When talking television, the famous phrase “jumping the shark” is typically seen as a bad thing, usually describing a pivotal moment that happens in a TV show that forever changes it for the worse. Its origins date back to an episode of the classic sitcom Happy Days which featured Henry Winkler as television history’s coolest character, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli. In the season 5 episode “Hollywood: Part 3,” which originally aired in 1977, Fonzie literally jumps a shark with water skis after he was challenged to do so, feeling too proud of himself to decline the dangerous stunt.
In subsequent years, critics and TV viewers have associated “jumping the shark” with the biggest creative mistakes made by television series writers. Looking back on the origins of the phrase and his personal involvement, Winkler spoke about the trope in a new interview on The Rich Eisen Show. Winkler explained that the idea came from the Happy Days writers putting the scene into the script after learning that he was an experienced water skier. He happened to mention this fact to the show’s creatives and before he knew it, the shark-jumping scene was in the show.
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“All of a sudden, I’m water-skiing. We ripped the lining out of the jacket, and I did all of the water skiing except for the jump. They wouldn’t let me do a stunt, because if you get hurt, then that’s that. I pull up on the beach, I let go of the rope, I step out of the skis, and I go, ‘Eyyy, look at that!’ And I’m smiling. If you watch the scene, half of that smile is the Fonz going, ‘Hey, I did it.’ And the other half is Henry going, ‘I can’t believe you did it!'”
Happy Days Inspired the Famous Phrase
Winkler then explains how the actual phrase “jumping the shark” was specifically coined by broadcaster Jon Hein and his roommate in the 1980s; Hein later created the website JumpTheShark.com, which compiled hundreds of examples of times different television shows had “jumped the shark,” though the site is no longer online and now redirects users to TV Guide’s official website.
The phrase became a pop culture phenomenon, but it’s never bothered Winkler that it has continued to call attention back to his own jumping-the-shark moment, even if it’s mostly because he thinks he looked great while doing it. He also points to the continued success of Happy Days after that episode to demonstrate that it didn’t hurt the sitcom to include that scene, even if it inspired a phrase with a negative connotation.
“People say, ‘How did you feel, that this phrase, jump the shark (took off)?’ Every time they mentioned it, and it was in the newspaper, they had a picture of me water-skiing. AT that time, I had great legs. So, I didn’t care for one minute. We were No. 1 for five years after that, what did I care that there was a phrase? F— ’em.”
Perhaps the one person who can effectively get away with jumping the shark, even if it’s done literally, is the Fonz.