If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, you probably watched Happy Days. It was one of the most popular shows on television and The Fonz was one of the most recognizable characters. While the early years of the show were some of the best episodes of any sitcom, the show eventually started to stretch the realism. This peaked with the “jumping the shark” episode.
In this video, we’re going to look at how the show changed after Fonzie jumped the shark and how that moment created a pop culture meme. Be sure to watch until the end of the video to find out how another show later used the “jumping the shark” moment to its fans delight.
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Happy Days premiered in January 1974 on the ABC network. It was created by Garry Marshall as an homage to the innocence of 1950s middle America. The early 1970s were less innocent times, with many Americans soured by the Vietnam war. Happy Days provided a welcome escape from the news of the day.
In its first season, the show mostly revolved around the Cunningham family — Howard, Marian, Chuck, Richie, and Joanie. Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie or just The Fonz, played a relatively small part in the show. Played by Henry Winkler, The Fonz quickly became a fan favorite.
By the second season, Chuck was written out of the show and Fonzie got a much bigger role as a mentor and friend to Richie Cunningham. While he was portrayed as a menacing biker and former gang member in the first season, over the next couple of years the rough edges were worn down and Fonzie became almost a modern-day superhero, with his face on kids’ lunch boxes across the country.
The three-part “Hollywood” season premier opened the fifth season, part of a stunt to increase ratings by having the cast visit California. At this point, the writers felt like there was nothing Fonzie couldn’t do, including leaping over a caged tiger shark in response to a dare from a local beach bum called the California Kid.
Winkler came up with the idea for the scene as he was an avid water skier. His father apparently insisted he tell the producers he could water ski. When Winkler finally gave in to his father and told the producers, they wrote the scene of him jumping over the shark contained in a netted area near the beach.
This wasn’t completely out of character for The Fonz. He had jumped his motorcycle over a line of 14 garbage cans in an earlier episode so the jump over the shark seemed like a reasonable follow-up. Winkler later told Oprah that he did all the waterskiing himself except for the jump. The show’s producers wouldn’t let him do the jump but his water skiing abilities stopped a bit short of that anyway.
By the start of its fifth season, Happy Days was a smash hit and 30 million viewers watched Fonzie leap over the shark. With over 40 years of perspective since the show aired, many people believe that was the beginning of the end for the series but the jumping the shark episode turned out to be only halfway through its run. It continued for another six seasons afterwards.
The phrase “jumped the shark” didn’t hold any special meaning until 1987, when University of Michigan college student Sean Connolly coined the phrase to describe a particularly outlandish turn of events. His circle of friends used the expression for years but it didn’t make its way into the public’s vernacular until 1997, when Connolly’s college roommate Jon Hein started the website JumpTheShark.com. The site chronicled the moments when popular TV shows took a sudden and surprising drop in quality.
The infamous Happy Days episode was written by Fred Fox Jr. He didn’t agree with the idea that it was the turning point for the show’s quality. He was so opposed to the idea that he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times objecting to the phrase. He said when he first heard the phrase and what it meant, he was incredulous. He started thinking about the thousands of television shows that have aired since TV began. His thought was that out of all of those shows, why was the Happy Day episode where Fonzie jumped the shark the one that got singled out? “This made no sense,” he said.
Fox may be right. The Fonz jumping the shark wasn’t even the strangest storyline on Happy Days that season. Later in the year, the show introduced Robin Williams as Mork from Ork, an alien who landed in Milwaukee, where Happy Days took place. That character was a hit and Williams went on to star in his own show, Mork and Mindy. You’d think having an alien land in the middle of an otherwise normal sitcom about teenagers growing up in the 1950s would be the real shark-jumping moment, but “meeting the alien” doesn’t have the same ring.
While some of the cast and crew of Happy Days might not like it, the phrase “jumped the shark” has become shorthand for more than just television shows. Some people feel that the James Bond series of movies have jumped the shark. A local restaurant can jump the shark when they hire a new cook or add some strange items to their menu. A relationship can jump the shark when one of the partners does something beyond forgivable.
But jumping the shark is still used to describe the moment when a popular TV show loses its way so badly that there’s no going back. Let’s look at a few other shows that have jumped the shark.
Funny enough, Happy Days has its own jump the shark moment that isn’t when The Fonz actually jumped a shark. We’ve already mentioned the Mork from Ork episode but in spite of how much it stretched the show’s believability, nobody really had an issue with it.
The second time Happy Days jumped the shark is when Richie Cunningham and Ralph Malph left the show. At the beginning of season 8, in the episode No Tell Motel, Ron Howard and Donnie Most left the show. Both actors had other projects in mind and were tired of playing their parts on the show. The most important relationship on the show was the one between Richie and The Fonz so with half of that team gone, the show really started to decline.
I Dream of Jeannie
The stars of I Dream of Jeannie, Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, were two of the hottest stars on TV at the time. Male viewers drooled over Eden’s Jeannie and women swooned over Hagman’s Major Nelson. But because of the morals of the time, the two never had any kind of relationship since they lived in the same home.
In season five, the show’s producers decided it was time the two character got married. Both Eden and Hagman argued that the sexual tension that was the main appeal of the show would disappear but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
The two were married in a two-part episode in 1969 called Guess Who’s Going to be a Bride? and the show’s decline began. Instead of her pink outfit, Jeannie started wearing civilian clothes more often and started addressing Nelson as Anthony instead of Master. After the show jumped the shark with the wedding episode, which ironically Eden says was her favorite, the ratings started to tumble.
Elvis Presley was rock and roll’s number one rebel when he started in 1956. He scared the parents of the millions of teenagers who worshipped him. But after he was drafted in 1958 and spent some time in the US Army, he became much more tame and never quite recovered his aura of danger.
Fred Flintstone had the same problem. In the early seasons of The Flintstones, he was a loud-mouthed boor who was crude and out of control, much to the audience’s delight. Looking at the show now, when we can watch the seasons back-to-back, you can see him get tamer and more watered down each season. After the 1963 episode when Pebbles Flintstone was born, when The Flintstones jumped the shark, his decline was sealed.
Many people consider Seinfeld to be the best sitcom in history. And it’s unique in the list of show that jumped the shark in the fact that it didn’t continue running after it happened. Seinfeld crossed that divide in its final episode.
After 172 episodes, The Finale brought all the show’s classic characters back including the Soup Nazi, Babu, the low talker, the bubble boy, and Puddy. Anticipation for the show was so high it might never have been able to live up to it but the last episode was particularly unbalanced and awkward. And worst of all, it wasn’t that funny.
Even though many of the Happy Days cast and crew members take issue with the term “jumping the shark” coming from their show, they’re not all against it. Henry Winkler, The Fonz himself, is good-natured about it all. He guest-starred on the recent hit Arrested Development. In an episode during the second season, the characters were speaking at a marina. At one point, Winkler’s character, Barry Zuckercorn, jumps over a dead shark lying on the dock, paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the phrase.
Does one of your favorite TV shows have a jump-the-shark moment? Let us know in the comments below.