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by William H. Benson

November 24, 2011

     The expression “jumping the shark” refers to that Happy Days‘ episode that aired on September 20, 1977 when Fonzie, on water-skis and dressed in trunks and his trademark leather jacket, jumped over a penned-up shark. All television series seem to run through a cycle, beginning with a set of fresh ideas, imaginative characters, and entertaining plots, but then, over time as the writers lose their edge, they begin to grasp at silly plots that fail to make any sense, resorting to “jumping the shark” scenes.

     The idiom has subsequently broadened beyond television and now refers to “any enterprise whose best ideas are behind it,” to that “moment when brand, design, or creative effort moves beyond the essential qualities that initially defined its success, beyond relevance.” In a word, to the “absurd.”

     An audience, or a group of voters, citizens, readers, or members belonging to any organization can reach that moment of “jumping the shark,” when the absurd stands up and stares at all those fools who are watching. People suddenly feel exhausted by the trite, disappointed in the poor quality, bored with the commonplace, and annoyed by the hackneyed, the banal, and the routine. They are jaded.

     Speaking of Sports commentator, Howard Cosell, arrived at that point in 1983 after thirteen years on Monday Night Football. If I remember the quote correctly, he announced that professional football to him had become “an incredible bore.” As for college sports, we witnessed last week an absurd, even tragic, moment when the news broke from Penn State. Buzz Bissinger writing in Newsweek stated it best, “Too many universities are sports factories posing as academic institutions.”

     By their very definition, political campaigns bore even the most excitable people. The Iowa Caucuses are set for January 12, 2012, seven weeks from today, and Rick Perry cannot recall “the third of three federal departments he proposes to shut down” if elected. Paul Begala, also writing in Newsweek, labeled the Republicans “The Stupid Party,” for they know “they can earn applause by denouncing science,” especially evolution. They too have resorted to “jumping the shark.”

     The New York Times writer, Ross Douthat, said, “It will do America no good to replace the arrogant with the ignorant, the overconfident with the incompetent. In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution.” In other words, people who will not “jump the shark.”

     Now we hear rumors of a potential attack upon Iran, for that country, now we are told, has weapons of mass destruction. Did we not watch that show once before? I cannot imagine that few Americans would want to watch a repeat of that White House episode, and I fail to see any reason we should ever jump that shark again. Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman now running for President, argues that fears about Iran’s nuclear program have been “blown out of proportion,” and that “tough penalties are a mistake because they only hurt the local people and still pave a path to war.”

     The Christmas shopping season arrives this week. The basic faith and love in an eternal and divine being has been dwarfed by a frenzied adherence to obligations, want-satisfaction, duties, and a truckload of extensions that reside in a world a fair distance from the basic faith from which it all originated. In the season, we dare not lose Christmas, the best holiday of the year.

     Certain human values rarely go out of style or lose their freshness, and, like a magnet, they attract others. Values, such as graciousness, an appreciation of others’ efforts, patience, loyalty, dedication, determination, and yes thankfulness; those values still shine bright. But can they be pushed to the point that they too are absurd? Of course! Consider Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep and his insincere “humbleness.” What a boring world it would be indeed, if everyone was just nice.

     President Lyndon Baines Johnson used to say that “where flattery is necessary, there is no excess.” But then he was a master of manipulation: he jumped the shark daily. Simple appreciation of others he lacked, and those Congressmen he approached knew he wanted one thing: their vote.

     In a list of human traits, gratitude and thankfulness do not rank as high as say, ambition or trustworthiness, and perhaps for that reason it is wise that we celebrate Thanksgiving only once a year. More often, and it too would transform into an absurdity. The rest of the days of the year, we, the hearty members of the American workforce, are expected to go to work, an expectation that can cause us to feel like an absurdity, as if we are jumping the shark every day.

     A rabbi named Tarphon used to say, “It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We work five days a week, enjoy our weekends, and then in late November every year, we stop work one day and give thanks. Nothing absurd about that. No “jumping the shark.” Have a great Thanksgiving!