Happy 46th Anniversary of Happy Days ‘Jump the Shark’ Episode
Happy Days was a surprise hit for ABC in the mid-1970s, but it took a minute for the show to build up steam and find its audience. It finally went white-hot after supporting character Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli attempted a death-defying, record-setting, 14-garbage-can motorcycle jump at the start of the show’s third season. The TV spectacle essentially turned Fonzie into the show’s star and sent Happy Days to the top of the ratings chart.
That’s all well and good but how long could the show draft off that original stunt? With its own spin-off Laverne and Shirley hot on its ratings heels, how could Happy Days propel itself back into the pop-culture spotlight? The solution was obvious — if jumping garbage cans was good, then jumping sharks (on the heels of blockbuster Jaws) was going to be great.
Today marks the 46th anniversary of the show’s decision to have Fonzie jump — on waterskis — over a man-eating shark. "I remember Donny Most and I sitting there, looking at the script,” remembered Ron “Richie Cunningham” Howard in The Interviews: The Oral History of Television. “Donny was really upset. He said, 'Oh man look at what our show has kind of devolved into. … I kept saying 'Hey Donny we're a hit show, relax. You know it's hard to have great episodes one after another. Fonzie jumping over a shark, it's gonna be funny and great.’”
Or possibly neither. Fonzie jumping the shark was a warning signal to Happy Days fans that the show had lost its way. It was no longer a nostalgic period piece about kids navigating high school in 1950s Milwaukee. Now it had morphed into some kind of weird Six Million Dollar Man superhero show, always on the hunt for the Fonz’s next unlikely stunt.
Enter Jon Hein, future Howard Stern regular. In 1985 while a student at the University of Michigan, Hein and roommate Sean Connolly appropriated the phrase “jump the shark” to signal the exact moment when a popular TV show made the shift from success to terrible. The phrase caught on when Hein created jumptheshark.com, a website that chronicled that terrible transition for more than 200 TV shows. (Hein sold the site in 2006; it now redirects to tvguide.com.)
While not many of today’s viewers have actually seen the Happy Days episode, many still use “jump the shark” to refer to the moment when shows lose their groove, from Michael Scott leaving The Office to Brian “dying” on Family Guy to Ross accidentally saying Rachel’s name while marrying Emily on Friends.
“Jumping the shark” now goes beyond television, a smart term to label anything that was once successful but now has lost its mojo. Elon Musk turned his attention to Twitter instead of building on Tesla? Dude jumped the shark.
As for the original shark-jumper, Henry Winkler? His Arrested Development character, Barry Zuckerkorn, jumped another pesky fish in the show’s second season. As Winkler told The Wrap, “I'm very proud that I am the only actor, maybe in the world, that has jumped the shark twice.”