Happy Days

Fonzie Jumps the Shark

September 20, 2022

There was, perhaps, no more popular and successful Sitcom of the 1970’s than Happy Days. In its eleven years on the air it was culture defining.

Its early success played off the nostalgia of the 1950’s, portraying a traditional family of that era. The Infallible Wikipedia tells us:

“Happy Days originated during a time of 1950s nostalgic interest as evident in 1970s film, television, and music. In late winter of 1971, Michael Eisner was snowed in at Newark airport where he bumped into Tom Miller, head of development at Paramount. Eisner has stated that he told Miller, ‘Tom, this is ridiculous. We’re wasting our time here. Let’s write a show.’ The script treatment that came out of that did not sell. But in spite of the market research department telling them that the 1950s theme would not work, they decided to redo it, and this was accepted as a pilot. This unsold pilot was filmed in late 1971 and titled New Family in Town. (snip) Paramount passed on making it into a weekly series, and the pilot was recycled with the title Love and the Television Set (later retitled Love and the Happy Days for syndication), for presentation on the television anthology series Love, American Style. Also in 1971, the musical Grease had a successful opening in Chicago, and by the following year became successful on Broadway. Also in 1972, George Lucas asked to view the pilot to determine if Ron Howard would be suitable to play a teenager in American Graffiti, then in pre-production. Lucas immediately cast Howard in the film, which became one of the top-grossing films of 1973.”

It was on September 20, 1977, however, when one Happy Days episode aired which has become a cultural catch phrase to describe a moment when a TV series, particularly, has passed its prime. That phrase is “jumping the shark.”

We can trace the moment back to a scene where Fonzie – arguably the most popular character from Happy Days – accepts a challenge from a character called ‘The California Kid’ to water ski over a tiger shark.

The ‘Kid’ chickens out but Fonzie, who feels he has something to prove, continues with the challenge, and is seen in his iconic leather jacket water skiing, successfully jumping the shark.

To be clear, Happy Days continued for seven additional seasons. It was only in 1985 when the phrase ‘jumping the shark’ was introduced.

Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:

“The idiom ‘jumping the shark’ was coined in 1985 by Jon Hein in response to a 1977 episode from the fifth season of the American sitcom Happy Days, in which Fonzie (Henry Winkler) jumps over a shark while on water-skis. The phrase is pejorative and is used to argue that a creative work or outlet appears to be making a stunt in a seemingly exhaustive attempt to generate elevated attention or publicity to something that was once perceived as popular, but is no longer.”

I can’t recall when, exactly, I became familiar with the phrase. But for me the term has come to be representative of what I refer to as a cultural reference.

Henry Winkler, aka Fonzie, about to jump the shark

When my kids were about six and nine years old, I found myself using what I believed were common cultural references only to discover that my kids did NOT know them.

Thus I began a program of renting – actually I would check them out from the King County Public Library – movies which I felt they should see.

At first it was all the old musicals from the 1950’s and 1960’s which kept us entertained for a number of years. Then, when the kids were a bit older, I decided to introduce them to movies like Top Gun, Blazing Saddles, Animal House, and Risky Business.

There were more than a few awkward moments when my 13 year old daughter would hide her face behind a pillow when some inappropriate scene would appear on screen.

Note to parents out there: be sure to preview all movies before showing them to young teens.

Thinking that they needed to know about Monty Python, we gave our son the complete Monty Python DVD set one year for his birthday. Soon he was the one making cultural references and for years would quote famous lines from the show, my efforts successful.

I’ve always felt that I contributed significantly to my children’s general knowledge base.

That said, there were many times when I would comment on what I thought of as a common cultural reference only to discover my children staring at me, blank looks on their faces.

Inevitably that would lead to me trotting over to the computer and searching the internet to find the clip or explanation so they could learn it too.

There are times, nowadays, when my daughter, particularly, is on the receiving end of the blank stare. Yes, I am frequently the one who does not know a current cultural reference.

Rather than admitting I don’t know the reference, I often make a mental note to check it out later. FWIW, its how I’ve learned what the pervasive acronyms splattered throughout social media mean. (FWIW= For What It’s Worth).

After experiencing an unfamiliar cultural reference, I’ve often returned home to watch a movie or TV show which their generation all know and, in some cases, I can see the attraction. But not always.

But I do think making a sincere effort to understand another person’s cultural references is important. After all, I’m not quite ready to jump the shark. Not Yet. WBU?

A few links for your cultural reference education:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Days

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark

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