouble, he speaks this line. It's also used in the first season finale when his ex-wife finds out that he was spying on her. Word of God says that he used the phrase a lot during their marriage.
- The Drake & Josh pilot episode has this when the former caught the latter dressing up like a woman:
Drake: Oh my God!Josh: I can explain!Drake: Oh my God!Josh: I can explain!
- Community: Jeff when noticed by one of his former lawyer buddies, has to come up with an explanation on the spot.
Jeff: I can explain. I'm a teacher. Wait, that's worse than the truth. I'm a student.
Abed: I can explain! (beat) Oh, I thought you'd keep yelling over me. Okay, I can explain...
- Later in the same episode, Troy says it verbatim to a janitor who catches him in someone else's office. Then he plays for time by insisting "Let me explain!" to the still silent janitor, and then stands there awkwardly, unable to think of anything, until Annie comes in and chloroforms him.
- Also, in the Bottle Episode, when everyone discovers Abed's log of the girls' periods and begin to get distressed:
- In keeping with the more realistic tone this set, his explanation is heard, and accepted to not have been malicious or intentional, and he is forgiven.
- In the Seinfeld episode "The Heart Attack", George is in the hospital, thinking he's had a heart attack. After learning from the doctor that he didn't, Jerry decides to mess with George, leading to this:
George: Kill me now. I'm begging you. Let's just get it over with. Be a pal. Just take the pillow and put it over my face.Jerry: (Nonchalant) Well, uh, what, kinda like this? (Forces the pillow down on George's face)George: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! WHAT ARE YOU, CRAZY?! (Elaine walks in)Elaine: JERRY! (Jerry stops)Jerry: (Mock guilt) Elaine...what are you doing here? (Removes pillow)George: Jerkoff.
- El Chavo del ocho:
- Whenever Doña Florinda assumes Don Ramón did or tried to do something to her son, she won't listen to whatever explanation he's got to offer.
- Also, Don Ramón once told his daughter Professor Jirafales was coming to visit him. Her immediate reaction was loudly pleading him not to believe anything Professor Jirafales says. Don Ramón asked her what he'd say and she realized she spoke too much.
Phoebe: Oh my God, you're getting a massage? You never let me massage you!Monica: Phoebe, I can explain! You see...God, I gotta get better at lying.
- NCIS had a scene where Tony was doing a horse impression and suddenly realized from everyone's expressions that Director Vance was right behind him:
Tony: (without daring to turn and look) I can explain, sir.
Vance: Sit down, Doctornote , this should be good.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Oz cheats on Willow, his attempt to explain gets a curt response from Buffy. "Now would be a good time for your trademark stoicism."
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When Will and Carlton venture into Jazz's rough neighborhood and Carlton becomes "hip", Will dreams about him going home like this and declaring his intent to drop out of school. Will rushes in, feebly insisting, "I can explain", only to have Phil being strangling him.
- The opening skit of the 2006 Emmys had host Conan O'Brien wandering onto the sets of several TV shows. The final bit had him walking into an empty house, only to find himself in the middle of a "To Catch A Predator" segment and protesting to Chris Hansen, "This is very easy to explain."
- UFO. Straker spends a lot of time away from home getting S.H.A.D.O up and running, but can't tell his wife what he's up to because his organisation is top secret and may kill anyone who knows too much. His wife suspects him of having an affair, and hires a private eye who photographs Straker with one of his Bridge Bunnies. On being confronted with the 'evidence' and a demand for a divorce, Straker is so desperate he's willing to tell her everything, but she cuts him off by saying she doesn't want to know, thinking he's referring to his non-existent affair.
- Calvin and Hobbes used this trope when Calvin's mother went for an interview with his teacher, Miss Wormwood. Calvin begins packing a suitcase to run away. When his mother comes back and tries to talk to him, she unknowingly Perp Sweats him and he panics as he tries to explain what he thinks Miss Wormwood told her:
Calvin's Mom: Calvin, I...Calvin: Yike! You're home! I didn't even finish pack...that is...um...lies! Everything Miss Wormwood said about me was a lie! She just doesn't like me! She hates little boys! It's not my fault! I'm not to blame! She told you about the noodles, right? It wasn't me! Nobody saw me! I was framed! I wouldn't do anything like that! I'm innocent, I tell you!Calvin's Mom: What noodles?Calvin: Oh! Uh...noodles? Ha ha...you must have heard wrong. I didn't say noodles.
- In one strip Peter punches a guy at school for making a joke about Denise and is told his parents will be called:
Peter (worried): Hi.Andy: Peter, the school called me today.Peter: Look, I know what you're going to say. Fighting is wrong. I know that. It was a momentary lapse. It won't happen again. I'll have to serve detention, but Mr. Krimpshaw says he may not put it on my permanent record. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I was an idiot, all right?!Andy: They called to say someone found your wallet.Peter (thinking): "Was" nothing.Andy: Now, then. What's all this about a fight?...
- In another instance, Peter, after his mother looks under his mattress and tells him she found something, insists that he reads the magazines there for the articles until she shows him that she found his baseball glove there.
- In one strip Peter punches a guy at school for making a joke about Denise and is told his parents will be called:
- Parodied in Nebulous, where Nebulous's underling's try to explain their attempted Dying Declaration of Love, but Nebulous simply shrugs the explanation off, saying "if you got drunk and indulged in foreplay, I'm sure you had a damn good reason."
- In practically every episode of Navy Lark, CPO Pertwee is caught out ... exclaims, "I can explain!" ... and often does.
- Annie, the musical: Shortly after Annie's attempt to escape from Miss Hannigan's orphanage, a woman arrives and announces that she has been sent to talk to Miss Hannigan by the orphanage's board of directors. Miss Hannigan is in full self-justifying flight before the woman has a chance to explain that actually she's just come to see about borrowing one of the orphans.
- The trailer for World of Warcraft''s raid instance, Ulduar, has Rhonin meeting the human king Varian. However, Rhonin had also invited Thrall and Garrosh to meet with him. Problem is, Thrall and Garrosh show up earlier than expected and when the Varian and Thrall see each other, Rhonin reacts this way. He sounded suspiciously as if he was caught cheating on his wife.
- In Too Much Information, when Ace (who occasionally live up to his name) is making out with a strappin' Scottish lass on the doorstep, and her grandmother walks in on them, his quick "I can explain!" is answered by a dry "Be fun tae see ye try..." before the Cool Old Lady reveals that she's got no objections whatsoever.
- In Kevin & Kell, Corrie narrowly avoids falling into this twice regarding her being a sheep disguised as a wolf. When Fiona mentions that she knows her secret. Corrie assumes that Fiona knows her true species, and is about to remove her wolfskin when Fiona tells her that she actually "knows" that she's Ralph's daughter (which turns out to be true, unbeknownst to either). Later on, when the power goes out at a slumber party, Fiona and Rhonda tell her she's hiding something, but before she can articulate an answer, they say that she's wearing Bruno's sheepskin, (he sometimes wears her on his back, but later wears a skin made out of her wool).
- Not Invented Here: Desmond and Owen are caught in the middle of a wooded area, in a motor home, wearing hazard suits, surrounded by cough medicine containers. Fortunately, Desmond's explanation is taken as truth.
- Nicky says this once he is discovered burying two dead bodies in The Wretched Ones.
- Subverted in Nerf NOW!!, a chain of implausible events conspire to have Jane and newcomer Victoire (older sister of Anne-Marie) in their underwear, wrestling. Jane's girlfriend, Morgan senses something is amiss and walks in on them. And, rather than jump to the obvious, but incorrect, conclusion, Morgan immediately (correctly) guesses they were fighting over the one good controller.
Victoire: How did you know what happened??Morgan: C'mon, this bullshit trope happens every time someone step [sic] too close to a girl in underwear."
- The Onion riffs on it with a pun.
- A high-rated comment from a YouTube upload of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "The Ticket Master":
"When My mom walked in, I switched to my Porn tab because it was easier to explain"
- ASD Fmovie: Episode 9 features a short of a woman cheerfully announcing her pregnancy to her girlfriend/wife. Her smile drops and she says the trope after noticing her lover's expression.
- Dragon Ball Z Abridged, Krilin tells Future Trunks that after being hit by so many strong people, he can tell when people are holding back. Specifically, Perfect Cell and Trunks himself.
Future Trunks: (beat) Okay, I can explain.Krillin: I don't think you can.
- Danny Phantom:
- Twice in the episode "Prehibernation Week" of Spongebob Squarepants, an ordinarily normal-looking fish is revealed to apparently wear Osh-Kosh overalls, a beanie, and a giant lollipop underneath his regular clothes (well, okay, the second time Sandy just ripped up a building from its foundation and revealed the fish in the kiddy clothes, but anyway). One short pause later, the fish responds with "Uhh, I can explain..."
- American Dragon: Jake Long: The Halloween Episode featured Jake having a Halloween party and inviting both humans and magical creatures. Unfortunately, it was just when the Dragon Council decided it was his turn to make a surprise inspection.
- In the Aladdin: The Series episode "Dune Quixote", Aladdin finds himself kissing Sadira with Jasmine standing nearby. On impulse, he quickly starts to say he can explain before realizing that he can't explain. (Sadira had cast a spell on Aladdin that ended up going horribly wrong, trapping Aladdin in a bizarre fantasy, and only ending when he kissed Sadira, which Jasmine reluctantly allowed in order to get Aladdin back to normal.)
- This was somewhat of a catchphrase for Jon Arbuckle in Garfield and Friends, as he was prone to being hated on by people for making catastrophic mistakes thus forcing Garfield to make everything right.
- In Transformers: Prime, Jack is caught violating his curfew by his mother, June, and tries to explain that he is really a contact for an alien race engaged in a war on Earth. June doesn't buy it. Later on, she's kidnapped by MECH and Airachnid, forcing Jack and Arcee to rescue her. As Jack is trying to free her, he says he can explain everything—then stops, and goes, "Wait, I already did."
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius: In "Send in the Clones", when the town confronts Jimmy about the stuff his clones had done.
Jimmy: I can explain! (four hours later) and that's what happened.
- The Simpsons: In "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment" Homer smuggles beer during Prohibition by hiding it in bowling balls. He invokes this trope when confronted by Marge.
I can explain Marge, please let me explain! Oh why won't you let me explain?!
- In "Bonfire of the Manatees", Marge prepares to leave Homer when she sees another one of his escapades, this being shooting a porno in the house, and says "I can explain." Marge stops to hear what he has to say, then leaves when Homer says it came about when he owed the mafia money.
- Spider-Man: The Animated Series: The first episode featuring the Chameleon ends with Mary-Jane angry at Peter because "he" promised to come to her play and then stood her up.
Peter: (chasing after her) Mary-Jane, wait! I can explain! Well - at least I think I can explain...OK, maybe I - maybe I can't explain, but...
- In Storm Hawks episode "Power Grab", Master Cyclonis leaves Ravess in charge of Cyclonia while she leaves on personal business, and when she gets back, almost every Cylonian commander- Ravess included- is stuck in a prison cell while Leugey is on the throne acting leader.