Jumping the shark is the moment when something that was once popular that no longer warrants the attention it previously received makes an attempt at publicity, which only serves to highlight its irrelevance. This is especially applicable to television series or other entertainment outlets.
The idiom "jumping the shark" is pejorative, most commonly used in reference to unsuccessful gimmicks for promoting something. It is similar to "past its peak" but more specifically suggests an unwillingness to acknowledge the fact. Originally, the phrase was used to describe an episode of a television comedy with a gimmick or unlikely occurrence desperately attempting to keep viewers' interest. Moments labeled as "jumping the shark" are considered indications that writers have exhausted their focus; that the show has strayed irretrievably from an older and better formula; or that the series as a whole is declining in quality.
Popularized by Jon Hein, a radio personality from the Howard Stern Show, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the phrase derives from a scene in a Season 5 episode of the 1970s sitcom Happy Days in which the character Fonzie jumps over a shark while on water-skis. This gimmick strayed absurdly outside the original storyline of the sitcom.
The usage of "jump the shark" has subsequently broadened beyond television, indicating the moment when a brand, design, franchise, or creative effort's evolution declines, or when it changes notably in style into something unwelcome.
The phrase jump the shark is based on a scene in the fifth season premiere episode of the 1970s American TV series Happy Days titled "Hollywood: Part 3", written by Fred Fox, Jr., which aired on September 20, 1977. In the episode, the central characters visit Los Angeles, where a water-skiing Fonzie (Henry Winkler) answers a challenge to his bravery by wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, and jumping over a confined shark. The stunt was created as a way to showcase Winkler's real-life water ski skills.
For a show that in its early seasons depicted universally relatable adolescent and family experiences against a backdrop of 1950s nostalgia, this incident marked a tonal change. The lionization of an increasingly superhuman Fonzie, who was initially a supporting character in the series, became the focus of Happy Days. The series continued for seven years after Fonzie's shark-jumping stunt, with a number of changes in cast and situations.
On Marc Maron's WTF podcast, Ron Howard talked about the first time the phrase was used, by Happy Days co-star Donny Most: "Donny's reading it and he kinda looks down, then says 'what do you think of the script?' and I shrugged and replied 'people like the show, it's hard to argue with being number one' and he looked up and said, 'he's jumping a shark now?'. That was the first time I saw that phrase bracketed, before it was even done, you've got to give props to Donny Most."
The phrase "jumping the shark" was coined in 1985 by Jon Hein's roommate at the University of Michigan, Sean Connolly, when they were talking about favorite television shows that had gone downhill, and the two began identifying other shows in which a similar "jump the shark" moment had occurred. Hein described the term as "A defining moment when you know from now on … it's all downhill … it will never be the same." In 1997, Hein created a website to publish his current list of approximately 200 television shows and his opinions of the moments each "jumped the shark"; the site became popular and grew with additional user-contributed examples. Hein subsequently wrote two "Jump The Shark" books and later became a regular on The Howard Stern Show around the time he sold his website to Gemstar (owners of TV Guide).
In a 2010 Los Angeles Times article, former Happy Days writer Fred Fox, Jr., who wrote the episode that later spawned the phrase, said, "Was the [shark jump] episode of Happy Days deserving of its fate? No, it wasn't. All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not Happy Days' time." Fox also points not only to the success of that episode ("a huge hit" with over 30 million viewers), but also to the continued popularity of the series.
Fonzie was not the first fictional character to encounter a shark on water skis. In the P. G. Wodehouse 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster's cousin Angela does so while aquaplaning on the French Riviera.[a] Since 2017, The Guardian newspaper in the UK has published a humorous weekly column in its Saturday listings guide featuring TV programmes that – in the opinion of its journalists – have "jumped the shark".
The idiom has been used to describe a wide variety of situations, such as the state of advertising in the digital video recorder era and views on rural education policy, the anomalous pursuit of a company acquisition, and the decline of republics into degraded democracy and empire.
Automotive journalist Dan Neil used the expression to describe the Mini Countryman, a much larger evolution of the previously small cars marketed by Mini. In March 2011, in a review titled "What Part of 'Mini' Did You Not Grasp, BMW?". Neil said the bigger car abandoned the company's design ethos and that "with the Countryman, tiny sharks have been jumped".
Similar to the example above, automotive blog The Truth About Cars used the expression in a 2010 retrospective piece to describe the Cadillac Cimarron, a rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier the Cadillac luxury car division sold in the 1980s that ended up being a commercial failure which did major damage to the brand's image; "Yes, as if there was ever any doubt, GM truly jumped the shark with the Cimarron, and it led the way for what was GM's most disastrous decade ever, the eighties. Only GM could have such utterly outsized hubris to think it could get away with dressing up a Cavalier and pawning it off as a BMW-fighter, without even touching the engine, among other sins."
In September 2011, after Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann repeated an anecdote shared with her claiming that the HPV vaccine causes "intellectual disability", radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said, "Michele Bachmann, she might have blown it today. Well, not blown it – she might have jumped the shark today."
In August 2014, the City Manager of Black Rock City, Nevada described Burning Man, an annual event at nearby Black Rock Desert, as having "jumped the shark", when the 2014 event – which had been previously noted for core values of radical self-expression and self-reliance – featured incongruously posh VIP lounges, cell phone towers, private jets, and "glamping".
In January 2018, journalist Keith Olbermann criticized the inclusion of esports players on the sports journalism website The Players' Tribune, saying that they "have jumped the shark by publishing pieces by snotty random kids playing children's games" in response to an article by Doublelift, a League of Legends player.
In 2008, TIME magazine identified a term modeled after "jump the shark": "nuke the fridge." Specifically applicable to film, the magazine defined the term: "to exhaust a Hollywood franchise with disappointing sequels."
The phrase derives from a scene in the fourth Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which Indiana Jones survives an atomic bomb detonation by fitting himself into a lead-lined refrigerator. The explosion annihilates its surroundings but sends the refrigerator flying sufficiently distant for the protagonist to escape unhurt. The scene was criticized as being scientifically implausible.
Within two days of the film's premiere, the phrase "nuke the fridge" had gone viral, describing film scenes that similarly stretched credulity. Director Steven Spielberg later said the scene was "my silly idea" and was glad to have been part of the pop-culture phrase, while the film's executive producer George Lucas took similar credit believing that Jones would have had an even chance of surviving the blast.
For running comic strips, the equivalent term "marrying Irving" was coined in 2005. That phrase comes from the comic strip Cathy, a strip with a title character who was a confirmed bachelorette for nearly 30 years before she married Irving Hillman; the strip ended its run five years after the marriage.
A particular subset of the "jumping the shark" phenomenon, in which key members of the writing staff either die or leave the strip and are replaced, is known as the zombie strip.
Subjecting “Fridge Nuking” to Scientific Peer Review, (PhD scientific analysis on implausibility of surviving the nuked fridge scene) David Shechner PhD (blog), Feb 22, 2012
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