“Jumping the shark” is a phrase that is still often used in everyday life. The phrase, which was coined by Jon Hein in 1987, means a turning point where things go downhill fast.
The terminology was inspired by the 1977 Happy Days episode where Fonzie did an Evel Knievel style death defying stunt where he flew over a shark tank on waterskis.
With another Jaws movie coming the next summer, many were still gripped with shark mania, and other TV shows like the Hardy Boys tried to put their protagonists in shark danger as well. Kevin Smith also told Time that Fonzie jumping the shark tank was one of the defining moments of his generation.
As funny as the terminology was, the writer who came up with the Happy Days episode, Fred Fox Jr., stepped forward, and came to defense of Fonzie jumping the shark. Fox told the L.A. Times, “More than three decades later, I still don’t believe that the series ‘jumped the shark’ when Fonzie jumped the shark.”
Happy Days was the top show on TV for the ’76-77 season, and ABC wanted the show to open with a three parter, just like the previous season, so they came up with a mini-trilogy where they go to Hollywood, and Henry Winkler water skied, so the idea that he’d leap over a shark tank came naturally.
The shark episode aired on September 20, 1977, came in at #3 in the ratings, and over 30 million viewers turned in. Little did anyone know this would inspire the famous pop culture phrase like an acid flashback a decade later.
Fox also pointed out that Happy Days continued to do well after this episode for years. (Happy Days finally went off the air in 1984, so if it jumped the shark back in ’77, it was a pretty long leap.)
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and it looks like the term has finally lived up to its name as well. According to the Wiki page for jumping the shark, 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair ran polls in 2011, and 83% of the pollsters didn’t know what it meant, while 9% of pollsters thought the phrase had indeed jumped the shark itself.
As Wiki also notes, Rush Limbaugh said Michele Bachmann may have jumped the shark this September, another tell-tale sign the phrase just ain’t cool anymore.