It was 1977. "Happy Days" was in its fifth season, and the show was getting a little stale. The writers were fishing around for something, anything, to breathe life back into the series.
Their answer? Write an episode where Fonzie put on swim trunks along with his trademark leather jacket, then donned water skis and jumped over a shark.
When the episode aired in all its glorious absurdity, a new term was born. From that moment, anyone who has run out of ideas and takes a trip to Ridiculous Land is said to have "jumped the shark."
I bring this up because I think we're witnessing the moment when the Republican Party, or at least its extreme anti-Obama wing, is in the process of jumping the shark.
They've been trying out crazy plot lines ever since Obama was elected, and mostly getting away with it because, as vile as the ideas were, they had entertainment value. The media couldn't resist them. The bookends for their wingnut ideas were "Birthers" on one end, who claimed Obama wasn't born in the U.S., and "Deathers" on the other, who screamed Obama's health care plan is a plot to kill granny. Sandwiched in between were episodes with titles like, "Obama Plans to Put Opposition in Concentration Camps!" "Obama is a Secret Muslim!" "Obama is Hitler in Disguise!" "Obama Hates White People!" The list went on and on.
But it's hard to keep coming up with ideas so bizarre and entertaining, the media will continue to buy them. At one point, you find yourself dipping a little too deep into the crazy basket. And that's the moment you climb on your water skis and prepare to jump the shark.
That moment may have come with one of the right's recent episodes: "Obama to Indoctrinate School Children!"
The feigned outrage over Obama's talk to school children lacked the inspired lunacy of Death Panels and Concentration Camps. It seemed, well, silly. After all, Obama was simply planning to urge students to stay in school and study hard. Reagan and Bush 1 had done the same.
The right wing stumbled around trying to explain its outrage. "Obama might, um, promote socialism or health care reform. He's such a smooth talker, he could, uh, seduce our children into believing things their parents don't want them to believe. In the speech and the study packet, he's going to remind students that the President is the most powerful figure in the country and the leader of the free world. That's OK when the president is Reagan, Bush I or Bush II, but it's wrong for Obama because, well, you see, even though he was elected by a sizable majority, he's really a Socialist / Fascist / Muslim / Racist in disguise. Oh, did I mention he's black? And . . . I want my country back!"
The sheer ridiculousness of the outrage cost them the unquestioning loyalty of some of their biggest fans. Newt Gingrich, Lamar Alexander, Utah's Republican Governor Gary Herbert and Laura Bush said it's absolutely fine for Obama to talk to children in school. And conservative TV host Joe Scarborough was moved to disgust by the whole thing. He wrote on Twitter, "Dear GOP, argue the issues and avoid the insults … or just shut up. Enough with the conspiracy theories."
If the "Indoctrinating School Children!" uproar was the moment the right put on its water skis, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina was the one who yelled, "Jump!" Actually, he yelled, "You lie!" in the middle of Obama's health care speech to Congress, an unprecedented breech of Congressional decorum and protocol. With those words, the Obama haters sailed over the shark, while the rest of the GOP watched warily and wondered, "Should I jump with them, or turn tail and run?"
There's little chance the series will be canceled any time soon. I wonder what this crowd do for an encore.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.