Its a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reach its peak. That instant that you know from now on…it’s all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it jumping the shark. (from www.jumptheshark.com)
The Jump the Shark website is where TV shows are declared DOA. People identify the precise moment when technique turns into formula, when the grammar of the show is revealed. Anthropologically, this is hyperventilatingly interesting. The moment we see something jump the shark is the moment we go from being a participant to an observer. It’s the moment we get jerked out of the experience of watching a show into being its critic. The form of the program no longer engages. We are suddenly disengaged and scornful.
As Henry Jenkins notes, we are ever more sophisticated as consumers of the media feed. And this means we get to the JTS moment more quickly, more often. And this is what drives popular culture to improve or at least to turn over with greater speed. It has to stay ahead of us.
The JTS moment can be applied to anything in our cultural experience and it happened to me this morning when I was reading a preview of the new Martin Short movie: Jiminy Glick in Lalawood.
The film was improvised à la Waiting for Guffman, though the raucous riffing proved hazardous to Short’s makeup. British director Vadim Jean recalls Short laughing so hard off camera at a twisted monologue by A Mighty Wind’s John Michael Higgins that ”I saw him put his hands to his face to hold his prosthetic and run into the corner so it wouldn’t split.”
Something in me snapped. This is one too many “we laughed till we cried” PR puffs from the film set. Ok, I get it. The film set was a place of endless invention and new comedic highs. Ok, so the movie will be a work of genius. Its enough already.
I think what set me up for this was all that press for Ocean’s 12 in which the stars were constantly talking about how much fun they had together. Predictably, Don Cheadle was the only one who pulled it off without sounding like an idiot, but the formulae is now so tired only an actor of his standing can manage to do this. There is nothing quite as depressing as listening to stars talk about how spontaneous they were in language and a manner that is utterly not.
Now there is a particular irony here. Jiminy Glick is supposed to ridicule Hollywood. And in this event, it is, on balance, probably better not to engage in the behavior you mean to ridicule.
There is a well established division of labor here. Mainstream Hollywood creates things that become, in short order, ludicrous through craven repetition. Enter Christopher Guest or Martin Short to take the now exhausted form and declare it “over. (We might think of them as crustaceans cleaning up the ocean floor.) Now the industry can move on. “Oh, they say on a talk show, “we cant do that. Its so Jiminy. (The cultural evolution is, I guess, inevitable. We may now expect a new comic to come up doing satire of Shorts satire. Or maybe that was Dave Chappelles job, before his Icarian descent.)
But the larger anthropological issue here is pretty compelling. First, I dont think we know what is happening in the head of a culture bearer when he or she experiences that “JTS moment, when he or she snaps out of consuming the cultural artifact and begins to criticize it. Technically, I mean. What happens here? This is a Ph.D. thesis waiting to happen.
Second, we know that the JTS phenomenon is distributed. You jump the shark on episode 3. I dont do so till episode 8. This is a reflection of relatively intelligence and sophistication. But it is also a distribution of cultural literacy. This is one of the really important and neglected grounds for segmentation. Forget politics, education, income. The real discriminator is how fast we JTS. (And it may be that speed is not the only discriminator. Maybe we dont all JTS in the same way.)
Third, we live in a culture that streams so fast we must all JTS with some frequency. I believe that Victorians might have experienced this as a spiritual or existential crisis. For us, its just so same old, same old. We expect to embrace and release constantly (with JTS as the mechanism with which we do so). New enthusiasms turn to ashes. We move on. Or, better, a river runs through us. Who and what we are at any given moment depends upon the media stream running through us.
Four, I think, in our multiple personality way, there is a new cultural formation that allows us to declare a show to have jumped the shark, even as we continue to watch and enjoy it. It is as if we all now have this hyper acute JTS detector in our heads with goes off with the same frequency of most peoples radar detectors. We are now both participant and observer, and all of us anthropologists after all.
Anonymous. 2005. Preview of Jiminy Glick in Lalawood. Entertainment Weekly. Issue 817/818. April 29, May 6, 2005.
jump the shark here