Guy who wrote 'Jump the Shark' episode finally speaks out

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Adam-Troy Castro
Dec 14, 2012

Fred Fox Jr. inadvertently helped create one of the most infamous TV phrases of all time when he wrote the Happy Days episode "Hollywood 3." That phrase, since used thousands of times to describe dozens of TV shows that went from good to bad, is "jump the shark."

Wikipedia has this to say about it: "Jumping the shark is an idiom used to describe the moment of downturn for a previously successful enterprise. The phrase was originally used to denote the point in a television program's history where the plot spins off into absurd storylines or unlikely characterizations. These changes were often the result of efforts to revive interest in a show whose audience had begun to decline, usually through the employment of different actors, writers or producers."

It comes from the episode in which Fonzie went to Hollywood and had to jump a shark -- on water skis, not his motorcycle -- in order to defeat a local rival for, well, some important reason at the time. It's generally considered the point when Happy Days went from a must-watch show to a can't-watch show.

Science fiction fans briefly co-opted the phrase for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when they took the idiom a step further (or maybe backward), substituting "nuked the fridge" as an alternative to "jumped the shark." (That doesn't seem to be sticking around in any meaningful way, however.)

But Fox doesn't know why his Happy Days scene has come to mean the decline of something, and he just wrote an editorial in the L.A. Times defending himself.

Which brings us to the question: Was the "Hollywood 3" 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. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, 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?

That's why, when I first heard the phrase and found out what it meant, I was incredulous. Then my incredulity turned into amazement. I started thinking about the thousands of television shows that had been on the air since the medium began. And out of all of those, the "Happy Days" episode in which Fonzie jumps over a shark is the one to be singled out? This made no sense.

He even said the episode was a "huge hit" when it aired, with more than 30 million viewers (though he also says he doesn't remember who actually came up with the idea). All that said, he realizes "jump the shark" is not going away anytime soon, so he's found a way to make peace with it.

The day after I started writing this article, my sister Jan was meeting our friend Vicki at a movie screening. Jan mentioned I had written the episode of "Happy Days" where Fonzie jumped the shark and was working on a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times. A young man in his 20s at the reception table overheard and looked at her in disbelief. "Your brother wrote the jump the shark episode?" he said. "Awesome!"