He jumps on a bright blue sea under a bright blue sky. He rises in his water skis and leather jacket. He’s flying. He’s still flying forty years on. That was the leap that Fonzie made when he jumped the shark in September 1977 on “Happy Days.”
A sitcom of the seventies about life in the fifties, the name of the show was literal and ironic at once, an incantation of better times. In a complex era, the program was a simple pleasure for its supporters. It debuted the year that Watergate swamped and resigned Richard Nixon. The show took some opportunities with personal problems, race or class or personality problems, but just as often it was the send-up of anodyne sitcoms from a wisenheimer like “The Donna Reed Show” or “Leave It to Beaver”.”
Charming and largely harmless, “Happy Days” thrived somehow in the great era of satirical TV, when “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” were both runaway hits and American attention was all over the place.
It is a measure of the popularity of the show that Fonzie’s jacket entered the Smithsonian National Museum of American History collections in 1980, while the series was still on the air.
At the museum, the jacket is written out with the following: “From the Western Costume Company, measures overall: 25 x 19 in.; 63.5 x 48.26 cm, brown leather with brown knit cuffs and bottom; zipper closure; slash pockets on front; brown satin lining.” But NMAH curator Eric Jentsch invokes its poetry. “Fonzie was a representation of cool at a time when you were learning about what cool was.” Correctamundo. That popped leather collar! That pompadour! Ayyyy! Arthur Fonzarelli was a hoodlum with a heart of gold on a 1949 Triumph Trophy TR5 Scrambler Custom. And bomber or biker or cowboy, from the Beatles to the Ramones, from Brando to Mad Max to Indiana Jones, the leather jacket has never run low on cool.
So the jacket is the jacket, a moment in history on the American timeline, but then the complexity and wit and energy expressed in the phrase “jump the shark” was and is now a living, breathing thing, a big idea in three small syllables. It means you’ve reached your peak and are in the decline.
Said to have been created at least in some part at the University of Michigan by Sean Connely, “jump the shark” was later popularized by his roommate, comedy writer and radio host Jon Hein. But its slightly strange story of origin is less important than its persistence or its aptness or its uncanny economy.
Fred Fox Jr., the writer of the episode, diligently says to this day that “Happy Days” did not jump the shark that night. “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.”
To this day it follows Henry Winkler everywhere. Forty years an actor and author and activist, fly fisherman and photographer, producer and director—he remains The Fonz. “When did I first hear it? I’m not sure. But it never annoyed me, because we were still a hit. We continued to be a hit for years to come. It is part of the legacy of ‘Happy Days.’ People say it to me all the time. I just caught this gigantic trout in Wyoming, I put it on Twitter, and someone said, ‘Look at that—you just jumped the trout.’”