Is 2016 really the year of death? We ask a dead pool boss

When celebrity deaths are your business, this horrible year actually comes in a little below average, the Stiffs.com commissioner tells CNET.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
4 min read
Enlarge Image

Stiffs.com named its pool after political consultant Lee Atwater, who died in 1991 and was on the very first dead pool lists submitted to the group.

Screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

You've heard it over and over on social media: 2016 is the year of death, it's robbed us of more famous faces than any other in recent memory, we can't wait to rip it off the calendar and start 2017. Carrie Fisher, George Michael, David Bowie, Prince -- the stars of our youth just keep leaving us.

But is 2016 really any more of a death magnet than past years? For 20 years, Kelly Bakst has run the dead pool Stiffs.com, and he gets up close and personal with celebrity deaths on a daily basis. His opinion may be controversial, but he's not seeing 2016 as anything but normal.

"In terms of raw numbers, the average deaths per year has been 73.9 -- and we have 69 this year," Bakst told CNET, (Debbie Reynolds' death ups that to 70.)

"(2016) is completely average in that respect," he said. "Most people will say, 'Yeah -- but so many big names died this year" -- but that's objective. From where we stand, celebs are celebs."

In a dead pool, people make a list of celebrities they think will die in the coming year. Whoever picks the most names correctly wins, but it's a complicated process. Stiffs.com has a committee of nearly 50 people who vote to determine if the names submitted on any one list are truly famous, so just listing a 100-year-old European architect with a terminal disease and a few public libraries to his credit may not pass muster. But for those who can predict the future, prizes offered by Stiffs.com include TVs, Vegas vacations, and technology products.

Bakst thinks it's not so much the celebrity deaths as all the other news of 2016 that has led people to think of it so negatively.

"In fact, it is an unusual year, but because of all the other news. Zika, Syria, terrorist acts, shootings -- even Harambe for Christ's sake," he says. "There was also something about an election, but we were hungover through all of that, and we can't find anything about it on social media."

Those events, combined with the deaths, earned 2016 a rep it can't shake. "These things all prompted everyone to start saying 'Man -- it's just all bad news this year,'" Bakst said.

That doesn't mean the big names weren't major losses.

"If you were a huge Frank Sinatra Jr. fan -- this was a terrible year for you," Bakst notes wryly. "If you considered Morley Safer to be a member of your family who visited every Sunday night, then this year was a disaster. If you play golf, losing Arnold Palmer is unfathomable. But the truth is that all of the people on our lists are celebrities. Who doesn't like Star Wars? Nobody I want to know. Carrie Fisher was a big deal -- period. George Michael? Sure. Reminds me of junior high. My point is that it is different for everyone."

Say one thing for 2016, it did claim a lot of famous people who had been played on Dead Pool lists for years. "It points out very clearly -- a year really isn't a very long time," Bakst says. "Zsa Zsa (Gabor) was the No. 1 pick on the site for six years straight. We expected to hear that [Fidel] Castro died four years ago. Abe Vigoda was the one everyone played every year, because they expected him to go the first year they didn't play him. Most of the time when one of these people go, most people say, 'Wow. I thought he died 20 years ago.'"

While the very idea of a dead pool may seem sick to some, Bakst points out that the game tests one's predictive ability, and doesn't take sides on the person's life.

"The question I usually get asked is, 'Don't you feel bad running a game where you count on whether or not someone will die?'" he says. "My answer is, 'That's not what we are counting on. These people are all going to die. We are just talking about when.' So no -- there is really nothing to feel bad about. We're not killing anyone. In fact, there is an actual rule that says you can't be involved in any way. You can't even run up behind some old codger and yell 'boo!'"

Stiffs.com takes a light-hearted approach to a subject that's often considered taboo for jokes, and for that, its commissioner is unapologetic.

"We started this site less about death and more about how ridiculous celebrity is in the first place," Bakst says. "Tiger Woods is a huge celebrity. Why? Because he hits a ball with a stick better than most people. That's it. Tom Hanks is a huge celebrity. His job is to pretend to be other people. He's really good at it. But where it gets crazy is with people who have zero to give to the world. Paris Hilton. Zsa Zsa. Every reality TV star. We wanted to make fun of them. Best time to do that is when they die. What's the harm?"

Here's the bad news: Don't expect your childhood heroes to get a break in 2017 either.

"Death is a growth industry -- it's happening regardless of the economy, politics, etc.," Bakst says. "And more and more people are becoming celebrities."