It's a (Adjective), (Adjective) Mad Libs World

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In 1953, the story goes, Leonard Stern was in his New York City apartment working on a script for The Honeymooners, trying to come up with the perfect adjective to describe Ralph Kramden's new boss's nose. His best friend Roger Price arrived, intending to work on a book upon which the two were collaborating, and saw that Stern was stymied, in his "idiosyncratic-pursuit-of-a-word mode." In "A Happy History of Mad Libs,"* Stern writes of that moment:

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 suggestion, Ralph Kramden now had a boss with a clumsy nose—or, if you will, a naked nose. Roger seldom laughs, but he did that time, confirming we were on to something—but what it was, we didn't know.

We all have our own Mad Libs memories (at camp, on the schoolbus, playing with siblings, meeting those, er, childhood rebels who played fast and loose with words like poop or fart or the colloquial sayings for certain anatomical parts). But back in 1953, Price and Stern started it all. Though they didn't know exactly what they had, they quickly realized they had something, at the very least, a party-ready game, and "spent the rest of the day writing stories with key words left out." Then they took their new creation to a cocktail party, where "hilarity reigned," wrote Stern. But the household name didn't actually become Mad Libs until 1958, five years after Price and Stern created it. In 1958 the two were eating at Sardi's and overheard a conversation between an actor and an agent. Stern wrote, "the actor wanted to 'ad-lib' an interview, and his agent thought it was a 'mad' thing to do. 'Nuff said?"

It's nearly 60 years after the game was imagined in an apartment overlooking Central Park. Leonard Stern passed away at the age of 88 in the summer of 2011. Price died in 1990, and Larry Sloan, who would join the two at the helm of a publishing company they'd form in the early '60s, the L.A.-based Price Stern Sloandied in October of this year. But their legacy lives on. Price Stern Sloan, or PSS!, is a Penguin imprint, and Mad Libs are still being written and published, now perhaps even more than ever. In October, Adult Mad Libs was launched, a series of books for grownup audiences, with titles like Party Girl Mad Libs, Log On to Mad Libs (about social media), Countdown to Midnight Mad Libs (New Year's Eve), and, just in time for the holidays, My Bleeping Family Mad Libs. More than 120 million Mad Libs have been sold, and more than 335 million people have played them, according to Penguin statistics. There is a new Mad Libs app, version 2.0, scheduled for release on November 21 for the kids version and December 6 for Adult Mad Libs. The original free app, launched in 2009, has been downloaded more than three million times. There's Mad Libs merchandise for the true aficionado. The original has been made more relevant to contemporary times with themes, affiliations, and cover designs while also retaining a retro sensibility in terms of other design elements and its basic essence. There have been plenty of imitators, both purposeful and accidental. But the true measure of its pervasiveness as a cultural touchstone is that in pretty much whatever form a Mad Lib appears—a blank left in a sentence to be filled with a designated part of speech for laughs—you know exactly what it is, and what to do with it.

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It wasn't always the immediately recognizable entity it is today, however. Even after it was named, publishers didn't know what to make of the concept. Was it a book? Was it a game? Running out of game manufacturers and publishers to pitch (each of whom directed them to the other), Stern and Price decided to publish Mad Libs themselves. They found a printer and placed an order for 14,000 copies, which then sat in Price's dining room, as they hadn't been aware that the printer wouldn't just store the books until they were sold. The watershed moment came when Bob Hope was introduced on the Steve Allen Show, for which Stern was a writer, using Mad Libs. "By Wednesday of the following week, the stores were sold out of Mad Libs," wrote Stern ... "and the rest is history," Francesco Sedita, president and publisher of Grosset & Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan told me. Profitable history: Though the publisher declined to give specific sales numbers, the top best-selling Mad Libs of all time are The Original #1 Mad LibsGoofy Mad Libs (which has been through 48 printings), and Sooper Dooper Mad Libs. Sedita says, of the game, "It resonates best in the U.S. It’s something I believe is part of our pop culture. We really are raised on them; it’s in our ether."

Laura Marchesani, who has edited Mad Libs for PSS! for two years, told me that in 2013 the imprint will publish 14 new, original Mad Libs books in total (two of those as part of a box set). She says, "This will be pretty typical going forward"—we can expect at least 12 new books per year; Sedita estimates about 210 new stories yearly. Marchesani's personal Mad Libs favorites are Hanukkah Mad Libs and Baby on Board Mad Libs (one of the Adult Mad Libs) "because the author did such a fantastic job that I was laughing the entire way through it." She's also a fan of Penguin Classics Mad Libs (book lovers take note) which was done in conjunction with the Penguin Classics imprint and uses "memorable scenes from public domain classics like Moby Dick, Dracula, and Pride and Prejudice," turning them into Mad Libs stories. Beyond the classic and themed books there's a huge franchise with movie tie-ins and licensing programs. "If you're doing a Dreamworks movie," says Sedita, "it can become part of the program to do a Mad Libs. And they can grow from topic to topic to topic ... holidays, Hanukkah, Halloween, letters from camp. If you lined up all the Mad Libs in print end to end, they’d go around the U.S. 4.7 times. The last one that Leonard wrote was called Ad Libs Mad Lib; it was a standup comedy one."

Of the new adult line, Sedita says, "We wanted to take the look for kids—Mad Libs, anyone can play them—but we wanted to do adult games, not in a racy way, but focusing on adult topics, the things you experience as adults: Getting married, getting engaged, things not appropriate for a kid." The logo has been adapted to a martini glass instead of the traditional goofy smiley face, though certain themed Mad Libs (say, Oscars Night) get their own branded logo. But the Adult Mad Libs use the same paper that has always been used. The size of the books have never changed. "It truly has been such an incredible experience to watch how it goes and goes and goes," says Sedita. "We’re publishing in and choosing fun topics but it’s also the brand recognition; it's one of those things consumers just love. When you’re with your friends and having a drink and want to be silly, they can help to get people laughing and be an ice breaker." Or, when you're riding out Hurricane Sandy and the power's out, as a family recently commented on the website, you can get through the storm by playing Mad Libs together. Marchesani says, "I get fan mail from kids; I've had them write me Mad Libs. It's timeless, and I think will continue to grow and adapt to the new technologies, giving kids new ways to play ... Nothing really beats the pen and paper method, though."

Mad Libs are often created by freelance writers selected by the editors. It's a specific skill set, and though it might be fun, writing Mad Libs isn't easy. "Truthfully, they're a lot of work," says Marchesani. Sedita explains, "There’s a formula you look for, but often times I'll meet a writer, and the way they talk or tell a story, you get that spark, you think they'd be a great Mad Libs writer. It’s not about removing a word, it’s about removing the right word, and not giving away the punch line." Those who dream of writing Mad Libs for fame and fortune, know that there is a test, and that payment is generally in about the $2,000 range for a book (in the Adult books, writers get a byline). The process of writing from outline to end generally takes about two months. Marchesani writes as well as edits, recently penning Pigskin Party Mad Libs, about the Super Bowl, with her boyfriend (he provided ideas and she provided the text). She's now working on a Kama Sutra-themed Mad Libs. "The biggest misconception about [writing them] is that you can just write a graph of text and take out words and have them be blanks," she says. "You have to know what your stories are going to be about and how to format them." As for formats, they come in different shapes and sizes—lists, menus, Gchat conversations, wills, traditional stories—but each book has 21 original stories, and each story can have no more than 21 blanks. "I have a set group of words I use," Marchesani confesses, for formatting purposes. "When I need a plural noun I use staplers; for a single noun, I use potato. I use stock words to make the editing process easier. In normal writing, you don't use cliches, but they work so well for Mad Libs, for example, "the NOUN doesn't fall from the tree" or "always a bridesmaid and never a NOUN" or "the NUMBER-year itch." 

But why has this weird little word game created by Stern and Price been so incredibly popular, and so enduring? "You have the option to make it as weird or dirty or funny as your imagination is," says Marchesani. "You can play it with your friends, you can even put your friend's names in the story. I think it's also the personalization aspect. You've written it, and it's unique to you. It's like social media, but it's a book." There's a kind of individual empowerment there, too. Sedita says, "I have very specific memories of playing them on the school bus on the way home, and finally feeling in control of the creation of something. I think the game is both challenging and rewarding. There was the gross-out kid, the curse-word kid; you can define your personality by the word you’re choosing. Fingers crossed that yours gets the biggest laugh! And it’s all blind. It’s about that perfect kismet; you choose a great word and it falls in the right place." 

Sedita's first Mad Libs story didn't go exactly like that, though. "I was in 4th grade, in 1983," he told me. "I remember very clearly, I was on the bus, and this kid who was a year or two older and very cool, approached me to finish playing a Mad Lib. I felt very excited and honored. I think I became the kid who said fart—and I am not that adult in any way—I had to impress him!" It ended inauspiciously for a future publisher of Mad Libs: "The bus driver took the book away, and we got in trouble the next day." It did not, unfortunately, boost Sedita's cool-cred; "not even a little," he admitted. Marchesani says, "I remember my sister and I had one we'd fight over. She'd write with pen, and I'd get so mad because I couldn't play it then. We had a whole bunch floating around." Now, "It's a dream come true to sit at my desk and play Mad Libs all day long. If I'd known at 12 that I'd be doing this, I don't know what I would have done."

A Happy History of Mad Libs, Copyright © 2008 by Price Stern Sloan, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014. All rights reserved.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.