Thursday, July 2, 2009

Stars Dying in Threes: What Are the Chances?

Every time celebrities die in threes, your humble media inform you that, no, actually, they don't.
If you won't listen to us, then maybe you'll listen to the celebrity death month generator.
In the wake of the passings of
Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, we tracked down two writers who ran the numbers on celebrities dying in threes.
And here's what they say...
The Celebrity Death Month Generator Doesn't Lie
In 2005, Rob Cockerham, the Web provocateur of, put together a timeline of celebrity deaths for that August. As to what defined a celebrity, Cockerham settled on a person who's passing warranted a front-page mention on Google News.
In the end, Cockerham charted 11 deaths, five of which occurred in a three-day span. Three times, two celebrities died on the same day. At no time did three Google-worthy names die on the same day. (Even the McMahon, Fawcett and Jackson deaths, which spurred the latest "dying in threes" talk, occurred over three days.)
Cockerham decided any triples that could be found were "convenient triples," as he wrote. Or, to put it another way, if a computer program were to spit out a bunch of dates, it too might randomly hit a trifecta.
And that's exactly what the computer program that Cockerham wrote did: In six trial runs, the so-dubbed
celebrity death month generator spit out nine calendar days each. Sometimes the numbers were clustered, sometimes they were spread out.
At no time did the fates seem to have it "in" for a particular date.
"It proved that if you look at events happening randomly on a timeline you will be able to find groups of three," Cockerham said this week. "But if you really look at what you're doing, you won't be able to put all the dots in groups of three."
The Billy Mays Conundrum
In a 2004
piece for his now-defunct column, Stupid Question, John the Obscure's John Ruch broke out the World Almanac, and examined its 105 Almanac-designated notable deaths for the previous year (up through October, when the book went to press).
Amid the various death dates, some bunched together, some not, Ruch even found one, May 14, 2003, in which three celebrities died on the same day. But he still found himself unmoved by the "superstition," as he puts it, that celebrities are destined to die in threes.
"It's classic garbage-in, garbage-out," Ruch told E! News.
While 2003 produced one of those classic "celebrities die in threes" stretches that gets everybody talking—the week in which
John Ritter, Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon all passed away—it also produced others that got nobody talking, Ruch observed. For instance, the aforementioned May 14 saw the passings of Dave DeBusschere, Wendy Hiller and Robert Stack.
"And anybody who can identify all three of those 'celebrities' deserves the grand prize on Jeopardy!," Ruch wrote in his column. (For the record, DeBusschere was a basketball star; Hiller, an Academy Award-winning actress; Stack, the star of TV's The Untouchables.)
How to define a celebrity, an issue Cockerham would later confront, is just one of the problems with the "celebrities dying in threes" hypothesis, Ruch said. Another is when does a sequence of three begin. Or end.
When TV pitchman Billy Mays
died three days after Fawcett and Jackson, Ruch asked, "So is this starting a new series?"
The question could be asked anew with Wednesday's
passing of Oscar and Emmy winner Karl Malden. Does he get grouped with Mays? Or was Mays already taken, having been grouped with 1950s TV star Gale Storm and impressionist Fred Travalina, both recently deceased, if not Fawcett and Jackson. And if Mays was grouped with Fawcett and Jackson, where did that leave McMahon? Grouped with character actor Hal Riddle, who died June 17, and 1960s rocker Sky Saxon, who died June 25, along with Fawcett and Jackson?
And then there's the matter of what to make of a celebrity the caliber of Jackson.
"My question is should Michael Jackson count for three all by himself," Ruch said. "He was pretty darn famous."
It's all enough to make your head hurt. Or your celebrity death month generator explode.
"This is why it's an irrational thing," Ruch said. "You keep defining the definitions."

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