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"Are you trying to bribe a Soviet official?"
Ostap Bender, The Twelve Chairs

Gosh, what a sticky situation you're in! Oh, if only you could just buy your way out of this situation...

But before you try it, keep in mind that bribery is itself a serious offense, and if that official you're talking to falls on the lawful side of the Lawful/Chaotic divide, you may have just made things much, much worse for yourself. Basically, this is what happens when Mr. Screw the Rules, I Have Money crashes headfirst into Mr. Screw the Money, I Have Rules, and the results are usually not pretty.

See also Comically Small Bribe, where any backfire is a result of the inept choice of bribe rather than the attempt itself.

Examples of Bribe Backfire include:


  • In Preacher (Comic Book), Jesse Custer's first meating, er, meeting with meat baron and Corrupt Hick Odin Quincannon ends with Quincannon trying to bribe Custer (who's just been declared sheriff of the town) into looking the other way and letting his workers have free run of the town. Custer throws him out a window.


  • Steve Buscemi has this happen in Fargo, in one of the most disastrous examples.
  • Chevy Chase's attempts to bribe his way to a passing test grade in Spies Like Us don't do him much good.
  • Max Bialystock in The Producers actually deliberately invokes this to offend a theater critic.
    • Considering how things turned out, you have to wonder if it worked a little too well...
  • The film version of The Twelve Chairs, as per the page quote.
  • In The Untouchables a corrupt alderman tries to bribe Eliot Ness on behalf of Al Capone. The alderman suffers no personal consequences but he does incur a classic scolding from Ness (in front of Ness's team), including the splendid line "In Roman times, when a fellow was convicted of trying to bribe a public official, they would cut off his nose, and sew him in a bag with a wild animal, and throw him in a river," and has the bribe tossed back at him.


  • When a lawyer advises a client against bribing the judge and states said judge was too honest for that, the client sent the bribe and tricked the judge into thinking it came from the other side.


  • In Digital Fortress, this is used by the male lead while trying to get information from a German tourist (who was with a prostitute) while pretending to be a police officer. He basically says, "There is something you can do to make me overlook this" and then says, "You dare bribe an officer of the law!?" when he's offered cash (he's actually after something else).
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy: In Foundation and Empire, the heroes try to bribe their way up the ladder of Imperial bureaucrats so they can see the Emperor and get General Bel Riose recalled. They eventually run into one who's actually an Imperial Police lieutenant, who tries to arrest them. For conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor, not for bribing officials.
    • Although the book and the characters themselves say otherwise, their previous bribe attempts were likely the cause of Riose's recall, because the money they used was backed by Riose's accomplice, which would logically make the Emperor suspect Riose of being involved in the conspiracy. The lieutenant heavily implied this was the case.
  • Discworld. "I believe that the last person who tried to bribe Vimes still doesn't have full use of some of his fingers."
    • It is incredibly stupid to try and bribe Vimes. Not only is he a posterboy for Lawful Good played well, he's married to the richest woman in the city. He has no use at all for money.
      • That hasn't stopped Chrysoprase, a mobster troll, from playing with this by means of lending Vimes a coat while meeting him in a freezer so Vimes doesn't freeze. Vimes doesn't even think about the coat as he leaves the mobster mentions he hopes Sam's wife will enjoy the coat as well. Vimes, realizing what has happened, tells one of his men to destroy the coat with his Piecemaker.
      • Alternatively Chrysoprase is showing respect to Vimes in pointing out to him that he's about to walk off with the coat on. They are meeting to discuss a mutual problem and wish to keep the status quo.
    • An earlier case described the palace guards as unbribable, only because the Patrician could outbid anyone. In Unseen Academicals we hear that the offical procedure for palace guards when someone tries to bribe their way into the palace is to accept the bribe and take the subject to the waiting room. And then bolt all the doors.
  • The Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide to Travel has a section with suggestions of how to pass a bribe without this occurring.
  • It's not seen attempted but the guards of the Grey Fortress (the prison used for the most powerful political prisoners) in the Codex Alera series are considered absolutely immune to bribery. It's the law that if a guard is offered a bribe and reports it, The Empire will reward him with a bonus three times the size of the attempted bribe.
  • Sort of inverted in the Star Wars novel I, Jedi. Corran Horn is trying to sneak onto Corellia, where there's still a warrant out for his arrest. So he talks a pair of tourists into bribing their way past the customs offical. However, the tourists bribe too heavily and attract every customs official in the place, who all want a piece of the action.
    • Another sort of example in Shadows Of The Empire: Dash bribes a guard, and although the guard takes the bribe, his boss is well aware that it occured, and honestly did not care (they would have been let in anyways).
  • There's an inversion in the Vorkosigan Saga novel Memory. It is General Haroche's attempt to bribe Miles that gives him the clue he needs to figure out who sabotaged Illyan's memory chip. This later becomes a standard investigative technique for Miles, when he suspects that there is something underhanded going on, but doesn't know what, or by whom: start trolling for bribes, and see who offers one to him.
  • A rather bleakly humorous version is mentioned in John Le Carre's Smiley's People. A CIA station in Switzerland tried to bribe a local professor so that they could run wires through his property to bug the Soviet embassy. The professor took the money and promptly reported everything to the local police, who were embarrassed no end. Turns out the CIA had already talked to them, and they were looking forward to their promised portion of the intelligence gathered.

Live Action TV

  • Mission Impossible: "The Pawn": Phelps offers an indirect bribe to the KGB officer who is guarding the nuclear scientist Phelps has been assigned to extract. He is threatened with deportation by the KGB officer who sees through his Obfuscating Stupidity and orders more surveillance. However, Phelps knew the KGB officer could not be bribed and used the conversation to manipulate the officer’s emotions.
    • Later Phelps uses fake evidence to convince the commissar that the KGB officer is about to defect. This evidence includes United States currency. The commissar believes this evidence since the KGB officer resembled Patton in their behavior and personality. In addition, at the beginning of the episode Phelps says that if they are successful the KGB officer will be sent to a prison camp for failure. Therefore, it can be assumed that the officer was already under suspicion, the fake evidence simply proved the disloyalty.
  • Happens in the Inspector George Gently episode "Bomber's Moon". A German businessman tries to bribe Sgt. Bachus. Bachus accepts the bribe so he will have the evidence to arrest him.
  • Walter White in Breaking Bad tries to bribe Saul Goodman into keeping Badger quiet to the DEA. Saul kicks him out and threatens to call the cops.
    • Only because Walter could be anyone (to be precise, a cop). Saul is glad to take a bribe once he discovers he's a drug dealer.
  • A particularly amusing instance occurs on Lost. When Ilana is forcing Ben to dig his own grave because she intends to kill him herself, he tries to weasel his way out of it by buying off Miles's help. Miles asks him why on earth he would need three million dollars from him when there are "a couple of jabronis named Nikki and Paulo" (whom Miles knows about because of his ability to "talk to the dead") "buried alive right over there with eight million dollars worth of diamonds sitting right on top of them".
  • Shameless in one episode a cop is accusing Lip of assault, so they try to bribe him. He takes the bribe to drop the charge of bribing a police officer.
  • Malcolm in the Middle Hal gets caught using his genius son to count cards in a vegas casino. He tries to bribe his way out, the chief security officer thanks him for the money but still bans him. When Hal asks for the money back the guard is confused as to what he is talking about.
    • Card counting isn't technically illegal. However a casino has the right to choose who is allowed entry. People who actually do win big for example.
      • Since Malcolm was a minor, Hal shouldn't take him in there in the first place, even if for something that was not illegal per se.
  • In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David tries to bribe a pharmacist to cut in line to get medicine for his wife. The pharmacist takes extreme offense at this.
  • The Nanny: C. C. Babcock once gave a gift basket to a critic who sent it back with a note stating he couldn't be bribed and, even if he could, a gift basket wouldn't be enough.
  • In one episode of Burn Notice, Michael tries to get important information from a Polish military intelligence officer. Since the officer has Russian ancestry and Michael has had to do infiltration missions in Russia, he poses as a Russian businessman offering to buy a few harmless facts. The Pole goes along with it... until they're alone, when he suddenly pulls a gun on Michael. Turns out the guy is both a patriot and has a grudge against Russia. Whoops. Fortunately for Michael, Fiona is around to save him from answering uncomfortable questions before a summary execution.


  • There was a short comic in Mad Magazine about a driver trying to bribe the policeman giving him a speeding ticket. The policeman responds by handcuffing him while he surreptitiously offers the money.
    • Another Mad comic had a man who left a 10 dollar bill in his drivers licence, so he could stealthy bribe a policeman when he gets asked to show his licence. Seemingly invokes this trope when the cop angrily asks if the man is trying to bribe him with the 10 dollar bill, and the man assuring him he doesn't know how that 10 dollar bill got there. Subverted next pannel when the man says he meant to put in a 20 dollar bill, and the cop replies "That's better."

Tabletop Games

  • In just about every Tabletop RPG where your PC can bribe someone, there's a chance of arrest (or some other negative action) if your bribe attempt fails. Examples include Traveller, Paranoia and early edition Dungeons and Dragons.
    • The risk of failure is obviously increased if the bribe is inadequate to the situation; some rules (e.g. GURPS) also specify an increased risk if the bribe is too large (because it makes the briber look desperate and suggests that the situation is more dangerous than meets the eye).

Video Games

  • May or may not happen in various games in The Elder Scrolls, depending on the person in question, your natural persuasive capabilities . . . and the size of the bribe.
  • Bribing doesn't always work in Alpha Protocol. Especially for the poor VCI who tried to bribe Steven Heck (provided he likes you).

 Heck: So this VCI comes up and says to me: "Steve, I've got a proposition for you". So after I popped three of his fingers off for calling me "Steve", I say: "And what proposition might that be, my good man?". This guy says to me: "Oh god! Please, don't kill me! I just came here to offer you five million dollars to give Michael Thorton up as Ronald Sung's assassin!

Mike: Tell me you didn't...

Heck: Not gonna lie, buddy, I was really tempted for a minute there... But I kind of like you, so I told him to piss off. Then I set him on fire to make sure he got the point.

Western Animation

  • Mocked hilariously on The Simpsons when Homer probably would have wanted to bribe Officer Wiggum but is too dumb to see the obvious clues that Wiggum wanted to be bribed.

 Chief Wiggum: "Gee, I'd hate to close you down. Maybe we can reach a little, uh, understanding here."

Homer: "I understand."

Bart: "Um, hey, Dad, I-- I think he wants--"

Homer: "Not right now, son. Daddy's talking to a policeman."

Chief Wiggum: "Uh, let me put it this way. I'm looking for my friend Bill. Have you seen any Bills around here?"

Homer: "No. He's Bart."

Chief Wiggum: "I-- Listen carefully, and watch me wink as I speak, okay? The guy I'm really looking for--wink--is Mr. Bribe--wink, wink."

Homer: "It's a ring toss game."

Chief Wiggum: "All right, that's it, I'm shutting this game down."

    • In another episode:

 Homer: You know, if you let us go, there's a diamond necklace in it for you.

Wiggum: I hope you're not suggesting that I would take that necklace as a bribe. Think again, dirtbag, cause I can swipe it later from the evidence locker.

    • backfires big time on Bart in one episode where he gets a job for fat tony: tries to bribe skinner when he catches him spraying graffiti, Skinner keeps him after school, Bart vents to fat Tony, and Skinner soon mysteriously dissapears, even though fat tony had absolutely nothing to do with it, it almost gets Bart convicted of First Degree Murder.
    • In yet another episode (when Marge becomes a police officer):

 Apu: So, you are the new cop on the beat. [sighing] OK, I know the drill: what will it be? $100? $200?

Marge: $200. [realizing] No, no! I mean, nothing! I don't take bribes!

Apu: Yes, of course you don't. [puts the money on the table] I will just leave this money on the table [turns around] with my unseeing back to the money on the table.

Marge: Apu, no! [turns around]

[Mr. Burns walks by, snatches the unattended money on the table]

Apu and Marge: [seeing the money gone] That's better!

    • And another:

 Mr. Burns: Look, Smithers! Some foolish individual has left thousands and thousands of dollars on this table! Let's step outside and, hopefully, when we return, the money will be gone.

[Burns steps outside for a few moments. When he steps back in, the nuclear inspector hasn't touched the money.]

Mr. Burns: [angrily] Look, Smithers, the money and a very stupid man are still here!

Nuclear inspector: Mr. Burns, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to bribe me.

Mr. Burns: Is there some confusion about this?

[starts stuffing money in his pockets]

Mr. Burns: Take it! Take it, you poor schmo!

    • And one more from Homer (he really seems to have bad luck with bribes), when he tries to bribe his way out of a bunch of municipal fines. Unfortunately, the clerk who accepts bribes is away from his window, so Homer impatiently leaves the money at the window in a paper bag labeled "BRIBE." Unsurprisingly, he gets caught.
    • I'm not sure whether this is a subversion or inversion but in one episode when Mr Burns is imprisoned for art theft a guard lists the things he is allowed inside. One of these is a bag labeled bribe, he empties the contents into his pocket but denies there was anything in it.
    • In an episode when Springfield enacted prohibition, Fat Tony attempts to bribe Rex Banner, but doesn't work and decides to stick to smuggling heroin from now on.
    • Bart faked a marriage to scam people out of wedding gifts. When Wiggum arrested him, Bart tried to bribe him with a gift but Wiggum wouldn't take bribes other than cash.
      • Amusingly, the motto of "Cash Bribes Only" is embossed on Wiggum's police badge, implying this is standard policy for the whole of Springfield PD.
  • Family Guy: One of their flashbacks had Peter trying to seduce a cop by showing his breasts and thinking the cop had to be honest to have refused.
  • Wacky Races: Dick Dastardly painted over a speed limit sign to trick the other racers into thinking the limit was of 85 miles per hour instead of 35. When the sheriff made the Ant Hill Mob pull over, Ring Ding offered him a cigar and the sheriff said Ring Ding made things worse for trying to bribe him.

Real Life

  • While bribery was common in the communist nations during the Cold War and is common in North Korea; this can backfire if the bribed official is threatened with exposure. Avoiding a transfer, a prison sentence, or the death penalty is more important than money.
  • Oh-so-painfully Truth in Television: Do a Google search on "bribe backfire" and check out the results. Attempted bribery is a serious offense, kids.
    • Behold the Top ten un-corrupted contries in the world. Don't even bother here.
      • Technically corruption is not only bribery but any abuse of power (for example nepotism). Sure - to have low ranking the countries have to have low rate of bribery but technically there may be country which have less problems with briberies than those top ten.
    • A subversion worth mentioning occured in Turkey a few years ago, where a young police officer refused a bribe - uncharactheristic enough, as the Turkish Police Force is notoriously corrupt. The people who offered the bribe then simply beat him up till he was hospitalised. Bribe Backfire Backfire?
  • In prison camps, bribery is sometimes used to suborn the opposite side's troops. In books on the German WW2 POW Camp Colditz, both Pat Reid and Reinhold Eggers have related one occasion in which a German Army guard took a bribe, reported it, then followed instructions to let the escape proceed until all the British officers involved were captured. After that, the guard was allowed to keep the money given to him!
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