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.
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.
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?
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.