Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dropping the Veil on Jumping the Shark


Remember when you were a kid and you heard words but didn't quite interpret them correctly? How you could happily sing, “My country, Tisovee”? Or think people get “Oldtimer’s Disease” when they start getting forgetful? Well, I have a confession to make: I did something similar with the expression “jumping the shark.” And I only just realized it.

After a bit of research, I’ve learned that the expression dates not to the time when the infamous Happy Days episode first ran in 1977, but to a decade later when (to quote Fred Fox, the poor guy who actually wrote the episode in question) “Jon Hein and his roommates at the University of Michigan were drinking beer and had Nick at Nite playing in the background. They started talking about classic TV shows when someone asked, ‘What was the precise moment you knew it was downhill for your favorite show?’ One said it was when Vicki came on board ‘The Love Boat.’ Another thought it was when the Great Gazoo appeared on ‘The Flintstones.’ Sean Connolly offered, ‘That's easy: It was when Fonzie jumped the shark.’ As Hein later recounted, there was silence in the room: ‘No explanation necessary, the phrase said it all.’ ”

Well, it just so happens that in 1987, I was living in the Middle East. In those pre-ubiquitous-Internet days, that meant I was effectively cut off from popular American culture. I then moved to Australia. I first ran across the expression sometime in the late 90s in a book on writing I’d checked out of my local Adelaide library. I’d never seen the original Happy Days episode (I was in Germany at the time that aired!), so the association didn’t click. But I did know a movie about sharks, so somehow I got the idea fixed in my head that “don’t jump the shark” was based on the suspense-building technique used in the movie Jaws and basically referred to the principle of increasing viewer tension by revealing the extent and nature of a threat gradually rather than letting readers see it clearly in its entirety from the get-go.

I didn’t realize my mistake until just a few weeks ago, when I read a blog post by John Connolly in which he wonders if he’s jumped the sharp with his latest book (verdict from Steve, who just finished it: no). And then, in that way these things have of happening, I ran across Fox’s article "First Person: In defense of 'Happy Days' ' 'Jump the Shark' episode" in the in the LA Times.

So now, in addition to chuckling over another instance of my oft-exposed ignorance of American culture from decades past, I am also left with a writing truism in need of a colorful descriptive expression. I guess I just need some college kids and a lot of beer.

For those of you who know Steve Malley and are wondering how he fared in the recent earthquake, he left this message on the previous post: "Hi Candy, just wanted to let you know that I'm all right. Conditions aren't too bad here-- having to boil our water is about the worst of it."


Pax Deux said...

My family's own favorite joke in this involves my oldest brother. He was about 4 years old and visiting the US when the creation of a Neutron Bomb was being debated on TV. He could not understand what all the hullaboo about a "new trombone" was about!

Charles Gramlich said...

LOL. I'm sure I've had those moments myself. And probably very recently. Probably some of them I don't even know about yet.

Steve Malley said...

Aww, your shout-out at the bottom there left me all warm and fuzzy and made me forget what I was going to say! :-D

orannia said...

Thank you Candy - I never knew!

And thank you so much for the update on Steve. (Glad you're OK Steve!) I hope the aftershocks stop soon!

Jessica said...

I've had that experience, where a cultural expression/phenomenon passed me by. I lived in Melbourne, Australia, for two years (04-06), so I missed a bunch of stuff. I miss the joke or punchline, then it usually takes me a while to figure out why. But I wouldn't give up the experience for anything.

cs harris said...

Pax Deux, that's a funny one! I'll have to remember that.

Charles, it's the ones you don't know about that worry you.

Steve, I am so glad you're doing okay. And NZ's response does sound pretty amazing.

Orannia, Ah, another one who didn't know! I don't feel so bad now.

Jessica, it is frustrating some times, isn't it? People frequently look at me like I'm an idiot, but there are simply huge gaps in my knowledge of popular American culture.