In life and work, we’re supposed to be on guard against “jumping the shark.”
For creative types, that prospect is particularly terrifying: To “jump the shark” is to descend into cheesiness and failure after a sustained period of success and accolades. These days, the idiom can describe the beginning of the end for a favored restaurant, a once-hot retail brand, or virtually anything that can have a heyday.
But the shark-jumping idiom is most commonly used in reference to television shows and performers, because that’s where its story begins. The phrase refers to a scene in the long-running ‘70s sitcom Happy Days, in which its comically cool main character, Arthur Fonzarelli, literally jumps over a caged shark on water skis.
That stunt was so unlike the Fonz, and outside the Happy Days world, that it came to be seen as a cheap stunt. In his signature motorcycle jacket and t-shirt—and jorts—the Fonz, played by a young Henry Winkler, looked ridiculous.
To some people—namely a college kid (later a comedian) who first coined “jump the shark” in the late ’80s—the show never recovered. Fortunately, Winkler did. In fact, at age 73, he’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance, and he has recently voiced some reassuring words about the famous phrase linked to his name.
Today, Winkler plays the past-his-heyday acting coach Gene Cousineau on the bleak HBO comedy Barry, created by comedian Bill Hader. That show recently received six Emmy nominations for its second season, including Winkler’s second nomination in the role for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series. Last year he won the same award for playing Cousineau, “the passionate but fatuous instructor” (as the New York Times put it) adored by his students. It was his first Primetime Emmy win in his long career, though he’d been nominated several times.
Winkler’s unabashed glee during his acceptance speech was delightful. “Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god,” he said. “Okay, I only have 37 seconds. I wrote this 43 years ago.”
In April, before this year’s Emmy nominations were announced, the actor talked about his career trajectory with NPR’s Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air. Like many other interviewers, she asked Winkler about jumping the shark, only she wanted more than the backstory. Gross asked Winkler how it felt to be attached to a phrase that means “We’re all out of good ideas.”
First, Winkler explained how the shark scene came together, a story he has told Oprah and others, always evoking his late father, whom he refers to as “the short German. ”
“[M]y father, the short German, said to me every day for years, ‘Tell [director] Garry Marshall that you water ski.’ ‘Dad, I don’t think I’m going to do that.’ ‘No, no. Tell him you water ski. It’s very important.’ I finally tell Garry, ‘My father wants you to know I water ski.’”
Winkler, a New York City native, had loved water skiing in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, he explained, and he performed all but the actual jump stunt in that fateful episode. “When I hit the beach at the end—when I’ve jumped the shark—I land on the beach and I step out of my skis. And I’m smiling. I’m thinking, ‘Hey, this is great.” Half the smile is Henry going, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you just did that.’ And the other half is the Fonz going, ‘All right, here I am. I did it. I’m very cool,’” he told Gross.
How the phrase came to be so derogatory was a mystery to him. Fonz on water skis was “the last straw” to some, he said, but “it wasn’t to the audience because we were number one for years after that,” he told Gross.
And how does he feel about that idiom? His answer was endearingly Cousineau-esque:
“OK, here’s the truth. Are you ready?” he replied.
“Yes, I’m ready,” Gross said.
“I don’t care.”
“I think it is wonderful,” he went on. “And we’re still talking about it in 2019.”
It could be bravado, or great acting, but Winkler’s response sums up the best advice from psychologists about how to deal with failure, or—as in this case—what other people perceive as a mistake.
For one thing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In fact, in 2015, when Winkler had a small recurring role as ineffective attorney on the comedy series Arrested Development, he saw the humor in jumping another shark (this one lying dead on a dock) as an inside joke, this time in character as a bumbling lawyer.
It could be an act, but he also doesn’t appear to associate who he is with an incident that’s been labeled an embarrassment, and which has given us a phrase now included in Cambridge dictionary and others. Winkler seems to see that your essential self, as Buddhist thinkers say, is wholly separate from your work and your professional achievements.
As it happens, Winkler claimed to have taken that same attitude when he was at the height of his stardom as The Fonz, too. In a 2006 interview, he said it was a good thing that he was a little older, closer to 30 than 20, playing that teenage idol. “You cannot believe you are more than you are,” he said, even if the Smithsonian requests your motorcycle jacket for its collection of cultural artifacts.
All these years later, Winkler says he’s glad he’s working. “I love going in every day. And while there are a lot of people who at my age don’t audition, they also don’t get the job, he told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “So I’m happy to.”
It’s likely that some of his resiliency can be chalked up to age and experience. Winkler’s story of himself, as told to Gross, includes mention of the eight-year period after Happy Days ended when he couldn’t find another gig because he had been typecast as the girl-magnet, too-cool-for-school Fonz. “People said, ‘Oh, my God, we love him! He is such a good actor … but, you know, he’s The Fonz,’” he also told The Hollywood Reporter.
Long before that, as a child in school, he struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia, something he didn’t become aware of until he was 31. It was his son’s diagnosis that prompted him to get tested. “When we did Happy Days, I embarrassed myself for 10 years reading around that table with the producers, the other actors, the director, all of the department heads,” he told Gross. “On Monday morning, we read the scripts. I stumbled over every word. I was completely embarrassed.” But remembering the lines was easy: “Memorizing, if it’s written well, my brain is then able to suck it up like a vacuum cleaner.”
Despite the shame he felt then, he stuck with it. That he’s part of a trend of Americans working into their seventies may be enough evidence that jumping the shark is a fun concept, but ultimately meaningless. For Winkler, the labor, the payoff, and the inevitable highs and lows have become part of his narrative. “If you take care of the story, happiness doesn’t need to be enough,” the writer Zat Rana declared in a 2017 essay about the purpose of life. “You get something better. You get sustained fulfillment.”
Which isn’t to say that Winkler doesn’t crow at all or that he doesn’t possess a little of the starved ego so apparent in Cousineau. Last year, the actor told late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon that while other actors might have so many Emmys that they use them as door stops or store them in their bathrooms, he doesn’t feel as blasé. “Mine is on the dining room table,” he told The Tonight Show host. “And the dining room table is opposite the front door.”