‘Jumping the shark:’ You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means…


In today’s WSJ, under the headline, “Jumping the sequester,” columnist Kimberley A. Strassel writes the following:

The phrase “jumping the shark” describes that gimmicky moment when something once considered significant is exposed as ludicrous. This is the week the White House jumped the sequester.

The precise moment came Tuesday, when the administration announced that it was canceling public tours of the White House, blaming budget cuts. The Sequesterer in Chief has insisted that cutting even $44 billion from this fiscal year will cause agonizing pain—airport security snarls, uninspected meat, uneducated children. Since none of those things has come to pass, the White House decided it needed an immediate and high-profile way of making its point. Ergo, it would deny the nation’s school kids a chance to view a symbol of America.

The act was designed to spark outrage against Republicans, yet the sheer pettiness of it instead provided a moment of clarity. Americans might not understand the technicalities of sequester, but this was something else entirely. Was the president actually claiming there was not a single other government item—not one—that could be cut instead of the White House tours? Really?

Yeahhh… I don’t think that’s jumping the shark. Do y’all.? That sounds to me like somebody wrote the headline first, and tried to force the column to fit it. Let’s look at the Wikipedia definition:

Jumping the shark is an idiom created by Jon Hein that is used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery, which is usually a particular scene, episode, or aspect of a show in which the writers use some type of “gimmick” in a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest…

And here’s the origin:

The phrase jump the shark comes from a scene in the fifth season premiere episode of the American TV series Happy Days titled “Hollywood: Part 3“, written by Fred Fox, Jr.[4] which aired on September 20, 1977. In the episode, the central characters visit Los Angeles, where a water-skiing Fonzie (Henry Winkler) answers a challenge to his bravery by wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, and jumping over a confined shark. The stunt was created as a way to showcase Winkler’s real life water ski skills.[5]

For a show that in its early seasons depicted universally relatable adolescent and family experiences against a backdrop of 1950s nostalgia, this incident marked an audacious, cartoonish turn towards attention-seeking gimmickry. Initially a supporting character, the faddish lionization of an increasingly superhuman Fonzie became the focus of Happy Days. The series continued for seven years after Fonzie’s shark-jumping stunt, with a number of changes in cast and situations. However, it is commonly[who?] believed that the show began a creative decline in this era, as writers ran out of ideas, and Happy Daysbecame a caricature of itself. As a nod to the episode, Henry Winkler’s character again jumped a shark in the 2003 show Arrested Development

To me, that’s a pretty clear definition that the Strossel example doesn’t fit. You can call the White House cancellation of tours all kinds of things — in these parts, we’d call it a “Big Bird defense” — but it’s not jumping the shark.

That said, the very same Wikipedia entry I quote above gives an example, also involving Barack Obama, that I don’t think fits either:

In 2008 during the Obama presidential campaign, at a meeting of Democratic governors in Chicago, each governor was identified with a name plate while Senator Obama had a large seal – that looked official but was not.[11] The New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich wrote “For me, Mr. Obama showed signs of jumping the shark two weeks back, when he appeared at a podium affixed with his own pompous faux-presidential seal”.[12]

So what do I consider to be a perfect example of jumping the shark? This: When the Beverly Hillbillies went to England. Actually, that series jumped the shark several times; it was sort of a defining characteristic. It sort of did so when Jethro received his draft notice and costumed himself as Patton and bought a tank. It really, really did so when the whole cast jumped fictional universes, going to Hooterville to interact with characters from “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.” (A radical change of venue can be a good sign that a shark is being jumped.)

In fact, those examples are so good that I have trouble coming up with any others that illustrate the  concept so well, as I understand it. It’s not limited to iconic sitcoms, of course. And it can be translated to politics. When Bill Clinton played saxophone on Arsenio Hall seems a pretty clear example. If you go way back, there’s Richard Nixon’s “Sock it to me?” on “Laugh-In.”

But closing the White House to tours? Not so much…

59 thoughts on “‘Jumping the shark:’ You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means…

  1. Bryan D. Caskey

    When celebrities appear on a show (usually playing themselves) that’s a classic sign the show has “jumped the shark” and the writers are out of ideas.

  2. bud

    Closing the White House tours is EXACTLY the type of cost savings event that should occur. It doesn’t affect national security, child nutrition, healthcare, highway safety, food safety, drug safety or anything else that could be regarded as vital. I’m not sure why anyone is whining about this.

      1. Steve Gordy

        When I took a tour years ago (admittedly in the pre-9/11 days), the tour guide was a Secret Service agent. Of course, I was part of a group that was on a tour arranged by our congressmen.

  3. bud

    All you conservatives out there feast on this delicious headline from USA Today:

    Employers add a stunning 236,000 jobs in Feb.”

    Employers added a much-better-than-expected 236,000 jobs in February as the labor market continued to shrug off a recent payroll tax hike and the prospect of big federal spending cuts.
    The unemployment rate fell to 7.7% from 7.9%. ”

    Note the word “stunning” as in a lot, a large amount, impressive, gigantic, enormous, extraordinary, huge. And the Obama recovery rolls out with a new found vigor that can only be stopped by some idiotic austerity measures that congress, and to a lessor extent the president, seem hellbent on implementing. Another year of “stunning” job creation and the worst of our economic problems will be behind us.

    1. Bart


      Before you go all “GaGa” over the “Amazing Obama”, you might want to check the link to the actual figures as provided by the government. Take a moment, remove your rose colored glasses and look at U4, U5, and U6 figures on the chart.


      The other bit of information that is missing from the kool-aid is the fact that FULL TIME jobs were cut drastically but the cuts were replaced along with additional workers hired on a PART TIME basis.

      Or, maybe the “evil sequester” that Obama has villified, demonized, lambasted, actively campaigned against with faux props in the background and laid at the feet of Republicans in Washington is a contributing factor to the increase in employment.

      And by the way, as a conservative, I welcome any improvement in the job market, especially the private sector whether the jobs are full time or part time. That is an indication the private sector has shrugged off the continued disassociation with reality that most if not all of Washington seems to be afflicted with. In reality, I suspect the other conservatives on this blog feel the same but have the good manners to avoid engaging in the same opprobrious attacks against you that you regularily engage in against us.

    2. Bryan D. Caskey

      The number of Americans designated as “not in the labor force” in February was 89,304,000, a record high, up from 89,008,000 in January, according to the Department of Labor. This means that the number of Americans not in the labor force increased 296,000 between January and February.

      You keep using this word “recovery”. I do not think it means what you think it means.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I just ran across this six-year-old post and comment, and since Bryan was emphasizing the importance of the workforce-participation rate, I thought I’d share with you the point we kept emphasizing during the campaign, which seemed to get traction with NOBODY.

        To the extent that Henry had a rationale for his campaign, it was, “We’re doing great in South Carolina, so keep me in office.” Well, we deconstructed that on a daily basis, but I remain amazed at how many people — from average voters to the last newspaper in South Carolina that does endorsements (and endorsed Henry, which still floors me) swallowed Henry’s pitch hook, line and sinker.

        One of the many bits of evidence we countered with was yep, the unemployment rate was low, but that was because that rate doesn’t count people who have given up looking for work, and the workforce participation rate in SC kept setting new record lows all during the campaign.

        Here’s one of my releases about that. Not that it will do any good at this point, but I’m just gratified to find someone interested in this important measurement, and figured I’d share it…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          By the way, the only media traction we got on this issue during the campaign was from Will Folks.

          And in fact, he wasn’t writing about it because WE were writing about it. It was more the other way around. That’s an issue he has cared about for some time. In fact, his writing about it so consistently is what called it to OUR attention. In fact, I got the link to the government site with all the stats from his blog.

          So thanks for that, Will…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            If this blog were enough of a paying proposition for me to hire people to help me, I’d hire someone to stand next to me and crack me on the knuckles with a rule every time I type “In fact,” more than once in a post. And slap me upside the head (gently, of course) whenever I do it at the start of two consecutive sentences…

    3. Silence

      It’s easy to add jobs when you are starting off of a very low base. With 89 million people out of the workforce, adding 236k jobs shouldn’t be that difficult. It is a step in the right direction though. It’s gonna take a lot of months before we are back up to Bush or Clinton levels of workforce participation.

  4. Bart

    This administration has “jumped the shark” so many times, the shark looks at it as a game and waits for the next time the Obama administration dons the skis and engages the shark much to the shark’s pleasure.

    The Bush administration “jumped the shark” a few times and when it fell, the shark ate it. The same will eventually happen to the Obama administration. Count on it.

  5. bud

    I’ll make a deal with you Bart, I’ll take off my “rose colored glasses” and reflect on the U4-U6 numbers (something I’ve plenty in any event) if you’ll acknowledge just for one nano second that this is really good news that doesn’t need to be tempered with Yes-but sidebars or some other irrelevant statistic (like the non-labor force number). This is good news and I’m going to enjoy it for a while regardless of what the naysayers, doomsdayers, buzz killers have to say.

    Having said that a 7.7% unemployment rate is still too high. But it is down and would continue to go down if we could just stop this austerity nonsense. Afterall the annual budget deficit is 400 billion dollars lower than it was 4 years ago, interest rates and inflation are low so what is the need for austerity? I say SPEND MORE. There is certainly plenty of infrastructure needs and with interest rates at historic lows there is no better time than to get on with it. Can anybody say high speed rail?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Here’s a shocker: Joe Wilson managed to be negative about the employment news:

      Although today’s jobs report provides some good news to the American people, it is also reflective of the fact that our economy has failed to put over 12 million people back to work. For the past four years, Americans have watched as the President and the Senate refused to tackle our annual trillion dollar deficits accompanied with an average unemployment rate of over eight percent. Last Congress, the House passed dozens of job-creating pieces of legislation, most with bipartisan support. The Senate, due to lack of leadership from the President, ignored our efforts and failed to even negotiate with us. The gridlock in Washington must come to an end. The American people deserve a Congress that can work together to pass legislation that will help our economy back on the path to prosperity. Over the coming months, it is my hope that the Senate will begin to change course and work with House Republicans on a solution, rather than continue down the broken path we are currently on.

        1. Steve Gordy

          Whenever I read one of his public statements, an old saying comes to mind (with one minor change): “Better to remain silent and be thought a partisan hack than to speak and remove all doubt.”

          1. Pat

            Steve, the old saying has its origin here: Proverbs 17
            27 He who restrains his words [j]has knowledge,
            And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
            28 Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise;
            When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent

    2. Silence

      If you want to spend a lot of money without getting anything – start a passenger rail project.

      As Lyle Lanley said on the Simpsons, “You know, a town with money’s a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it!”

      That being said, I’m a big railroad fan and a shareholder in several of the freight railways.

      Bud, what is it that you do for a living?

    3. Bart

      O.K. bud, but I won’t go so far as to say it is “really good news”. I will concede it is “good news” for the 236,000 who were able to find a job, whether full time or part time. Earned income is earned income and if possible, is better when it comes from the private sector.

      High speed rail? Right. Especially when one considers that many of the transit authorities are close to closing down due to a lack of users on a regular basis. And, how many passengers a day will be required to maintain a high speed rail system effectively and not sustain monumental losses, year after year after year after year? How many high speed rail systems will be necessary to move passengers from East coast to West coast, North and South, and all points in-between? Even the for-profit railroad companies are cutting out passenger train service due to a lack of interest.

      1. Silence

        Ummm, Bart? “Even the for-profit railroad companies are cutting out passenger train service due to a lack of interest.” – This would have been a correct statement in the 1950’s. In 1970 after the Penn Central bankruptcy almost all of the passenger rail service in the country was rolled up into Amtrak because they were festering money. Amtrak was only supposed to last a couple of years, but here it is, 40 years later, sucking down $2.5 billiion in federal funding.

        1. Steve Gordy

          In other words, for only two years of no rail passenger service, we could build another runway to make ATL even more congested than it already is. Any idea on how many government $ we spend every year on commercial aviation? Which is not to suggest that I think high-speed rail is a good idea, except in certain limited situations. But why is Amtrak the only Federal transportation spending singled out for scorn?

        2. Bart

          Don’t know if you have noticed or not but some of the high speed freight trains still have passenger cars intermixed. Just saw one about a week ago at a crossing, it was CSX if not mistaken. So, yes, there are still some railroad companies with passenger cars. I could be wrong and the railroad companies have an agreement with Amtrak to include a few passenger cars. Will have to check on it.

  6. Mark Stewart

    You can say high speed rail between DC and Boston. After that, you need to be able to say it in another language.

  7. bud

    If done right the railroads would be used more and that would take the stress off airlines and roadways. The tracks should accomodate high speed trains that run on time and not shared with freight traffic.

    If not high-speed rail then lets at least aggressively pursue rehabilitation work on our roads, bridges, water systems, sewers, electrical grid and other long-neglected infrastructure needs.

    1. Steven Davis II

      Really? You don’t want freight transported by rail? Rail travel will never come close to air travel, who wants to sit on a train for two days to get cross country when you can get on a plane and be there in 3 hours.

      1. Scout

        You equate “not shared with freight traffic” to mean “you don’t want freight transported by rail?” ?

        They don’t mean the same thing.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Also, let me add that the supposed speed of air travel is deceptive. I realized this years ago, and no longer fly anywhere that it within a day’s drive. And if trains took me where I needed to go at convenient times, I would take those.

        Miss a connection, and those two or three hours in the air with an hour layover become a 12-hour ordeal.

      3. Steve Gordy

        It’s not a matter of rail trying to be competitive with air for trips such as Columbia-Houston or Columbia-Chicago. It’s a matter that we need routes such as Columbia-Charlotte and Columbia-Atlanta. That’s where rail could make a real contribution.

          1. Steve Gordy

            That would be welcome. Actually, a Columbia-Florence route that would connect to Amtrak’s East Coast mainline route would also be a good addition.

        1. Steven Davis II

          Will there be enough traffic to Charlotte and Atlanta from Columbia to support the system? How many people would be willing to give up the freedom of their vehicles to have to take taxi’s and buses where ever they want to go once they get there.

    2. Bart

      You are correct if the comment, “If done right” were the operative statement and the general public would buy into the idea. But, the general public has not shown much interest in high speed rail transportation and considering our “car culture”, it is unlikely opinion will change any time soon. Considering the Amtrak fiasco, once the initial costs were absorbed, the ongoing expense would probably rival SS or Medicare.

      On the infrastructure, according to upgraded ASCE figures, it is estimated that to make the necessary upgrades by 2020, it will require more than $2.7 trillion to accomplish the needed replacements and repairs. The ASCE members, hardly a disinterested party, would be gainfully employed for several years and so would highway and bridge builders.

      I would like better roads and have no problem paying the extra tax on gas if the money would actually be used to keep the roads upgraded. Our roads are the main arteries that keep America competetive and our ability to move massive amounts of cargo hundreds and thousands of miles in short periods of time is a key element in our growth. Thanks to the foresight of Dwight Eisenhower and the 5 Star interstate system, America grew at unprecedented rates after they were built.

      But, once again, the same question must be asked and answered. Where will the money come from? And, if anyone actually believes taxing the wealthy to the max is the answer has no grip on reality or understands the economy. Eventually, the members of congress and the president will have to come to the realization that everyone, and I mean everyone will have to pay their “fair share”. The tax breaks given to so many who end up not paying taxes but receiving more back than paid in will have to participate and not just at the gas pump where all are taxed at the same rate.

      1. Scout

        I disagree. If there was an efficient and reliable rail system available and the price of gas continued to go up, I think many people would not have a problem making the switch despite the “car culture”. Especially considering the wealth of personal technology available which could make train rides more interesting. We are also a phone culture. Texting and riding would be a lot safer. Commute time could become work time for some people who can use their laptops on the train. Given the right conditions I think we could change to a rail culture rather quickly, assuming the infrastructure was there to make it possible.

  8. Bart

    Cupcakes With Army Soldiers Get Kid In Hot Water At School

    CARO (CBS Detroit) A 9-year-old boy’s birthday cupcakes sparked a school controversy that just keeps growing, with scores of people lining up against a school principal who found the cupcake’s topping “inappropriate.”

    The boy was chided, and so were his parents, for cupcakes featuring little green Army men on the top.

    Schall Elementary School principal Susan Wright called the parents at home and said the cupcakes were insensitive in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. School staff pulled off the Army men before they were served……””

    And the story continued with this little ditty from the principal:

    “”She added that some parents “prohibit all guns as toys,” and “no disrespect” was intended for members of the military, however, “Our commitment is always to our children and creating a safe place for them to learn, grow and have respectful dialogues about their differences.”…””

    Brad, does this qualify for “jumping the shark” by the principal and the school? If so, the sharks had better start watching their “dorsal fins” to avoid contact and potential damages when principals and teachers in our public schools overreact to innocent actions by kids when it comes to guns.

    According to some sources, incidents like this one are very, very rare and nothing more than fodder for the NRA, conservatives, and gun nuts to go ape over.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    My husband and I took the train from Boston to Seattle twenty years ago. It was fun!

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    Jumping the shark does not refer to just any weird or offensive behavior. It is a very specific reference to an especially egregious event that clearly illuminated that a tipping point in quality, or the lack thereof had been reached. You have to have had a decent level of quality first, then a deterioration of quality that became undeniably evident after the outrageous occurrence.

    Parents and teachers have been trying to change our culture of violence for decades now, trying to get boys to develop interests other than guns and war. Sometimes these efforts take ridiculous turns, and they seem to be hopeless, so, no, the plastic soldier cupcakes (which seem disrespectful or at least trivializing of our troops in danger, IMHO) are not jumping the shark.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You’re right; that’s not jumping the shark.

      But little boys love toy soldiers. They always will, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. In fact, if there is ever a time when we don’t have war — which certainly isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes — and soldiering becomes an extinct profession, little boys will still play with toy soldiers. Or they’ll want to, if people let them.

      I believe I’m right in saying that violent amusements in the Colosseum were very popular during the Pax Romana.

      And in these times when very, very few boys will ever serve in the military, increasingly violent entertainments are more and more popular. I suspect that distance from the possibility of real war makes lurid depictions of it somehow more attractive.

      And toy soldiers are a pretty tame stuff compared to what kids can see on TV and in movies now.

      I’m reminded of the VPS — Violent Passion Surrogate — treatments that people had to take periodically to stay healthy in Brave New World. Their culture had removed most normal stresses from life, but their bodies needed a certain amount…

      1. Scout

        I think Saki or someone has a short story where a very progressive parent gave their children toy civil servants instead of toy soldiers. I think one of them had been the inventor of Sunday School, or something like that. The parents were very proud of themselves, but the punchline was the kids just played war with them anyway.

        1. Silence

          Scout – We can take our cue from a recent “The Big Bang Theory” episode and purchase a 3D printer and make our own “inaction figures” of Brad’s Blog regular commenters.

      1. Silence

        New Steven Davis II inaction figure comes complete with snarky right-wing comments and Kung-Fu grip.

          1. Silence

            Doug Ross, that is such a typically male chauffer thing to say.

            New Doug Ross inaction figure with programming skills and oversized genitalia to annoy feminists!

          2. Steven Davis II

            On the bright side, I’d be happy if all females looked like Barbie… but we’re headed more toward the figure of a bowling ball than anything else.

        1. Steven Davis II

          And if you show up with one at Show and Tell you’ll likely be suspended from school.

          This country and it’s caving to everything politically correct culture needs an enema.

  11. Mark Stewart

    South Carolina has high speed transit today; it’s called Greyhound (or was). You want to get to ATL without driving? Hop on!

    Passenger rail, especially high speed rail, between any southern cities with the scheduling that convenience travelers would demand is beyond folly. As Doug would say, it would be cheaper to buy everyone who would purchase a ticket a car instead.

    The issue has always been what do you do when you get to your destination (if it isn’t NYC)? That’s why I think these short-term rental ideas – cars, bikes – scattered around demand areas is the wave of the future. Smart phones and electronic credit cards are going to reinvent the old idea of widely dispersed livery stables. Then we could consider mass transit for some 2-5 hour trips. So long as we don’t have stuff, pets or kids to manage, that is.

    For most of us, the car is the solution, most of the time.

    1. Doug Ross

      If you tie a bandana to a stick, fill it with your possessions, and hop on the freight train from Columbia to Charleston, you can get the rapid transit experience for free. Hobo culture is cool.

    2. Silence

      Given the #’s of passengers serviced by the CMRTA and the amount spent on the system it would have been cheaper to buy each of them a decent used car.

      New Mark Stewart inaction figure with subsidized USA Rail Pass, buy yours today!

    3. Steven Davis II

      The problem with train travel is they stop every 10 miles. As soon as it gets up to speed it starts slowing down for the next stop.

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