When I was a teenager, my friends and I had a favorite prank: we’d tell people that Gary Sinise had died. Being the late 90s, he was well-known enough without being too well-known that most people would believe it; its randomness lent it credibility. And, because this was before the hegemony of the Internet, you could get people to believe it forever, really—or at least until they ran into Gary Sinise on the street. As good as the web is at debunking untruths, it’s even better at facilitating them: random people are announced dead all the time, and even if a major news source doesn’t pick up the story (which they sometimes do!), it’s shared on social networks until it’s not gossip—it’s news! Horace Silver died in December, according to several jazz websites, until it turned out he hadn’t. Who wouldn’t believe Horace Silver had died? Who would lie about such a thing?
Or, for that matter, that Wayne Knight had died? That was the rumor circulating Sunday morning: that a tractor-trailer accident near the New York-Pennsylvania border had killed the performer in the middle of the night. It may have begun on a TMZ-like site that makes sport of reporting untruths: that Betty White is dead, that a wing of the missing Malaysian flight had been found. It was shared because it had the Sinise Factor: just random enough to seem to matter. And we love it when people die. A quick glance at Gothamist’s homepage this morning showed that several celebrity-ish people had actually died over the weekend: the sailor from the famous VJ Day Times Square photo; comedian and Tonight Show fixture David Brenner.
We only talk about celebrities in the news when they’ve done something newsworthy: cheated on a spouse, driven drunk, solicited sex workers, and/or died. We treat death like any other scandal, though we dress it up in the trappings of pity and solemnity. (Unless it is sort of scandalous, like Amy Winehouse’s.) One news article called Knight’s phony death “tragic.” But, really? Look up the word of its definition includes “extreme sorrow” and “great suffering.” Because Newman died?!
Don’t get me wrong: I like Wayne Knight. I think he’s as memorable as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. And I’m sure he has friends and family and other loved ones for whom he’s a lot more than a comic actor who occasionally appears on television. But to the general public he’s neither father nor friend, uncle nor confidante—he’s just Newman. Who cares if he’s dead or alive? Almost all deaths are personal tragedies; almost none are public ones.
Some deaths are worth noting: Roger Ebert’s, for example, can revive a discussion about his impact on criticism and the broader culture, about the way his work affected our own lives and work. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s can inspire us to revisit his extraordinary body of work and discuss the dangers of drug abuse. There used to be a time, maybe (?), when we elevated people for their accomplishments, for excellence in their fields. But now we’ve created a whole class of celebrity, which you can join just for being a celebrity; we have endless TV channels playing endless TV shows, and now we have to announce the deaths of everyone who’s ever been on any of them. Soon you’ll be able to have an obituaries channel just to explain why it is that Broadway has dimmed its lights every night this week. When James Avery, who played the father on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, died last year, a friend told me it was sad. And I said, no it’s not! For the wife and stepson he left behind, presumably, but not for you and me. What do we do with the information of his death? Do we go back and reexamine his body of work? Or do we just think of him for a second and then never think of him again? What’s sad about finding out that someone you didn’t even know was alive actually isn’t?
We’re programmed to think death matters: that when people die, we need to reach out to those who survived them and offer our sympathy, our help, our strength. So when we hear that people we think we know died, we want to do the same thing. But we don’t know Wayne Knight from Adam—not really. By mourning his or any other celebrity’s death we fetishize death, we scandalize it, we package it so it’s easily consumable: a canned “aww!” on the laughtrack. We alienate ourselves from real feeling, from the true pain of grief and the mysteries on the other side of it. We turn lament into sitcom, so that our celebrities may die as they lived. But we risk turning our own lives into those unlived—into very special episodes.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart