Co-creators Roger Price and Leonard Stern came up with the Mad Libs idea when the two worked as writers for The Steve Allen Show. Price had already started one game sensation with Droodles, but Mad Libs would be an even bigger success.
The concept was so basic that the Mad Libs booklet could promise “Ridiculously Simple Directions on Back Cover”.
Each page of a Mad Libs book held a few written paragraphs – anything from short stories to doctor’s notes to beauty tips to business letters to essays like “Why You Should Go To College”.
But no matter what the subject or the style of writing, there were always blank spaces, ready to be filled in by Mad Libs players.
The spaces were all labelled with parts of speech – noun, verb, adjective, etc. – or with tailor-made items like exclamation, name of person in the room, colour, object in the room, and so on.
Without looking at the story itself, Mad Libbers filled in the blanks with the first thing that came into their mind. Once all the blanks were filled, the story was read back, complete with the ad-libbed responses. And oh, the hilarity.
The best way to play Mad Libs was in a group of two or more, with one person serving as a kind of Mad Libs Master, holding the booklet and writing down the responses.
Unfortunately, this method also led to a lot of premature giggling and some frustration on the part of the Mad Libber (“What’s so funny?” “Wait until I read it” “Just tell me the funny part now!” “No”). But Mad Libs also made itself available to the solo player. On the flip side of each page was a list of just the blanks, letting you fill in the missing parts without ruining the fun by seeing the story in the process.
The first Mad Libs book hit the shelves in 1958, and dozens of sequels and variations followed. Mad Libs were tailored to holidays and events (Bridal Shower Mad Libs, Christmas Mad Libs), and were customised to feature famous characters like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Flintstones, Barbie, Popeye and Scooby-Doo.
Price and Stern wrote new Mad Libs every year until Price’s death in 1990, and Stern carried on alone after that. Leonard Stern died at his home in Beverly Hills in June 2011 of heart failure, aged 88.
Now comprising 120 volumes, the Mad Libs series has sold more than 150 million copies and since 2008, more than two million Mad Libs apps – which lets you play the game on iPhones and iPads – have been downloaded.