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.
- 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.
- Mortadelo y Filemón: From time to time, Mortadelo gets away with things because some misunderstanding results in someone else — most often Filemón — being blamed. For instance, when Filemón sees him smoking a cigar and Mortadelo offers him one, he quickly goes to the cigar box to take it. Cue the Super appearing out of nowhere to catch Filemón red-handed and grab him by the neck, saying "At last I've found the jerk who steals my cigars!"
- Foxtrot: Jason and Paige get into an argument that ends with coke spilled onto the keyboard, crashing the computer. They get into another argument about whose fault it is, until they see Walking Techbane Roger walk in ("We're dead"), sit down ("We're dead"), turn it on ("We're dead")... and then it crashes, he calls Andy over, saying he thinks he broke something ("Dead or reeeeeally slimy"). After Andy blows her stack at Roger (she lost an unsaved 800-word column), they let the week pass in escalatingly harsh punishments for Roger until they confess (as the arc ends there, we don't know how they were punished).
- 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! What makes this ending a bit more tolerable, apart from the minor fact that Clouseau takes it pretty well, is mostly the fact that Sir Charles Lytton will be back to his thieving ways very soon making it a matter of time for Clouseau to be proven innocent.
- 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.
- In the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Greg chases some preschoolers with a worm and due to borrowing his friend Rowley's coat, a woman nearby thinks Greg is Rowley and Rowley gets the blame.
- In one Little Princess book, the Princess gets blamed for various misdeeds that were actually done by the prince next door.
- In one of the Magic Kitten books, a girl named Allison knocks over trash bins and her little brother Darren gets the blame.
- In the children's book Oscar Got the Blame, a boy named Oscar gets blamed for things that were actually committed by his Not-So-Imaginary Friend Billy.
- Pick pretty much any episode of Drake & Josh in which the two titular heroes try to get Megan punished for something she did wrong. Chances are, the parents will not believe their true story, and instead believe Megan's lies and punish them while Megan gets off scot-free.
- Conversed in The Stinger of one episode of The Vicar of Dibley. Geraldine tells Alice a version of the joke about God aiming for Sir Swears-a-Lot and hitting the priest instead, and Alice, Comically Missing the Point as usual, complains that the joke is stupid because God wouldn't miss, "and he certainly wouldn't swear."
- In an episode of The Goldbergs, Beverley Goldberg discovers her home is being used as mailing address for a scam of Columbia Music's "twelve LPs for a cent" marketing technique (you get the twelve LPs for a cent, but are everafter locked into having to buy one a month at full price). Lots and lots of packages of LPs have been arriving at the Goldbergs in quite a lot of obviously fake names, such as Optimus O'Prime. Beverley leaps to the conclusion that her daughter Erica is the culprit as she is the wayward teenager. It cannot be her sweet innocent adorable little boy Adam - can it?
- In the episode "Trophy" in Law & Order, the detectives notice that a Serial Killer is mimicking the pattern of Andrew Dillard, who had been convicted of a similar crime years earlier. They eventually arrest a man named Simon Brooks for the crime, and Brooks readily admits that he was the one who committed the original killings too. It turns out Brooks' mother had covered up his crimes and gotten him therapy, and after her death, Brooks had reverted to his old ways. The police, as well as Assistant DA Jack McCoy are all horrified by the implications.
- In one version of the Medusa myth, the god Poseidon rapes the priestess Medusa in Athena's temple. Athena is so enraged by her temple being defiled that she curses Medusa by turning her into a gorgon whose appearance is so hideous that it causes on-lookers to turn to stone. Of course the real guilty party, Poseidon, escapes without even the slightest punishment because he's a god.
- 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.
- Ultra Fast Pony: In "Bummer in the City", Rarity creates a new line of High Fashion clothing, with a completely new fabric she invented. It's made from baby skin from babies she murdered herself. Her rival, Suri Polomare, steals the fabric and takes credit for inventing it. So Suri winds up also getting arrested for all those unsolved baby murders.
- A mechanic in Skool Daze. If a teacher gets knocked over with a catapult attack, they'll blame the nearest (named) pupil rather than the actual culprit and give them lines.
- In The Fairly OddParents!, one episode has Timmy and his babysitter Vicky visit the town's mascot, Chompy the Goat. Timmy notices that Chompy seems sad in his cage, and while everyone is away, he wishes for goat mind reading powers from his fairy godparents. He learns that Chompy wants to be free, and thus he decides to set him free. Then Vicky comes in and through a number of coincidences, she ends up being mistaken for a person who kidnapped the goat, while Timmy gets mistaken for a hero who caught her. For the majority of the episode, everyone keeps praising him and giving him all sorts of cool rewards, but soon one of his fairy godparents remarks that this doesn't seem very fair. Eventually Timmy starts feeling so guilty about Vicky that he has trouble sleeping, and starts wishing for nonsensical stuff while asleep, causing chaos. Ultimately, Timmy decides to reveal the truth to the town, and after they learn that the goat is much happier now, they let him go. He still gets grounded by his parents, though.
- Futurama: On two occasions, Bender has escaped consequences because another bending unit was mistaken for him. First Flexo caught the rap for him stealing the tiara from an intergalactic beauty pageant, and spent several years in prison as a result. Later, Bender entered a witness protection program to escape the ire of the Robot Mafia, who eventually killed an innocent Lunar farmer, believing it to be him in disguise. Both times the show leaned heavily on Protagonist-Centered Morality for comedic effect.
- One episode of King of the Hill has Hank and Bobby accidentally destroying a garden gnome that Peggy liked, and Hank taking full responsibility. Peggy is able to discern that Hank is covering for Bobby, but unfortunately she ends up believing that Bobby is only to blame and punishes him severely. Later in the episode, Hank buys a new gnome as an apology to Bobby, and this time Peggy assumes it to be a sign that she has been too rough on Bobby and so she stops.
- One episode of The Penguins of Madagascar features a variation of this: there is a photographer visiting the zoo, and Private, being THE animal to always get put on the covers due to being irresistibly adorable, wants to pose for the pictures as usual. However, his thunder is stolen by Mort, who proves more interesting to the photographer this time. Private gets jealous, and tries everything to get the photographer's attention back. At some point, the local gorillas approach Private and offer to "take care" of Mort for him. Due to Poor Communication Kills, this results in Private thinking that they actually killed Mort. The rest of the episode is about the cast searching for Mort while Private is feeling guilty about the situation and is even being haunted by Mort's "ghost". The episode ends with it being revealed that the gorillas simply took Mort somewhere out of sight (and were even feeding him) so that Private can take the spotlight again, and the "ghost" was merely a figment of Private's imagination (which is even lampshaded by the ghost itself).
- In the South Park episode "Toilet Paper", the four boys teepee an unpopular teacher's house. Kyle is left riddled in guilt over the ordeal until Butters dimwittedly confesses to the whole thing after Officer Barbrady convinces him he is guilty, leaving all of the boys guilt ridden over the ordeal... except Cartman:
Cartman: You guys! There's nothing to feel bad about! We're, we're off scot-free!Kyle: We feel bad for other people.Cartman: For oth-er... *winces, trying to comprehend* Uh. Oww. ...Ih ...Ih, ih, is it that ...you think you might get in trouble later?
- SpongeBob SquarePants: In "The Smoking Peanut", SpongeBob throws a peanut at Clamu the giant clam at the zoo, causing it to cry. Eventually, he gets a visit from the police, and he starts to confess when it turns out they are looking for Patrick, whom they blame for making Clamu cry. SpongeBob feels so guilty he confesses to the angry mob that chained Patrick. Instead of letting him go, they demand that SpongeBob get chained up too, but then the real reason for Clamu's distress is revealed - Mr. Krabs having stolen its pearl, which is actually an egg.
- 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.)
- 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.