Every now and then, a phrase takes root in the national psyche and refuses to go quietly into that good night. Often, the phrase has its origins in commercials, as in the cases of "Where's the beef?" and "Whassup?" Usually the term is silly or stupid or both, and that's just fine. No-nonsense phrases like "Get to the office on time" and "Don't forget to exercise today" just don't bear repeating to co-workers in the hallway.
"Jump the shark" is the latest phrase to sweep the nation-or at least to a spreading cabal of Web-addled, forum-posting teens, 20- and 30-somethings. Once an item, issue or dogma has jumped the shark, it's on its last legs-even if no one realizes that the object has in fact jumped the aforementioned shark and the shark-jumping moment is noted only in hindsight.
The term is a reference to a stunt Fonzie performed in one of the last episodes of "Happy Days." You remember those sad, Ralphless, Chachi-infested episodes, don't you? After the departure of most of the original characters, the producers forced a water-skiing Fonzie to jump over a shark wearing his leather jacket. (How the shark got into Fonzie's leather jacket I'll never know.)
From that point on, "Happy Days" was on its way out. Now jumping the shark means that it's all over, or at least, that things will never be quite the same afterward. There is, naturally, a Web site devoted to this phenomenon.
At www.jumptheshark.com, the debate is hot and heavy about "if and when" a given TV show has jumped the shark. From "I Love Lucy" (when they moved to Connecticut) to "The Brady Bunch" (when cousin Oliver joined the cast) to "Moonlighting" (when they "did it"), the best and worst of the small screen is subjected to a rigorous going-over. But don't post anything bad about the "X-Files" or these people get seriously bent out of shape. You risk incurring a torrent of "XF rules!" posts.
Television shows were the easiest targets of the early adapters among shark-jumping proselytizers. Movies proved a little harder to do. You had to pick which spot in the movie represented the beginning of the end, without having the leisure of looking back over a whole season or two. Sequels lent themselves to the task, with "Star Wars" and "Rocky" getting the biggest dose of judgment.
There are plenty of other things in life that have jumped the shark, and since they don't often realize that they have, someone has to point it out to them. Take Time magazine. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when, but somewhere along the way Time started to compete with Rolling Stone, putting Madonna and Michael on the cover. Time jumped the shark but managed to blow Mrs. C. a kiss in midair.
And Rolling Stone jumped sometime in the '80s, when it quit being the mag for the counterculture and became something your nerdy friends read cover-to-cover. Rolling Stone came close to being shark food. Penthouse hit the water about the time it ran an interview with the U.S. president. There's nothing like seeing a picture of Jimmy Carter when you're thumbing through Penthouse and not really in the mood for seeing Jimmy Carter.
Bob Dylan strapped on slalom custom skis when he brought an electric guitar onstage in 1965. The Who gave the spotter the thumbs-up when Keith Moon died. The Red Hot Chili Peppers did double flips over the shark when they got sober.
Ross Perot jumped the shark when he accused Bush the Elder of plotting to ruin his daughter's wedding. And Larry King could probably stop jumping the shark if he'd just hire a good screener to fend off Howard Stern's devotees.
American-made cars in general were stuck in the shark's jaws for a decade or so, but they've dried off the leather jacket and put the skis back in the boathouse. GM spent the most time as potential chum, with the Chevy Lumina going down the shark's gullet like a fat minnow. Firestone jumped last year, and its death-throe-thrashing nearly pulled the Ford Explorer under too.
Fortunately, some predictions of shark-jumping have proven premature, as in the case of PCBs. In the '80s, some industry wags opined that fiberoptics would cause PCBs to jump the shark, and the recent spread of SoC technology triggered another round of shark-jumping speculation among PCB-watchers. But unlike the Chrissie-less era of "Three's Company," the PCB has avoided the shark pen every time.
What do you think will be the next thing to jump the shark?
© 2001 CMP Media LLC.
7/1/01, Issue # 1807, page 48.
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