In defense of Fonzie jumping the shark, which is not the jump the shark moment of 'Happy Days'
Instead of "Jumping the Shark," should we be talking about "the Shamrock Sandwich" or "Kissing the Nun" instead?
Thirty years ago, some roommates at the University of Michigan were drinking beers, watching reruns on Nick at Nite. Being bored, buzzed college students, one of them posed a question for discussion: "What was the precise moment you knew it was downhill for your favorite show?" One guy offered up the moment that little green alien, the Great Gazoo, appeared on The Flintstones. Another dude suggested it was when Vicki boarded The Love Boat. At last, Sean Connolly won the debate. "That's easy," he said. "It was when Fonzie jumped the shark."
Thus, in 1987, the term "jumping the shark" was born. It quickly became the perfect phrase to describe the moment when a TV show begins its nosedive from popularity or quality. Prior to this, the phenomenon was likely referred to as just "Cousin Oliver." However, in 1977, Happy Days opened its fifth season with a three-part episode titled "Hollywood," in which the entire gang heads from Milwaukee to Los Angeles for some fun in the sun.
The 90-minute special climaxed with one epic stunt. The Fonz gets into a beef with a local beach stud. They challenge each other to jump over a caged shark on water skis. The blond surf bro chickens out. Fonzie, towed by Richie Cunningham, then soars over the shark with the ease of people in Juicy Fruit commercials. Aaaayyyyyy!
Frank Fox, Jr., scripted the episode. Years down the line, the veteran screenwriter understandably became both defensive of and proud of his work.
“If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral,” Fox told The Los Angeles Times, “why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?”
He has a valid point. The greatest defense of Fonzie’s shark-jump NOT being the “jump the shark” moment of Happy Days is the sheer weight of the near seven full seasons of television that followed. Chronologically, it just doesn’t make sense. Viewership at the time did not drop off. In fact, the following year, in its sixth season, it was still the third most watched show on television.
There’s another reason the shark jump deserves a little respect. Henry Winkler did most of the water skiing himself. In a recent-ish interview on Oprah: Where Are They Now?, the actor revealed he was an avid water-skier — and even an instructor in the sport. Winkler’s father was the one who suggested that he push for his skill to be incorporated into the show.
“My father — a very, very, very short German person — he said, ‘Tell them you water-ski,’” Winkler explained to Oprah. “I said, ‘Dad, I probably won’t do that...’ He said, ‘No, no, no, this is important they know this! You tell them you water-ski!’”
Tada! The producers and writers indeed worked it into the vacation special. Winkler did all the water skiing, except for the jump. One, the producers would not allow him. Secondly, he could not perform that high leap. He was more of a wave rider.
So, “Hollywood” Part 3 did not trigger a downward ratings spiral. Also, the episode does hold some kitschy entertainment value and an impressive display of Winkler’s talent. If that is the case, it begs the question: What truly is the “jump the shark” moment of Happy Days, if not the actual shark jump?
We have some suggestions. Understandably, “jump the shark” stuck as a term because it is such an evocative turn of phrase. It's fun to say. Thus, we offer replacements that could be just as catchy to work into conversation.
1. The Widow Fonzarelli
"Fonzie's Funeral" Part 1 and 2
As far as goofy plots go, this one is up there. Fonzie discovers a casket full of cash while repairing a hearse, like you do. Turns out the funeral home that owns the hearse is a mob front. So, what does the gang do? Fake the Fonz's death. The plan involves dressing up the Fonz in drag as a mourning Italian widow. When heartbroken girls come to pay their respects, Fonzie uses it as a chance to hug some pretty women. "My, what strong arms you have, Widow Fonzarelli," one proclaims. Meanwhile, Potsie and Ralph are gagged and tied to chairs in a dirty basement somewhere.
2. The Wooden Arnold's
The series underwent cast changes in its later years, with regulars coming and going. One overlooked change, however, was the significant shift in sets. In this episode, Chachi carelessly tosses his work apron onto a grill in Arnold's and the classic diner burns to the ground. The Arnold's set was an equally key "character" to the show. After this conflagration, a new Arnold's was built with an excess of wood panelling and a German beer hall vibe. Crucially, it lacked the '50s nostalgia of the original. During this season, the show did plummet on the Nielsen charts, to No. 17, losing nearly a third of its viewers. (It should be noted, these are still impressive numbers!) You can go visit a shark on vacation, but don't mess with the sets!
3. The Shamrock Sandwich
After season seven, Ron Howard left the show. He was replaced by Ted McGinley, the supposed "sitcom killer." (Though, we have come to his defense, too.) Happy Days thus entered its full-on "Chachi phase," experimenting with some odd stunts. Take this musical episode, for example. Fonzie helps Chachi with his history homework, explaining Irish immigration in his own unique manner. "We're talkin' the great spud famine here," Fonz says. "All he had's his good looks and a shamrock sandwich here." The show then shifts into fantasy musical numbers, with a Dickensian Chachi crooning buttery smooth ballads about America. There's a jailhouse routine with Potsie and Al, too.
4. Kissing the Nun
"No Thank You"
In one of the more uncomfortable moments of the series, Fonzie, who has become a teacher at Jefferson High School, puts the moves on a new teacher. She rejects his advancements, repeatedly telling him "No, thank you." Nevertheless, he grabs her and plants a kiss on her lips. She runs away. Turns out, she is a nun. An innocent shark stunt is preferable to this predatory behavior.
5. Fighting the Clown
"A Night at the Circus"
If Happy Days has its own Cousin Oliver, an adorable little blonde added to "Awwww!" things up, it would have to be Heather O'Rourke, best known as the main "They're here!" character in Poltergeist. She turns up in the tenth season as the daughter of Fonzie's love interest. In this episode, Mr. Cool tries to win over the child by taking her to a circus. Instead, he gets into an altercation with a clown and frightens the fragile kid.