YOU'VE PROBABLY ALL HEARD the phrase "Jumping the shark" by now. It's a show business thing from decades ago that I think has been culture-wide for quite some time. (I only heard it myself about a year ago, which, considering I'm in show business, is probably pathetic.) In case you haven't . . .
Fonzie was surfing (Now, how often do you get a chance to say that?) in an episode of Happy Days, and, well, he jumped a shark. I didn't see the thing, but I think that's close enough. Somehow it got around and became a catch-phrase among writer-producers as the point in the tenure of a show--comedy or drama--where it's been on the air so long that some of the stories start to get a tiny bit preposterous. Then usage of the phrase spread to include various agents and executives who had also, just possibly, outlived their usefulness. Since most of them never had any usefulness to begin with, this was never big news, anyway.
I think by now "jump the shark" means anything in any institution or business that has gone so far over the edge it can't and won't be pulled back. The sort of things that, one way or the other, should just go away.
And unless I'm wrong, it sometimes takes on a slighter darker hue of something that was bad and got worse; and then much worse.
I saw one the other night. A big one. Very big. Too big. Lots of you probably saw it, too. It effects us all; and it's not good news. But unless I've lost all perspective--In other words, jumped the shark a bit myself, perhaps--this one is so big the word "shark" won't do.
With this one, I think we've jumped the whale.
I WAS OUT at a trendy, late-night café on Sunset Boulevard--which happens about never--with The Divine Mrs. M., her friend Ilana, and my publicist, Hansen. Actually, we had just come from a book signing next door, and we were there early enough that the place was basically empty. Six patrons, including us. As I said, trendy. We ordered some pizza and sodas (after asking for drinks, which they didn't have: they certainly won't be getting our business again).
Now, I don't watch television in bars and restaurants. I'll notice it if it's right in front of my face, and I'll glance up periodically if it's baseball or football, especially baseball (never basketball or hockey; sorry, not interested), but on the whole, television in bars annoys me. If I ever opened a joint and made it in my own image, so to speak, there'd be no TV and no bands, just good stools and plenty of light to read by. And lots of talking. And the house would buy every third drink. And free rides home. And the waitresses would wear painter's pants. And there would be framed pictures of every girl I liked in 10th grade. And . . .
Where was I? Ah, yes. Jumping the whale.
That's when it happened. That's when we jumped the whale; or maybe it was jumped already, and we just noticed. Hansen tapped me and laughed, pointed over my head and said, "Oh, man. You're gonna love this."
I looked up and there it was. A television was on. Sound off, but it didn't matter. It was Monday, October 16th. CNN. The Larry King show.
And his guest. Maybe you saw it: Let's give him a big hand, folks, and make him feel at home. That great international traveler, raconteur, and personal style consultant, back in the States now where he belongs after his whirlwind tour, please put your hands together and welcome the comedy stylings of . . . Mr. John Mark Karr!
That's right. That guy. That disgusting guy. Not in Thailand anymore. Not drinking champagne on a plane. Not strolling through a parking lot surrounded by far beefier men. Oh, no. He's a national talk show guest now. Chatting. Can't answer certain questions, of course, like about a certain girl. Plenty else to talk about, though, eh? This and that. Plans for the future. "How I see things." You know. Book deals and such. Maybe he'll get back to teaching. Yeah, there's an idea.
Come to think of it, there is a question I'd like to ask him: "Say, didn't you win the Creepiest Guy Ever award? 'Cause I think you're up for it." Got a good shot, too. I mean, let's be honest, folks, this guy makes Kim Jong Il look like Roger Staubach.
I looked up at the screen, but it took several seconds before I got it. I mean, I saw him, but I didn't get it, because I didn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I saw that face, and that body and that hair, and that dreamy, frightening expression, and I almost laughed out loud, because for those few seconds, I couldn't accept that it was happening. I thought it had to be a joke.
"Oh, this must be a sketch. Yeah, that's it. It's comedy. One of those Saturday Night Live things, one of the really good ones, where they use makeup and wigs, and the cast is great, and someone's imitating Larry King, and someone else is imitating . . . John Mark Karr. Yeah, they got someone who could look like him, and they're doing a sketch, in fact the perfect sketch, the perfect satire of a society that's lost its rudder, that's fallen so far, too far, a society in which John Mark Karr is just another talk show guest. That's it, a slightly unsettling but wonderful comedy premise, a satire that says someone like that isn't 'someone like that' at all, he's just another celebrity, and it's all just a big joke."
Except it wasn't, was it? It was real. It was planned. It was fine. It was intentional.
It was horrifying.
DO YOU KNOW how talk shows are booked? There are two ways. The first way, a publicist or agent calls the producer and says, "We have a bunch of clients we'd like to pitch to you as possible guests. How about so-and-so? No? Okay, how about so-and-so? No? Hey, here's one you don't see every day, and we just signed him: John Mark Karr. That's right. Him. Our newest client. Yeah, the guy with the little shoulders, and the all-cotton boys' polo shirts. That's the guy. He's going to be very hot, and we've got lots of offers for other shows outside your market, and I think you ought to book him before someone else in your time slot does."
The other way is when the booking goes in reverse: Sometimes the producer gets the idea first and brings it up in the meeting, and everyone says, "Fantastic. Good 'get'. Do you think we can grab him before anyone else?" And the producer calls the rep, who leans back with a smile and says, "I was expecting your call. What took you so long?"
So either someone pitched a producer, who said, "Sounds good, let me get back to you," but then took it to the big meeting with the other folks on the show, and ran it up the pole, and everyone said, "Yeah, good, sounds great. Book it." Or the producer ran into the head of the show's office and said, "Stop the presses, I've got the next idea for a Very Special Episode. Are you ready, boss? Close your eyes and think of three little words: John . . . Mark . . . Karr!"
WHAT'S THE OLD ANDY WARHOL THING? Fifteen minutes of fame? Brilliant observation. But I think he meant feckless people with empty stories. Perfect banality. A media beast so hungry it begins eating victims that aren't even cooked yet. Not this time, though.
This wasn't the beast eating the victim; it was the victim televising the beast.
"Well," you may say, "but he didn't do it. He said he did, but then they proved he didn't." No, I guess that's right. He didn't do it.
No, he just bragged about doing it. He just pictured himself doing it. He just confessed and came halfway around the world--in public--to pretend he did it. Why do you think this guy moved to Thailand for all those years? For the food? "Gee, I just love how they put coconut milk in everything."
He didn't kill that girl, but I'll bet the people who represent him now wish he had. Could've gotten him his own show by now if he had.
I don't know. Maybe not. I hope not. Maybe that's too cynical. I hope we don't live in so surreal and inverted a culture that people would actually give him a show.
Do you understand that this guy doesn't think any of this is wrong? He's not claiming he was abused or an alcoholic, or anything else that might wrench a soul. He thinks he just likes to do something unfashionable. That society is wrong to be so judgmental of him. We haven't gone that far, I suppose. Yet.
We might have jumped the shark and the whale, but that would be jumping the Loch Ness Monster.
BACK AT THE CAF , I asked our young waitress/actress if we could please turn the TV off--very, very quickly--and she smiled sweetly and did. No problem. Something to remember: Sometimes you just have to ask.
I wonder if she even noticed? Or cared? How many other bars in America was it on? Did they care?
Ah, what the hell. Too late for a drink on a weeknight, anyway.
Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles. His new book is Spoiled Rotten America: Outrages of Everyday Life (Regan Books).