‘Happy Days’: How ‘Jumping the Shark’ Became a Cultural Phenomenon and Entertainment Idiom

by Joe Rutland

When one episode of “Happy Days” can become a cultural reference point, then you’ve made it. “Jumping the Shark” has a backstory, too.

The term has come to really mean that some show or trend in the culture and entertainment worlds has lost its pizzazz.

Let’s begin with where the term comes from, though. It’s been mentioned that “Happy Days” was the center point for the term. Actor Henry Winkler, who played Arthur Fonzarelli on the long-running ABC sitcom, puts on his leather jacket and, well, jumps a shark in the water.

Maybe if you see the scene itself, then you’ll get a better picture. Take a minute and watch below because it marks a time and place where society and culture get a new catchphrase.

‘Happy Days’ Star Winkler Says Dad Suggested Episode

It’s hard to believe that one singular moment could add a powerful term to the world’s slang. Yet “Happy Days” achieved it, but read what Winkler said about the episode itself.

“My father suggested the storyline,” Winkler said in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “The man who didn’t want me to become an actor and who, all of a sudden, became ‘the co-producer of Henry Winkler.'” Winkler dips into a foreign accent when talking about his father.

“He suggested, ‘Why don’t you water ski? You’re a good water skier,'” Winkler said, “So I water skied in ‘Jump the Shark’ and that was the episode. Now you have to understand that we were No. 1 for six years after that so nobody else thought we jumped the shark.”

When Winkler did this interview years later after the show went off the air, “Jump the Shark” already had found its place. The term is not an endearing one, especially for shows on television or music bands and trends.

‘Jump the Shark’ Carries True Negative Connotation

Anytime you read or hear about a show or topic “jumping the shark,” it usually means that a tipping point has been reached. That tipping point means that the show has lost its edge and is headed downward.

Many people believe that “Happy Days” itself, despite being No. 1 for years after this episode, lost its spark. More attention was turned toward “The Fonz” and less on the other cast members. ABC desperately sought to “cash in” on Winkler’s character, even having producers consider changing the show’s name.

Let’s bring up a pre-“Jump the Shark” moment on TV. “Batman” was an incredibly popular show during its first two seasons. Its garish colors and litany of guest stars and cameo appearances, along with campy storylines, made it a hit show. Yet once the crowd in TV land started getting bored with the show’s plots, they looked elsewhere for entertainment. “Batman” went from being red hot to canceled in just three seasons.

At some point, “Batman,” even with Adam West starring as Bruce Wayne for eternity, jumped the shark.

Fashion trends change. TV shows get hot then lose their lustre. They all “Jump the Shark.”

You can thank “Happy Days” for lighting the fuse of a cultural term.