Jumping the shark

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"Jump the shark" redirects here. For the X-Files episode, see Jump the Shark (The X-Files).
Fonzie on water skis, in a scene from the Happy Days episode "Hollywood, Part 3", after jumping over a shark

"Jumping the shark" is an expression that means something may have peaked in value. Historically, it was a pejorative idiom used to describe a moment of television in which there is a gimmick or unlikely occurrence that is seen as a desperate attempt to keep viewers' interest. Therefore, moments labeled as "jumping the shark" are often considered indications that the writers have run out of ideas; that the show has strayed irretrievably from an older and better formula; and/or even that the series as a whole is declining in quality.

Popularized by radio personality Jon Hein in the 1980s, the phrase is based on a scene from a fifth-season episode of the sitcom Happy Days in which the character Fonzie jumps over a shark while on water-skis.[1][2][3] This was deemed a ratings ploy, for it was outside of the original thrust of the sitcom.

The usage of "jump the shark" has subsequently broadened beyond 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.


The phrase jump the shark is based on a scene in the fifth season premiere episode of the American TV series Happy Days titled "Hollywood: Part 3," written by Fred Fox, Jr.,[4] 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 water ski skills.[5] However, the scene also was criticized as betraying Fonzie's character development, since in an earlier landmark-episode, Fonzie jumped his motorcycle over fourteen barrels in a televised stunt; the stunt left him seriously injured, and he confessed that he was stupid to have taken such a dangerous risk just to prove his courage.

For a show that in its early seasons depicted universally relatable adolescent and family experiences against a backdrop of 1950s nostalgia, this incident marked an audacious turn. The lionization of an increasingly superhuman Fonzie, who was initially a supporting character in the series, became the focus of Happy Days. The series continued for seven years after Fonzie's shark-jumping stunt, with a number of changes in cast and situations.[6]

The phrase "jumping the shark" was coined in 1985 by Jon Hein's roommate at the University of Michigan, Sean Connolly, when they were talking about favorite television shows that had gone downhill, and the two began identifying other shows where a similar "jump the shark" moment had occurred.[7][8] Hein described the term as "A defining moment when you know from now on … it's all downhill … it will never be the same."[4] In 1997, Hein created a website to publish his current list of approximately 200 television shows and his opinions of the moments each "jumped the shark"; the site became popular and grew with additional user-contributed examples.[4] Hein subsequently authored two "Jump The Shark" books and later became a regular on The Howard Stern Show around the time he sold his website to Gemstar (owners of TV Guide).

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.[4]

Fonzie was not the first character to jump a shark. In the P. G. Wodehouse 1922 novel "Right Ho, Jeeves" Bertie Wooster's cousin Angela jumps a shark while water-skiing on the French Riviera. The event did not become a cultural reference, but was a major plot point in the novel, leading to, among other things, a broken engagement, a hunger strike and many midnight assignations in the garden. [9]

Broader usage[edit]

The idiom has been used to describe a wide variety of situations, such as the state of advertising in the digital video recorder era[10] and views on rural education policy,[11] the anomalous pursuit of a company acquisition,[12] and the decline of republics into degraded democracy and empire.[13]


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."[14]

In September 2011, after Republican presidential candidate 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."[15]

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."[16]

Nuke the fridge[edit]

In 2008, Time magazine 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."[17]

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. The explosion annihilates its surroundings but sends the refrigerator flying sufficiently distant for the protagonist to escape unhurt.[18] The scene was criticized scientifically.[19]

Within two days of the film's premiere, the phrase "nuke the fridge" had gone viral, describing film scenes that similarly stretched credulity.[20] Director Steven Spielberg later said the scene was "my silly idea" and was glad to have been part of the pop-culture phrase,[21] while the film's executive producer George Lucas took similar credit believing that Jones would have had an even chance of surviving the blast.[18]


  1. ^ Hornaday, Ann (July 25, 2003). "A Few Pixels Short of a Personality". Washington Post. Retrieved April 12, 2013. 
  2. ^ Hollows, Joanne; Moseley, Rachel (2006). Feminism in Popular Culture. Berg Publishers. ISBN 1845202236. 
  3. ^ McFedries, Paul (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins. Alpha Books. ISBN 1592577814. 
  4. ^ a b c d Fox, Jr., Fred (September 3, 2010). "First Person: In defense of 'Happy Days' 'Jump the Shark' episode". Los Angeles Times. 
  5. ^ Stanhope, Kate (September 3, 2010). "Happy Days Writer Defends 'Jump the Shark' Moment". TV Guide. 
  6. ^ TV Tropes: Jumping the Shark
  7. ^ "When TV Shows Go an Episode Too Far". Good Morning America. ABC News. June 18, 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2015. 
  8. ^ Hutchins, Chris (March 20, 2002). "When shows `jumped the shark' they lost their bite". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 11, 2015. 
  9. ^ Wodehouse, P.G. (2011). Right Ho, Jeeves (Reprint edition ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. 
  10. ^ Lenderman, Max (2009). Experience the Message. Basic Books. p. 275. ISBN 9780786734856. 
  11. ^ Arnold, Michael L. (2005). "Jump the Shark: A Rejoinder to Howley, Theobald, and Howley" (PDF). Journal of Research in Rural Education. Center on Rural Education and Communities. 20 (20). 
  12. ^ Sipley, Richard (2010). Market Indicators: The Best-Kept Secret to More Effective Trading and Investing. John Wiley & Sons. p. 142. ISBN 9780470883433. 
  13. ^ "'Live at Wiseacres: America Has Jumped the Shark' videotaped performance By Doug Stanhope". YouTube.com. July 31, 2008 [uploaded]. 
  14. ^ Neil, Dan (March 4, 2011). "What Part of 'Mini' Did You Not Grasp, BMW?". The Wall Street Journal. 
  15. ^ Adams, Richard (September 14, 2011). "Michele Bachmann, the HPV vaccine and the Republican landscape". The Guardian. 
  16. ^ Buhr, Sarah (August 28, 2014). "Burning Man Founders Admit The Festival Has Jumped The Shark But That's Okay". TechCrunch. 
  17. ^ Cloud, John (November 3, 2008). "Top 10 Buzzwords - The Top 10 Everything of 2008". Time. Retrieved November 6, 2013. 
  18. ^ a b Curtis, Bryan (January 22, 2012). "George Lucas Is Ready to Roll the Credits". New York Times. Retrieved November 6, 2013. 
  19. ^ Locker, Melissa (November 28, 2012). "Indiana Jones' 'Nuke the Fridge' Plot Is, Shockingly, Scientifically Impossible". Time. Retrieved November 6, 2013. 
  20. ^ ""Jump the Shark," Meet "Nuke the Fridge"". Newsweek. June 28, 2008. 
  21. ^ O'Hara, Helen (October 26, 2011). "Spielberg: More Indy & Jurassic Park?". Empire. Retrieved November 6, 2013.