For everything “Happy Days” has given us, a single phrase describing an episode of the show has gained an entire life of its own. “Jumping the shark” is now a universally used term for the moment when a television show starts to go downhill.
It derives from the “Happy Days” episode titled “Hollywood: Part 3” from 1977. In the episode, the Fonz accepts a challenge to do a ski jump over a shark. The moment was considered by many to mark the end of the show’s original appeal through relatability, and thus, its decline. Critics thought that Fonzie had become too much of a mythical character.
The irony, though? The stunt is one that Fonzie actor Henry Winkler could have pulled off in real life. In fact, the only reason the idea came up in the first place is that Winkler’s father was proud of his son’s waterskiing skills.
“My father kept nagging me to tell producer Garry Marshall I was a good waterskier; I taught waterskiing. I told Garry, ‘My father wants you to know I waterski.’ Next thing, the Fonz is jumping the shark while on water skis,” Winkler told AARP The Magazine in 2017.
Of course, the “Happy Days” icon didn’t go full Tom Cruise mode and perform the full stunt himself. But he did do all the skiing that led up to the infamous jump.
‘Happy Days’ Writer Defends Shark Jump
In 2010, “Happy Days” writer Fred Fox Jr. wrote a special first-person article for the Los Angeles Times. In the piece, he addressed whether or not the episode was deserving of its fate.
“No, it wasn’t,” he wrote. “All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not “Happy Days’” time. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?”
Henry Winkler Jumps a Shark Decades Later
In the early 2000s, a TV show called “Arrested Development” featured Henry Winkler. He played a lawyer character by the name of Barry Zuckerkorn.
The show was famous for its pop culture references and was constantly burying little nuggets that fans delighted in discovering. In a Season 2 episode, there is a scene with Winkler’s character on a dock. As he departs, Winkler literally hops over a shark. It’s done subtly, but anyone familiar with the trope can get some satisfaction out of it.