Failure is an extremely viable option

Disclaimer: I apologize for any advertisements that appear before the videos. Not my fault.

Fail” as a slang term came onto the scene back in 2003, when it appeared on Urban Dictionary, which defined fail as “an interjection used when one disapproves of something, or a verb meaning approximately the same thing as the slang form of suck.” By 2004, Google users were searching for Fail pictures and videos. The popularization of Fail as a stand alone interjection rather than as a part of a sentence on 4chan and the Something Awful forums lead to the creation of the Failblog website, which posts new Fail videos and pictures each day. Such is the proliferation of Fail humor that the New York Times wrote and article on it in 2009. And while “fail” covers many degrees of failure, “epic fail” is used most often for fails of an extreme degree, those which show extra stupidity or bodily harm.

Fail as an interjection rather than a verb originated from a late 90’s Japanese shooter game, Blazing Star. The “game over” message uses horrible grammar, saying “YOU FAIL IT! YOUR SKILL IS NOT ENOUGH. SEE YOU NEXT TIME. BYE BYE.” The “you fail it” portion may have been shortened to merely “fail.” The retro video game, Japanese origin, and horrible grammar meant a guaranteed meme.

It makes sense because he's a Cubs fan.

So why do we find other people’s stupidity funny? The answer is fairly obvious. We laugh at another person’s failure because we aren’t the ones encountering the fail. The internal monologue goes something like this: “Wow, that person is really stupid. I can’t believe they did that. That sucks for them.” Clearly we feel superior to the people in these videos. We laugh at their pain, one of the definitions of the Superiority Theory. The subject’s failure implies our success, since we’re not in the position of the person failing. Physical humor or laughter at another person’s stupidity generally subscribes to this theory of humor.

However, there can be some combinations. Take this video:

See The Door Fail

For those of you too lazy to click on the link, a man walks through a glass door. While the hilarity of this fail is simple, there may be more: instead of merely running into the glass door, which is the expected outcome, the man actually walks THROUGH the door. The unexpectedness of this action makes the video a bit funnier that someone merely hitting the door. With this in mind, fails gain more depth. Many fail videos or pictures are purely physical humor, but they can also contain a hint of incongruity. Fails can fit under the Superiority Theory as well as the Incongruity Theory. Physical humor is coupled with unexpected consequences. While not all fails can be described like this, the possibility of more than “it’s funny because he got hit in the crotch” gives fail humor a bit more credit.

Watch these next videos and decide for yourself: pure superiority or unexpected consequences?

Skateboard Footing Fail

Choosing Your Landing Spot Fail

Grape Stomp Fail

Incongruity plays into fail pictures, which are captioned in the same style as other image macros but only with the word “FAIL.” While they often showcase stupidity, the failure being laughed at can be presented with incongruity, or more often, irony. Even though stupidity is the main reason for the humor, it is funny in the context of incongruity or irony, again creating a combination of Superiority Theory and Incongruity Theory.

Find the unfortunate sign placement in the picture.


Wait: so fail humor isn’t just slapstick, stupid, physical humor? It encompasses more than just laughing at a faceplant? I can laugh at fails and still retain my demeanor of intelligence? Yes, but hesitantly. The basis of fail humor still falls under the Superiority Theory: the mentality of “you failed, whereas I did not” makes the video, picture or event funny in the first place. The incongruities only add to that.

Next time: A break from memes in the form of the cynical webcomic. You’re welcome, pessimists.




  1. Anna Rose Gellert says:

    I am so forwarding this to my parents, who have begun abusing the phrase “epic fail!” in conversation. THANK YOU! I’ve been really enjoying these posts- Internet humor can be hard to define or explain, kind of like trying to analyze why some videos go viral. But your posts are clear and concise! Looking forward to the cynical webcomic post! (Cyanide and Happiness springs to mind…)

  2. bstanford says:

    I always really enjoy your posts, probably because I also really enjoy Internet humor. This one was especially neat because I find “fails” to be hysterical, which I suppose can be attributed to some desire to feel superior…either way, I definitely laughed out loud at all the videos.

  3. twmilbourne says:

    Fantastic, as always. I’m hoping you get to turn these posts into a paper or get them published or something like that.

    Also: You mentioned early in your post that, in instances of “extra stupidity or bodily harm,” “epic fail” is used in the place of “fail.” Do you have any idea why the adjective “epic” has become so attached to fail (ie: why not “super fail” or “total fail”)? Also, have you noticed any some sort of common standard separating fails from epic fails? While I suspect there’s no clear cutoff, it’d be interesting if there was an internet-wide consensus on how much fail is needed to constitute an epic fail.

  4. Anna Glendening says:

    Tim – Although I didn’t go into it, the Encyclopedia Dramatica has an interesting section on Epic Fail:

    Any epic fail is a fail so incredibly bad that it paradoxically becomes a win. You cannot try to get an epic fail, because that would just be trying to attain a win. And then you would be trying too hard.
    It is important to distinguish between garden-variety fail and epic fail.

    For example:
    Fail: Driving your car into a tree.
    Epic fail: Crashing the Hindenberg into the Titanic because you got distracted by a Detroit Lions game on laserdisc.

    I couldn’t have said this in any better words.

  5. Anna Glendening says:

    Becca – if you’re interested in more Superiority Theory fail videos, search “who wants to be a millionaire fail” into Youtube. It’s wonderful.

  6. mtaiken says:

    This is fascinating, Anna! I never knew ‘Fail’ had a concrete origin. I especially enjoyed your commentary on the early years (I had no idea it went back to 2003…)! I love the simplicity of ‘Fail’ because it usually allows the pictures to speak for themselves – I think humor is best when it is simple like this. I was wondering if you’ve seen the ‘Engrish’ section of FailBlog because it has some pretty good examples of this… Keep on posting! This is such great stuff!