‘Happy Days’: How Fonzie ‘Jumping the Shark’ Became a Metaphor for Shows That Refuse to Die

Most television fans are familiar with the phrase “jumping the shark,” but not everyone knows the origin story. Formerly popular shows that drag on too long get accused of jumping the shark when they try some wild trick to lure fans back in. Predictably, it almost never works.

Parks & Recreation, House of Cards, Dallas, That 70s Show, Downton Abbey, Big Brother, and even The Simpsons have all allegedly jumped the shark. However, it all began with Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli (better known as Fonzie) literally hopping over an ocean predator during Happy Days.

Fonzie showed off superhuman skills while jumping the shark on ‘Happy Days’

Fonzie jumping the shark
Fonzie jumping the shark | Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

The episode in question, “Hollywood: Part 3,” aired on Sept. 20, 1977. It was the fifth season premiere in the formerly popular series about life in the ’50s. Happy Days drew so many nostalgic fans, but when faced with declining viewership, writers opted to go in a bold new direction with their star character Fonzie (Henry Winkler).

On the episode in question, the Happy Days crew visits Los Angeles. Fonzie gets on water skis in his swim trunks — plus his signature leather jacket, of course — and jumps over a confined shark to show off his impressive skills.

‘Jumping the shark’ became synonymous with a popularity decline

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The phrase “jumping the shark” originated in a college dorm room. According to Chicago Tribune, Jon Hein and his friends came up with it while sitting around discussing precisely when popular television shows lose their luster.  

“At that point, you knew the show was never going to be the same,” Hein said of the stunt. “It was so egregious, so obvious.”

Not everyone agrees that ‘Happy Days’ peaked on that day

Henry Winkler on ‘Happy Days’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Even though “jumping the shark” became a widely used idiom, not everyone agreed that Fonzie’s stunt was the beginning of the end for the series. Show writer Fred Fox Jr. insisted that there were plenty of good days after the controversial episode.

“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 Jr. told LA Times.   

Related phrases to ‘jumping the shark’

Modern television shows are still guilty of “jumping the shark,” and that’s not all. The popularity of the phrase has spurred imitations of similar events, too.

For example, “nuke the fridge” is used to describe movie franchises with too many installments that result in disappointed fans, tvtropes.com reported. It comes from a lackluster effort in the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when the fearless hero survives an atomic bomb by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.

“Marrying Irving” occurs when a character acts differently than they had been for years. The phrase comes from the long-running Cathy comic strip when the main character marries Irving after showcasing the single life for so long.

Finally, there’s the concept of “growing the beard,” which is the exact opposite of “jumping the shark.” This refers to shows that get better with age like William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation after he grew his facial hair.