When a facility must serve large volumes of waiting customers, they will implement a system where arriving visitors take a numbered ticket from a dispenser to determine the order they will be served in. This eliminates the need for them to physically stand in a queue for long periods of time. An agent will call out the numbers to be served sequentially.
Many gags can ensue, such as the number taken by the guest being insanely far away from the number currently being served. Inversely, the waiting room might be empty, but the bureaucratic employees may still insist on calling each number in between individually. Out of desperation, the character might try to steal a lower numbered ticket.
By the time the character's number is called, expect the office to be closed for the day.
A common part of this gag is there being a bureaucratic number-system at all at that place (for example, in heaven).
Can also be used as a Stock Phrase to tell someone that they are far from the only one who has a particular request or complaint.
- One Jack in the Box ad has Jack being tormented by a clerk using the numbered tickets. The clerk would call the number after the one he pulled, with Jack pulling that number from the ticker.
- An issue of Excalibur has Kitty Pryde getting 10^23 from the dispenser — which is probably a reference to Avogadro's Number.
- In the Belgian comic Arkel, the eponymous angel is seen bringing a recently-departed soul to Purgatorium, where he has to take a number. He gets 800,144, while 309 is called. As Arkel points out, that's only 799,835 numbers to wait, it shouldn't take long.
- This happens at the Torture Place in Retro Chill. The group gets number 5,849,596, and despite being the only people there they have to wait a full day for service.
- Chapter 18 of Pokémon Reset Bloodlines ends with an omake featuring Cameron and his Riolu trying out for the fic in response to casting calls. True to the trope, the two of them end up with the number 750. For added comedy, the duo ends up stuck in between a Dalek and the Major as of number 26 and 27's call up (Jigglypuff and Ritchie).
- Lampshaded and Subverted in Infinity Train: Boiling Point: "The Spelling Bee Car" starts with Zenith Fantasy (a small group of reformed ex-Apex members) going to a cantina, where Alex brings up the trope when he sees they have to take a number... only for the number they grab to be the very next order.
- In Adrian Mole, Adrian's mother has to take a ticket in the Social Security office: about every ten minutes, a number appears, and somebody goes through a door marked "private interviews". Adrian notes that none of those people come out again, and his mother remarks that they probably have gas chambers out there.
- In Sonic the Hedgehog in the Fourth Dimension Sonic and Co had to take one before meeting with the Science Council of the Organizers; with was up in the 4000's while the current number called was 24. Needless to say this didn't go down well with one impatient hedgehog.
- Early in the movie, a ghost couple get a six- or seven-digit number in Heaven's waiting room. It's then revealed that they had to spend three months here before being served.
- At the end, the eponymous ghost gets similarly long number... and is sitting next to the voodoo priest with the next number to be called (4). Betelgeuse tricks him and steals the voodoo priest's number... but gets his head shrunk in retalation.
- In the TV movie High School U.S.A., Beth (Nancy McKeon) is working in a bakery when JJ (Michael J. Fox) comes to talk to her. She doesn't want to talk with him and calls the next number. JJ has several "take a number" cards in his pocket and pulls out the correct number so he can talk to her.
- The Tiger Makes Out - Eli Wallach's mad-at-the-world character goes to the housing authority with a grievance on his lunch hour, and gets number 110 when they're only up to 15. He pretends to be #15, but the representative won't talk with him until he's produced the number. He's then busted and booed out of the office for being a line-breaker.
- Get Smart: The entrance to the Kaos base is disguised as a bakery and taking a number opens the secret door.
- Mr. Bean has done the third variant. It is well executed, but pretty much as expected. It basically writes the book on this trope, as Bean explores virtually every possible method to cut his wait short, no matter how cruel. This includes ripping a stuffed animal out of a child's arms to get her out of the line, switching tickets with a woman in a full-body cast which also covers her mouth, drawing a zero on the end of someone else's number, and flipping the digital number readout sign upside down so that 6s appeared to be 9s and so forth. He gets his comeuppance in the end, so despite being one of his cruelest outings ever, it's still all in good fun.
- Chuck: In "Chuck Versus the Imported Hard Salami", Chuck goes to Lou's deli in hope of making up with her. When his number comes up, she tells him that if he's not ordering food he'll have to take another number and wait. Finally, his number comes up at closing time... but he manages to make up with her anyway.
- In the Lost episode "The Lie", Ben arrives at an empty butcher shop, not intending to buy anything, and takes a number. This number (342) has thus been heavily scrutinized by fans.
- Oliver runs into this a couple of times on Green Acres. He draws a high number, while the by-the-book clerk is still in the single digits, and insists on systematically calling every intervening number, even though Oliver is the only customer in the room.
- On The Dukes of Hazzard, Ms. Tisdale, the lady who ran the Hazzard Post Office, is a stickler that everyone has to take a number AND show proper ID for service.
- In Supernatural, after assuming command of the place the demon Crowley turns Hell into a seemingly endless waiting line where the new arrivals quite literally have to pick a number from the adjacent machine and wait their turn. When they reach the front however, they go right back to the beginning.
- In the Saturday Night Live sketch "Samurai Delicatessan", Buck Henry enters the empty (of customers) deli with John Belushi's Samurai behind the counter. When Henry tries to ask for something, the samurai shouts Japanese at him and points (with his katana) at the sign saying "Please take a number." After the samurai calls out three or four Japanese "numbers", Henry calls out that he's got that one and now the samurai waits on him.
- In one MADtv sketch, Ms. Swan asks a criminal collecting protection money to take a number before she will speak to him. He receives number 88, but the Now Serving sign is only at 5. Ms. Swan begins calling all the numbers in between, waiting for a response to each even though they are the only two people in the shop, but she skips to 88 after the racketeer reveals he's a Ms. Swan fan.
- A Chespirito short starring Doctor Chapatín has him arriving at a hospital with an injured man, and desperately trying to get him attended. He's forced to take a number and wait, and Hilarity Ensues when it turns out the numbers are picked at random, Chapatín tears up his own right when he was about to be called, and in trying to prove his point to the doctor in charge, he only shakes the injured man around causing him even more pain.
- Candid Camera used the premise for a prank. The victim was the only one in the waiting room, but he was told to take a number and wait for it to be called. He was number 36. At first she paused between numbers, even though nobody was there to answer. As she got close to his, she started calling them out in rapid succession and eventually skipped over him. "Who's got 30? Anybody? 31... 32... 33... 34-35-36-37.... 38? Who's got 38?"
- A song by The Killers advises to "take a number where the blood's just barely dry..."
- In the Dinosaurs episode, "Career Opportunities", The Job Wizard gives Robbie a job pushing trees at the WeSaySo corporation alongside Earl. After Earl gets Robbie to resign from WeSaySo, he confronts the Job Wizard to tell him to give Robbie a better job. The Job Wizard tells Earl to take a number, and Earl does so. Once he gets to #98, Earl comes in again.
- Sesame Street:
- Naturally, the show does this with Grover and Mr. Johnson, one of the Fat Blue characters. Mr. Johnson, holding number 40, has to wait while bakery clerk Grover calls numbers 1 through 38 for non-existent clientele. Of course, at number 39, a woman shows up with an extremely long and complicated list which Grover proceeds to fill, leaving the hapless Mr. Johnson screaming in frustration.
- In an alternate ending, Grover finally reaches number 40. A relieved Mr. Johnson asks for a jelly doughnut in a bag, but Grover asks him to take another number: number 41. Then Grover starts over at number 1, causing Mr. Johnson to faint.
- In one episode, Gordon is helping Oscar do his shopping at a story run by grouches for grouches. The store owner makes him take a number, 19, then goes through all the numbers starting at 1, even though Gordon is the only one waiting. When he finally gets to 19, other customers appear with the same number on their tickets.
- In Episode 4931, Elmo, Abby, and Cookie Monster tag along with Alan when he goes shopping at Sarita's Supermarket. To make food shopping more fun for them, Alan starts a game where Elmo, Abby, and Cookie need to find three foods that start with the letter C from different sections of the grocery store before he finishes checking out. Cookie goes to the bakery to get a cookie for the game, and the baker makes him take a number. Cookie's number is 108, and Cookie worries he might not get his cookie before Alan finishes checking out, but fortunately, he does.
- Played with in the point-and-click adventure game Space Quest 6. You take a number and get 3, however the current number being served is 4, and it counts up from there of course.
- World of Warcraft: The first encounter with Nexus-Prince Haramad has him telling you that "If you are here to kill me, please take a number and wait for your turn."
- In the demo of The Stanley Parable, you take a number and wait a minute or two before you meet the Narrator (if you do wait, that is). When you get to this room again in the demo, you can wait again until your number shows up again, if only to mess with the Narrator.
- If, or rather when you are killed in Shin Megami Tensei IV, you'll be sent to the shores of the river Styx, and meet Charon, who's massively overworked, his "office" covered in paperwork and surrounded by countless dead souls. He gives you the chance to grease his palms a bit, but if you can't, or won't for some reason, he'll hand you a number... a very, very long number... and then send you to the back of the queue.
- The Heterodyne Castle in Girl Genius has a (pink) psychological torture room that include a number system... but the machine for the victims is out of numbers. Othar doesn't take it well.
- In Flare, the title character imagines burglars doing this after she reads that a house is robbed every 15 seconds.
- On Evil, Inc., when Lightning Lady goes on Saving Christmas, she has to take a number because of the huge amount of fictional characters already doing this.
- In Full Frontal Nerdity the nerds are tricked into a situation where they and a large group of other geeks are about to have their souls eaten by a demon and they're all told to take numbers and get in line to be devoured. Lewis gets the "one" ticket, which is just his luck but fortunately his unresolved deal with Emma makes trying to eat his soul kind of like attempting to suck from the end of a vacuum.
- Garfield and Friends: Happens to Garfield in "Mini Mall Matters", while waiting to get yogurt at a frozen yogurt store. His number is 3478; the cashier calls out for number three. Despite the fact that he is the only customer there. Becomes a Brick Joke at the end of the episode when a man who hasn't eaten in months and was marooned on an island visits the frozen yogurt store. He gets the number 2912, and the cashier calls for number six.
- Spoofed in an episode of ReBoot. Bob needs to get "slow food" from Al's Wait-And-Eat, and is told to take a number. Bob's number is "1000000000000", but since it's in binary, Bob remarks, "4096? Must be the lunch rush..." Still, Al's waiter calls out, "Now serving number 3..."
- In the South Park episode when the town loses all Internet service, Stan, his sister and his dad have to take numbers to get rationed Web access at a refugee camp. Features both versions of the trope: the fighting and the closing.
- Happens in SpongeBob SquarePants. After many issues with trying to get a bus out of Rock Bottom, SpongeBob goes to ask for a schedule. However, there's a huge line, and SpongeBob has to wait all the way in the back. The person ahead of him, uh, lays on egg on top of his head stating his number in line. As soon as the line moves up one person, the egg hatches, and three more people jump in front of him waiting in line. And when he actually reaches the end of the line, the clerk simply says that the next bus to Bikini Bottom leaves in five seconds, then "Sorry, we're closed" ensues.
- Wakfu episode "Miss Ugly": In the flashback showing the backstory of the Ugly Princesses, there is such a long line of princes waiting to woo them that they use a "Take a Number" device. Then comes the god Osamodas, who picks number 666 before laying a curse on the disrespectful princesses.
- In the Teen Titans Go! episode "Legendary Sandwich", Robin has to wait in the bakery department of the supermarket and gets number 78 with them serving number 22. While played for laughs, it's clearly a more realistic take on the trope.
- The stealing variant is done rather morbidly in the Dan Vs. episode "Dan Vs. the DMV": Dan is stuck with a four-digit number at the place while renewing his driver's license, so he "trades" with a man sitting next to him who has a lower number, and has apparently died waiting his turn. He struggles to take the number out of his fingers, so he rips his arm off instead. Of course, after filling out a ton of paperwork, the place closes before Dan can return it.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa tricks Homer and Bart into thinking they have leprosy and Ned sends them to a Hawaiian rehab center. While Homer is receiving a painful operation, Bart looks at his ticket, a #2.
- In one episode of Archer, Lana finds out that Cyril has been repeatedly cheating on her. In revenge, she publically announces that any ISIS employee hoping to have sex with her is welcome to show up outside Cyril's office with a number. Almost every male employee immediately converges on the office, but only Pam is smart enough to actually take a number, at least at first. After Lana refuses to have sex with Pam, they devise a scheme to charge the rest of the potential customers for the right to claim that they had sex with Lana.
- In one Megas XLR episode, Coop has to wait in line at the DMV. When the number announced was 12, Coop looked at his number to see that he has 1271.
- Played with in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. When Rainbow Dash enters a flying contest, instead of taking a number, she and her competitors are issued numbers to determine the order of who goes out and does their routine for the judges. Dash is nervous and reluctant to perform and buys time by trading her low number with contestants with higher numbers.
- In the Sonic Boom episode, "Mayor Knuckles", when Dr. Eggman comes to see Knuckles, who is working as the temporary mayor, to protest about his trash not being picked up, Knuckles tells him that he has a lot of people waiting, and that he has to take a number. As Eggman points out, the machine is out of numbers. Knuckles then tells Eggman he has to fill out a complaint form, and Eggman asks him if he can get one. Knuckles simply tells Eggman to take a number. This gag happens twice again later in the episode; the first time when Eggman gains control of Knuckles' stamp and looks for the form to strip waste management of vacation time, and the second when Mayor Fink returns and Eggman asks him if he can get his trash collected.
- Real Life Turn-o-Matic slips do in fact contain three digits, but the first digit is only an outline and generally used to discourage someone from cheating the system by keeping their ticket and returning another day. For example, if your ticket reads 219, you can't return tomorrow (after the numbers have rolled over) and use that ticket to skip the line because while the number being served might be 19 again, staff will be aware the first digit has incremented.
- In more sophisticated systems, visitors select the nature of their business upon their arrival and are issued a ticket with a letter and a number (such as B-53). A computer tracks the order of arrival and the selected purpose of each visitor. When a staff member becomes available, the computer selects the next person in line and displays their number alongside the counter or station they should proceed to. Since the order is tracked by the computer rather than simply counting upwards, it is impossible for a visitor to determine when their turn will come up by looking at their number.
- As a bit of humor, one can buy a paperweight featuring a novelty hand grenade (that is to say, no explosives in it) with a number tag hanging from the pin, complete with a sign reading "Please take a number".