Leela: Then you'll be fired.
Leela: ...out of a cannon, into the Sun.
Typically, The Not So Harmless Punishment is introduced with a very misleading name or described in a way which makes it seem quite minor and painless — it may not even be a punishment at all. This causes the recipient to believe that he will get off easy, giving them the chance to make a cocky remark about how he can handle something like that.
Subsequently, details are revealed that make it clear the punishment is much more dire than it originally appeared to be. It could be dangerous, painful, or even deadly, but it is anything but harmless. Occasionally, a Gilligan Cut is used to sell the gag.
One variant with an Idiot Hero or The Fool may have the character receive a very straight-forward punishment that is perfectly clear to the audience, but the character mistakes it to mean something entirely different.
This type of punishment may be issued by the Not-So-Harmless Villain.
Outside of Comedy, this trope is rarely seen, but it does make a few appearances in more serious works from time to time. The one thing that is constant among all examples is that all punishments are always shown to be very undesirable and/or harmful for our characters after The Reveal.
As this trope is largely based on The Reveal, you should expect to find many SEMI-SPOILERS in the examples.
- There's a joke about a man who died and went to Hell. For his punishment, he was shown two rooms, one showing the man whipped and beaten mercilessly and another one showing the man strapped to a bed while a beautiful woman had unending rough sex with him, and was told to pick which punishment he wanted. He decided to choose the latter option. The punchline involves the woman walking up to the man and saying, "Hey, thanks for taking my place."
- Another variation of the joke gives the man the choice between a torture chamber with hot pokers and a room with a group of people enjoying a cup of tea while standing in knee-high excrement. The man chooses the latter option and steps into the room, expecting to be handed his cup of tea. Just then, the leader yells, "Right, lads, tea break's over. Back on your heads!"
- One more version gives the newcomer the choice between three cauldrons with manure: one with manure reaching waist, the other one with it up to the neck level, and the third one with it reaching ankles. The dude selects the third one, naturally, and starts chatting with its inhabitants. Soon, however, a guardian imp opens the lid and calls, "OK, you've had a long enough break, haven't you? Now go on EATING THE CONTENTS!"
- One of the adventures of Abelard Snazz, The Man With The Two-Story Brain, written by Alan Moore for 2000 AD had the title character punished by the gods themselves and forced to solve a Rubik's Cube.◊ A Rubik's Cube about the size of a mountain - the title character couldn't even find the cube he's sitting on.
- Judge Dredd: After Judge Dredd assassinates a brainwashed Chief Judge Griffin on live television and escapes during the "Apocalypse War" Story Arc, all East-Meg Judges present throughout the incident have been rounded up and are about to be issued winter clothing before being sent off to a penal colony in Siberia, which is War Marshall Kazan's typical punishment for failure.
Kazan: Cancel that order!
East-Meg Judge: You mean you're not sending them to Siberia?
Kazan: No, I mean they're not getting any winter clothing!
- A regular event in Mortadelo y Filemón when the Super threatens them with a punishment should they manage to mess up their new assignment. E.g., he promises them they'll be put into the Guinness Book of World Records. And yes, they will - between the pages, and with an oversized vise pressing the book back into shape...
- In Secret Six, Mad Hatter punishes an underling by forcing him to drink tea... directly from the scalding-hot teapot.
- Yuugao in Eroninja is punished for almost killing Suzume (in retaliation for her attempt on Naruto's life) by... Naruto having sex with her every night for a month. Seems great initially, except Naruto goes out of his way to wear her out which, on top of a huge workload dealing with an upcoming event, means she gets through each day barely conscious.
- Princess Rainbow Dash in The Great Alicorn Hunt informs the board of Alicorn Academy, that for their failure as an academic institute whose confusing policies, and ex-hippie teachers who force students to agree with their views and politics for a passing grade, have made it a breeding ground for hipsters, windmill crusaders and terrorists like the crownbreakers. To punish the institute, they will be getting......matched donations. Instead of the government just giving them the money they need, it will match whatever donations they receive from Alumni or from fundraisers and so on. This doesn't sound like much of a punishment, until Dash reminds them that their reputation has fallen in the eyes of their alumni, that virtually none of them donates anything and they've been relying almost exclusively on the crown funds, which have now been cut off.
- Hivefled's prequel Reprise; Gamzee gets in trouble with his captors for not smiling. Tickle Torture is uncomfortable but bearable until they decide to "immortalise the moment". This is what happens when one of your Abusive Parents is a Monster Clown.
- In Mirror's Image, Twilight decides to punish one of her changling guards by naming it Sucker Punch. Although this crosses over into Cool and Unusual Punishment, most changlings prefer to not be named, and thus, being named really is that bad.
- The Stalking Zuko Series, Fridge Logic would dictate that the cooler punishment in the Boiling Rock would be driven useless by any firebender that can keep himself warm or has a resilience to cold. Not so much when the extreme temperature differences cause the prisoner to catch "cooler fever" and he has to defend himself from the other prisoners and the guards while horribly ill.
- In Turnabout Storm, murder is shown as a very rare and serious crime in Equestria, and the punishment for the guilty is banishment. Phoenix immediately thinks it isn't as bad as in his own world; that is, until Twilight goes into more detail:
- Barbarella seems to enjoy her experience with the Excessive Machine, until she realises it's going to kill her with sexual pleasure.
- In Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure the Rock 'N' Roll Idiot Hero Duo embraces the King of England's orders to "put them in the Iron Maiden," ("Excellent!") at which point the King makes his orders more explicit, "Execute them!" ("Bogus.")
- In The Dark Knight Rises, Hanging Judge Jonathan Crane gives Gotham's wealthy the choice between death and exile. Those who choose exile must leave Gotham...by walking over thin ice, which inevitably breaks and dumps them into lethally cold water. Though, those that choose death are sentenced to execution...by exile.
- In Ghostbusters (1984), when Gozer demands that the Earth choose the shape of its destroyer, Ray immediately thinks of The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, being the one thing that he believes could not possibly ever hurt us. Unfortunately, he fails to consider that even the most innocuous creature can be made dangerous if you make it big enough.
- In Idiocracy, Joe is sentenced to one night of rehabilitation when his decision to irrigate crops with water instead of Brawndo energy drink led to the Brawndo Corporation's stock price to plummet, causing nationwide riots. It turns out that "rehabilitation" is a type of public execution modeled as a Squash Match with Homicide Machines.
- Star Wars: In Return of the Jedi, Jabba sentences Luke and Han to be fed to the Sarlaac. Han quips that it doesn't sound so bad, until C3PO translates the bit about, "in his belly, you will find a new definition of 'pain and suffering' as you are slowly digested over a... thousand years."
Han: On second thought, let's pass on that, huh?
- Woody Allen's film Take the Money and Run has a pretty nasty punishment that's made even more harmful. As the narrator states, "Food on a chain gang is scarce and not very nourishing. The men get one hot meal a day... a bowl of steam."
- Which is then shortly followed by an inverse of the trope, a man who didn't give a good day's work is hauled into another room, and the warden takes Virgil over to show him "what he's got to look forward to." We see the the shadow of what appears to be the man tied to the ceiling being whipped by another guard (and sounds of whipping and the prisoner wincing seem to confirm this), but after Virgil and the warden walk through the door, we find out that the guard is whipping the prisoner's shadow, instead.
- Terry Pratchett's Discworld:
- In Going Postal Moist Von Lipwig is offered (as an alternative to being hanged, again) the job of Postmaster General. It's a job for life, just quite possibly not for long as it's already claimed the lives of several other "volunteers".
- Lord Vetinari loves doing this. Just previously, he'd informed Moist that if he didn't accept the terms, Moist could just walk out that door over there and never hear of this again. Naturally, it opens onto an extremely deep pit. The villain actually chooses that option given the same choice.
- The next time Moist appears, he thinks he's getting the same treatment. So he borrows a pencil from Drumknott and gently tosses it through the door... and is shocked to discover a floor, much like the one he's firmly standing on, at approximately the same level. He's got the Post Office running like clockwork; what kind of moron does he think Vetinari is, gambling Moist's life like that when he's already being put to good use?
- Inverted in a joke used both in Guards! Guards! and Feet of Clay, in which it's mentioned that dwarfs punish thieves by "hanging them up by the... town hall. Sometimes for days.".
- In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Harry is punished for speaking out against Umbridge in class by being made to write lines... with a magic quill that carves the phrase he's writing deep into his hand, using his own blood as ink.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel, Kip is told that the evil race will get their home planet rotated. He wonders why the crowd hearing the sentence sounds shocked and upset about that, since all planets rotate. It is then explained to him that the planet will be "rotated 90 degrees out of space-time" which puts the planet alone in a private universe. Which he thinks is not good but not worthy of getting that upset about. Then he finds out the planet doesn't get to take their sun with them...
- In William Gibson's Neuromancer, In Case's back story, his former employers let him keep the money he stole from them... because he'd need every cent after their brand of retribution completely damages his central nervous system leaving him unable to use his brain-computer interface to access cyberspace (and unemployable in his old profession).
- Inverted in one episode of Babylon 5. Delenn tells Sheridan about a Minbari custom, and what precisely a woman can do to a man who tries to abuse the custom:
Delenn: She can even cut off his... oh, what is the human word for it...
[Long pause while Delenn tried to remember the word and Sheridan gets an absolutely terrified look on his face]
Delenn: Access to her family.
- Doctor Who:
- At the beginning of the Key to Time arc, the Doctor asks what will happen to him if he refuses the White Guardian's order to find the parts of the Key, and is surprised by the answer of "nothing". The Guardian placidly clarifies "Nothing at all. Ever."
- In "The Happiness Patrol", standard punishments are doled out by the Kandy Man, who loves "happy" and typically sweet-themed executions, like having molten-hot sugar poured down your throat until you either suffocate or are boiled alive.
- "The End of the World" has a variant, where the Doctor assumes what his Unishment will be, and is corrected.
The Doctor: What are you gonna do? Moisturise me?
Lady Cassandra: With acid.
- In "Time Heist", employees who disappoint Madame Karabraxos are "fired", by which she means they are thrown into the incinerator.
- Inverted in Drake & Josh when Megan draws up a contract for Drake and Josh's bet: the loser "must die ... his hair pink."
- In M*A*S*H, Klinger is wrongly court martialed, and faces a dishonorable discharge. He initially plans to plead guilty to get out of the army, but Colonel Potter tells him that he would have to do hard labour in military prison, lose his VA benefits and spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon, and therefore he must fight the charges.
- On My Wife and Kids, a lot of the father's punishments are like this. In one episode when his daughter Claire eats his halftime pie but none of his kids tell him who did it, he feeds them all only pie as punishment. They quickly figure out that there is a reason that dinner is more than "just desserts."
- On Perfect Strangers, a Myposian acquaintance of Balki's challenges Larry to a duel. Larry accepts after Balki tells him it involves boxing the loser's ears. Then Balki explains to Larry that in Mypos, "boxing one's ears" means putting the ears in a box.
- Happens in Scrubs in "My Soul on Fire, Part 2" where the Janitor punishes J.D. for convincing everyone to come to his wedding on such short notice by keeping him at the top of a lighthouse for ten minutes...
J.D.: But that doesn't explain why these fish are taped to my hands!
Cue the flock of seagulls hungry for fish.
- In Spaced, Tim, unable to cope with The Phantom Menace, is admonished by his boss for getting cross with a child who wanted to buy a Jar Jar Binks doll. When he asks his boss what he's going to do about his behavior, his boss responds, "I'm going to have to let you go." Tim, relieved that he's being let off the hook when he thought he was going to be fired, takes a brief moment before understanding that firing him is exactly what his boss had intended doing all along.
- Played for Drama in The Good Place. Michael blames himself for the problems the neighborhood has been experiencing, and decides to turn himself in to his bosses, expecting that they will force him into "retirement" for his failure. The characters throw him a cheery retirement party to show how much they appreciate him. This upsets Michael, and after some questioning it comes out that "retirement" for a Good Place architect is an extreme form of punishment. Tahani quickly swaps out the decor and everyone changes into funeral attire.
Michael: We call it "The Eternal Shriek." My soul will be disintegrated, and each molecule will be placed on the surface of a different burning sun. And then my essence will be scooped out of my body with a flaming ladle and poured over hot diamonds.
- In The Suite Life on Deck, upon learning Zack, Woody and Marcus set up a fake beauty pageant, Moseby punishes them by making it real. At first, the boys are ecstatic, before being told that they have to do the setup and cleanup all by themselves and aren't allowed to flirt with the contestants.
- You Can't Do That on Television: One sketch had a child being 'grounded' and having his shoes taken away. The kid points out that having his shoes taken away won't stop him leaving the house. The adult then says that the child has misunderstood - now that he has taken off his rubber-soled shoes, he is 'grounded' - and hands the kid a live electric cable...
- In the Greek myth of Atalanta, Atalanta and Hippomenes are turned into lions for making love in a temple of Zeus or Demeter. This may not sound like much of a punishment, but the ancient Greeks believed lions couldn't mate with each other (thinking they mated with leopards instead).
- In Demon: The Fallen, each House of the rebellious angels were given severe punishments for their defiance. For example, the Slayers, The Grim Reaper house, were now forced to reap humanity as well as the other forms of life. The First House were given a new name ("Devils")... and that was it. This actually stung them deeply; as the First House, their task had been to carry God's words to His creation, and now they literally had no purpose to their existence.
- Warhammer 40,000: Dreadnoughts are the armored sarcophagi of Space Marine heroes, used as heavy-duty combat walkers and spending centuries in slumber between campaigns. Being put in one is an incredible honor, as it means the Marine is considered important enough in terms of experience and morale that they may continue to serve in death. Chaos Dreadnoughts have the same function... but being in one is considered one of the worst fates a servant of Chaos can face, for one simple reason: they don't get the luxury of spending their non-combat time asleep, instead having their weapons and limbs deactivated and having to wait for the next battle, fully aware of every passing second.
- For many crimes, Bruno the Bandit sentenced to clean the streets of the city. Thoroughly. With his tongue.
- At one point in Dominic Deegan, Stunt is exiled from a city that he wasn't particularly attached to. He mocks how weak the punishment is... and then realizes what the actual punishment constitutes his best friend Bumper, who really liked the city, wasn't exiled. Suddenly Stunt's enthusiasm evaporates.
- In Exterminatus Now, a captured assassin is sent to the Inquisition's "Truth Chamber." He's under the impression that the protagonists are going to inflict some Cool and Unusual Punishment like "watching Battlefield Earth on DVD" or "going over the Inquisition's tax return."* Naturally, he's dead wrong:
Virus: Actually we were gonna have Lothar here cut your bollocks off, then start asking you some questions.
Assassin: Wait... I think you have that the wrong way round.
Virus: No. I don't think we do.
- In an earlier strip, the gang are about to be executed via death by monsters:
- The Spanish-language webcomic ''A Friki's life" does this in a strip when a man sent to Hell is forced to choose between being tortured, or having sex with a chicken for all eternity. After he choses the chicken, it's revealed that it's a 2-meter tall chicken with a passion for BDSM.
- More like "Not-So-Harmless Threat", but same principle: The Order of the Stick has Tsukiko dominatenote a paladin to coerce Haley Starshine out of hiding, by warning her that if Haley doesn't show herself, she's going to command him to play "Pattycake". With a wight, a type of undead which drains energy by touch.
- Used in a third-person fashion, quite likely ripped from Futurama, in Questionable Content. Hanners is checking some bookkeeping for her Corrupt Corporate Executive mother, trying to find the source of an error. Marten asks her what will happen to the employee who made the mistake once he's found, and Hanners replies that he'll be fired.
Marten: Oh, that doesn't sound so...
Hanners: Out of a cannon, into a volcano.
- Schlock Mercenary: The Robot King making clear that the mad-scientist-for-hire is not to touch the computer systems containing the King's brain:
LOTA: Should any of you even approach those systems, LOTA would be required to fire you.
Kevyn: Okay, I get it.
LOTA: Out an airlock.
- In one episode of Beetlejuice Beej and Lydia (and others) are playing baseball in the Neitherworld. At some point it is announced that the game has changed to "Sudden Death", meaning that the losers will have to stand in the "Losers' Circle", an area enclosed by a rope. Beej is unimpressed (as he's been dorking around the entire game anyway) until the "circle" opens up into a fang-lined maw that belches a fireball into his face.
- On The Fairly OddParents, Timmy once had to brave the "horrifying trials" of the "sadistic" Yugopotamians; these trials include walking through a flowery meadow, hugging a teddy bear, and eating chocolate * . A later episode features Timmy cockily accepting another challenge from the Yugopotamians, expecting more of the same, only this time he has inadvertently signed up for a gladiatorial fight to the death. Subverted in that, when he's given the chance, Timmy suggests a ball pit as his combat arena and pillows as weapons, giving him the advantage.
- During a Halloween Special, the Yugopotamians believe that Earth is preparing for war because of all the costumed (turned real) monsters. When confronted, Timmy announces that war is on, and as the Yugopotamians leave they drop a "P-Bomb". While Wanda and Cosmo are worried, Timmy is not, and we soon see why: the P stands for Piñata.
- Futurama: In "Space Pilot 3000", Leela informs Fry that in the future, people are assigned job chips, and those who refuse their assigned role are fired... out of a cannon and into the sun.
- Gravity Falls; In the episode "Time Traveler's Pig", Blendin Blandin is seen in the stinger being sentenced to fix all the damage that the kids caused to the time stream. The later episode "Blendin's Game" reveals he also had to serve jail time, a "life squared" sentence.
- In the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002) episode "The Roboto Gambit", Tri-Klops attacks the palace with an army of skeletons that can regenerate, and multiply (without Skeletor's approval) and he is actually winning. He starts to get such a big head, that he considers turning against Skeletor after taking the palace. However, he ultimately loses, and when he does, Skeletor shows up to drag him back to Snake Mountain, leading to this scene at the end in the villain's throne room:
Skeletor: Don't despair, Tri-Klops, things didn't work out that badly... For me. After all, if your plan had succeeded, I have no doubt you would have seized power for yourself!
Tri-Klops: N-no, Skeletor, honest! The thought never entered my mind!
Skeletor: Oh, really? Well, in that case, you're free to go...
[Tri-Klops gives a look of relief for a second]
Skeletor: ...IF you can reach the door!
[Hits a button on the device that Tri-Klops used to control the skeletons, and the henchman slowly turns around as they rise to their feet behind him. Cue Evil Laugh from Skeletor as the scene fades to credits]
- Invader Zim:
- "Gaz, Taster of Pork" ends with Dib demanding he be punished for putting a spell on his sister. He's given a crown of toilet brushes and ordered to clean a toilet. Feeling that the punishment is rather mundane, Dib takes one look inside the bowl and is immediately horrified by what he sees down there. Closing words explain that Dib is now cleaning the toilet with his head.
- The titular room with a moose from the episode "A Room With A Moose" would also qualify. No one can understand how the moose is meant to be a menace, not even Dib, who points out it's a big moose, but really, just a moose...at which point Zim sends several walnuts into the room, and Dib sees the moose eating the walnuts...which horrifies him for some reason. Confusing to the audience, but evidently effective against Dib.
- On Jimmy Two-Shoes, Lucius grounds Beezy. Jimmy scoffs at this...until Beezy explains that being grounded in Miseryville means being Buried Alive.
- Looney Tunes: Porky Pig runs afoul of some leprechauns in "Wearing of the Grin", and is sentenced to wear...the Green Shoes. Porky at first is pleased at how well they fit, until they take control of his feet and send him dancing across the landscape.
- In the Moral Orel episode: "Grounded", after after getting caught bathing in his friends blood, Clay decides to punish Orel differently than the usual spankings. He punishes him by grounding him from going to church for an entire month. In theory this doesn't sound that bad; Unlike most kids, Orel loves attending church more than anything in the world, so he does anything he can to make his own little church, where eventually trying to find a Cross for his church temporarily kills him. The temporary experience with death lets him meet God, so after Orel gets revived, he keeps trying to kill himself just so he can be with God.
- At the first season finale of OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes, Darrell snitches on Lord Boxman to his investors for having pointlessly attacked the Plaza, then Cosma declares that he is fired...out of a cannon and into the sun. Boxman was initially only concerned about losing his job, but got over it out of spite until this reveal.
- A Quack Pack episode has aliens threatening Donald Duck with twenty lashes with a wet noodle. He laughs it off and tells them to make them fifty. Turns out the "noodle" is a giant, living, carnivorous worm.
- In the episode of Rick and Morty, "Raising Gazorpazorp", in a world dominated by women Rick awaits sentencing for a "rogue penis" with his granddaughter, Summer, and doesn't get the stereotypical "woman-punishment" that he was expecting.
Ma-Sha: Rick and Summer of Earth, for the crimes of treason against womankind and for creating the sound of which we do not speak because it does not exist, you are hereby sentenced to
Rick: What, what, what a night on the couch?
Rick: Ooh, gerp.
Summer: I hate you so much right now.
- In an episode where Homer portrayed King Henry VIII, he responds to Ned Flanders' (as Thomas More) objections to seceding from the Church by offering to canonize him. Cut to Ned being fired out of a cannon.
- "Lisa on Ice" features a daydream Lisa has where she worries that failing her gym class would greatly damage her reputation later in life. In the daydream, the Chief Justice of the United States learns this just before swearing Lisa in as the new President.
Chief Justice: I sentence you to a lifetime of horror on Monster Island... Don't worry, it's just a name.
[Cut to Lisa and others being chased by monsters.]
Lisa: He said it was just a name!
Man: What he meant is that Monster Island is actually a peninsula.
- In "Bart vs. Australia", when Bart manages to piss off the entire country of Australia, the family is offered an all-expenses paid vacation if he's willing to go and apologize. What they forget to tell him is that he will also get a swift boot in the ass, provided by a shoe roughly the size of him.
- In "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song", after Superintendent Chalmers is angry enough at Skinner before Bart's dog causes a crisis, and Groundskeeper Willie falling on him seems to be the last straw:
Chalmers: Skinner, you're fired!
Skinner: [offended] Excuse me, did you just call me a liar?
Chalmers: No, I said you were fired.
Skinner: Oh... [Beat] That's much worse...
- In an episode of The Smurfs, the Trokkle King's Treacherous Advisor fools the king into abdicating his throne to Brainy Smurf... But Brainy proves an obnoxious ruler, so now all the trokkles decide to overthrow him. When the original Trokkle King finds out about this, he gets frightened and goes to warn the other smurfs, because he knows that when the trokkles overthrow a king, they throw him over a cliff, literally.
- In one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where Patchy the Pirate is throwing a party, he doesn't approve of the music of the Birdbrains, the band Potty hired, and tells them they have to walk the plank. They think he means they're fired, but he literally means Walk the Plank. However, Patchy forgot they were birds and they managed to avoid jumping by flying away.
- At the beginning of the series's second movie, Mr. Krabs tortures Plankton with a knock knock joke ("Who's there?" "Jimmy." "Jimmy who?" "Jimmy back my formula!") Plankton responds that while that was stupid, it wasn't torture, to which Mr. Krabs tells him to wait. After a few seconds, Spongebob understands the joke, revealing the true torture: his signature Annoying Laugh.
- In an episode of Count Duckula the Foreign Legion's local Drill Sergeant Nasty tells the recruits "No talking in the ranks, or I'll have you buried up to your ankles in the sand!" When Duckula notes that it doesn't sound too bad, one of his fellow legionnaires tells him that "He buries you head first".
- Harold once got suspended from school in an episode of Hey Arnold!. At first, he loved the fact that he didn't have to go to school for a few days, but soon began to go crazy when he realized that without his friends around, he was lonely. It didn't take long for him to beg Principal Wartz to let him back in school claiming he had learned his lesson.