Metaphor and ‘Jumping the Shark’

On The Kathleen Dunn Show yesterday, on Wisconsin Public Radio, a caller expressed consternation about apparently incomprehensible metaphors. He complained in particular about sports metaphors, specifically the use of ‘Hail Mary pass’ in political speeches, and cited “jumping the shark” as an example of a metaphor he had often heard but never understood. I had never heard “jumping the shark” so I found it incomprehensible, too. Fortunately, another caller knew that the metaphor refers to an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie, dressed in leather jacket and swimming trunks, actually jumps over a shark on water skis. The stunt was seen as a desperate attempt to come up with fresh plot lines for the show. Arguably, the writers failed in this case and “jumping the shark” became a metaphor for the point of no (or diminishing) return in TV or, indeed, any creative endeavor.

Here’s Wikipedia’s pretty comprehensive explanation of the “jumping the shark” metaphor: “an idiom used to denote when a particular production effort has surpassed its relevance and reached a point of decline in quality that it is incapable of recovering from. It refers specifically to the point in a television program’s history where the plot spins off into absurd storylines, unlikely characterizations, and adding or replacing characters. These changes were often the result of efforts to revive interest in a show whose audience had begun to decline.”

The Wikepedia entry goes on to provide a similar metaphor, this time applied to films: “nuking the fridge.” This metaphor, according to Wikepedia, is “an allusion to a scene early in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In the scene, Indiana Jones is hit by the blast of a nuclear weapon while hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator in a desperate attempt at survival. The refrigerator is hurled a great distance through the sky and tumbles hard to the ground, while the structures surrounding it are utterly obliterated. A relatively uninjured Jones emerges to witness the mushroom cloud miles away … Some moviegoers found the absurdity of this event disappointing and reflective of the decreased quality of the series.”

I can’t speak to the decline in quality these scenes may or may not represent, but both these metaphors are fantastic and reflective of the endless inventiveness of the metaphor-making mind.