Kafka Komedy

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"No Good Deed Goes Unpunished."
Clare Booth Luce, American playwright

A story where no matter how well-meaning, reasonable and cautious a character is, everything he does has awful repercussions for him and makes him look like a horrible person. Attempts to set things right just blow up in his face and aggravate the situation further, and generally the story ends when things are at their worst. Often this all happens because the people around him are over-sensitive and stupid with a Hair-Trigger Temper, but just as often it'll be thanks to plain old bad luck.

The afflicted characters are held to be entirely to blame for their own misfortune. Despite this, they are otherwise decent, nice and perfectly pleasant people who would be well-liked and respected... if they didn't have the misfortune to be living in a Kafka Komedy. Here, the universe punishes even the whitest lie or mildest of indiscretions with completely out-of-proportion ruthlessness.

It doesn't help that in a lot of these comedies the people around the protagonist seem incapable of feeling any kind of sympathy or empathy for them at all, despite how blindingly obvious it should be that this person isn't (entirely) responsible for the hideous chain of misfortunes crashing down around them, and would never be responsible for the horrible things they've been mistakenly accused of.

The trope is named after Franz Kafka, whose characters are well-meaning, reasonable, and cautious, but horrible things happen to them not only despite but usually because of their perfectly-nice actions. Whether or not Kafka's work qualifies as funny, on the other hand, is a matter of taste and serious academic debate. Kafka himself read chapters of his books to his close friends, and the comedy aspect was a big part of the readings.

It's also worth noting that David Foster Wallace has written an in-depth essay on the subject of Kafka's humor.

The subtrope of Black Comedy least likely to involve death. Contrast with Plague of Good Fortune, where good things keep inexplicably happening to the character's chagrin, and Springtime for Hitler, where a character deliberately does something bad but is met with greatness for it, or Karma Houdini where the villain gets off scot-free. May occasionally overlap with Somebody Doesn't Love Raymond and probably Butt Monkey. See also Can't Get Away with Nuthin'.

Examples of Kafka Komedy include:

Anime & Manga

  • Much of the comedy in Neon Genesis Evangelion is of this form, applied to Shinji: no matter how well-meaning or responsible he's being, the world will punish him for it, usually via Asuka or Gendou. The show seems to imply that it's somehow his own fault for being such an avoidant Extreme Doormat.
  • Ranma Saotome of Ranma ½ has this happen in many stories, often revolving around potential cures for his curse.
  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei - An interesting... Variation, of sorts, of this trope can be found in the anime, where eternally pessimistic teacher Itoshiki Nozomu's attempts at, in the most dramatic way possible, explaining what is currently driving him to commit suicide, as well as explaining why it is doing so, usually goes rather well for him... That is, until impossibly optimistic, or whatever it is she really is, Fuura Kafuka, (notice anything about that name?) decides to explain her pov, and/or put her spin, on things, at which point reality becomes unhinged and comes tumbling down in a chaotic mess with the accuracy of a precision strike and one single target: Itoshiki Nozomu.
  • A theme in the anime Love Hina is that Keitaro, assumed by Naru and Motoko to be a lecherous pervert, is, in fact, simply catastrophically unlucky; if he trips, almost inevitably his hand accidentally gropes a breast, pulls down clothing, or lands him on top of the nearest girl. If he enters the area of the hot springs, one or more girls are present, most often Naru. Should Keitaro give an innocent hug, they assume molestation. Despite his frantic protestations of innocence, these lead to their violent retribution, often in the form of a Megaton Punch.
    • The above is also an example of just how horribly, horribly socially broken the majority of these young women are. By the end of the series, they're not as broken, and it shows.
  • Girls Bravo uses this for some of its humor.
  • Detroit Metal City. The main character lives a double life as an aspiring pop musician (which he loves, but sucks at) and being the songwriter, lead guitarist and front man for a Death Metal band under a false name and identity (a role he hates, but is extremely good at). However much he wants to quit doing the latter, he is unable to do so because he's too good at being said Death Metal frontman. The metal persona also ends up surfacing at the most inopportune at times in his normal life as well.
  • Nichijou. So, so much. Yuuko may be the designated Butt Monkey but it's easier to count the characters who don't apocalyptically fail than those who do on a regular basis.


  • Buster Keaton's 1922 two-reeler "Cops" takes this trope Up to Eleven—the protagonist's attempt to earn an honest buck ultimately leads to his being chased by what appears to be the entire LAPD.
  • In the film The Graduate the entire plot is a Kafka Komedy since any and all actions he makes are against authority figures but he never intends to do anything bad. He begins the movie loved by those around him and by the end of the movie he's despised by almost everyone who once liked him.
  • In the Scorsese comedy After Hours, the protagonist already pursued by an angry mob that thinks he's a burglar, looks through a window and sees someone get shot. "I'll probably get blamed for that," he says.
  • The protagonist of The Tenant (in both the Roland Topor novel and the Roman Polanski film) is mercilessly tormented by his neighbors to comedic effect.
  • In the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, the title character moves to Hollywood to write for "the pictures," and experiences various hostile circumstances.
    • This is practically a defining feature of most, if not all, Coen Brothers films. The Big Lebowski, especially. All The Dude ever wanted was his rug back.
      • At least until 2009, when poor Larry Gopnik would make even The Dude feel sorry for him.
  • Bill Murray's character in Quick Change spends the entire film dealing with this sort of thing. Of course, he did commit a bank robbery - but he's a decent enough guy despite this.
  • Practically all the jokes in films such as Father of the Bride, Just Married, Meet the Parents and Duplex are based on everything going wrong for the protagonists and schadenfreude.
  • Office Space and several other sources of office humor have been described as Kafkaesque.
  • Brazil has a lot of Kafkaesque elements, many of which are presented as comedy - even if they end up Played for Drama.
  • The Machinist is pretty much one part Kafka Komedy, two parts Fyodor Dostoevsky drama.
  • The 1962 film of The Trial is, according to director Orson Welles, a literal example. He found it to be extremely funny, and considered it one of his best works.
  • The beginning of the film Anger Management is a prime example of this; the more Adam tries to apologize for his mistakes the more everyone gets upset.
  • In The Man In The White Suit, Sidney Stratton only wants to make people's lives better by inventing a fabric that repels dirt and is strong enough to last for an entire lifetime. Then the mill owners realize the fabric would bankrupt them... then the cotton pickers... then the factory unions... even his kindly old landlord, who does laundry for a little extra money, hates him.


Live Action TV

  • 30Rock inverts this trope with Tracy Jordan after earns respect from his peers for making a really artistic film but doesn't want it. He tries to act like a Jerkass in order to go back to being in comedy TV but everyone mistakes his awfulness for humility, clever artistic commentary, and bravery.
  • The standard for this type of plot is Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which everything Larry David does costs him money, destroys his aspirations and generally makes people revile him. While Larry is an awful person, he's often hated for his acts that are intended to be benevolent, like placing an obituary or indulging a little girl playing with her doll.
  • The plot is also favored by Seinfeld and Frasier.
  • In Father Ted, after Ted offends the Chinese community of Craggy Island, his attempts to prove to them that he is not a racist meet with increasingly more extravagant failure.
  • Doug and Carrie of The King of Queens, especially Carrie, are cynical and often uncaring of their surrounding (IE, typical New Yorkers). As a result, whenever they try to go out of their way to help someone, it only makes things worse.
  • An entire character relationship is founded on this in Scrubs, between JD and the psychotic janitor who takes everything JD says or does as a taunt or insult.
    • For a period of time, it expanded to everything JD did. Because JD is the show's Butt Monkey, this is Played for Laughs. And when JD (justifiably) complains about how bad his life has become, the show treats him as a whiny loser who needs to learn how to stand on his own two feet.
  • A recurring character played by Colin Mochrie on The Drew Carey Show took this to the extreme, as everything he said offended whoever he was talking to—even "Hello".
    • IIRC, he even tried just being silent, and ended up having THAT taken as a terrible insult by his boss
    • In one episode, he remained silent, everyone thought he was great, he even got promoted without speaking a word. However, upon promotion, he said "Thanks!" which was somehow taken the wrong way by Mr. Wick and he fired him.
  • Every episode of The Worst Week of My Life is like this for hapless protagonist Howard Steel; he can't even get away with things that he didn't do because people automatically assume the worst of him, and his attempts to explain matters and clear the air only end up making things seem worse. With some people—like his father-in-law, who detests him immensely anyway—this is understandable, but even people (such as his wife) who should know better seem primed to automatically think the worst of him at times.
  • Josh from Drake and Josh.
  • Chris from Everybody Hates Chris.
  • Lister from Red Dwarf.
  • Green Acres is often mentioned to have Kafka-esque elements. One of the most frequent plotlines has Oliver trying to improve life for the people of Hooterville, only to have it backfire at every single step until he is driven to near-insanity. The townspeople generally react with anything from hostility to lukewarm sympathy of the "gee, that's too bad" variety. Despite it all, Oliver never learns to stop doing this.
  • Basil Fawlty, John Cleese's character in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, embodies this trope. Despite being generally rude and sarcastic, he comes across as an otherwise sympathetic character who is always scheming to get himself out of a minor jam but only succeeds in making it increasingly worse.
  • It's common in Monty Python's Flying Circus, too; probably the best example would be poor Mr. Horton, who makes people laugh uncontrollably despite his attempts at being serious and miserable plight.
  • This often happens to Fish Out of Water Lacey in Corner Gas, to the point that during one entire episode she refuses to get involved - and everyone else involves her anyway, either by misinterpreting what she says when she declares that she doesn't want to be involved, or by simply assigning her a position because she's from Toronto.
  • Some of the plotlines in Extras.
  • Victor Meldrew of One Foot in the Grave is usually seen as an irrationally angry man, but series creator David Renwick always said he was a perfectly ordinary person, in a universe that seemed specifically designed to make his life as difficult and unpleasant as possible.
  • The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is an interesting variation of the trope. While Todd is a pretty unpleasant person, and a lot of his problems stem from his poor decisions, he still doesn't deserve most of what the show puts him through, like being sentenced to be drawn and quartered for crimes against humanity. The second season gradually reveals that most of the misfortune was actually planned as a part of an elaborate revenge-scheme.

Newspaper Comics

  • Much of Peanuts was one big Kafka Komedy devoted to tormenting Charlie Brown, but even more so in the TV specials.
    • Also for Garfield's Jon Arbuckle. The only good thing that's ever happened to him is hooking up with Liz after years of rejection, but other than that he's an extreme Chew Toy.
  • Exactly the same stuff above also goes for Peter Fox from FoxTrot. He is a Butt Monkey taken to the extreme. A notable example is an arc where Peter punches a guy at school for making a joke about his relationship with Denise. Although Peter was provoked into punching him, he is given 2 weeks of detention, clean-up detail and 3 months of probation as punishment. He then accidentally spills the beans to Andy when he gets home, and then the story ends.
    • Even better is when he tells his girlfriend that he got into a fight, and she thinks he was childish. Once he reveals that the guy made fun of her, suddenly it's "And you JUST punched him?!"
  • Dilbert and several other sources of office humor have been described as Kafkaesque.



Western Animation

  • The entire plot of The Simpsons episodes "Homer Badman" and "Bart-Mangled Banner" revolve around Homer and Bart (later the whole family) respectively being publicly demonized for something they really didn't do. Thanks to any form of media assuming their guilt to keep with the public favor and maintain ratings, anything they say or do is twisted to be as incriminating as possible and accepted as gospel truth by a credulous public even if it's obviously fake, like Homer's interview on "Rock Bottom" having sound-bites edited into a confession (even though you can see the clock and scenery in the background keeps jumping around).
    • Of course, both these episodes rely upon some pretty insane circumstances that sound silly to begin with. In the former, Homer is accused of grabbing the babysitter's butt, when in reality he was trying to retrieve a piece of candy that was stuck to her pants. In the latter, Bart accidentally ends up mooning the American flag during the national anthem (a goat ate his shorts and he was temporarily deaf so he didn't know the anthem was playing), leading people to think he hates America. Things get exacerbated when the family goes on a Fox News parody to explain their case and the loudmouthed host annoys Marge so much that she sarcastically says she hates America.
      • This also occurs in the season 8 Simpsons episode "Homer's Enemy" involving Frank Grimes: "the man who had to struggle for everything he got in life."
  • An episode of The Fairly OddParents begins with the main character doing various difficult good deeds for the people in his life like doing as much yard work as he can and painting a backdrop for a guy trying to run a play. Regardless of how good a job he does, the person would pick one thing they didn't like about it and immediately scold him for it (the guy said everything was ruined because the shade of blue he used for the sea was off). With friends like these, it's less of a wonder he immediately returns to Jerk Ass mode the next episode.
    • It gets better: He then wishes that he was never born... and everyone is better off from it. Everyone.
      • And if you think that's something, apparently the lesson was, do good things of your own accord regardless if you get appreciated or not. Well that fine and all except, as mentioned above, no one was appreciative of Timmy's efforts before the wish and all the poor guy wanted was a simple thanks.
  • Tom Goes to the Mayor: Tom comes up with ideas, and the Mayor's incompetence ruins them.
  • This seems to be Meg's only role on Family Guy to the point that Charlie Brown would have to feel pity for her.
  • This also happens a lot in Duckman. Granted, most of the misery that befalls Duckman is the result of his being an ignorant, self-righteous prick, but even when he tries to do good he's still treated as if he kicked someone's dog.
  • Plankton and Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants have been unintentional examples of this ever since The Movie.
  • Inverted on the new The Hub series Dan Vs., where the titular character thinks that everything that happens to him is the fault of some obscure thing, when in reality he's just a Jerkass (most of the time).
  • The segments of Animaniacs featuring Buttons the dog chasing Mindy, the little daughter of his owner, always feature Buttons busting his butt trying to save Mindy from a different hazard every two seconds, and succeeding, but in the end he tends to be blamed for whatever Mindy was doing or otherwise punished. Thankfully, he finally earns his happy ending in "Wakko's Wish".
  • One Pepper Ann episode had the title character stuck in a Groundhog Day Loop where the only way to get out of it was to do everything wrong.
  • A Lighter and Softer example: the Cutie Mark Crusaders of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic. All of their attempts to earn a cutie mark (by finding their special talent) end in failure. In one episode, they attempt to participate in a talent show, but act in roles outside of what they're actually good at, completely botching the performance. They do win an award... for best comedy act.
  • Doug fell victim to this trope when he and the rest of his class were doing volunteer work at a local nursing home. He tried to be nice to the lady he was working with, Mrs. Whackhammer, but she chewed him out on his first day there. The next day, at his mother's suggestion, he brought her milk and oatmeal cookies. She ended up chewing him out again. As it turned out, she couldn't have dairy and oatmeal made her queasy.
  • Dib from Invader Zim is like a magnet for these stories, since he's basically the only person on Earth with no Weirdness Censor. Frequently falls victim to Selective Enforcement, Cassandra Truth, Properly Paranoid, and You Have to Believe Me. His dad thinks he's crazy, his sister doesn't but still hates him, and he's frequently made a fool of in front of the few people who would believe him.
  • This is every episode of The Life and Times of Tim, though Tim sometimes brings it on himself to some degree.