I'm sure I've seen this employed as a comedic device in various films/cartoons. An inept character goes through a sequence of actions over a short timespan, each of which is the worst possible at that point, and seemingly by accident. And yet, the timing and accuracy are such that a highly skilled person would be hard pressed to have enacted the same course if they had tried on purpose.

"Yes, after stepping on the loose marble and knocking into each vase, you managed to flail in precisely the right way as to send a spoonful of mustard directly into your boss' eye, and then fall backwards onto the one spot in the room occupied by the wedding cake. And how were you to know, as you cast about for something to grip to help yourself up, that the curtain would come undone and fall into the fire and become tangled in your jacket buttons such that, as you attempted to flee the conflagration, you brought it into contact with all (and only) the most flammable objects in the hall? It was a simple case of _______"

  • I totally meant to do that – NVZ Jul 26 '17 at 19:20
  • If this helps, take a single event in such a series - for example, you look through a keyhole and someone throwing darts at a board on the back of the door misses and hits the keyhole at the precise moment you look in - and isolate it. I've heard such an event described as "the opposite of a miracle". But that's only for a single event. This is a rapid succession of such events. – jinglesthula Feb 7 '18 at 20:25
  • As a side note, a similar sequence of events where it's the worst possible but the protagonist is a passive recipient of the misfortune seems like a different animal. What I'm looking for is the bumbling perfectly wrongly through the series - an active role. Thus, this is something someone does rather than the outcome or effect itself. – jinglesthula Feb 7 '18 at 20:34
  • I suggest you ain't findiin' no such critter untio you can at leaty name two or three or more films or cartoons which used it… Either way, what would be wrong with the fairly-well-recognised "bumbling through", please? – Robbie Goodwin Feb 8 '18 at 2:00
  • It's called slapstick and has a long, long Anglo-American tradition. – Lambie Feb 12 '18 at 21:12

It is precisely explained in the trope disaster dominoes which falls under domino effect.

Basically, instead of a single mess-up, the character manages to chain a lot of them into a bigger one. Slipping on the Banana Peel while holding a two-by-four, hitting someone behind him holding a lit cigarette who lands in a pool of gasoline... etc. Usually ends with the site of said mess-up being completely destroyed (and/or Stuff Blowing Up).

If someone sets off (or claims to have set off) Disaster Domino(e)s on purpose, it may be Exactly What I Aimed At.


The domino effect definition from dictionary.cambridge.org:

the situation in which something, usually something bad, happens, causing other similar events to happen

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  • The word 'distaster' is equivalent to the 'opposite of a miracle' I mentioned in a comment on the question. Well done! – jinglesthula Feb 12 '18 at 23:21
  • While the example given in the OP definitely is a chain reaction, so to speak, the core idea need not be such that engaging in a given event in the chain was a result of the outcome of the previous action. Still leaving this as the accepted answer unless a better alternative presents. Disaster dominoes is a subset of this thing, and this thing is a subset of comedy of errors, I think. – jinglesthula Feb 15 '18 at 21:55
  • re: the foregoing, perhaps "comedy of disasters" is near the mark. Or "one's streak of perfect fiascos". – jinglesthula Feb 15 '18 at 21:58

The phrase a comedy of errors, from William Shakespeare's play by the same name, has come to mean something very like this. From Wiktionary:

(idiomatic) A set of amusing or farcical events involving a series of awkward missteps or other mistakes.

Of course in the original play the errors were literal mis-takes, as identical twins are confused for one another, but the phrase has come to be used for everything from bumbling ball handling to (probably criminal) professional negligence to a series of misadventures when trying to obtain a wedding cake. Your example is so extreme that you could probably tack on some superlative qualifier, like "a comedy of errors of epic proportions", but I think the phrase would work either way.

Another, more recent phrase that has been used to describe everything going wrong all at once, in the worst possible way, is a perfect storm; however, I think this phrase has more implications of some sort of multiplicative effect—the individual problems somehow make one another much worse than they would have been in isolation—rather than the serial effect of your description. This is backed up definitions of the term, such as this description from Wikipedia:

A perfect storm is an event in which a rare combination of circumstances drastically aggravates the event.1 The term is used by analogy to an unusually severe storm that results from a rare combination of meteorological phenomena.

Finally, for a comedically understated expression, you could also use the literal set-phrase a series of unfortunate events. Just keep in mind that this venerable expression has gained new life and new connotations from the children's book series of that name by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler).

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  • I think there's a lot of overlap between comedy of errors and what I'm after. Perhaps this is even a subset. Critical to my case, each mistake needs to be both worst-case and something highly unlikely to occur by either chance or skill ("couldn't have done that if I'd tried"). – jinglesthula Feb 15 '18 at 21:51

a simple case of ineptness or clumsiness


a string of bad luck

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  • Certainly these would contribute to the poor soul achieving such a feat - but I'm looking for a descriptor for the sequence of actions itself which bears the quality of being superlatively sub-optimal. One might be clumsy or inept and only make a mistake or two. This is the situation itself where a series of "the opposite of a miracle" type mishaps are chained in rapid succession. After the 3rd or 4th one, onlookers wince, but are unsurprised by the rest that follow. – jinglesthula Jul 26 '17 at 17:29
  • ah i see, since it's a comedic device, I will reach out to my theater friend. – chornge Jul 26 '17 at 17:32
  • Comedic often, and especially in creative works. But I've seen it in real life where one surrenders midway through muttering things like "mm-hm - yup, the phone goes in the pool... naturally. It would have to." where it's not really funny at all (except perhaps in retrospect). – jinglesthula Jul 26 '17 at 17:35
  • "A string of bad luck" comes closer to the mark, though that may be across a much greater time span and the common thread may only be the person. For this word/phrase though, the events are necessarily bound together by happening essentially back to back. "A string of worst (and impossibly unlikely) luck" would be closer, though that still misses out on the contiguous sequence aspect of it. – jinglesthula Feb 7 '18 at 20:28

To me, it sounds like slapstick humor.

From the Free Dictionary:

A boisterous form of comedy marked by sight gags and absurd or violent mishaps or pranks, such as slipping on a banana peel.

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  • ABSOLUTELY: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slapstick This answer is spot on. – Lambie Feb 12 '18 at 21:14
  • This misses the nearly impossible sequence aspect. Also, it may not always be comedic (though works well as comedy). – jinglesthula Feb 12 '18 at 23:20

If the perpetrator comes out for the best, it would be Idiot's Luck. Although I haven't found a formal definition,"The Idiot's Luck" was the alternate name of story also called “Strange Tale of an Ox,” by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald a 19th Century Estonian writer. In "The Idiot's Luck" a younger son (a simpleton) makes a series of mistakes but comes out on top. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/hoe/hoe2-09.htm

I have heard "Idiot's Luck" used numerous times to describe similar situations.

"Error Prone," likely to fail (MW) might be the broader application.

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This is off from your example sentence, but entirely in line with the physical comedy you're referring to, and may be put to use in a slightly different construct.

A Rube Goldberg machine is a deliberately complex contraption in which a series of devices that perform simple tasks are linked together to produce a domino effect in which activating one device triggers the next device in the sequence. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor of such contraptions, Rube Goldberg.

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Metaphorically, a snowball effect is a process that starts from an initial state of small significance and builds upon itself, becoming larger (graver, more serious), and also perhaps potentially dangerous or disastrous (a vicious circle)...This is a cliché in cartoons and modern theatrics and it is also used in psychology. (Wikipedia)

...they all fall like dominoes -- with a reference to a common nonsense-generating plot device of comedies called the "snowball effect" in which a minor chance event induces consequences of incredible proportions (see Bergson 1910). (Alice in Transmedia Wonderland: Curiouser and Curiouser New Forms of a Children’s Classic Aug 26, 2016 by Anna Kérchy)

Finally, let us pass to the light comedy of to-day. Need we call to mind all the forms in which this same combination appears? There is one that is employed rather frequently. For instance, a certain thing, say a letter, happens to be of supreme importance to a certain person and must be recovered at all costs. This thing, which always vanishes just when you think you have caught it, pervades the entire play, "rolling up" increasingly serious and unexpected incidents as it proceeds. All this is far more like a child's game than appears at first blush. Once more the effect produced is that of the snowball. (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic By Henri Bergson)

  • "It was a simple case of the snowball effect."
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