‘Happy Days’ Didn’t Jump The Shark After Fonzie Jumped The Shark

The writer of the infamous "Fonzie Jumps The Shark" episode of Happy Days breaks his silence.

Fred Fox, Jr. takes to the LAT to confess that he wrote the infamous “Fonzie Jumps The Shark” episode of Happy Days.  And note that, despite what some guys sitting around a dorm room ten years later — and now everybody with Internet access — happen to think, it wasn’t a defining moment for the show.

“Happy Days” was finishing the 1976-77 season as the most popular series on television, an accomplishment we were all proud of. That year had begun with a highly rated three-part story in which Fonzie ( Henry Winkler) rekindled the flame of a former love, Pinky Tuscadero. Because of this success, ABC and Paramount wanted us to open the next season, our fifth, with another three-part story.

After discussing different scenarios, we decided to take the “Happy Days” gang to Hollywood, with Fonzie invited for a screen test. One of the plot lines would be Fonzie clashing with “The California Kid,” a cocky local beach boy. Since Henry water skied in real life, it was suggested the characters race and then, as a tiebreaker, have to jump a shark in a netted area in the ocean.

Now, whose idea was it for Fonzie to jump the shark? Amazingly, I can’t remember — which is frustrating, as I can usually watch a “Happy Days” episode from any season, hear a joke and recall who wrote it. My friend Brian Levant, then a talented new member of the writing staff, believes that Garry Marshall, the show’s co-creator and executive producer, and Bob Brunner, the show runner at the time, made the suggestion. But what I definitely remember is that no one protested vehemently; not one of us said, “Fonzie, jump a shark? Are you out of your mind?”

[…]

There were no objections from the cast, the studio or the network concerning “Hollywood 3,” as it came to be titled. It aired Sept. 20, 1977, and was a huge hit, ranking No. 3 for the week with a 50-plus share (unheard of today) and an audience of more than 30 million viewers.

[…]

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?

[…]

Fortunately, my career didn’t jump the shark after “jump the shark.” When “Happy Days” ended, I went directly to the ABC Paramount hit show “Webster” and, after that, wrote and produced, among others, “It’s Your Move,” “He’s the Mayor, “The New Leave It to Beaver” and “Family Matters.” In 1987, Brian Levant and I created the action comedy which won an International Emmy.

Having characters go off to California or Hawaii for a multi-episode adventure was a staple of television sitcoms from the 1950s through the 1980s; I can’t recall it happening much since.  It was, presumably, a way to bring some life into a show that had been around for a number of years filming on the same set.

Frankly, I can’t think of a show offhand that lasted more than four or five seasons that didn’t go into a decline.   After awhile, people are tuning in to keep up with the characters they’ve come to care about over the years rather than because the show is particularly entertaining.

Certainly, “Happy Days” was pretty weak in its declining years.   It went from being a show about high school kids making the awkward adjustment into adulthood with the help of loving parents and a tough but decent biker friend to a series of gags involving a guy in a leather jacket who could make various appliances do things they weren’t supposed to through the power of “cool.”    But they managed to hang on for eleven seasons, almost all at the top of the ratings.

via Ken Levine

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    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?

    Did the show ever reach the height of ratings it was at when Fonzie jumped the shark again? If not, then the show jumped the shark.
    It’s like with The Simpsons. A lot of fans say that the series jumped the shark in Season 9, which does not mean that it went completely to crap afterwards. It’s just that the overall quality was never that high again as before.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Frankly, I can’t think of a show offhand that lasted more than four or five seasons that didn’t go into a decline.”

    These kid shows never appealed to me in the late fifties. They were always junk. The ones that stay in the memory from that era are the westerns (Wagon Train, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel) and the detective shows (Dragnet, Highway Patrol, 77 Sunset Strip). Funny how the Western genre has almost died completely after being a staple of movies since the start. Just about all the other genres have survived but not the western.  

  3. James Joyner says:

    Funny how the Western genre has almost died completely after being a staple of movies since the start. Just about all the other genres have survived but not the western.

    It had a resurgence for a while with Tombstone and Unforgiven but does seem to have gone away again.

  4. sam says:

    All my favs. But you left out Hawaiian Eye… All those shows, or most of ’em, came out of Warners, right?  Heh–I remember seeing a script for Hawaiian Eye, and on the cover in what I remember as a huge block font, were the words “DON’T ACT!”

  5. John Burgess says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Clint Eastwood may choose to argue. He still turns out Westerns. Contemporary Westerns still pop up every now and then. Here’s a Wikipedia list of <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Western_films:_2000s”>Western films of the 2000s</a>.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    John Burgess says:

    Saturday, September 4, 2010 at 08:40
    I did qualify it with “almost died.” I know the odd one pops up now and then (and of course we had Deadwood a few seasons ago with the unforgettable English Ian McShane in the lead role). But as a genre it was once ubiquitous but is now a a relative rarity. Why one wonders has the American public lost its taste for westerns. Interesting question. 

  7. rodney dill says:

    I haven’t viewed ‘Jump the Shark’ as just the start of a downward spiral. To me its also the point in a TV series where the writers ‘break’ the persona of characters so much that they aren’t recognizable as what they originally started out to be.

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    Btw  I took a look at the list. Alhough some of these were memorable like No country, I’d hardly say most of them were what I’d call traditional westerns, and many of them sank without trace. The only couple of real westerns from recent times that stick in my memory are 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa, and more distantly Unforgiven.  

  9. john personna says:

    I can remember when Happy Days was a popular family show in our house.  I think we’d pretty much stopped watching by the Shark episode, but I think I saw it first broadcast, and I remember groaning at the sight of leather jacket plus skis.  No Fonzie, that isn’t cool.  Maybe the episode would have been less bad if Henry had been shirtless and ripped.
     
    If it wasn’t the turning point, it was close enough to mark it, and so sure “jumped the shark” was born.

  10. Peter says:

    I haven’t viewed ‘Jump the Shark’ as just the start of a downward spiral. To me its also the point in a TV series where the writers ‘break’ the persona of characters so much that they aren’t recognizable as what they originally started out to be.
     
    That’s right.  It also can be seen as the point after which the writers make increasing use of gimmicks.

  11. Grewgills says:

    Scrappy doo