Sunday, June 16, 2019

Still Happy

The phrase "jump the shark" has become part of the lexicon.  As I've mentioned before, I know the people who came up with it at the University of Michigan.  They told me about it years before it was in widespread use.

I was recently watching a video where some British people tried to guess the meaning of the phrase.  They couldn't, of course.  It's impossible.  It means when a TV show (or anything, really) has passed its high point and is going downhill, never to be good again. It comes from the episode of Happy Days where Fonzie, in leather jacket and water skis, literally jumps over a shark.

Reading the comments below the video, however, it's clear most people don't know the full story.  They seem to believe this moment came late in the series when the show was flailing and the writers couldn't think of anything.  I'll leave it to you to judge if the writers were out of ideas, but, in fact, it happened while the show was very popular.

Happy Days did okay in its debut season, but looked like it may be in trouble until Fonzie broke out as a character.  That's when creator Garry Marshall did two things--make Fonzie far more prominent and start filming the show in front of a live audience.

It did the trick, and in its fourth season, Happy Days hit #1. It had previously never been top ten.  When it became a big hit, it would start each season with a series of related episodes often filmed at a location.  In season four, it was the romance of Fonzie and Pinky Tuscadero.  Season five started with a storyline where the characters go out to Hollywood--these were the episodes that included the shark jumping.  Season six started with the gang going out to a dude ranch.

Ratings-wise, these were the glory years of the show, where it was #1, then #2, then #4.  It remained a hit after that, but was never top ten again.

Okay, it's true the ratings started moving downward after Fonzie jumped the shark, but in the entire season after he did the deed it was still the second most popular show on TV, just a little behind Laverne & Shirley.  The next four seasons after that the show was still in the top 20. Only in its eleventh and final season was it truly low-rated.  To put it another way, the "jump the shark" moment happened at the beginning of season 5, and the show ran 11 seasons--the shark was jumped in the 91st of  255 episodes.

So yeah, maybe the moment was ridiculous, but at the time the viewers didn't seem to mind.  Except a few who some years later attended the University of Michigan and made the moment famous.

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