Animation

Jumping the Shark (and the dangers of storytelling)

Blake Harris 07.07.2015

At some time in your life, you’ve probably heard the phrase “jump the shark.” It refers to that unexpected moment when something (usually a movie franchise or television series) crosses the line from “great” to “awful.” Typically, these moments derive from the advent of an absurd plot line, the implementation of an illogical romance or the ripples of a new character joining the cast. But, in truth, these moments can come from almost anywhere. And when they do—when that beloved entity “jumps the shark”—there’s just no way back to what it was. So today, in honor of Shark Week, we’re going to check out the history of this illustrious idiom and explore how its origins can alert us to some dangers of storytelling.

Patient Zero: Arthur Fonzarelli

During the first few seasons of Happy Days, this family-friendly teenage drama was one of the hottest shows on television. In fact, by the end of its third season, Happy Days had edged out M*A*S*H and Laverne & Shelly to become the most popular TV show in America. Simply put, things could not have been going any better for the show. But during the third episode of the fifth season (“Hollywood: Part 3,” which aired September 20, 1977), things took a turn for the strange.

What happened wasn’t really a big thing, nor was it anything that re-shuffled the plot or cast. But it was something that single-handedly changed the way fans perceived the show: the show’s resident badboy, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, tries to prove his bravery by water-skiing up a ramp and then jumping over a hungry shark. And, it should be noted, that during this attempted feat of excellence, the Fonz is dressed in swim trunks and a leather jacket.

Fonz Jump Shark

As just words on a page (cool guy + water skiis = suck it, shark), or as only thirty seconds in a top-rated TV series, this sequence might appear rather harmless. And, in reality, the incident was pretty benign; after all, Happy Days remained on the air for six more seasons. But the reason this scene has become so notorious is that it signified to viewers—both in the moment and in retrospect—the tipping point for the demise of a Great American Sitcom. Which, of course, begs the question of why….

Jump the Garbage Cans

In the grand scheme of things, was the Fonz jumping a shark any more unlikely than, say, partnering with Richie to start a trash compactor business (Season 4, Episode 22)? Or his joining a band with no musical skill beyond playing the bongos (Season 2, Episode 19)? In fact, is scaling a shark really all that different than that time when the Fonz tried to regain his edge by jumping 14 garbage cans on his motorcycle (Season 3, Episode 3)? The answer, I’d argue, is that no, it’s not really that different at all. But what is very different is the context of those scenarios which, in contrast, make the shark-jumping scene seem utterly absurd.

Take the trash compactor business. While it’s indeed unlikely that teenage boys would start such a peculiar enterprise, the motivation to do so (and the ensuing execution) is grounded in reality. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about starting our own business? And who, as a kid, didn’t believe they’d come up with the greatest invention in the world? Not only are these relatable thoughts and fantasies, but what really makes this episode work are the stakes (Richie and the Fonz put themselves on the line) and the human interaction (the ups and downs of their relationship serve as the fulcrum of this episode). The same, too, can be said for the Fonz joining Richie’s band; the episode’s humor comes from the imperfection of this fit, but the conceit generally works because it’s a relatable situation (wanting to start a band) with relatable stakes (wanting to impress girls) and relatable friends (wanting to spend time with Richie, Ralph and Potsie).

Although “starting a band” and “starting a business” are familiar tropes we easily accept, the same can’t quite be said about “jumping 14 garbage cans on a motorcycle.” Why, then, was this not the tipping point for Happy Days? Why aren’t all of us, instead, using the phrase “Jump the Garbage Cans?”

Beware the Absurd

On paper—and in theory—the difference between Fonzie jumping trashcans and Fonzie jumping a shark is not all that different. Both present a sincere threat of physical harm and both betray the show’s typical slice-of-life narrative. But, as with most things in life, the idea is much less important than the execution. And by watching the Fonz brave those trashcans, we can begin to see why jumping sharks veers from fun into farce…

The first thing I noticed when watching this clip is how much this situation impacts others beyond just the Fonz. Through dozens of reaction shots—both before and after the Fonz makes his jump—we see that not only do others care about the outcome of this endeavor, but there are additional emotions at play. And because these other characters care (and appear to be genuinely worried), we can’t help but care as well.

Contrast this with Fonzie jumping the shark…

Instead of depicting realistic fears and concerns, these sequence is more interested in using slow-motion to highlight how cool the Fonz is. Never for a second do we legitimately believe he’s in any danger, which is probably due to this scene’s other fatal flaw: we already know what’s going to happen! Suspense only works when we don’t know the outcome. And from the second this stunt begins, we know that there’s no chance it’s going to go wrong. It just can’t; because “go wrong” in this instance means that the Fonz will be eaten by a shark and die. Come on, Happy Days, this isn’t Game of Thrones!

Which leads us, ultimately, to why the notion (and phrase) of “jumping the shark” is so important. What it really means is that a story must not lose its identity. It can grow and evolve and perhaps even dramatically change tone over time but, along the way, it can’t lose focus of what it is.

A humble story about small-town life in Milwaukee can’t suddenly be a glamorous tale about life in Los Angeles. A nuanced story about the beauty of teenage friendship can’t morph into an in-your-face tale about the coolness of an individual. A story about something we know and love can’t just instantly broaden to something everyone should like. Because, when it’s all said and done, the audience is too smart for that. They might not always be able to put their finger on exactly what’s wrong—why they feel betrayed, why their interest is waning—but they can detect authenticity and when something is so drastically off the mark, it’s really hard to come back from jumping the shark.

Blake Harris

Blake Harris

Blake Harris is the author of "Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation."
Blake Harris

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