jumping the shark --1/5/24

Today's selection -- from Being Henry...The Fonz and Beyond by Henry Winkler. Season 5, Episode 3 of the television comedy series Happy Days gave rise to the now-famous expression “jump the shark”:

“If you ever watched Happy Days, you might have an idea where this is leading.  

“As Season 5 approached, we had a slight ratings sag. So Garry and the other producers got the idea that moving the action of the show to California for a while might pep things up in general, including our numbers. And so they came up with a story arc that had a Hollywood talent scout thinking Fonzie might be the next James Dean. This plot line took the show to Hollywood, where, as it turned out, the Fonz failed his screen test and a new story arc for Richie developed instead. In the meantime, my father had kept saying to me, ‘Tell Garry Marshall that you water-ski!’ And so sometime before the season began, I mentioned to Garry that I had once been a decent water-skier, had even taught it as a camp counselor. Garry's face lit up. ‘That's great!’ he said. ‘I'm gonna put that in the show!’

“Thus came about Season 5, Episode 3, the one where Fonzie accepts a challenge to perform a dangerous water-ski jump--over a shark. 

“Now, the whole storyline was pretty far-fetched--but with a long-running sitcom, the writers have to try all kinds of things. There are highs and lows: not every episode can be a masterpiece. There was a blip in Season 3 when Fonzie loses his job at the garage and starts selling encyclopedias door-to-door--I wasn't in love with that development. But little did any of us know at the time, or for years afterward, that the central scene of Season 5, Episode 3 of Happy Days would become a synonym for disaster. 

“The shark was a tiger shark, and he was caged--surrounded by netting on five sides, including underneath, but not on top. So, failing to execute the jump could, just possibly, dump the jumper into the drink with the shark. 

“Fortunately, I was not the jumper. 

“You hear that Tom Cruise always insists on doing his own stunts. Well, that's great for Tom Cruise--I have the highest admiration for his physical courage. But back in 1977, Happy Days' producers were not about to allow their star, their rainmaker, to risk getting injured, and I have to say, I concurred with them. So a stuntman did the jump. 

“But the scenes before and after, with me looking good on water skis in a leather jacket and swim trunks--boy, did I have great legs then!--were all me. And when I let go of the tow rope, glided up on shore, and stepped out of the skis with a big grin on my face ... well, watch the episode. Half of that grin is the Fonz saying, Ayyy, I did it! Come on--did you ever doubt it for a second? But the other half was me, Henry, thinking, Oh my God, I made it. 

“Was it a great episode? Maybe not. But years later, sometime in the mid-eighties, a University of Michigan college kid named Sean Connolly thought it was so bad that he started using the expression jumping the shark to refer to any outlandish development. Then, around a decade after that, Connelly's former roommate at Michigan, a comedy writer and radio personality named Jon Hein, started a website called jumptheshark.com--dedicated to those defining moments ‘when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. [Those instants] that you know from now on ... it's all downhill.’


“Jon Hein made an entire industry out of that phrase--a book, a board game. Finally sold the website to TV Guide for millions. When I heard about it I thought, This is really America. Comes up with a phrase, all of a sudden it's a phenomenon. I was even a guest on Jon's show on Sirius Satellite Radio--a very lovely man. I don't begrudge him one iota of his success. 

“Even though some important people on Happy Days--specifically Ron and Don Most--thought that episode really was over-the-top, it wasn't anything like the beginning of the end for the series: in fact, it was just the middle. We would go on for six more seasons.”

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Henry Winkler


Being Henry...The Fonz and Beyond


Celadon Books


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