Friday, March 25, 2016

When a celebrity dies

This post is going to land me in a lot of trouble. I am going to be accused of heartlessness and insensitivity. Inevitably I’ll be told “if you don’t like it, ignore it,” which raises the question: how can I know to ignore something if I ignore it? People will explain that they need to express their “grief”, and I shouldn’t be trying to stop them.

Yet another celebrity has died. This time, it’s Garry Shandling.

Well, that’s sad. Not that I had any particular fondness for the man or even paid much attention to his work, but no man is an island and all that. I expect he was a great influence on the latest generation of comedians, to whom he has now passed the baton. It’s up to them now.

Last week it was Paul Daniels. If you’re not British, you may be asking: “Paul who?” Paul Daniels, a British magician who was instrumental in bringing conjuring acts to the mainstream. When he started his showbiz career, magicians were men in top hats and capes who came on stage accompanied by a smiling assistant and mystical music, and silently performed trick after routine trick to dutiful applause. Daniels was one of a new breed of acts who looked to add something extra — for him, it was humour, comedy and occasionally even slapstick — to make it interesting and fun, and also engaged the audience, inspiring the modern trend for close-up magic. Look him up on YouTube: this is the raw stuff out of which the likes of Derren Brown cut their cloth.

There was a time in the 80s when Paul Daniels was constantly on British TV (as well as a magician he was a quiz show host), so he was a big part of my childhood. He died last week, aged 77. Well, that’s sad. But his legacy lives on.

The “outpouring of grief”, though, that’s what gets me. In the sense that it irritates me greatly. All over social media, people fall over themselves to express their grief and shock at the passing away of somebody they may possibly have met once in their lives, and hadn’t even thought about for many years. It’s not just Shandling and Daniels, but the whole lot of them: actors, singers, writers, even record producers that few people had ever heard of until they died, but had something to do with the Beatles and therefore it is a great and profound shock.

And always the same, tired old clichés. “I have no words” (yes you do, you just used four of them). “A legend” (almost certainly not). “Oh, no” (what, did you just lose a bet or something?). “Gutted”, “devastated”, “numb with shock” — no, you’re not, because five minutes later you shared yet another lame Trump meme and commented “This is hilarious.”

And sometimes the sentiments are patently ridiculous. The number of people who were “shocked” at the death of Paul Daniels was quite remarkable, given that just one month previously all the British news media reported that he’d been diagnosed with a fatal and inoperable brain tumour. “Shocking” is the one thing Daniels’s death wasn’t, since we were all expecting it. On the contrary, it was quite merciful: his family said his tumour was preventing him from processing new information, so he didn’t know he was dying. He watched some TV, ate some ice-cream, fell asleep and then didn’t wake up. I’ll tell you one thing: that’s how I want to go.

And all this is from people who never actually knew him. Perhaps once they’d been “a volunteer from the audience”, or maybe they have his autograph or a selfie with him. They never knew the man, not really. Half of them might not have liked him much if they did know him: he had, for example, some pretty trenchant views on homelessness and taxation that a lot of people found unsavoury. He also boasted that, for example, without him there would be no David Copperfield, which is quite a claim. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not something I want him to be banging on about for half an hour in the pub.

If this is how people react to the expected death of somebody they never knew, one wonders how they might react to the sudden death of a near relative.

And then there are the woeful posts, tweets and so on about how so many awesome celebrities are dying at the moment. Unthinkingly, people take to the internet to broadcast their belief that God is just being mean and taking all the popular people, leaving us all down here bereft of their wit, genius, musical ability, or whatever qualities they were deemed to have.

Well, first of all, barely a week goes by without some celebrity somewhere dying. It’s what all celebrities do sooner or later. It’s what all of us do sooner or later. You’re going to have to face up to that one.

Second, the phonograph was invented in 1877, since when we have had the ability to record performances more or less permanently. We still have access to all these celebrities’ work, and in most cases those celebrities had stopped producing new material. In some cases — James Dean springs to mind — very promising careers are cut short. But in most, the deceased already has their best work behind them.

And third, as I hinted above, if they’re any good, their legacy will live on in the next generation. People who were inspired by them will add their own ingredients to the mix and keep that legacy alive. The good ones will do so creatively, and become the next great “legends” of their time, with fresh approaches and new ideas to keep everything moving along, making life interesting and adding to the great store of everything that is good and fun. Nothing is being taken away.

When somebody famous dies, it’s reported in the media. There’s no need for everybody to also splash it all over their social media feeds with insincere expressions of the kinds of emotion that the deceased’s immediate family may be feeling. And it is insincere, because you don’t really feel those emotions.

Ah, but how could I possibly know you don’t really feel those emotions? Because if you did, you wouldn’t be shouting them out to the bottomless void that is the internet. You would be contacting the family, expressing your condolences to them and asking if there’s anything you can do. And don’t forget, if I can see your “grief-stricken” posts, I can probably see the rest of your social media feed, and I can see all the goofy selfies you posted that day, the Russian dashcam video you shared and the fact that you’re “ecstatic” about your team’s ability to carry a ball over a line more times than the other team.