December 23: Parts of Speech Day

Today is the birthday of Leonard B. Stern (1923-2011), American screenwriter, producer, and director.  Stern will probably be best remembered, however, as the co-creator of the game Mad Libs, the classic game where players insert randomly generated words into a passage based on the words’ parts of speech.

Stern’s love of words began with a humiliating experience in seventh grade.  After misspelling the word “hyperbole” in his class spelling bee, he was embarrassed beyond words.  Immediately, he ran home and located his family dictionary.  On that day the young Stern began to study the dictionary, determined to learn the correct spelling and exact meaning of as many words as possible (See February 4: Embarrassing Misspelling Day).

The story of the creation of Mad Libs begins in 1953 with two simple words:  “clumsy” and “naked.”  At the time Stern was working on a television script for Jackie Gleason’s pioneering television show The Honeymooners. One day Stern was sitting at his typewriter, searching his mind for a precise adjective to describe the nose of one of his characters.  When Stern’s best friend and fellow word-lover Roger Price showed up, Stern asked him for help, saying he needed an adjective.  Without waiting for any context, Price responded with two: “Clumsy and naked.”  When Stern began laughing, Price asked what was so funny.  Stern responded by saying that he now had an image in his mind of a  his character with a “clumsy, naked nose.”  At that moment the two friends realized that they had stumbled into something interesting; this bizarre juxtaposition of random parts of speech might just turn into something profitable.

The name of the game and its publication didn’t happen until five years later.  Sitting in a New York restaurant one morning in 1958, Stern and Price overheard a conversation between an actor and his agent.  The actor said he wanted to “ad-lib” an interview; the agent responded, saying that he would be “mad” to do it.  Stern and Price now had a name, Mad Libs, but no publisher.  Unable to find anyone to print their game, they decided to do it themselves, paying to have fourteen thousand copies printed.  To publicize the game, the creators arranged for it to be used for introducing guests on Steve Allen’s Sunday night television show.  Within three days of the game’s appearance on television, stores were sold out.  Soon Stern and Price joined forces with their friend Larry Sloan to form a publishing company called Price Stern Sloan (or PSS!).  Before long Mad Libs became a bestseller, and PSS! became the largest publisher on the West Coast (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Oh What Fun It Is to Eat an Angry Open Bucket

What is your favorite Christmas song or holiday-related story or poem?  To celebrate the holidays and the creation of Mad Libs, select a familiar Christmas carol or holiday story or poem. Take the text of your selected passage, and cross out 15-20 words — adjectives, nouns, and verbs.  As you cross out the words, create a list in order of the part of speech of each word you crossed out.  If a noun is plural, make sure to note that on your list; likewise, note the tense of verbs.  Next, using your list of parts of speech, have a friend generate a random list of words to match the parts of speech on your list.  Finally, insert these words into the text of your original text and read it aloud. Be prepared to laugh.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

1-Price, Roger and Leonard Stern.  The Best of Mad Libs:  50 Years of Mad Libs.  New York:  Price Stern Sloan, 2008.

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