The term "jumping the shark"-- referring to the moment when a long-running series ceases to be worth watching-- derives from the top-rated sitcom, Happy Days (1974-1984), created by Garry Marshall. When Fonzie water-skied over a shark, the show was advertising its desperation, a desperation born of the realization that it wasn't very good anymore. Others disagree, and suggest Happy Days jumped at some other point. A few diehard fans claim it never jumped at all, but there's no denying that its ratings fell precipitously in the 1980s.
Happy Days, in any case, went through several incarnations.
In 1971, Garry Marshall hired Ron Howard, fresh out of his role as all-American kid Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show to play an all-American teenager on New Family in Town. Possibly the first example of 50s nostalgia in the mass media, it also featured Richie's wordlier friend Potsie (Anson Williams), girlfriend Arlene (Tanis Montgomery), father Howard (Harold Gould), mother Marion (Marion Ross), older brother Charles (Ric Carrott), and kid sister Joannie (Susan Neher) in a plot involving the Cunninghams' purchase of their neighbourhood's first TV set.
The pilot did not sell, but in 1972, appeared on the romantic-comedy anthology, Love, American Style, under the title, "Love and the Happy Days."
A year later, George Lucas had his first hit with American Graffiti, a nostalgic flick set in '62, starring Ron Howard as an all-American high school graduate. The film helped start both the 50s nostalgia boom (though the original stage-musical Grease had already premiered and Sha Na Na had been touring for a few years), and the increasingly gross, "cuttin' loose" teen comedies (though American Graffiti is tame when compared to what followed).
Suddenly, New Family in Town was a hot commodity.
Some revision was in order, and the original pilot was never in strict continuity with the show. The actors who played Howard, Chuck, and Joannie were replaced. The Cunningham home was changed. Nevertheless, some of the New Family footage appears in a Happy Days episode as flashback.
The show's original credit sequences (a few were used) clearly tried to evoke American Graffiti. Both use the same theme song, "Rock Around the Clock." The clips include a sock-hop shot nearly identical to one from Lucas's movie. A new character, Ralph Malph, drives a yellow 1929 roadster very like yellow 1932 deuce coupe used in the film. Some police officers suffer an embarrassing situation, though it is far less serious than the one that occurs in the film. In another echo, some teens run around a car and cause minor mayhem at a stoplight.
Arnold's, a drive-in resembling the one in American Graffiti, features prominently in the credit sequence and the show itself-- though its sign reads "Arthur's" in the first episode.
The show takes a low-key, nostalgic approach to comedy, and focuses on Richie's coming of age. There is no studio audience, so the range of locations varies widely. Episodes often revolve around minor moral crises. The show frequently references its 50s setting; an early episode centers on the 1956 presidential election. Richie and his friends are high school juniors in the first season and, presumably, seniors in the second.
Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzerelli (Henry Winkler) appears, a quiet, tough hood who (despite occasional criminal leanings and associations) follows a moral code and ultimately proves to have a good heart. He wears the leather jacket, but often sports that other, less threatening mark of 50s toughness, the windbreaker1. A great many recurrent characters and background details give the show a sense of depth. Ralph is a member of the "Gems," some of the girls belong to the "The Magnets" (We attract!), and a nuisance named Bag (Neil J. Schwartz) leads "the Demons," to which Fonzie has some indefinite connection. Chuck, Richie's college-age brother, is a key player in many episodes. Gavan O'Herlihy and Randy Roberts both played this role (does anyone else find it funny that a character nobody recalls was played by three different actors?)
Chuck Cunningham disappears after Season 2, never to be mentioned again. In the show's final season, Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham talk of raising their two children, Richie and Joannie. Retroactively, Chuck never existed. Potsie, Richie's goofy though more worldly buddy, becomes Potsie, the socially-inept nerd. Ralph's rarely-seen parents retain their names (Mickey and Minnie), but the actors change and the characters' personalities are dramatically re-imagined. Ralph's father, originally a small storeowner, like Mr. Cunningham, becomes an optometrist. The biggest transformation is Fonzie's; the soft-spoken hoodlum with a heart of gold becomes a preachy loudmouth who can attract girls by snapping his fingers and start juke boxes by banging them. He also retroactively always had his leather jacket, and wears it under the most bizarre circumstances (while water-skiing over a shark, for example). His previous gang affiliation is with the hitherto unmentioned Falcons.
Fonzie became a major fad of the era, while the newly-invited studio audience (tested once in the second season) became a major factor in the performances. Anyone's entrance-- but especially Henry Winkler's-- is accompanied by applause, so that the characters often have to pause or repeat parts of lines. The live audience requires that the Cunningham house be redesigned from the complex, realistic home to one of those linear, Ozzie and Harriet sets (though the same house continues to appear in external shots). The "feelgood" family comedy of the early episodes disappears, replaced with a wise-crack-a-moment sitcom that plays to the live audience and the growing mob of young fans. Richie and his pals, meanwhile, take a few more years to finish high school.2
Along with the period theme-song and American Graffiti-inspired credit sequence, the show also leaves behind any serious attempt to recreate the 1950s. It now takes place in a weird, anachronism-filled, alternate 1950s. This version of the show, occasionally quite funny, brought Happy Days its highest ratings, and made it a defining 1970s sitcom.
The revamped Happy Days lasted until the end of the 70s, when circumstances forced the producers to retool again-- but (save for the finale)3-- I have never seen more than ten minutes of these episodes. Richie Cunningham disappears when Ron Howard leaves to become Hollywood's All-American director, various new characters turn up (with 70s haircuts), and Fonzie becomes both a co-owner of a significantly-renovated Arnold's and a teacher at Jefferson High.
The move away from a a more realistic series continues. In one of the later Ron Howard episodes, Robin Williams appears as the alien, Mork. Originally, this turned out to be a dream, but a new ending was added later, indicating it "really" happened, and Mork crossed over at least one other time from his spin-off show. Later episodes experimented with additional other-worldly guests, including an angel and a demon-- not Bag, but Satan's nephew.
Along with its many sequels, (Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Blansky's Beauties, Joannie loves Chachi, and Out of the Blue), the show also birthed a cartoon, Fonzie and the Happy Days Gang, which had several of the characters traveling in a time machine. This is a legitimate incarnation of a show which had retconned itself from a low-key coming-of-age comedy to an anachronism-riddled yukfest that had featured a superhuman hood, visiting off-worlders, and the still-unsolved disappearance of Chuck Cunningham.
1. It looks like a windbreaker; Winkler says it was a golf jacket, provided because executives thought the leather jacket might look too threatening. Nevertheless, the leather can be seen in the early seasons. Fonzie first wears it in one segment of the third episode; the other jacket disappears by the end of the second season.
2. Obviously, these things just happen on television. I suppose a case could be made that the first two seasons represent an entirely different show, so much does the third season diverge from established continuity. Another change: it had previously been established that Fonzie's father abandoned his family when Arthur was twelve. From the third season onward, he is said to have left when Arthur was four.
3. I'm calling the two-part "Passage" a finale, and it plays that way, with the return of Ron Howard and other former cast members, the marriage of Joanie and Chachi in 1965, and the final toast to "Happy Days." However, it aired with five more episodes still to follow.