Misery Poker

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

    Every now and then, life sucks. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning can seem a feat of Herculean strength, and dragging yourself into school or work is all but impossible. Often, the one thing that can sustain us as we limp into the office/classroom after a relationship break up, family row or disastrous guinea pig incident is the reassurance that our friends will lend an ear to sympathise in our hour of need...

    Er, we hope. As long as someone else doesn't have more angst than us.

    In many stories - and often in real life too - there's only so much sympathy to go around. So if you arrive to your workplace bemoaning the frankly humiliating first meeting with your in-laws, or the parking ticket you got as a result of an over-talkative cashier and a downright malevolent traffic warden, better take a note of the gripes of your co-workers before you launch into that pent-up tirade. Chances are that if someone has an angst that "trumps" yours, your worries - no matter how valid - become instantly trivial. And the rest of the episode will probably be devoted to you "getting over" yourself in order to be there for your pal. Even you yourself will eventually give a monologue on the importance of not dwelling on your worries because there are people worse off than yourself, and you should count your blessings.

    There is a certain validity to this way of thinking; it's usually better to be positive after all. However, human nature being what it is, we're allowed to feel sad or grumpy from time to time without being criminalized for it. Occasionally, a show or book will acknowledge this and subvert this trope, revealing that the character who was being told off for being such a drama queen by friends with "bigger issues" is actually in pretty serious trouble.

    When Played for Laughs, a character may be shown loudly complaining about their life in situation where a more acute and serious problem is being manifested, painting the complainer as a Drama Queen and/or an Attention Whore. In such cases, the audience is clearly supposed to see their worries as trivial, and usually we will - unless Fridge Logic kicks in.

    Sometimes this is a pretty logical trope - a parking ticket isn't nice, but a bereavement is on a totally different level of grief altogether. At other times, though, the viewer might note that the character with the "lesser" gripe has every right to be downhearted - for example, a character whose illness is serious, but not as serious as or just not conductive to drama as someone else's - and may accuse the supporting cast of having No Sympathy when they fail to acknowledge this.

    May show up on internet debates, especially as Flame War fuel. If this happens on your message board, it might be a good idea not to post until it's all over - your will to live will be drained one way or another, either in sympathy or in despair at so much angsting.

    Also sometimes known as Misery Dicks (i.e., my misery dick is bigger than yours) and Woe-Offs—as well as Oppression Olympics, when it occurs in debates concerning social justice issues.

    Compare When I Was Your Age, First World Problems, and Angst Dissonance. Compare and contrast If You Thought That Was Bad. See also Appeal to Worse Problems and True Art Is Angsty.

    Examples of Misery Poker include:

    Anime and Manga

    • In Gravitation, Shuichi is constantly chided for his whining - even when his woes involve his boyfriend vanishing without a word, Shuichi getting kicked out of their shared home every time Yuki has a temper tantrum, and Tohma's various unpleasant schemes to "protect" Yuki at Shuichi's expense. Everyone, down to best friend Hiro, points out how much tougher Yuki's life has been, and Shuichi himself trivializes all of his angst, even the fact that he was gang raped.
    • In Elfen Lied, Yuka constantly angsts and treats Kouta badly because Kouta is rejecting her sexual advances and forgot a promise - that he made to her ten years ago, in extremely promise-inducing circumstances, barely half an hour before he saw his father and sister brutally ripped to shreds by someone he saw as his closest friend. This in a house that has taken in girls that have, in no particular order: lost her arms, legs and was abandoned by her family and foster father figure; got beaten so hard by her own father that she became incontinent and has to wear diapers just because she wanted to become a singer like her mother, who committed suicide when she was a child; sexually abused by her stepfather and is a runaway; and Lucy, who is just really messed up.
    • Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei takes this across the line several times, as is its habit. Nami tried to elicit sympathy from her classmates by coming in with a bandaged arm - then Abiru came in with bandages around half her head, her arm in a sling, and her leg in a cast. Then Nami tried to complain about being so poor she had to live in a small apartment and share a room with her parents - then in came Maria, an illegal immigrant who lives with 20 others in a single room, carrying a big bag of garbage and waxing lyrical about Japan's incredible bounty and how much better it was than her home country, where people knowingly eat poisonous mushrooms because there's nothing else. Then Nami tries to get attention by threatening to jump out a window -at which point Nozomu flies down from the roof in a noose and crashes into the wall (he gets better).
    • In Weiss Kreuz, after Tomoe Sakura has one of her kidneys stolen by a Mad Scientist and becomes the subject of a great deal of prying media attention, she laments what's happened to her and that the surgery has left her unable to run track like she could before. Aya, whose little sister and only living family has been in a coma for two years and shows no signs of ever waking, delivers a verbal slap to Sakura in which he roughly points out to her that at least she's still alive and conscious and capable of moving under her own power.

    Comic Books

    • This post from the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.fandom sums up the trope. Note: everything written about the Huntress' origin story here actually happened in the comic.

    "So, what's your origin story, Huntress?"
    "My entire family was gunned down before my very eyes."
    "Big deal. Join the club."
    "But it turns out they weren't my real family."
    "They weren't?"
    "Well, my mother was really my mother, but I was actually illegitimate."
    "So was your real father?"
    "The guy who arranged for the hit on my family."
    "Well, at least you weren't killed by your own father."
    "No, but I was supposed to be."
    "... what?"
    "The hitman was supposed to kill me and her husband, but spare my mother so she could marry my real father and they could start a family."
    "So what happened?"
    "The hitman got his Helenas confused."
    (There is a stunned silence for a moment. Then the Punisher, the Executioner, and several other vigilante heroes look at one another for a moment before all throwing their money on the table in front of the Huntress.)
    "Okay, you win."
    "You've got me beat."
    "And I thought my origin story sucked."


    Steph:"Nobody ever talks about your family, what was your dad like?"
    Cass:"Assassin. David Cain."
    S:"Are you serious?"
    S:[Laughs] "You've been listening to me whine about having the Cluemaster for a dad, when your dad's like the scariest killer on the planet?"
    S:"When my dad was mad at me he'd lock me in the closet - what did yours do?"
    C:"Shot me."
    [Both laugh]
    S:"Oh man, I can't beat you at anything."

    • Very nicely averted in Fantastic Four. After a particularly brutal encounter with Dr. Doom, Reed is left with a painful burn scar covering half his face. After a short while living with it, and acting increasingly irrationally, Ben calls him out on his behavior. During the speech, he tells him that he's noticed that even though he's clearly bothered by it, Reed hasn't complained about the scar once since getting it, at least not in front of Ben. While he has it much worse, as a giant rock-monster, Ben was quick to acknowledge his friend was suffering.
    • In All Fall Down, the Pantheon get together for a game and this is the result. Phylum wins.


    • In the Fantastic Four movie, The Thing is sitting next to a suicidal person and tells him, "You think you've got problems? Take a good look, pal."
    • In Notting Hill there's a scene where the main characters are playing Misery Poker with a concrete reward: the last brownie.
    • A large part of The Breakfast Club consists of the five students declaring what's shitty about their lives, particularly their relationships with their parents.
    • Lampshaded in the Sister Hood of the Traveling Pants: Lena reflects on how she feels awful falling in love with a guy who's family hates hers. She also mentions how two of her friends, who've gone through divorce and a death of one's mother, are so happy, while she's so miserable over this (which she sees as trivial in comparison). This manages to depress her more. However, the two friends have other problems which are depressing them.


    • One of the main problems Sandry has in the Circle of Magic series is getting people to see her as a person, not a noble - the assumption being that her status makes her immune to the woes of the common people. Even her adopted siblings initially regard her with an attitude of "what do you know about suffering? You're rich!" Her upbeat and friendly attitude only serves to aggravate this. However, when she reveals that her parents died in a smallpox epidemic, then she was trapped in a hidden room in pitch darkness while an angry mob killed her last remaining caretaker, people tend to be more sympathetic. It's a hell of a way to make friends, but it works.
    • In Flour Babies by Anne Fine, the protagonist is told at the end of the story that hundreds of children go through the same trauma and worse that he went through...and none of them made as much fuss about it as he did. Possibly a Lampshade Hanging - the author makes it clear that the teacher's being an unsympathetic Jerkass.
    • Referenced and then defied in the fourth book of Bruce Coville's My Teacher Is an Alien book series: When Peter hears Susan say "Boy, I miss my family" (as they're traveling with aliens and can't see their families, and she can only have occasional phone calls with them) he thinks "At least you have family to miss" (due to him thinking that his father couldn't care less about his disappearance) but keeps silent because he doesn't want to get in a game of "Who's the most miserable".
    • One story by Ephraim Kishon satirized this.
    • In the third book of The Inheritance Cycle, Eragon and Roran compare bruises, complete with buckets of incestuous Ho Yay, mocking each other's for not looking painful enough. Eragon appears to win by removing his trousers to show Roran the massive groinal bruising from bareback dragon-riding, but Roran is able to top that by revealing that an Elite Mook more-or-less tore off his arm.
    • Toward the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, Syme tries to instigate this with God (or at any rate, the novel's Christ-figure). He loses, badly.

    Syme: ...have you ever suffered?
    Sunday: Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?


    Live Action TV

    • JD of Scrubs is the poster child of this trope. The catalogue of disasters that befall him are listed under No Sympathy. In the same episode, Dr. Cox objects to being asked for help in dragging J.D. out of his misery, and when Turk, Carla and Elliot point out that J.D. rescued him from severe depression, he justifies himself with "I accidentally killed three patients...he passes out when he poops!"
      • A rather better handled example also came up in the episode that introduced Michael J. Fox's character Dr. Casey - sure, Dr. Cox may not be the best doctor, Turk may never be the best surgeon, and JD may need a bit more mentoring than most people, but Dr. Casey has severe OCD, and he deals with it gracefully.
    • This trope was a big part of choosing the winner on Queen for a Day; the contestant would get on the TV (originally radio) show and talk about how miserable their life was.
    • From House:

    Hannah refuses to sit still for the tests and House is called in.
    House: I'm sure I can say this without being condescending, but then you'd get the false impression that I respect you so: You're a kid, you're scared, you're stalling. Grow up.
    Hannah: I'm not scared. I'm never scared.
    House: See? How juvenile was that? You can't feel pain. Nothing left but pleasure. Why don't you tell me how wonderful that is?
    Hannah: It sucks.
    House: Better than being in pain all the time....
    Hannah: Every morning I have to check my eyes to make sure I didn't scratch a cornea in my sleep.
    House: Oh God, stop. I'm in a pool of tears here.
    Hannah: I can't cry.
    House: Neither can I. Every morning I check my eyes for jaundice. In case the Vicodin's finally shot my liver.
    Hannah: I can't run anywhere without examining my toes for swelling.
    House: I can't run.
    Hannah: Boys can't hold me for too long because I can overheat.
    House: Girls can't hold me for too long because I only pay for an hour.
    Hannah: I need an alarm on my watch to remind me to go to the bathroom. You know how many humiliating experiences before I thought of that.
    House: The bathroom's 50 feet from my office. Every drink of water I weigh the pros and cons.
    Hannah: After everything I do, I self-check: Mouth, tongue, gums for cuts. Count teeth, check temperature. Fingers, toes and joints for swelling, skin for bruises.
    House: I got shot.
    Hannah: ... I sat on the stove when I was three. Want to see the coil marks?
    House: Yeah!
    Hannah: You think I'm lying?
    House: You think I just wanna check out your tuchus, as your people would say?
    When she shows him, he gives her a sedative injection.


    George: [speaking to an obviously deeply moved panel] In closing, these stories have not been embellished, because they need no embellishment. They are simply, horrifyingly, the story of my life as a short, stocky, slow-witted, bald man. Thank you. [He goes to leave, then turns around.] Oh -- and my fiancee died from licking toxic envelopes that I picked out. [The panel bursts into tears.] Thanks again. [Exit.]



    • One of The Daily Show's essential pieces is the "Bootstrap Story" segment mocking the candidates' milking of their humble origins at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (the one at which Barack Obama upped the stakes forever by relating that his father was once a goatherd). Stephen Colbert, in turn, tells Jon how hard his father worked mining turds in the Appalachians and how grateful he was not to have to lick goats' balls like his father used to back in the old country.

    Jon: ...How is that a job?
    Stephen: You have to understand, Jon, in the old country the most important thing was to keep the goats happy. Now, as it turns out, the easiest way to do that... [makes a helpful illustrative gesture] ...was to work the balls.
    Jon: You know, I had never realized that about your family.
    Stephen: It's true, Jon. It's all true. [speaking to the camera] That's why I believe in the promise of America -- that I, the son of a turd miner, the grandson of a goat-ball licker, could one day leave those worthless hicks behind while still using their story to enhance my own credibility!

    • Saturday Night Live in the 80's had a reoccuring skit of two guys (Billy Crystal and ??) topping each other in claiming to have had painful injuries.
    • Done in an episode of Monk after the titular character gets hit in the eyes by acid and goes blind.

    Monk: I'm blind.
    Homeless Guy: I'm homeless.
    Monk: My wife is dead.
    Homeless Guy: So's mine.
    Monk: Car bomb?
    Homeless Guy: Pneumonia.



    • The 'It Sucks To Be Me' song from Avenue Q as well as serving as an introduction to most of the cast also has them trying to outdo each other regarding whose life sucks the most. In the end they all agree Gary Coleman outsucks them all.

    Newspaper Comics

    • Happens often in For Better or For Worse, especially to April - every time she griped about a not-so-good situation, someone would happen by who was in far worse shape.
    • In the Dilbert book, Build A Better Life By Stealing Office Supplies, Dogbert advises office drones that, if you run late, make sure your excuse trumps the one before you; otherwise, you're the weak link and ripe for discipline.

    Ted: Sorry I was late. There was an accident and traffic was backed up for miles.
    Wally: I was the accident. I hit some kind of large animal.
    Dilbert: Somebody ran over my mother.




    Spiderman: My uncle is dead!
    Punisher: My family is dead!
    Green Lantern: My city is dead!
    Superman: My PLANET is dead.
    Superman: (to Wonder Woman) Wanna help rebuild the species?
    Wonder Woman: Chivalry is dead.


    RZ: I hate my job.
    Gungu: Try taking 16 school hours and working two jobs just to pay for it all.
    RZ: Thanks. Now I hate my job, and I feel like a jerk.
    Furato: Hey, RZ! Have you heard of the millions of starving people on Planet S?


    Web Original