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Jumping the Shark

Remember the sitcom Roseanne?  In case you don’t, Roseanne was a popular show about a working family in a small town in downstate Illinois, struggling on the edge of poverty.  It starred the popular comedian Roseanne Barr in the title role, with the already-popular actor John Goodman as her husband.  The show ran for nine seasons, from 1988 to 1997, and frequently appears on lists of the greatest television shows.  After twenty years, you can still catch marathons of the show running in syndication, and an eight-episode tenth season is planned for 2018, so fans can catch up with the lives of these fictional characters.  It had a good eight years, but that ninth season… that’s when the grumbling among the fans began.

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Working hard in middle America: Roseanne and her TV family before the lottery ticket—and well before Roseanne backed the Trump ticket.

In the first episode of the ninth season, the Connor family, played by Barr and Goodman and several other talented actors, hit the lottery.  This poor family, struggling to get by, suddenly found itself with millions of dollars and no need to work anymore.  Barr said that it didn’t really matter, since money or no, Roseanne was always about class.  The Connors were always working class, she felt, and a sudden windfall couldn’t change that.  Indeed, the characters’ personalities didn’t change that much, even if their financial straits did.  That was part of the vision of the show: your class, your social standing, your connections in the world, they aren’t connected to money.  Money might make your own life easier, and it can change the way you behave, but it won’t change your fundamental nature.  You can agree with that assessment or not, but that’s what Barr was going for in her show.

While ratings didn’t suffer during the ninth season of Roseanne, some longtime fans started to grouse, saying that Roseanne had “jumped the shark”.  It’s a strange expression, especially since the show was set in a place that’s about a thousand miles from anywhere a shark might be sighted.  No sharks appeared in any episode of Roseanne, much less were any jumped over.

Roseanne was not the first show ever to be accused of “jumping the shark”.  It’s nowhere near a new phenomenon in television or in writing itself, though the term is just over thirty years old.  It refers to the 1970s sitcom Happy Days, where literal shark-jumping figured into one of the episodes.  Happy Days focused on the lives of teenagers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1950s.  (Since the show ran for eleven seasons, its final episodes must have been in the 1960s, but apart from early episodes where the Eisenhower/Stevenson presidential races got some mention, this was never really made clear.)

Probably the show’s most popular character was Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, played by Henry Winkler, and provided the origin of the term “jumping the shark”.  He was what was known in the 50s as a greaser, so called because they used an oily hair product that was popular at the time, giving their hair a slick, “greasy” look.  Perhaps evoking James Dean or Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones”, Fonzie’s costume was comprised of blue jeans, a leather jacket, and boots.  He rode a motorcycle (without a helmet, of course).  A ratings bonanza happened early in the show’s run, where Fonzie announced he would jump fourteen parked cars on his motorcycle.  The episode was a huge ratings draw, ending with Fonzie in a mid-air freeze-frame, leaving the audience to wonder if he’d make it safely to the other ramp.  The cliffhanger had fans buzzing until the following week’s episode.  I remember the kids in my first grade class talking about it incessantly, and speculation flew about whether or not Fonzie would make it, or even if the character would wind up dying in a crash.

If you’ll pardon the spoiler, Fonzie did crash, but did not die.  He was in pretty bad shape, landing in a hospital for a while, where he vowed to abandon the tough-guy lifestyle and clean up his act.  Fonzie never stopped appearing tough, but he did cut the rebel act, and found a nice, steady job teaching shop at the local high school.

The writers and producers of Happy Days never forgot what the motorcycle stunt did for their ratings.  Fonzie never gave up his trademark motorcycle, but since he gave up his reckless lifestyle, they couldn’t very well have him jump something else, could they?  Well, they did.  In the September 20, 1977 episode of Happy Days (set in nineteen fifty-something), Fonzie and the Happy Days cast take a trip to Hollywood where Fonzie discovers waterskiing.  This was a natural course, since in real life, Henry Winkler was a good waterskier himself.  Repeating the car-jumping formula, the writers decided it was a good idea to have Fonzie, on waterskis, jump over a shark.  Beside the ramp Fonzie would jump on his waterskis was an underwater cage holding a shark, and he jumped it, with the end of the episode showing him in a mid-air freeze-frame, leaving the audience to wonder if he’d make it safely to the other side.

If you’ll pardon the spoiler, Fonzie did make it, and was not bitten by that shark.  Happy Days was bitten by some criticism, though.  Some fans were annoyed that the show was retreading a previous success, suggesting it was something new.  Critics didn’t care for it, since it didn’t make sense that Fonzie, whose character was moving from a reckless youth to a responsible adult, suddenly did something that was apparently really reckless again.  Today, the gimmick is remembered as stupid and contrived by many one-time fans of the show, but the fact is that the episode got great ratings when it aired, as the episode’s writer is still quick to point out.

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Fonzie getting ready to jump the cars (left) and to jump the shark (right).

In the 1980s, when radio personality John Hein was still in college, he and his roommate were discussing their favorite TV shows and when those shows started their declines.  After talking about the fifth-season shark-jumping episode of Happy Days, Hein credits his roommate with having coined the term “jump the shark” to refer to any show that abandoned its earlier, successful formula for a flashy gimmick, a new character, or some new direction that left what followed diminished.  As Hein went on his career in sketch comedy and radio, he also started a website in the 1990s called, which kept track of the point where TV shows went from right to wrong, getting worse while airing far too long.

Other shows have since been saddled with the always-negative tag “jumped the shark”.  When Cousin Oliver joined the Brady Bunch cast, many fans felt the show had jumped the shark.  (At the time, the expression was years away from coinage).  When Charlie Sheen had his famous public meltdown and left Two and a Half Men, he was replaced by Ashton Kutcher, keeping the two-and-a-half part mentioned in the show’s title intact, this was jumping the shark.  When Fox Mulder left The X Files and his partner Dana Scully sallied forth without him, this was jumping the shark.  When Bruce Willis’ and Cybil Shepherd’s characters finally got together on Moonlighting, negating the unaddressed romantic tension that was at the center of the show’s personality, this was jumping the shark.  The term is sometimes used to express that a show just isn’t as good as it used to be, but this isn’t quite it.  Shark jumping is about a fundamental change in the formula of the show, and not mere decline.  There’s often a matter of loyal fans just not liking change, and just as likely some resentment toward studios who are reluctant to give up on a lucrative franchise.  Film franchises have also been disparaged as jumping the shark, like with the fourth Indiana Jones movie in 2008, or the third Halloween movie in 1982.

The expression has moved beyond television, too.  Radio opinionator Rush Limbaugh accused Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) of “jumping the shark” when she ranted against vaccines in 2011.  (Limbaugh had previously been a great admirer of Bachmann).  The city manager of Black Rock City, Nevada, observed that the Burning Man Festival had “jumped the shark” when, alongside the masses camping in the middle of the desert, the festival started to feature VIP areas for those who were willing to pay for them—something the city manager found to be very much contrary to the original spirit of the festival.  In 2017, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Scottish humorist darkly declared that “democracy had jumped the shark”.  This was not a compliment.

Ironically, after the episode when Happy Days literally jumped the shark, the show did not enter a period of decline.  Happy Days’ final episode aired in 1984, after eleven seasons, with ratings still as strong as ever.  The show’s creators decided to end it only because they actually were afraid of staying too long, and feared that if they did, decline and tedium would be inevitable.  Happy Days also spawned two highly successful spinoffs—Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy.  It later spawned the less successful Joanie Loves Chachi and the Saturday morning cartoon show The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.  There were enough characters in the show’s cast to create even more spinoffs, but there were never more than those four.  Some feel that with those last two spinoffs, they’d already jumped the shark.

Watch television history: Fonzie jumps the shark:


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