Sunday, September 07, 2014

The "Jumping the Shark" writer finally speaks out

This is a repost from many many years ago.

There’s a nice article in the LA TIMES “Calendar” section by Fred Fox Jr. the writer who wrote the famous “Jump the Shark” episode of HAPPY DAYS.

Very quickly, for those who don’t know, several guys were sitting around a bar one night discussing their favorite shows and wondering what was the precise moment that they went downhill? One suggested for HAPPY DAYS it was when Fonzie literally jumped a shark to prove his love for girlfriend Pinky Tuscadero. That expression caught on, a website was born, and the rest is infamous history.

You can read Fred’s article here.


He talks about dealing with it. Going from incredulous to embarrassment to acceptance. When I read the piece, this was my reaction: envy.

Seriously, how cool to say you wrote one of the single most famous episodes in television history! Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard round the world” but everyone also remembers Ralph Branca, the pitcher who served it up. Name me one other relief pitcher from 1951.

I’m glad that Fred wrote the piece. I’m glad that he’s willing to accept the notoriety. I say, own it. Be proud of it.

And by the way, that shark episode was not the tipping point for HAPPY DAYS. As Fred points out, the series went on for another six highly rated seasons. That’s like the Titanic hitting an iceberg and sinking three years later.

One other point: To this day, HAPPY DAYS reruns make me laugh. They’re 30+ years old but are still funny. There are even some good laughs in the episode where Fonzie jumps the shark.

34 comments:

Pat Reeder said...

He's right: we all know that "Happy Days" didn't really jump the shark until Ted McGinley joined the cast, even though the show had literally jumped the shark long before that.

benson said...

Hoyt Wilhelm

Leemats said...

The shark jump was a challenge between the Fonz and The California Kid. Pinky Tuscadero had been written out of the show at that point.

scott O. said...

The show may have been highly rated, but it was unwatchable for me. Any show where a principal actor enters the scene and has to wait for the applause to end pretty bad.

A baseball nut said...

Ewell Blackwell

Anonymous said...

Jim Konstanty

Scooter Schechtman said...

Back in the day I thought it might have jumped it when the original Arnold was replaced by Al "Soul Devourer" Molinaro. But later I saw it was the glittery 1980s fashions. Why don't people feel the same Nostalgia Shame for the 80s as they do for the 60s or 70s?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Well, I don't know. THE BIG BANG THEORY is the top-rated show, but I don't like it nearly as well as I did in its first five seasons. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER remained in the top numbers and yet really was never anything like as good after season 4. So it's entirely plausible to me that even though HAPPY DAYS stayed at the top of the charts people who'd been with the show from the beginning felt the jumping the shark episode was the end.

Side note: I loved jumptheshark.com and am still annoyed that its content was removed by its eventual purchaser, TV Guide.

wg

James said...

Happy Days was when I became conscious of different sitcom formats. I was a tween when Happy Days first came on. I enjoyed it, but it was soft comedy--it made me smile but that was it.

Then they changed to the 3-camera format, upgraded Fonzie, and it became harder (laugh-out-loud) comedy. My friend and I all thought it was fantastic. The show went from cute to funny.

Years later as a young adult I saw the reruns of the first two years, and it's still soft comedy, but I realized I liked it so much better than the later ones. It was much more realistic. The stories were things that did or could have happened. They weren't laugh out loud funny but they were meaningful. The humor didn't come from Fonzie turning on a juke-box by hitting it.

To me Happy Days jumped the shark when they changed formats. To me it's just two different shows with the same cast.

Breadbaker said...

Branca was more a starter than a reliever. He had 71 complete games in his career, which is 25 more than Pedro Martinez. In 1951, he started 27 times and relieved 15 times.

Paul Duca said...

And Ralph Branca was also a 20-game winner on another front...the show CONCENTRATION. He competed in its first Tournament of Champions in 1963.

Bob said...

It's nice to hear from the original writer, but the whole article comes across as a little disingenuous. Can a professional wordsmith really not appreciate the power of a soundbite, particularly one that encapsulates a moment of sheer ludicrousness so completely?

I've never seen the episode, but however good/bad it might actually be, the concept expressed in three words is as ridiculous as it sounds (and the same would apply to many other major TV moments if you remove all context and express them in three words).

Incidentally, the headline to the article should be put on trial for crimes against apostrophes.

Pat Reeder said...

I agree with Scooter Schechtman about the '80s hair and fashions. It always irritated me that a nostalgic show set in the '50s featured big, blow-dry hairdos (on both men and women) and blouses with giant shoulder pads. How hard would it have been to buy a few wigs and wear period-appropriate costumes? If the men had to get crew cuts, then they could wear wigs off-screen, or just suffer for their art.

Of course, when you watch it now, it makes you nostalgic for the '80s, which is kind of weird.

Jimmy said...

Early on, the series did a good job of maintaining 1950s-ish hairstyles and wardrobe, but the longer it ran the less attention they paid to those kinds of details.

Toronto Blue Jay said...

Ken, we know you prefer multi cams vs. single cams for the immediate audience feedback. I recently watched a couple of "Andy Griffith Show" episodes. There's no audience; close ups and long shots; it's essentially a single cam. Yet it's a classic that stands up well (although, like Mayberry itself, it's a little slow-paced by today's standards). How do you reconcile this?

Alan C said...

What have you got against Al Molinaro? Although I remember him more fondly as Murray the Cop.

Cap'n Bob said...

I thought the show jumped the shark when Chuck, the older Cunningham son, disappeared

Matt said...

Happy Days "Jumped the Shark" when Richie left. He was the main character. The show was designed to be about him and his friends. Fonzie was a great character, but the show was never designed to be about him. The Fonzie character I believe is much harder to write a show about and therefore the show suffered.

Lloyd said...

On a purely surface level, I'm put off by any series where the audience is allowed to yell and scream and carry on like idiots anytime even a minor cast regular makes his or her first appearance.

Garry Marshall himself has talked about how Happy Days got harder to write as it became more popular because, while on one hand ABC was pushing them to make the scripts more Fonzie-centric, on the other hand the network was also pushing them to make Fonzie a good role model, to make sure he always did the right thing, and always set a good example.

It can't have been easy to come up with interesting scripts for a character the network is trying to turn into a straightlaced boy scout.

Anonymous said...

"I’m glad that he’s willing to accept the notoriety. I say, own it. Be proud of it."

Which leads us to "After MASH." A show specifically based on "jumping the shark."

Nice to see you guys sticking up for each other.

DBenson said...

I have to say, I liked "AfterMASH." I wonder if it might have done better if "MASH" wrapped up when the Vietnam War did and "AfterMASH" appeared just as America was beginning to deal -- badly, it turned out -- with the needs of returning vets.

While "MASH" intelligently and nobly kept war real, it became less and less a direct comment on a current war and more a show about broader issues set against an increasingly distant backdrop.

When "AfterMASH" finally arrived, it tried to make that connection to contemporary issues but was seen as a sort of an upscale "Happy Days." And perhaps Reagan-era audiences weren't up for "MASH" gallows humor so close to home.

When Klinger's realistic problems of acclimating to life with his war bride gave way to playing Section 8 crazy again, it wasn't necessarily a jump the shark moment. But it was a telling admission people wanted nostalgia. Not for the 50s, and certainly not for Vietnam, but for the original "MASH."

Johnny Walker said...

It's a shame that Fonzie jumping the shark was unfairly maligned as the point where Happy Days sank past the point of no return, but it's such a wonderful phrase that captures "terrible idea" so perfectly that you can understand why it stuck.

Another phrase that often oops up meaning the same thing is "Poochie the Dog", from the clever Simpsons lampoon of such TV moments, but The Fonz proving his cool by waterskiing over a shark is so much more evocative!

@Scott O, I guess you're not a fan of Seinfeld? :)

Greg Ehrbar said...

• My "favorite" part of the Fonzie jump the shark episode: the tearful drummer girl. We even get to see her drumming. In case we weren't sure.

• I've always wondered if the creators of the movie "Groundhog Day" grew up watching I DREAM OF JEANNIE, particularly the episode where Jeannie made every day Sunday.

• Melinda Dillon's frizzy "Billie Newman of LOU GRANT" hairstyle in the movie A CHRISTMAS STORY bothers me to this day. So much loving care went into making the film authentic. Apparently she insisted on the anachronistic 'do. Perhaps she wanted to show anyone casting her next role what she really looked like in the period of the film's shooting, not the era it depicted.

• I love EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (my mother is exactly like Marie, in personality and appearance), but after about five years, Raymond got dumber and Debra got beyotchier. There were still good shows in the last years, but there was that difference.

Sean D. said...

Brought up the anachronistic hair and clothes of later Happy Days on the Monday post comments unaware of this post. Oh well.

I do have to agree with Matt that the true moment the show started going off the rails was the departure of Ron Howard AND Donnie Most. Ritchie was the axis on which the show spun. Fonzie's friendship with Ritchie is what led to him living over Howard's garage. It was Ritchie that Mork met first when he came to Earth. It was Ritchie that inspired Fonzie to go back to school. Ritchie was peacemaker between Fonzie & Al during the Arnold's rebuild. Some of the Sweeps Stunts that Fonzie did, came from ideas that Ritchie either had or promoted. As for the departure of Ralph, it really made you question why Potsie was still hanging around. "Cousin Roger" did not have the character weight to serve as the new Ritchie but wasn't light enough to be a foil with Potsie. The first season season after Ritchie and Ralph wound up shipped to Greenland was okay, but I thought it was pretty wobbly after that.

Anonymous said...

It's OK if it ran for many more seasons. Jummping the shark isn't the end, but the beginning of the end. Look at the visual, jumping a shark.

tb said...

I remember Pinky Tuscadero riding in on a brand-new mono-shock Yamaha motorcycle, and thinking "C'mon! No one has an older bike laying around?"

John said...

tb said...

I remember Pinky Tuscadero riding in on a brand-new mono-shock Yamaha motorcycle, and thinking "C'mon! No one has an older bike laying around?"

9/08/2014 11:01 AM


I would go with the moment in Part II of that episode where, in the climactic demolition derby against the Malachi Brothers, Fonzie foils their attempt to blind him with power by pulling out ... a hand-held portable hair dryer.

In a car.

In the 1950s.

That was writing so lazy the script probably ended with "...zzzzzzzz". A year before Fonize actually jumped the shark, it was the moment when the show abandoned any effort at all to maintain believability in favor of what ever plot could make the audience yell the loudest for the Fonz (which is also why the later season episodes of "Happy Days" never did all that well in reruns -- once a cultural phenomenon is over, people really don't like visiting it again if the scripts simply are on cruise control).

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@sean D...
yes, the show 'ended' when it Richie and Ralph left.
The show could have survived without the Fonz but not without Richie.

However good the characters are that are created, they often need another to balance itself out. Without the other it suffers quickly. the characters need each other: the Martin & Lewis, Laverne and Shirley, Lucy and Ricky. Archie and Edith, Archie and Meathead

Otto said...

Ken: I love your blog - love it! In this case, I may disagree with you just a little. I agree that "Happy Days" didn't "jump the shark" with the actual sharp episode. The quality of the show in terms of it actually being funny stared a little before that. The show was really funny for the first 2 years and then the 3rd and 4th season began a slow deterioration. As soon as Fonzie became a "god" instead of a person, it ceased to be funny. It then became a children's fantasy program . . . which is OK but it wasn't a top-notch sitcom. As much as I love "Cheers," "Frasier" and "Winghs," I've always felt that "M*A*S*H" went on way longer than it should have. As an example of my tastes, my top 4 favorite sitcoms of all-time are "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Barney Miller." I obviously have a thing for proper names. As for Mr.s Fox's article, I do find it amusing that he would, in a sense, defend his career to say he went on to work on such successful shows as "Webster" or "Family Matters," neither of which I ever found the least bit funny. There are shows like "Full House" that can stay on the air for years and boast a large and loyal fan following but that doesn't mean in any way it's of the same quality, or any near as funny, as a show like "Cheers" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Anonymous said...

As noted by others: 3-camera format, live audience = jumping the shark.

RCP said...

Lloyd said...

"It can't have been easy to come up with interesting scripts for a character the network is trying to turn into a straightlaced boy scout."

It is interesting to compare the original Fonzie (in the blue windbreaker) - who had an actual edge - with the latterday Fonzie, who was close to being Mr. Rogers. I remember the "Heeeyyyyyy...wearing glasses is cool" episode and suspect there were also "Heeeeyyyyyy...doing your homework is cool" episodes, etc. Not to disparage being a positive influence for kids, but Wholesome Fonzie wasn't nearly as fun or funny.

John Dalton said...

Frankly, Happy Days "Jumped the Shark" long before Fonzie "Jumped the Shark". The first three seasons are great, especially the episodes that were not filmed in front of a studio audience. The show actually had moments that were hysterical, and some that were serious and introspective.

Once the show started filming in front of the studio audience it stated to go downhill rapidly. It was a victim of it's own success. They started writing the Fonz as some kind of superhero or role model for children. They had him get a library card. And the writing became super lazy.

I would argue that the majority of 70s television is pretty bad. It wasn't until shows like Cheers that quality began to matter. For every All in the Family in the 70s there are 10 Mr. T and Tina's.

Anonymous said...

Who is Bobby Thomson? Come to that who is Ralph Branca, and why am I supposed to have heard of him?

Jabroniville said...

The worst part about the "Shark Jump" episode is that it was part of a three-parter that was REALLY, REALLY BORING. And then only a little while later, Ritchie & Ralph left. The show was on for YEARS afterwards, but it went "downhill" in quality for sure.