The mayor in Jaws watched as, one by one, his townspeople got devoured, but the survivors stuck with him anyway — cue the memes

By Adam Carlson
November 08, 2019 02:33 PM
Credit: Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

Larry Vaughn was the mayor of a small Northeastern town for several years several decades ago when — yes, sure, okay fine — several people were eaten by giant sharks.

But the sharks (and the people they ate, toothy bite by toothy bite) are not what have kept Vaughn’s name in the headlines.

He may have just been the fictional mayor of Amity Island in the first two Jaws movies, but his short-sighted resistance toward protecting people from the sharks keeps his legacy alive and well. Forty-four years after Jaws made him no more than the fifth-most important character in one of the most popular movies of all time, Mayor Vaughn has been turned into a reliable meme for everything that is right and wrong with local elections.

Last year, a day before the midterm elections, Stranger Things star David Harbour invoked Vaughn’s track record on Instagram in urging his followers to turn out the polls.

He posted a meme with the text “the mayor from Jaws is still the mayor in Jaws 2. Be sure to vote in your local elections.”

His caption: “CLOSE THE BEACHES, DAMMIT!!” — which is basically what Amity Police Chief Martin Brody tells Mayor Vaughn in Jaws, to no avail (and an increasing body count).

Mayor Vaughn (center) in Jaws 2
| Credit: Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Harbour, whether he knew it or not, was cribbing from an earlier viral tweet written by a user named Adam Goodell on Oct. 20, 2017: “The mayor from Jaws is still the mayor in Jaws 2. It is so important to vote in your local elections.”

And Goodell was riffing on the well-established meme of Mayor Vaughn’s incompetence. A parody account for Vaughn was started on Twitter in 2014, and he was used as a gag in the 2016 Ghostbusters re-make. (“Please don’t be like the mayor in Jaws!”)

During the 2016 election, users adapted the punchline of a Vaughn comparison as they saw fit. Depending on the user, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the mayor … or maybe it was President Donald Trump … or Florida Gov.-turned-Sen. Rick Scott.

“Donald Trump is the worst person to run for office since the mayor from Jaws,” TV writer Mike Lawrence tweeted that July.

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz took the comparison even further, tweeting that October: “Wait, wait…So Hillary is the shark. Fine. But could Trump be the shark in Jaws 3D? Hear me out – Bannon is the boat & Obama is the mayor.”

In a reply to Goodell’s 2017 tweet, another user pointed out that Jaws‘ political dimension has received some study before.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels touched on it in their 2016 book Democracy for Realists, explaining in an interview about the project that shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916, which partially inspired the Jaws novel that became the Jaws movie, led to decreased votes in the area for President Woodrow Wilson in his re-election campaign, despite “his administration [doing] everything they could.”

But wait: If Wilson actually suffered some real-life political damage, why did the fictional Mayor Vaughn emerge unscathed from his own shark scandal, remaining in office in Jaws 2, set some three years later? (The matter of his re-election is not directly addressed in the text, but one assumes.)

What lessons should this teach us? What jokes?

Here is where Google can quickly lead down a rabbit hole: Jaws‘ Mayor Vaughn has been the subject of essays, satirical YouTube videos and satirical campaign ads and a column on the liberal news website Salon that wondered “Why is Trump acting like the mayor from Jaws?” He has been turned into a throw pillow and a business-school question and Goodell’s tweet about him became a T-shirt.

That tweet also prompted a public-relations industry blog earlier this year titled “What Jaws can teach us about PR.”

Mayor Vaughn (left) in Jaws
| Credit: Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

“The fact that he has been able to hold on to his position as Mayor is a testament to his perseverance in the face of a crisis,” the post explains. “In fact, the town in Jaws 2 is bustling and a new hotel has been built–a testament to the economic revival that has taken place under Mayor Vaughn’s charge. Mayor Vaughn refused to be defined by the crisis in the first film and successfully rebranded himself, until another shark came.”

On The Daily Kos, a liberal political blog, a user last year was inspired by Goodell’s tweet to write “A lesson from Amity Island. Running in small town and rural America is so important.”

And in August, the website CityLab analyzed howJaws offers a rich set of insights into the mechanics of cities … how chronic corruption, ineffective leadership, and inadequate planning can turn a hungry fish into a regional economic catastrophe.”

Mayor Vaughn himself did not live long enough for such a discussion over his time in office: He stopped appearing in the Jaws franchise after the first sequel. Actor Murray Hamilton, who portrayed him and his almost-as-memeable blazers, died in 1986.

Gone — but not forgotten. Vaughn has his defenders still: His character page on the Jaws wiki describes him as “well-meaning and caring, but unwise.” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, famous for his own eccentricities and off-color quips, has long jested (with an unclear level of sincerity) that Vaughn is his political hero.

“Now, I accept, that as a result some small children were eaten by a shark,” Johnson said in June. “But how much more pleasure did the majority get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the mayor in Jaws?”

Whoever is writing his wiki concurs: “The fact that he held the position of mayor for so long proved that Larry Vaughn was very good at his job.”

On Tuesday, the Twitter account for the fictional Mayor Vaughn announced he was up for re-election.

He won in a landslide.