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The fact that the English word mad means both angry and insane has repeatedly seemed to me wonderfully perceptive of it.

Stanley Cavell, from his most recent book, Little Did I Know.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the book-launch and corresponding conference at Harvard, Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies, last fall. Cavell’s work on Thoreau, Emerson and Dewey revitalized these American thinkers and organized them in terms of his interest in ordinary language, American cinema, literature, and other areas. He may also be considered a mid-wife for this piece on jumping the shark.

“not one of us said, ‘Fonzie, jump a shark? Are you out of your mind,'”
Fred Fox Jr.

If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
Henry David ThoreauWalden

We may speculate with confidence when this band or that show jumped the shark, but do we know when Happy Days jumped the shark? No.

The fifth season of happy days brought the cast to Los Angeles. Memories of Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, the Beach Boys, and Endless Summer conspired to roll the cultural archetypes of working-class

roustabouts through the waves and tribulations of a tropical setting. It was in the fifth season of an eleven season run, and many popular episodes would follow. Why, then, would an outrageous hijink from the Fonz, the otherwise unflappable assurance of cool, become synonymous with the show’s decline and inseparable from the culture’s idea of a fall from grace?

“Here we go, Fonz. I’m headed for the ramp. Are you sure you want to do it?” asked Richie Cunningham.  Fonzie gives him a thumbs up, and they plot an improbable route along the shoreline. Ralph Malph exclaims, “Look at that shark Potsie!” and points to a string of yellow buoys not more than fifty feet from the beach, marking the outline of the shark’s undersea pen. By now, the boat should have either skidded up over the sand or crashed through the nest of tall, wood stanchions holding up a not too distant pier. They hold their heads, work their hair and bite their lips. Fonz is going to do it. He’s going to jump the shark and usher into the idiom a phrase that would haunt the show and loom over many others for years to come.

The realization is said to have been made in 1987. The Iran-Contra scandal had broken the year before, and the ensuing investigation introduced C-Span to America while the many possibilities of Oliver North’s whereabouts and engagements distracted the audience from an increasingly bewildered presidency. A group of friends dropped the more the mundane engagements of a college education for the free-wheeling release of a few speculations on when Happy Days began it’s decline.

But the observation itself demonstrates one thing. The example doesn’t always fit the facts so much as fit the mold. In this case, Fonz having jumped the shark could only have happened with the onset of a general and persistent decline. It could only have happened at the end, not the beginning. But it didn’t.

To mark the decline of Happy Days with the Fonz jumping the shark relies on an accumulation of mistakes. Many years separated the group of friends and the fateful episode when Fonzie jumped the shark. The episode might have been only barely visible, mixed and spread among many others in the murky depths of their recollection – its position, unclear.

Syndication precipitated the slow erasure of sequence that had organized shows into seasons and seasons into the series. It mixed-up and confounded the series in a way that enabled one to connect jumping the shark with the end. Though the Fonz jumped the shark in season five, it could have happened anytime, so the question that fateful evening among friends wasn’t when did it happen, but when should it have happened? Though only three years had passed since the show had ceased production, the shift to syndication and its effects began earlier. Happy Days had long filled the slots before or after the evening news in an endless cycle of re-runs and run-ins between the periodically out of synch episodes – like a gropey old transmission, slipping between gears.

That night, the circle of friends conjured the decline of Happy Days irrespective of the facts. The distance in time softened the outlines of the past. Syndication took the sequence out of the series. It wasn’t in the middle. It wasn’t anywhere. Combined with the character of the show itself, it was easy to mistake its position for one closer to the end than the beginning. It was easy to mistake and agree to a reality according to the mold, not the facts.

The friends didn’t bother with the facts. The facts would have disrupted the story. And perhaps, if they had stood “face to face with a fact” and seen “the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar],” it would have cut right through their clever conceit of the irrepressible Fonz and his shark, concluding its career. So, in answer to Thoreau, do we only crave reality, be it life or death? Or are we just as happy to exist among the myriad inventions that underpin and imagine the relationships between the Fonz, a shark and the decline and fall of Happy Days?

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