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I don’t like Mad Libs.

As a kid, I remember one of my middle school teachers first introducing me to the concept. During lunch (which was eaten in our classroom), she decided to use Mad Libs to quiet her otherwise raucous class and soothe the savage beasts.

“Give me an adjective! Now a verb! Now another adjective!”

I was intrigued. What the hell was she doing?

After we finished offering up a litany of parts of speech, she read the Mad Lib aloud to us.

I thought it was amusing. I probably even laughed. But with each random choice, I also thought, “But wait. There’s a better choice. A funnier choice.”

The joy of the Mad Lib is the surprise that it brings. Randomly chosen words create amusing surprises. Without much effort, you can create something admittedly funny.

But there are almost always better options for each chosen word. A little bit of craft and revision could always make the joke better.

Perhaps not for the person revising the Mad Lib, for whom the surprise will be stolen, but for the audience listening to it.

I think that might be why I despise Mad Libs the most:

It’s a laugh without craft or credit. It’s akin to watching someone trip and fall. Absent any injury, this can be quite funny. In fact, science has shown that laughter is an almost involuntary response to someone tripping and falling.

We can’t help but chuckle.

But no one is responsible for that laugh. Gravity and clumsiness combine to bring a little bit of joy into the world, which is fine, but like a Mad Lib, it’s also fleeting. No one ever saves or publishes a completed Mad Lib. No one repeats a joke from a Mad Lib. No one gets credit for being funny in a Mad Lib.

Mad Libs are happy accidents, absent precision or perfection. Mad Libs make unfunny people funny.

I don’t like that. Not one bit.

Humor, in my mind, should be purposeful, planned, and pointed. Not random and accidental. I don’t want tragically humorless people made funny via their knowledge of the parts of speech and ability to shout out random words.

I know. I’m such a jerk.

For the record, Mad Libs was invented in 1953, appropriately by accident, by comedy writers Leonard Stern and Roger Price. While Stern was working on a script for The Honeymooners, Price walked by.

“I need an adjective!” Stern said.

Price replied, “Clumsy. Naked.”

Stern laughed out loud. The word was intended to describe the nose of Ralph Kramden’s boss.

Thus Mad Libs were born.


But admittedly fortunately for the tens of millions of people who have inexplicably loved them for so many years.