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What does It Mean to "Jump the Shark"?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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To jump the shark is a term originally used as a metaphor for when a television series has passed its sell-by date. The term originated after an episode of the hit television series Happy Days. In one episode, Arthur Fonzarelli, otherwise known as The Fonz, literally water skis over a shark. It was at this point that viewers became disenchanted with the show and its days were numbered.

Viewers of the show felt that the series had lost its way with this incredulous plot line and could no longer believe in the characters. Jump the shark entered into the vocabulary of pop culture. The new saying was used for anything that was no longer of interest. The phrase can be applied to music, film or anything in real life that has gone past its expiry date of usefulness.

Although the Happy Days episode is thought to be the instigator of the term, the first use of it was in December 1997. A website called jumptheshark.com was created by Jon Hein. He claimed that his college friend, Sean J. Connolly, used the phrase first in 1985. Hein, who now works for the Howard Stern show, sold the website for a reported one million US dollars (USD).

Jump the shark is most commonly thought of in television terms. Think of your favorite television show, one that you look forward to seeing every week. Then imagine something changing; something is off, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Your attention has started to wane and you no longer mind if you miss one or two episodes of the show.

This usually happens when the series is long running and the creators have to come up with new ideas to keep the show fresh. They may transport characters to different locations from their normal setting or may introduce celebrity guests in a number of episodes. A main actor may leave the series and be replaced with a different actor playing the same character.

These are all devices used to keep the audience's interest in the show and prevent the metaphorical jump the shark moment. As a nation of media savvy television watchers, we instinctively know when the show has passed its sell-by date. We may hang on for a few more shows, even seasons, out of habit, but it won’t be long before word of mouth spreads and the axe falls.

The term jump the shark can also be applied to musicians. Think of your favorite artist - perhaps their first two CDs were great, but by the third they may have tried to reinvent themselves to gain a wider audience. This may work for some, but for others, the artist strays too far from the reason fans loved their music in the first place. The band may not seem to talk to or for the fans anymore, and they begin look for someone new who seems more genuine.

Jump the shark is a term that can now be used for anything that has turned stale or mediocre. It has left the arena of pop culture and strayed into real life. This phrase can now be applied to the boss who pushes too far, or even the partner with the sell-by date that is beginning to peel off.

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Discussion Comments
By anon958031 — On Jun 24, 2014

"Castle" comes to mind.

By widget2010 — On Dec 20, 2010

This also no longer just refers to television shows. Movie sequels, book series, and even things like webcomics and comic books, all do this. It bothers me most when, while doing so, they break previously set rules in the canon, basically saying "well, we said this, but just kidding, the rule really meant that". It shows how dishonest, and uninterested in anything but money, even the good writers have become.

By accordion — On Dec 17, 2010

@aaaCookie, and there is the problem. If television shows were not all so formulaic, they would have far less need to make things crazy to get more viewers. reality television, for example, is the worst part- the entire genre is like a big shark-jumping contest.

By aaaCookie — On Dec 15, 2010

The Happy Days cast is just the start of so many shows jumping the shark; after all, many television shows, then and now, have basically run on a formula. The main characters have specific quirks, and these quirks conflict with one another, causing the action; eventually, these quirks get boring, and this is when they have to change things up; often the only way is to jump the shark to get attention.

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