Friday, September 03, 2010

The "Jumping the Shark" writer finally speaks out

There’s a nice article in Friday’s 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.


te said...

Fox wonders why "Jump the Shark" became the term for...jumping the shark.

Let me suggest that -- without judging the quality of the episode; I seldom watched Happy days -- "jump the shark" is a snappy, memorable phrase, rolling off the tongue far more easily and effectively than "the Ground Zero mosque debate became like when Rhoda and Joe got married", or "Has the automobile era gone the way of 'Remington Steele' after Doris Roberts joined the cast?" or "The Live Earth concert is proof that global warning has become as boring as 'Moonlighting' after Maddie and David made the beast with two backs."?

Cap'n Bob said...

I think it jumped the shark when it changed its theme song from Rock Around the Clock to the sappy Happy Days Theme. Then again when Arnold went from Pat Morida to Al Molinaro. Then again when Fonzie went to live with the Cunninghams.

Ben K. said...

If you look at the "Jump the Shark" website, no one can ever agree on exactly when a particular show went downhill (or, in some cases, if it ever did).

"Happy Days" was never intended to be "Mad Men," or even "Arrested Development," to begin with. It was just a fun light comedy that let '70s viewers transport themselves to the seemingly simpler '50s. (When an otherwise nerdy Jewish guy could pomade his hair, put on a motorcycle jacket and suddenly seem like a rebel.) And it's hard to see how a show featuring characters like Potsie and Ralph Malph could suddenly ruin its credibility.

Although, frankly, it really jumped the shark when Mork from Ork showed up.

Mike Schryver said...

I was never a fan of Happy Days - I preferred shows like M*A*S*H - but I can see how people felt about the Jump the Shark episode. It seemed to go from a semi-sincere show about the '50s to a show that was mostly about ratings stunts and being a pop-culture phenomenon.
The fact that it ran six more years doesn't mean it wasn't going downhill the whole time.

Paul said...

What I find fascinating about this is since the "Jump the Shark" website launched years ago, the meaning has almost exactly reversed.

'Jump the shark' didn't originally mean 'the moment where it all went to crap'; it originally meant 'the moment that is so goddamned awesome that you know everything after here is going to pale in comparison'. The original founders loved the 'jumping the shark' episode; they used it as an example of a pre-decline climax, not the first sign of descent.

Mark S said...

Fred Fox Jr has nothing to be embarrassed about for writing that episode, but I think his piece in the LA Times proves that Happy Days did "jump the shark" right then and there.

That story was part of a season-opener trilogy where the Happy Days gang goes to Hollywood.

Mike is right. Those episodes yanked the rug out from under the "truthiness" of the show. That it continued to get ratings is beside the point.

"Going to hollywood" is where the show "jumped the shark" even if Fonzi never went skiing.

It's the moment when a fan realizes that they loved the fictional reality created in a show more than the producers did. They might still watch it, but they know it won't ever be the same.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite Happy Days episodes is the ghost story they did where Fonzie restores a car and it's haunted. It probably didn't start off as a ghost story until somebody said "Fonzie doesn't like cars, he likes motorbikes you idiot..."

David said...

I think Mark S. has it right. "Jumping the shark" isn't about ratings, it's about a show's integrity, if I can call it that. According to Jim had ratings, for crying out loud.

Scott said...

I dunno. I found the article to be kind of defensive. First off, "Jumping the Shark" doesn't mean when a show will be in a decline from a popularity standpoint. It's more of when it becomes apparent that the show has gone past its peak, or becomes more of a "laugh at" kind of affair instead of "laugh with". (Or for a drama, when a viewer can't take it seriously anymore.) Second, what was all that stuff about how successful he has been since then? What is he trying to prove, and how does it fit in with the rest of the story? It kind of reminded me of when Rob Dibble & Ray Knight were arguing whether Stephen Strasburg's pitch selection on 0-2 counts was sensible, and it deteriorated into, among other things, an argument over which of the two former players had more heroic postseasons on 0-2 pitches. But then again what do I know- it's not like my words means anything, even if the Washington Post DID once post an opinion I sent in! (Ok, half an opinion, but I'll take it.)

-Scott from Marina Del Rey

Ian said...

Holy cow. I read some of those comments under the article. Wow some people are full of hate over nothing.

Michael said...

Mr. Fox does seem a bit defensive about it, and I agree that the bigger issue is when a show loses its credibility or--to use a word not normally associated with "Happy Days"--gravitas. But let's face it: the minute Fonzie became the central character, "Happy Days" lost its original meaning as a look at growing up in the 1950s. That said, it was indeed a pleasant, often funny show. And I cite my favorite moment that still breaks me up: the Cunninghams going to meet Chachi's family, which he has kept hidden in part because some of them are crazy. One of them likes to crack open walnuts on his forehead, and when Joanie's family arrives, Mr. C is rubbing his forehead in pain. When he's asked if he has a headache, he says, no, someone cracked a walnut open on his forehead as he came up the stairs. I don't know why, but Tom Bosley--who I always have thought was a terrific actor--was just perfect in saying it.

Blaze said...

"Jump the shark" is always a different episode for different people, in whatever show we're talking about.

But, "pre-shark", I'm a proud endorser, telling my friends about this entertainment treat. "Post-shark", if I'm still watching, it's now a guilty pleasure that I'm embarrassed to talk about.

I'd stopped watching "Happy Days" long before this Shark episode. When it stopped being a funny TV version of "American Graffiti" and became "The Fonzie Show". Upon hearing about waterskiing in a leather jacket, I could only shake my head. It was no longer even "The Fonzie Show," about a cool hoodlum. It was now the "Fonzo the Clown Show."

"Happy Days" continued to be "successful"? Totally irrelevant. Reality shows are "successes that make money". Crap is crap.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Happy Days is sort of the ultimate Shark-Jumping show not just because it invented the term, but because it was on so long and got re-tooled so often that it featured virtually every type of JTS moment.

Some people think the show went downhill when they switched from single-camera to multi-camera (season 3). Others think it was when Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman left and the show started getting crazier and giving Fonzie superpowers (mid season 4). Others say it was the addition of Scott Baio (season 5) or Ron Howard leaving or Ted McGinley arriving or Joanie and Chachi leaving or Joanie and Chachi coming back. It's all there. They even had an alien on the show for Pete's sake.

Happy Days is the easiest target precisely because it was so popular: it did all the stuff that most shows do when they're about to get canceled, and just kept on being popular. So it incorporates all the "tropes" (sorry to use that word) while most shows can't do more than a couple of them before they go off the air.

I think, as others have said, Fox is assuming that if a show is still popular it can't have declined, which we all know (and I assume he knows) isn't the case. Jumping the Shark wouldn't have meant anything if it had just been a one-off thing and the show had gone back to normal, but in fact the season that followed was a lot crazier and less down-to-earth, full of gimmick stories (Mork from Ork and so on) and more or less abandoning the idea of looking like it was set in the '50s.

But as I said, everyone has their own idea of when that show went downhill; like M*A*S*H, it was on so long that everybody has their favorite period. (I used to be very strongly in favor of the single-camera seasons, but I've come to appreciate some of the multi-camera episodes -- the first multi-camera season, with Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman in charge and Winkler unleashed, has an exceptional energy, and you can see why the show went from a struggling show to a huge hit.)

Jaime J. Weinman said...
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Jaime J. Weinman said...
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Jaime J. Weinman said...
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Andy Ihnatko said...

It's a great article and it's an interesting perspective. But yeah: I don't think the author understands the effect that a "jump the shark" moment has on a longtime viewer.

To me, it's the confirmation of something that had probably already been worrying me for a while: that the producers had "lost the thread" of the show and the whatever-it-is that made it different from anything else on TV has been gone forever.

Before a favorite show "jumps the shark," I feel like the writers are committed to the show's characters and premise. After that moment, I'm convinced that they're just maintaining a machine that stamps out episodes of television.

It's the difference between a show that you _must_ see because you're totally invested in it, and one that you watch because it's 8:00 on Tuesday night and it's become part of your routine. If another network puts on anything marginally good and fresh in that time slot, or if you just happen to miss a few're gone.

"Frasier" never jumped the shark. Season after season, the characters just kept developing and moving forward.

More to the point: I never got to the end of an episode and thought "With a quick search-and-replace, that script could have been a 'Roseanne' or an 'Everybody Loves Raymond' or any other sitcom."

Remember the M*A*S*H episode (post-Radar) where the mobile army field hospital, operating just a few miles from the front lines in an active war zone, built a regulation bowling alley complete with balls, pins, and a polished-wood lane? On a few days' notice? Despite the fact that the Army often couldn't even keep them supplied with penicillin and other necessary medications?


Weak Shark said...

People were easily impressed in the 70's. I can imagine all the kids talking about this at school the next day. "Wow, Fonzie jumped six feet in the air! While wearing his jacket! For no reason!" Ah, simpler times.

Fred said...

A lot of people say they liked Happy Days in its original form, and think it got worse when Fonzie became central to the show. Have they seen the old, one-camera version? It's a bad knockoff of American Graffiti, mostly boring, even if it had "heart". Once they went live and had to get real laughs, the show improved immensely.

On the other hand, I think the show had already jumped the shark before Fonzie jumped the shark. Pinky Tuscadero was a bad sign.

The guy who popularized the term, by the way, is Jon Hein. He and a bunch of friends started saying it about twenty years ago when they were at the University of Michigan. As a lark, he started a website about it. Soon the term spread. He became a regular on Howard Stern and sold the rights to the concept to TV Guide for a million bucks. Not bad. He should be thanking Fred Fox.

Anonymous said...

Destroyed any fantasy about Suzy Quatro being sexy and cool. That's what the show did, shark or no shark.

I would have to add, at least at this point of 12 comments, some of the recent comments in the LA Times were actually ok - to pick some points: - it was a self-serving article, no reflection on Happy Days except viewer numbers as proof of quality; his career after Happy Days, with Webster and forgotten sitcoms et al is nothing to go on as a proof of anything either.. Sorry I speak as a viewer.
And it makes no sense at all actually - just because Winkler can water ski that Fonzie should have a scene that uses that. As one comment pointed out - should Fonzie go to University too?
Happy Days was such a limited format, it worked because it was like watching a treacly sentiment (audience now: aaaaaawwwwwwwhhhh) of Lil Rascals combined with high-school level acting and a nicer (meaning pre-racial issue) world. Serious, it had a few good years and the rest was just going through the motions. Opening tune, something happens, Fonz, something happens to mess with that first something happens, Fonz appears in the last minute, hits something and it magically works and resolution, aaaaaawwwwwwwwww or yeeeeeeaaaahh/applause.

seriously.compared with what's around it in the pantheon of sitcoms... hardly makes the grade.

Michael said...

Andy, your comment about MASH struck me because of the early episode about Hawkeye and Trapper seeking an incubator and learning the unit was in line for a barbecue. The other story in the bowling episode was Hawkeye's father having surgery and he and Charles having a serious talk about their families--and that was beautifully done. But I am betting that if Larry Gelbart had written the bowling episode, the other half would have been about getting the alley built while the army wouldn't provide the proper supplies.

I'd also note about "Happy Days" the irony that its longtime director was Jerry Paris, who also directed many episodes of the greatest sitcom in TV history, The Dick Van Dyke Show.

amyp3 said...

I’d never thought what it’d be like to have written the show that inspired the phrase.

But I just checked jumptheshark website. So, unless I’m missing something, since TV Guide got it, you can no longer just look up a show and comment on its sharkability? That's the whole point.

Holy cow. I read some of those comments under the article. Wow some people are full of hate over nothing.

Oh, honey. As a young freelancer, I wrote a quiz about M*A*S*H, sold it to a major newspaper. This was before the interwebz. (When newspapers were print. And major.) And I was in a smaller town, so no big library for research.

Turned out I had one item wrong. Oh, the nasty LETTERS I got. Think of it. You couldn’t just fire off an e-mail, tweet or blog comment. You had to type/ hand-write the letter, put it in an envelope, stamp and mail it.

Just to tell some dummy freelancer off about a TV-trivia article.

Andy Ihnatko said...

@Michael - That was certainly one of the better stories from the post-Radar era. It exploited the series' premise beautifully; what could be worse than being 12 time zones away from your father during a time like that? And while it gave Hawkeye and Charles a good batch of moments together, it was true to their relationship (oil and water, but with mutual professional respect).

I think "pre-jump," M*A*S*H's producers would have said "The bowling story is good, but it could never happen in a field hospital. Let's make it a basketball free-throw contest instead. The camp already has a basketball hoop."

te said...

"Frasier" never jumped the shark. Season after season, the characters just kept developing and moving forward.

Just goes to show it takes all kinds. The show hit the brick wall for me when Niles and Daphne finally connected.

In fact, to me, marriage is virtually always a sign of terminal desperation (see my earlier post).

jbryant said...

Can't really blame Mr. Fox for being a bit defensive, given that his work spawned a phrase that's synonymous with a decline in quality. I have to admit I'm a little defensive about the whole "jump the shark" thing, too. At possibly the height of the site's notoriety, a "friend" of mine thought it would be funny to post the opinion that a certain show's jump-the-shark moment was an episode I wrote. The entire post consisted of my name and the episode title. Even though I knew it was a goof (I can't be objective here, but I'm pretty sure the episode was decent and not remotely JTS-worthy), it still got my goat. Coincidentally enough, the show was produced by Henry Winkler.

Chalmers said...

A lot of people dislike the late-M*A*S*H tone, but if I flip by a rerun of that episode, I always watch for the Hawkeye-Charles interaction.

While it might have been after the show's shark moment, the story was well written and acted.

The story was believeable both in "real life" and the show's context: Hawkeye's worry and helplessness over his distant father's condition; Winchester's random discovery of the situation; and the pair putting aside their petty squabbles and sharing their versions of father-son life.

I also loved the episode's title, "Sons and Bowlers."

John said...

On the other hand, I think the show had already jumped the shark before Fonzie jumped the shark. Pinky Tuscadero was a bad sign.

Part 2 of the Pinky Tuscadero episode, when, to thwart the Malachi brothers attempt to cheat by blowing powder in his face during the demolition derby Fonzie blows the powder back in their faces by using -- supposedly in 1957 -- a hand-held portable hair dryer. In a car, with no place to plug it in, let alone the damn things really didn't become popular until the mid-60s.

Actually, aside from the plots moving further and further away from any connection with the time period, the other problem with "Happy Days" and a lot of other mid-to-late 1970s sitcoms can best be described as the "out of control audience". Sitcoms of the period -- fortunately not M*A*S*H, but most of those out of the Garry Marshall and Norman Lear stables -- turned up the volume on the audience reaction so much, from maniacal applause for the lead characters when they entered a scene to laughter than far exceeded the humor factor of the gag that they made those shows irritating to watch on repeated viewing in syndication. "Happy Days" never did as well as expected in syndication; aside from the frenzy over The Fonz dying down, the intrusiveness of the audience response track from about mid-Season 3 on was also a factor.

Brian said...

I was in high school and loved the show, but I did think that episode was kinda silly, so I undersood when the saying was applied. But it would be great to be the writer. Many people think that Ted McGinley caused both the Love Boat an Happy Days to jump the shark.

spmsmith said...

If I'm not mistaken, doesn't the official website consider Ted McGinley to be a shark-jump all by himself? Imagine being THAT guy.

Anonymous said...

Every good blog post deserves a theme song! :)

Kirk said...

In season three of Happy Days (produced by Rothman and Ganz), Fonzie jumped over a bunch of garbage cans with his motorcycle, breaking his leg in the process. Laid up on the Cunningham couch, Fonzie refuses to walk, because it might hurt, and it will cause a pained expression on his face, and pained expressions aren't "cool". I find that both funny and true. Fonzie hadn't yet become perfect. He had just as many comic flaws as the rest of the characters.

Can't say that about the jumping-the-shark episode two years later.

chuckcd said...

To "jump the shark" to me means the show just ran out of ideas, and started doing things that are neither credible nor plausible. Or characters get married, or have a child. Then the whole dynamic of the show changes, and it loses that spark that made you watch it in the first place.
Of course, the option would be to shut the whole thing down...
did someone say Seinfeld?