Do you remember playing Mad Libs as a kid? As the zany word game turns 50, TODAY has the story about how the game came to be. Plus, author Leonard Stern also wrote an exclusive Mad Lib about the TODAY show just for TODAYshow.com readers (see next page). But first, here's an excerpt about the game's history from “The Best of Mad Libs.”
The creation of Mad Libs is directly linked to my inability to spell hyperbole in a seventh-grade spelling bee. Humiliated and embarrassed beyond words, I ran home to take refuge in the family dictionary, determined to learn the correct spelling and exact meaning of as many words as humanly possible. The dictionary became my constant companion — my roommate. Even today, it’s by my bedside, and on sleepless nights I make a point of learning at least one new word. Last night it was orthogonal.
The first sighting of Mad Libs happened in 1953, and it remains indelibly etched in my mind. I was in my New York City apartment overlooking Central Park working on a Jackie Gleason Honeymooners script. Actually, I was sitting and staring at the typewriter (I still use one), searching for the precisely right adjective to describe the nose of Ralph Kramden’s new boss. After wallowing in clichés for 30 minutes, I was ready to throw in the thesaurus when Roger Price, my best friend, fellow wordaholic, and the most original thinker I’d ever met — one of a kind of which there was no kind — showed up at my apartment.
We had planned to do a final polish on our book, “What Not to Name the Baby,” based on Roger’s bizarre theory that names exert more influence on our personalities then either heredity or environment. (Example: “Ashley” always looks like she’s on her way to the dentist, and “Harry” always knows where to get more ice.) I apologized to Roger and told him we’d be cracking on the book in a moment. “No, we won’t,” he said, “you’re in your idiosyncratic-pursuit-of-a-word mode. I could be standing here for hours. Do you want help?”
Reluctant as I was to admit I did — I did. I said, “I need an adjective that — ” and before I could further define my need, Roger said, “Clumsy and naked.” I laughed out loud. Roger asked, “What’s so funny?” I told him, thanks to his suggestions, Ralph Kramden now had a boss with a clumsy nose — or, if you will, a naked nose. Roger seldom laughed, but he did that time, confirming we were onto something — but what it was, we didn’t know. Clumsy and naked were appropriately inappropriate adjectives that had led us to an incorrect but intriguing, slightly bizarre juxtaposing of words.
Why? A clumsy nose indicated nature had failed or there had been a genetic mix-up, and an alliterative naked nose had the sound of a best-selling mystery novel. I remember thinking, So what? Then, suddenly and simultaneously, Roger and I realized what had happened. My obsession had produced an unpredictable wedding of words that had resulted in laughter — and a GAME! Abandoning Gleason and the book, we spent the rest of the day writing stories with key words left out. We played the game at a party that night. Hilarity reigned. Everyone thought this nameless game should be published. We agreed, but not until we came up with the right name. “Until” was five years later.
The name “Mad Libs” came to Roger and me out of the blue-plate special at Sardi’s restaurant in New York in the summer of 1958. At the table next to us, an actor and his agent were having coffee and an argument. From what we couldn’t help but hear, the actor wanted to “ad-lib” an interview, and his agent thought it was a “mad” thing to do.
Nuff said? Abandoning our eggs Benedict, Roger and I were off and running to a publisher, the same one that had published Roger’s best-selling humor book "In One Head and Out the Other." And within minutes we were in one door and out the other. Those good souls didn’t think it was a book but honestly believed it might appeal to a game manufacturer.
The game manufacturer in turn thought it was a book and sent us to another book publisher, which didn’t think it was a book! After we ran out of publishers and game manufacturers within a 50-mile radius of the city, Roger decided we should publish Mad Libs ourselves. What could it take? You design the book, find a printer, and place the order. So we did just that. It never occurred to us, until the printer called asking where he should deliver the books, that printers didn’t double as warehouses. However, Roger’s large Central Park West apartment could and did. Fourteen thousand copies of Mad Libs were delivered directly to his dining room, denying my good friend a decent sit-down meal for the three months and 17 days it took us to find a willing, one-time-only distributor.
Once Roger and I knew that the books were in stores (we confirmed that by visiting bookstores), I arranged a meeting with Steve Allen. In 1958 I was head writer and comedy director for his top-rated Sunday night variety television show. Roger and I suggested to Steve we try Mad Libs as a way of introducing guest stars. Steve, a wordsmith himself, loved the idea of the audience supplying the missing words. We played Mad Libs on the show the very next Sunday to introduce our guest NOUN, Bob Hope. By Wednesday of the following week, the stores were sold out of Mad Libs. We needed another printing immediately. Roger held up the order until we could find a delivery destination other than his dining room.
In the early ’60s, Larry Sloan, a dear friend from high school who had become successful as a journalist and publicist, and who had always been a grammarian par excellence, joined us as a partner and CEO, and we became the publishing company Price Stern Sloan. Before long, PSS was the largest publisher on the West Coast, with Mad Libs having attained best-seller status.
About 20 years ago, I succumbed to personally promoting the company: I had “Mad Lib” printed on my California license plate. At red lights, with astonishing regularity, I was asked by the driver of the car next to me if I had anything to do with the word game Mad Libs. I would say, “Yes, I co-created it.” And they’d challengingly respond, “No way.” Over time, it became increasingly apparent that no true Mad Libber believed that the game was of recent origin. I think in their heart of hearts they believed the game belonged to the past ... that it had been around forever — from time immemorial. Eventually, I gave in. I now state emphatically that Moses had Mad Libs with him to keep the kids amused when they were on the road to Egypt. My red-light friends drive away happy.
When the sales of Mad Libs reached an astonishing one hundred million, I didn’t walk, I ran to Roger’s office to tell him the great news. Roger didn’t speak at first, but when he did he issued a Rogerism that I have quoted continuously over the years. “Well,” he said, “you can fool some of the people some of the time — and that’s enough.”
Copyright © 2008 by Price Stern Sloan, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014. Excerpted from "Best of Mad Libs" by Roger Price and Leonard Stern. All rights reserved.
Got a hankering to play Mad Libs? Leonard Stern created one just for TODAYshow.com. If you’re not familiar with the game, here is how to play:
Mad Libs is a game for people who don’t like games! It can be played by one, two, three, four, or 40.
Ridiculously simple directions:Below, you will find a story containing blank spaces where words are left out. One player is designated the reader, while one or more players are the writers. The reader does not tell anyone what the story is about. Instead, he/she asks the other players, the writers, to give him/her words. These words are used to fill in the blank spaces in the story.
The reader asks each writer in turn to call out a word — an adjective or a noun or whatever the space calls for — and uses them to fill in the blank spaces in the story. The result is a Mad Libs game.
When the reader then reads the completed Mad Libs game to the other players, they will discover that they have written a story that is fantastic, screamingly funny, shocking, silly, crazy, or just plain dumb — depending upon which words each writer called out.
In case you have forgotten what adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs are, here is a quick review:
An adjective describes something or somebody. Lumpy, soft, ugly, messy and short are adjectives.
An adverb tells how something is done. It modifies a verb and usually ends in “ly.” Modestly, stupidly, greedily and carefully are adverbs.
A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. Sidewalk, umbrella, bridle, bathtub and nose are nouns.
A verb is an action word. Run, pitch, jump and swim are verbs. Put the verbs in past tense if the directions say past tense. Ran, pitched, jumped and swam are verbs in the past tense.
When we ask for a place, we mean any sort of place: a country or city (Spain, Cleveland) or a room (bathroom, kitchen).
An exclamation or silly word is any sort of funny sound, gasp, grunt, or outcry, like Wow!, Ouch!, Whomp!, Ick! and Gadzooks!
When we ask for specific words, like a number, a color, an animal, or a part of the body, we mean a word that is one of those things, like seven, blue, horse or head.
When we ask for a plural, it means more than one. For example, cat pluralized is cats.
Yesterday, TODAY and beyond
Here is the TODAYshow.com exclusive Mad Lib from Leonard Stern. Print out and play, or write the words on a separate sheet of paper.
PLURAL NOUNADJECTIVEVERB ENDING IN “ING”TYPE OF LIQUIDADJECTIVEADVERBADJECTIVEADJECTIVEADJECTIVEPLURAL NOUNADJECTIVENOUNADJECTIVEADJECTIVEVERB
Now plug those words into the narrative below, and enjoy!
TODAY revolutionized television ___________ (PLURAL NOUN) when it
first aired in 1952 on NBC — and 56 years later, this ___________
(ADJECTIVE) show just keeps on ___________ (VERB
ENDING IN “ING”)! Americans love sipping ___________ (ADJECTIVE)
their morning __________ (TYPE OF LIQUID) while watching TODAY with
___________ (ADJECTIVE) co-anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.
Ann Curry ___________ (ADVERB) delivers the day’s most __________
(ADJECTIVE) news. And thanks to the always-___________ (ADJECTIVE)
Al Roker, finding out about the weather has never been more ___________
Last year, Tiki Barber, former running back for the New York ___________
(PLURAL NOUN), joined the show as a/an ___________ (ADJECTIVE)
national correspondent. More recently, TODAYadded a brand-new fourth
__________ (NOUN) to the show. Ann Curry, Natalie Morales and Hoda
Kotb co-anchor this ___________ (ADJECTIVE) hour along with Kathie
Lee Gifford, best-known as the ___________ (ADJECTIVE) co-host of
__________ (VERB) with Regis and Kathie Lee. With such a/an
___________ (ADJECTIVE) cast of friendly ___________ (PLURAL NOUN),
no wonder TODAY is the most-watched morning news ___________
(NOUN) in the __________ (A PLACE)!