Being a parent means getting the chance to explain all sorts of awesome things to your kids. Recently, for me, it was “jumping the shark.” As I started trying to explain it, I realized the only way to really clarify the concept for my kids was to go back to the original shark-jumping and explain it as it first appeared in our cultural consciousness. As you (and now my daughters) know, the first jumping of the shark actually occurred on the show Happy Days, when, in one episode, the Fonz literally jumped over a shark that was confined in an open tank inside the ocean, on water skis. Don’t believe me? Watch it. We explained to the girls how, ever after that, “jumping the shark” has referred to an attempt by the creators of a waning show to infuse new life into it—a far-fetched plot point, an out-of-the-blue new character, etc. Jumping the shark invariably comes off as cheap, pandering, and/or anywhere from unnecessary to uncalled for.
My eight year old listened quietly to my explanation. Then, when I was done, she said, with a sad shake of her head, “And then it just ruined everything that came before and after.”
From the mouths of babes.
It was at that moment that the profound pain of “jumping the shark” hit me. It’s not just that it’s a cheap, Hail Mary attempt to reenergize that waning character or show. It’s a singularity (to bastardize a term from physics) that suddenly makes everything that came before it cease to make sense and everything after it utterly pointless. And what my daughter picked up on, without having seen the show or the episode in question, was the profound sense of loss one experiences when the reality of a character—or the entire world of a show—is torn out from under you. It’s not just that moment that’s ruined—it’s that that moment ruins everything.
In improv, one of my favorite guiding principles is, “If this is true, what else is true?” It means that your characters and their worlds emerge detail by detail, and that all the details build from and can be traced back to each other and together they reveal a single, consistent, coherent universe. So you don’t build a bedroom with a pink Hello Kitty bedspread on a four-poster bed above a pink tufted carpet and suddenly drop in a Grateful Dead black light poster. Or, you can, but if you do, you’ve changed the character and the story—you’ve made it that the brother and sister share a room, or that the girl who lives in this room is a pot-smoking teenager now and just hasn’t gotten around to redoing the decor. But you can’t just drop the poster into the room and keep trying to insist that it’s just a normal little girl’s room anymore. And you better not drop that poster into the room after it’s almost completely populated with regular little girl things, because then there’s just too much of a different truth that’s been built up, and your poster becomes a confusing distraction.
I find that holding myself pretty strictly to the principle of “If this is true, what else is true?” allows the humor to bubble up from inside the characters and their world, rather than forcing the jokes on them from the outside. And I find that the discoveries and surprises that come (because there will be discoveries and surprises, even if you are being careful to remain beholden to the truths already established in the scene or the show) are always more hilarious and shocking that the ones I’ve tried to impose onto the scene in a conscious effort to shock and surprise.
But there’s something more important here than getting a better joke, and it’s what’s at the root of what is wrong with jumping the shark. Because that external imposition of the joke, the wacky detail that clearly doesn’t fit, the ”I bet you didn’t see that coming wink wink” move that we all can’t help making sometimes (often in a state of panic when we don’t trust the scene to do the work) actually has the power to ruin not just that moment of the scene, but everything that came before and everything that comes after.
When “jumping the shark” is used to describe a television show, what we’re talking about is sense of an inherent flaw in a character choice or event given the world of the show as we’ve known it. And when that happens, we suddenly become aware of the writers’ choice to send the character or plot in that inauthentic direction. We’re not mad at the character; we’re mad at the creators of the show—the writers, the director, the producers. We trusted them with that most precious of human gifts: the willing suspension of disbelief. And in that moment, they betrayed that trust. Because although we all knew that Arthur Fonzarelli was just Henry Winkler in a leather jacket, up until that point we were willing to allow ourselves to believe he was The Fonz, because the creators of the show had made a world satisfying enough that we were willing to buy in to it, and we did. We invested our time and emotional energy to get to know (and love) the characters and the world they lived in, and we legitimately cared what happened to them. And The Fonz made sense as a person in a world. But the moment that shark is jumped, we lost hold not only of the character as he was at that moment, but the character as we always knew him. Our Fonz had an office in the men’s bathroom at Arnold’s. Our Fonz could get girls to follow him by snapping his fingers. Our Fonz would never water ski, let alone over a confined shark. Who is this Fonz and what have they done with our Fonz?!
And what’s awful about a shark jump is that it doesn’t just ruin that character for us. It taints the whole show with an air of inauthenticity. It cheapens the experience and removes the pleasure we felt at immersing ourselves in a universe at once recognizable and novel. It lifts the curtain, raises the fourth wall, says to the audience, “none of this has mattered. There is no Fonz.”
Every night, as improvisers, we ask our audiences to engage in an intense feat of willing suspension of disbelief. We don’t have sets and costumes like a scripted play. We morph in and out of characters and, when we’re not on stage, we’re just hanging out, at the back of the stage or the sides, just being ourselves. And yet we ask our audience to invest their energy to believe something about the characters and worlds we create in those brief moments. And they’re willing to do it, because the satisfaction of watching the truth of life heightened and twisted and transformed into comedic art on stage is strong. But we have to keep up our end of the bargain. We have to let the twists and shocks and surprises come out of that truth, not at its expense. We have to trust that following a genuine path through that truth will lead us to the truth in comedy we’re seeking. And we have to follow that path until we’re there.