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 Sloan, died 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.