Jumping the shark

The phrase "jumping the shark" is used to argue that a creative outlet or work appears to be making a misguided attempt at generating new attention or publicity for something that is perceived once to have been widely popular, but is no longer.[1][2] The idiom that 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.[3][4][5] The phrase is pejorative, and is most commonly used in reference to perceived unsuccessful gimmicks for promoting something, by critics who believe that a television show has strayed irretrievably from an older and better formula, that its writers have exhausted their focus, or that the series as a whole has declined in quality. Its usage subsequently broadened beyond its first use in 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.[dubious ]

Fonzie (Henry Winkler) on water skis, in a scene from the 1977 Happy Days episode "Hollywood, Part 3", after jumping over a shark


The phrase jump the shark was taken from an incident in an episode of Happy Days (Season 5, Episode 91) called "Hollywood: Part 3", written by Fred Fox, Jr.,[6] 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 waterskiing skills.[7][8]

Journalist Joel Draba-Mann suggests that "Happy Days soldiered on for another seven years after the stunt. The scene meanwhile, became the prime example of a once-loved TV show losing touch with its original appeal."[9]

Jon Hein and his University of Michigan roommate Sean Connolly coined the phrase in response to Season Five, Episode 3, "Hollywood: Part 3" of the sitcom Happy Days, in which Fonzie jumps over a shark while on water-skis.[10][11][12][13][14] Hein described the term as, "a defining moment when you know from now on … it's all downhill … it will never be the same."[6]

In 1997, Hein created a website, JumpTheShark.com, to publish a list of approximately 200 television shows, and his arguments as to the moments each "jumped the shark." The site became popular, and grew with additional user-contributed examples.[6] Hein sold his company, Jump The Shark, Inc., for "over $1 million" in 2006.[15]

Response from Happy Days cast and crewEdit

Ron HowardEdit

In 2006, during his contribution to The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, Ron Howard (Richie) talked about the Happy Days episode that inspired the phrase: "I remember Donny Most and I sitting there, looking at the script. Donny was really upset. He said, 'Oh man look at what our show has kind of devolved into. It's not even very funny, and you know Fonz is jumping over a shark'...and I kept saying 'Hey Donny we're a hit show, relax. You know it's hard to have great episodes one after another. Fonzie jumping over a shark it's gonna be funny. and great... I remember thinking that creatively this was not our greatest episode, but I thought it was a pretty good stunt, and I understood why they wanted to do it. And what I remember the most is, it was fun actually driving the speedboat which I did a bit of, noticing that Henry was really a pretty good water skier... But the thing that has to be remembered about the jumping the shark idea, is that the show went on to be such a massive success for years after that. So, it's kind of a fun expression, and I get a kick out of the fact that they identified that episode (because granted maybe it was pushing things a little too far), but I think a lot of good work was still done after that show, and audiences seemed to really respond to it."[16]

Fred Fox, JrEdit

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.[6] In addition, that same season would later include the episode, "My Favorite Orkan," transcending an ill-regarded script, proved a major success with the guest player, Robin Williams with his unmatched improvisational talent, becoming a major star with his own spin-off, Mork & Mindy.[17]

Henry WinklerEdit

In a 2019 interview with NPR, Henry Winkler (Fonzie) told Terry Gross that the origin of the stunt began with the fact that he had been a water-skiing instructor as a teenager at a summer camp.[8] Thus, his father used to say to him "every day for years - tell Garry Marshall that you water ski. Dad, I don't think I'm going to do that. No, no. Tell him you water ski. It's very important. I finally tell Garry, my father wants you to know I water ski."[8] Winkler did all of the water skiing for the scene himself, except for the actual jump.[8] Gross then asked Winkler what it was "about that scene or that episode that came to signify when something's time is up - when it's over?" Winkler responded: "You know what? I don't know. To them, the Fonz water skiing was just like the last straw. The only thing is it wasn't to the audience because we were No. 1 for years after that. So it didn't much matter to anybody."[8] In addition, he told TheWrap in 2018 that he is "not embarrassed" by the phrase. He stated that "newspapers would mention jumping the shark...and they would show a picture of me in my leather jacket and swim shorts water-skiing. And at that time I had great legs. So I thought, ‘I don’t care.’ And we were No. 1 for the next four or five years."[18] As his character Barry Zuckerkorn (in the sitcom Arrested Development) hopped over a shark in Episode 13 of the second season, Winkler also noted that there "was a book, there was a board game and it is an expression that is still used today ... [and] I’m very proud that I am the only actor, maybe in the world, that has jumped the shark twice — once on Happy Days, and once on Arrested Development.”[18]

Broader usageEdit

The idiom has been used to describe a wide variety of situations, such as the state of advertising in the digital video recorder era,[19] and views on rural education policy,[20] the anomalous pursuit of a company acquisition,[21] and the decline of republics into degraded democracy and empire.[22]


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".[23]

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 that 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."[24]

In September 2011, after Republican presidential candidate for the United States 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."[25]

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".[26] The implication that Burning Man has "jumped the shark" (or is a fallen utopia) is questioned by cultural anthropologist Graham St John, who argues that Burning Man was never a utopia in the first place.[27]

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.[28]

In May 2021, CNBC News Anchor Carl Quintanilla proposed that Elon Musk had jumped the shark with his erratic and high-profile Twitter obsession with cryptocurrencies instead of focusing on Tesla, Inc as it began to lose market share and its stock price began to plunge.[29]

Related idiomsEdit

Nuke the fridgeEdit

In 2008, TIME 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."[30]

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 to shield himself from the radiation. The explosion annihilates its surroundings but sends the refrigerator flying sufficiently distant for the protagonist to escape unhurt.[31] The scene was criticized as being scientifically implausible.[32]

Within two days of the film's premiere, the phrase "nuke the fridge" had gone viral, describing film scenes that similarly stretched credulity.[33] Director Steven Spielberg later said the scene was "my silly idea" and was glad to have been part of the pop-culture phrase,[34] while the film's executive producer George Lucas took similar credit believing that Jones would have had an even chance of surviving the blast.[31]

Marrying IrvingEdit

Marrying Irving is a metaphor coined by a participant in Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten's weekly online chat "Chatological Humor" on February 8, 2005.[35] The term specifically references the comic strip Cathy by Cathy Guisewite. On Valentine's Day, February 14, 2004, Irving, Cathy's long-time love-interest proposed marriage. They were married almost a year later on February 5, 2005; the strip, which had been in print since 1976, ended October 3, 2010.

This term indicates the specific strip or storyline in which a cartoonist uses a plot tactic or stunt that seems to run completely counter to the long-standing vision for the comic (in the case of Cathy, the strip for most of its existence had centered on the title character's struggles as a single, early-middle-age, slightly overweight woman). As such, fans and long-time readers may notice a decline in quality for subsequent comics. Quality may remain adequate (or on-par with prior work) but the overall vision for the comic may be too drastically altered for it to retain its original attraction.

Marrying Irving moments in comics may be seen as desperate attempts to retain readers and newspaper distribution by completely breaking with tradition and/or creating a news-worthy event. They may be seen as "it's about time" events in a comic strip's course where an event, long-time avoided, is finally allowed to occur.

Growing the beardEdit

"Growing the beard" refers to the opposite of jumping the shark; i.e. when a show dramatically improves in quality. The term derives from the Star Trek: The Next Generation character William Riker, who was clean-shaven for the first season but grew a beard before the second, which often is considered to be better in terms of storytelling.[36][37]

Other fictional usesEdit

Fonzie was not the first fictional character to encounter a shark on water skis. In the P. G. Wodehouse 1934 novel Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster's cousin Angela does so while aquaplaning on the French Riviera.[38][39][a] From 2017 to 2020, The Guardian in the UK published a humorous weekly column in its Saturday listings guide featuring TV programmes that – in the opinion of its journalists – have "jumped the shark".[40]


  1. ^ In Chapter 7 of Right-Ho, Jeeves, Angela was not jumping a shark. She had been aquaplaning and was regaining "her board after taking a toss, when a great beastly shark came along and cannoned into it, flinging her into the salty once more."


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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit