Daily Lists, Miscellaneous

9 Deaths That Shook Nerddom

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?Not to bum you out first thing in the morning or anything, but death is coming for us all. RUN! Ha ha, you can’t. Okay, you probably won’t die today, but you will at some point. Everyone does. And because celebrities are so such a huge part of our culture, when someone famous dies it often feels like we actually knew them (and not in a restraining order-necessitating kind of way). Every now and again, a celebrity death has such a personal impact upon us that we grieve the deceased as we would one of our own friends or family members. Thus this totally fucking morbid Daily List in which Topless Robot sets out to examine which famous deaths have had the biggest impact upon the nerd community. This is going to be depressing, so if you keep a flask nearby the time to empty it is now. To paraphrase Captain Picard in Star Trek: Generations, our mortality is what gives our lives meaning. In other words, cue up “Road to Nowhere.” Whee!

Daily List suggested by General Zeep.


9) Heath Ledger

There’s nothing at all amusing about Heath Ledger’s sudden death in 2008, so instead let’s remember how brutal it was when The Joker made that pencil disappear in The Dark Knight.


8) Phil Hartman


Phil Hartman has the unfortunate distinction of being the only murder victim featured on this increasingly bleak list. When he was shot to death by his wife Brynn on May 28, 1998, it caused anger and confusion amongst the legion of fans he had gained through his work on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and Newsradio. Eventually these feelings were replaced with sadness at the comedic talent we all lost and thoughts of what he could have achieved had he lived. Towards the end of his life, Hartman half-joking suggested in interviews that he planned on starring in a live-action Troy McClure movie. This had more to do with keeping himself entertained while doing press junkets than reality, but it’s another grim reminder of the potential hilarity that evaporated when he was killed.


7) J.R.R. Tolkien


Like Dungeons & Dragons (more on that in a bit), the works of J.R.R. Tolkien were the entry point into a lifetime of nerdery for countless folks. The author died in 1973, and his passing was felt especially hard amongst the counterculture types — i.e. filthy hippies — who helped build the word of mouth buzz that made The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy an enduring phenomenon years before Peter Jackson grew his first beard. Following Tolkien’s death, the “Frodo Lives!” meme that started in the 1960s became even more ubiquitous. What had started as a goofy slogan had transformed itself into a posthumous tribute to the writer and the world he created. Better still, it was a lot cooler to see written on a toilet stall than “Kilroy Was Here.”


6) Jack Kirby


King Kirby is arguably the greatest comics illustrator who ever lived. Debate this point in the comments all you like, but his work clearly helped Marvel become an industry powerhouse (not that the company seemed to appreciate it all that much given their shoddy treatment of him over the years). Sixteen years after his death, his visual style is still being aped by hack comics artists the world over who know that if you’re going to be derivative you may as be derivative of the best. Here’s hoping that Kirby is out there somewhere hanging with the New Gods, because he certainly has become one to so many comic fans.


5) Graham Chapman


Right! Graham Chapman was the first member of Monty Python to die and he almost certainly won’t be the last. The above video features John Cleese and Eric Idle eulogizing their pal in typical Python fashion, which is to say by insulting him at his own funeral. If you ask me, the memorial service would have been the perfect time for Cleese to take up selling albatross again. It’s not like Chapman was in any condition to stop him.


4) Gary Gygax


It’s fitting that a man named Gary Gygax co-created the world’s nerdiest pastime. Having overcame the perils of having a surname that sounded like a creature from Greek mythology, he helped bring Dungeons & Dragons (and the TSR company) from out of the basement and into the mainstream. As the 60 Minutes news story embedded above illustrates, Gygax took a lot of shit for his desire to give people a harmless way to escape their problems through role-playing. Regardless of the stigma attached to D&D, there’s nothing wrong with grown-ass men and women pretending to live in a time of magick and wizards. (Seriously, it beats Chatroulette). As for Gygax, he learned that not even the world’s mightiest Dungeon Master can ward off the Grim Reaper with a saving throw when he died two years ago.


3) Douglas Adams


The firestorm of controversy that erupted around last year’s publication of Eoin Colfer’s authorized Hitchhiker’s Guide sequel And Another Thing… demonstrated how protective Douglas Adams fans are of their favorite author. When he died at the age of 49 in 2001, he left behind a family as well as several unfinished projects. Although the posthumous collection The Salmon of Doubt features some of these incomplete works, the true tragedy of Adams’ death is how his appetite for ideas (which rivaled that of his yearning for fine cuisine) limited his creative output in his final years. He devoured knowledge, and that, coupled with his well-documented loathing of actually sitting down to write, distracted him from getting more of his brilliant thoughts on paper in his too-brief lifetime.


2) Gene Roddenberry


The Great Bird of the Galaxy exited our universe in 1991, but he left his legacy as a sci-fi visionary behind. Think about it, without Roddenberry we would have no Gorn, no Borg, no Orion Slave Girls, no Picard Maneuver and no Enterprise. Maybe the last part isn’t that bad. His creation of Star Trek also made William Shatner a household name, thus proving that Roddenberry’s impact upon humanity was immeasurable.


1) Jim Henson


The death of Jim Henson has been called Generation X’s JFK moment. It was the end of an era when it seemed perfectly natural for a felt frog to be in love with a pig puppet. The Muppets are such an indelible part of our childhood and pop culture that when Henson died we felt a bit of ourselves disappear too. He’s been gone for almost 20 years to the day, and the wound still hasn’t healed. It probably never fully will. Where the banjo strumming that kicks off “The Rainbow Connection” once bought a warm feeling to listeners, it now is a bittersweet reminder of what Henson gave to the world — and all that we lost. In one of Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown comic strips, the man-child title character clutches a Kermit doll and reflects upon a time of innocence that is no longer there to protect him from the harsh lessons of adult life. Readers are meant to pity Rusty for his stunted emotional development. But it’s also hard not to relate to his feelings on some level. Without dreamers like Jim Henson around to entertain us, life is a bit less fun. I’m not saying that you should spend the rest of today weeping and watching the “Mahna Mahna” bit on YouTube, but maybe just take a minute to reflect on how he and the others on this list impacted your life. Sorry to end on a down note, but it is a list about death after all.

About Author

Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.