You know that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Richard Lewis is convinced he created the phrase X from hell? The joke of the bit is that of course Lewis didn't invent the line—those things don't really get invented, they just sort of turn up. Well, except in at least one case: Jon Hein is unquestionably the man who invented jump the shark, the term du jour for that specific moment when a television show—or anything, really—goes from good to bad. It's when Cousin Oliver comes to join the Brady clan, when Pam Ewing wakes up and finds Bobby in the shower, when the Darrens switch. Over the last few years, Hein has turned a college joke into pop-culture phenomenon, and this week his Jump the Shark book comes out in paperback. Hein spoke to mediabistro.com yesterday about coining the term, and he went shark-hunting for us, looking at the upcoming television season, the Bush Administration, and the war in Iraq.
We all know by know what jumping the shark is, but I don't know how you got started in the shark-watching business.
It goes back to my college days, in the mid-eighties, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A few of my buddies and I were watching TV one night and just started talking about the moment when we knew shows started to go bad. So we'd be like, "Love Boat—oh, when Vicki came on." It was a really intelligent conversation. Happy Days came up, and my roommate for four years, Sean Connelly, this total ROTC, straight-arrow guy, thought about it and in all seriousness said, "When Fonzie jumped the shark." And there was a pause in the room, because we all knew exactly what he was talking about—that episode where Fonzie, in his leather jacket, jumped over a shark on waterskis. And then we just proceeded to use the phrase to pinpoint any moment when anything started to go downhill. So it'd be like, "Did you see the game last night? They totally jumped the shark." "See the girl he brought home? Oh, he jumped the shark." So it was a college thing.
So how did it grow from that to this phenomenon? Did you even realize that the potential was there?
Absolutely not. I mean, fast-forward ten years. I have a computer training business, and I needed to learn HTML for my business. And I thought, why don't I just make a site so I can learn the language? And "jump the shark" seemed like it would be a great experiment. So I called my old roommates, who were now all over the country, and I said, "Look, here's what I'm doing. I'm going to put up about 150 to 200 shows. Just give me your two cents on them, and I'll put up mine, and we'll go from there."
I did the project—I called it Jumptheshark.com—in December of 1997. And Christmas Day I posted the site. The sole purpose was to amuse my college roommates. That was it. And then a couple of months later, the L.A. Times wrote an article about South Park possibly jumping the shark. That's when it kind of entered into the media's awareness. And it built from there. People really got into it—it's not what I have to say, but it's what everybody has to say, and everyone has an opinion on this stuff—and the site just grew and grew and grew. And there was an op-ed in The New York Times about politicians jumping the shark. And I've been on the Howard Stern show a couple of times. It just bloomed and blossomed into what I have today.
It must be hugely gratifying to be the guy who created a genuine catchphrase. But to what extent has it also become a business? I mean, the book is going into paperback, so I'm sure the hardback was successful. Have there been other spinoffs?
I had this site, it kind of built up, and then I had a deal with Rolling Stone to do a Jump the Shark music site, which kind of brought it out of TV for the first time. Then when the Maureen Dowd op-ed hit, every book publisher in town started calling me, asking, "Where's the book?" I was very fortunate that way; I wasn't knocking on doors. I had a wonderful opportunity to do the hardcover, and every talent agent wanted to be with me, and the networks wanted to be with me, so it was definitely a wild ride.
What it's evolved into is the hardcover that came out last September, the paperback that came out this week, and right now I'm negotiating a TV show. Last year we developed a game show for syndication, which just didn't sell, so we reformatted it into a panel show, and right now I'm negotiating with one of the networks on doing a deal to make that happen. If that happens, that would be fantastic. I also did a 2004 calendar, a page-a-day kind of thing. I'm fascinated by where it's gone, and now it's reached the point where people say, "Oh, you created that website just to capitalize on that phrase." And I'm like, "No, no, no, no. I came up with the phrase. I've got the chicken and the egg."
So let's do some shark-hunting. The TV season's about to start. What do you foresee as potentially jumping this year?
I think Joe Millionaire is definitely going to jump the shark, if it hasn't already. CSI, one of my favorite shows on television, if they explore that Grissom-Sara romance, or the thing with him going deaf—there's things in the air of getting more personal with the characters, which will absolutely make it jump the shark. Tuesday nights on NBC, that's pretty much where shows go to die. Good Morning Miami, Frasier, which jumped the shark when Niles and Daphne got together, that whole line-up is absolute shark-bait. I think King of Queens is going to jump the shark this year, just because they moved it to Wednesday, to anchor their new Wednesday night. Smallville, with Clark hitting puberty—anytime anybody hits puberty, like Rudy Huxtable, that's a moment when a show often jumps. I think The Practice already jumped the shark, but I'm dying to watch it this season.
Well, I mean, firing half the cast...
The cast thing, it's just flailing. David E. Kelley, talk about somebody who jumped the shark. He's got a new series on CBS, The Brotherhood of Poland, NH, which I know is going to be terrible. Look at his record lately—Girls Club—and he's just Bochco'd. There's a lot of stuff that I think is prime for—I think it's going to be a busy season, let's just put it that way.
Now, you say in the introduction to this book, that anything in pop culture can potentially jump the shark—music, sports, movies, politics. Has the Bush Administration jumped the shark?
I think it's difficult to pinpoint when exactly the Bush Administration jumped the shark. Could it have been not being able to find one weapon of mass destruction? Possibly. Could it be when—well the list is too long.
How about landing on the aircraft carrier?
Well, that was a classic. That whole scenario, and I don't mean to make fun of it, but I can't help it. It was so staged, so ridiculous. But I mean, the pretzel, Pretzelgate? Has everybody forgotten about that? Making up words? Politics is just so ripe.
Could the Iraq war have jumped the shark at some point? I mean, it was a big success in the beginning, and now everybody thinks it's a disaster. Maybe the aircraft carrier's the moment when the war jumped the shark.
You know, I think that's a pretty good example of it. I'll try this, and you can tell me if it works or not: When the statue toppled. Everyone knew it was done at that point. We were done in theory with what we were supposed to do. Has it been all downhill from there? You can have a show like M*A*S*H where Henry Blake dies, and Radar comes out and cries, it's a wonderful television moment. But from that point on, that show was not as good as it once was. Maybe with the Iraqi war, it could have been something like that, where you had a highlight, or a good moment, but then from that point on, it kind of hasn't been the same. I think, yeah, catching the sons was a pretty big deal, but other than that, it's really been as we read everyday, a bombing here, a bombing there. What have we really done, and where are we going? Either that, or the aircraft carrier. I'm glad you reminded me of the aircraft carrier, because, oh, man, that was just so great.
What about, as a whole genre, network news, which has been constantly losing viewership for years now. Do you think that you can isolate a moment when the network evening news jumped the shark?
I think CNN is why network news jumped the shark, because you had another outlet for news. CNN, in turn, jumped the shark when Darth Vader reminded us over and over that, "This is CNN"—and of course the CNBCs and the MSNBCs and the Fox Newses cropped up. Also, I don't think news is as personality-driven as it was 10 or 20 years ago. As strong as Brokaw and Jennings and Rather are, Cronkite was Cronkite. I don't think that's still there.
So maybe network news jumped the shark when Walter Cronkite retired?
Well, some people think that. Some people think it's when someone asked Dan what the frequency was. But I think the cable, particularly CNN, was really the moment when network news jumped.
Now, the hardcover version of this book went bigger and looked at lots of different things jumping the shark. For the paperback it pulled back to your home territory of television. Could we make the argument that when the "Jump the Shark" brand tried to expand out across all things, that's the moment when "Jump the Shark" jumped the shark?
I knew you were going to go there. The way we set up the paperback was, we wanted to do only TV for a couple of reasons: We wanted to hopefully set up a series, where if the TV edition does well, then I'll do a music and sports, et cetera. And the feedback I got on the hardcover was, people really liked it, but a lot of the core people from the site wanted to see just TV. So hopefully this satisfies both of those audiences. "Jump the Shark" will jump the shark when you dig into your cereal box and the action figure comes out.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. You can buy the paperback of Jump the Shark at Amazon.com.