Of the three copyrighted titles that have sold over 100 million copies, one is missing about one word per sentence: Mad Libs. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, this humble best-seller, a collection of silly stories with strategically "absent" parts of speech, is part book, part game. Mad Libs is a favorite among adults and kids alike, mainly for its ability to incite laughter through often hilarious and occasionally inappropriate word combinations. Plus, teachers have found it's a fun way to build a richer vocabulary and master grammar. Here, Mad Libs co-creator Leonard Stern talks about the little books' lasting appeal.
Scholastic Parents: How did you come up with the idea for Mad Libs?
Leonard Stern: It happened accidentally. I was working on a "Honeymooners" script and needed to introduce a new character. I wanted him to have a bulbous nose, but I didn't want to say that. Then Roger Price [co-creator of Mad Libs] came in, and I said to Roger, "I'll be with you in a moment, but I need an adjective." He responded, "Clumsy and naked." I laughed because a "clumsy" nose sounded like a genetic disorder and a "naked nose" sounded like a detective story and was alliteration. He asked what I was laughing at, so I showed him. And that's how we started work on Mad Libs. We hastened the work because we figured we'd introduce it at a party and then be more attractive to the ladies. Turns out it was a big hit.
At first, we only played it at parties. That was 1953. It wasn't until 1958 that we asked ourselves, what should we do with this? At the time, I was the head writer for Steve Allen's show, and he thought it would be a great way of introducing guests — to have the audience supply the words that were missing from the introduction. So he held up the book to the camera. From there it took off.
SP: How did the name come about?
Stern: Another accident. Roger and I were having dinner at New York's Sardi's. An agent and his client were in an argument at the next table. The client told the agent he wanted to " . . . ad lib an interview," and the agent said, "That's mad! You're not a spontaneous thinker." That's when we knew. Mad Libs.
SP: Do you consider Mad Libs a game or a book?
Stern: Well, it's both. And it's got some dignity. It's now a teaching tool in many school systems. That made us feel good. We felt it was a painless and fun way to learn parts of speech. Even when the stories get risque, I always say, "Yeah, but is the grammar correct?" And it is.
SP: And that was the point, in part.
Stern: As I wrote on our Web site, the creation of Mad Libs is directly linked to my inability to spell "hyperbole" in a 7th-grade spelling bee. Humiliated and embarrassed, 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.
SP: Aside from grammar, what can kids learn from Mad Libs and from wordplay in general?
Stern: I feel that they realize there's another method to teaching, and that if you can incorporate humor, you have greater success. The game aspect seems to loosen the tension of absorbing knowledge.
SP: Do you remember your reaction when you got the news that Mad Libs sales reached 100 million?
Stern: I remember what Roger said: "Well, you can fool some of the people some of the time, and that's enough."