What a _________ Job: How Mad Libs Are Written

“There’s a very small number of people on this planet who have this very specific job.” That’s how Mad Libs editor Laura Marchesani describes her work, and the exact thought that made me curious about a game I hadn’t played in decades.

Mad Libs have been a household name since their first release by publisher Price Stern Sloan (now a division of Penguin) in 1958. The game has a sophisticated origin story, told years ago by its inventor Leonard Stern: Stern’s friend Roger Price, whom he’d met when they were writing for The Tonight Show, had come over to polish a humor book they’d written together called What Not to Name the Baby. But Stern was working on a script for The Honeymooners, struggling to describe a character’s nose. Stern asked for an adjective, but before he could finish Price interrupted with “clumsy and naked,” and the two became fascinated with the satisfying combinations: “A clumsy nose indicated nature had failed or there had been a genetic mix-up,” writes Stern, “and an alliterative naked nose had the sound of a best-selling mystery novel.” Stern and Price convinced Steve Allen to introduce guests on his variety show using words called out by the audience, and they immediately started selling out of the first Mad Libs book.

Over fifty years later, in the notoriously fast-aging genre of humor, Mad Libs has stayed popular, with no serious competitor in print or online. Penguin puts out about twenty of the books each year, many tied to major properties like Star Wars, Hello Kitty, Lego, and Adventure Time, with over 220 titles published so far. Cumulative sales are well over 100 million, and the five-year-old Mad Libs iOS app has over 5.5 million downloads. This takes more than coasting on previous success.

The point of Mad Libs is that it enables anyone to make a funny story, even children, who are the worst joke-tellers. That makes the template seem easy. But it takes certain skills and extensive research to write a good book of Mad Libs. And all of the 15 to 20 writers working on Mad Libs for Penguin at any given time had to learn this.

Writing a Mad Lib is only partly about storytelling – it’s also about game design. You’re not just communicating information, but guiding a player toward certain choices, and rewarding those choices. The player needs to feel in control, while still trusting you to make all their choices work. It’s a bit like leading a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

There are three main categories of book: traditional children’s titles like Goofy Mad Libs and Mad Scientist Mad Libs; licensed titles like Doctor Who Mad Libs and Adventure Time Mad Libs” and Adult Mad Libs like Bachelorette Bash Mad Libs and We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Mad Libs. They’re all created by the same team of freelancers using the same process.

Step 1: Concept

First, Marchesani and publisher Francesco Sedita pick topics in editorial meetings. They’re looking for something hip, with a community of fans: craft beer, for example; or something timelessly popular like cats and dogs. In 2011, during the vampire-fiction craze, they published Undead Mad Libs. The team has debated whether certain boy bands would outlast the publication process. Timelessness is important; Penguin is still selling Mad Libs from the 80s.

Licensed Mad Libs can start in-house or at the licensor. “When we make that phone call to say we’d love to do a Mad Libs, people are thrilled,” says Sedita. “They have the brand recognition, they remember playing it as kids. It’s very rare that we get a no.” But often the brand – or celebrity – has the idea. “Actually, Snoop Dogg approached us,” Sedita tells me. “We would never have thought of it on our own.”

But not everyone can really sell a Mad Lib. In Sedita’s early days at Penguin, the Situation – the Jersey Shore star – wanted his own. He’d seen them during a book signing. “We didn’t go through with it,” Sedita says. “Twenty-one stories would have been challenging.”

Step 2: Research

Each book has twenty-one stories, each with eighteen blanks. And picking those is the writer’s job. Marchesani works with fifteen to twenty writers on a regular basis, with a core group of five, and writes some books herself. Almost all Mad Libs writers work uncredited, and so far, no licensors have written the books themselves (though at Comic-Con 2014, Penguin raffled off a Regular Show book filled out by the show’s staff). Marchesani picks a writer (or a team of two) with relevant interests; she asked Sedita and his boyfriend to write the Broadway book. (Price and Stern wrote most of the books themselves until the 90s.)

A good writer can handle a diverse range of topics. I talked to Brian Clark, who’s written Mad Libs about Annie, Scarface, Family Guy, and marijuana. He starts each process with extensive research: reads or watches the source material over and over, taking notes. He watches DVD extras, reads making-of stories. That’s how he learned why Scarface wasn’t shot in Miami, and that Sharon Stone turned down Michelle Pfeiffer’s role. “Hopefully, if I play the blanks right, you could read the mad libs and get a sense of ‘Oh, I didn’t know that about Scarface!’ Even though half of it’s missing.” He’s careful not to rely on fan-based sources or wikis for facts, but uses them to get a sense of what’s important to the fans.

Because Clark isn’t just building up a database of facts: he’s learning what is important about the topic, what fans need to see in any given book. Obviously, an Annie book has to include “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow.” Each main character will get a story. These stories can’t just be CliffsNotes for the original title. But they have to remain accurate, to appeal to the core readership: superfans of the franchise or topic. For instance, Fionna and Cake Mad Libs (based on genderswapped characters from a few episodes of Adventure Time) correctly describes the characters as in-world fanfic inventions of the Adventure Time anti-villain “the Ice King,” but it also suggests new fanfics he could write, like “Ice King Goes to Hollywood.”

The stories also need varying formats; no book is just twenty-one straight prose short stories. There are countdowns, wishlists, doctor’s reports, commercials, an “ode to a cupcake,” horoscopes, an online dating profile, lyrics, quizzes, how-tos, a Dear John letter, recipes, drink recipes, diary entries, an “office party oath.” Finding twenty-one different ways to cover the same topic is the hardest part of the writing process, says Marchesani, who recently wrote a whole book of Independence Day mad libs. The book’s topic informs the formats; Clark’s Scarface (out next fall) includes “Tony Montana’s anger management class” and a “lost page” from the screenplay.

Step 3: First Draft

Writers hand their outlines to Marchesani for review. Once she’s satisfied with that, she says, “most of my writers do not need extra-close supervision.”

After research, Clark tries to pack in a couple of full days to draft out all the stories at once. His schedule requires him to work on several projects at a time, but tackling the whole first draft at once helps him avoid too much overlap between stories.

Now here’s the nitty-grittiest bit: How does a specific Mad Lib get written, word-for-word? As I mentioned, it’s not by writing a block of text, then taking out words. It’s mostly the reverse, Clark says: “I’m really writing those blanks, and writing the paragraph around them.” The blanks start as keywords. “It’s a math game,” Clark says, “trying to put a lot of common sayings in…. “You’re most often removing the word that everyone’s gonna know.” Part of that is putting in a lot of common sayings.

But keywords can also wear out. “There’s only so many times you can remove the word ‘scar’ or the word ‘face’… there’s only so many times you can call someone a drug dealer.” That’s where the research helps expand the world of the book. Clark has also developed tricks to add new jokes. He can blank out just part of a word, turning “Hemingway” into “(verb)-ingway,” or adding new words into the middle of a long place name (“Casa___blanca”) to give it the feel of an “Albuquerque” or “Cucamonga.”

The point of all this calculation is to make the game foolproof, so that no matter what words players pick, they’ll get a satisfying result. A mad lib writer is playing straight-man in a comedy duo, and playing it blind. This has its advantages: “I can get away with murder,” Clark says, writing a phrase like “(verb) you up the (noun),” because it’s the player who makes the joke dirty or not.

“There’s a bunch of levels that I operate on,” Clark says. “I’ve gotta hit the broad strokes, so if somebody just vaguely knows what Scarface is, they can enjoy doing the book. In the same story or chapter there will be a couple lines that are much more obscure, and then there’ll be something completely obscure that I know because I’ve been watching it a thousand times, and I know that the editor made this mistake in this scene, and I might reference that in some way.”

Clark mentally playtests his drafts, but he doesn’t test them on anyone else before handing them into Marchesani. “Otherwise I might be in breach of contract!”

Step 4: Edits

Next, Marchesani edits the stories. She runs the “what word normally goes in this blank” test; it’s her most common note to writers. She edits the stories down; there’s only room for eighteen blanks, so a story can run under a hundred words, and never over 150.

If there’s a licensor, this is when they get a look and give a lot of notes. Clark saves some leftover ideas in case a story suddenly needs replacement. Like any creative project, a Mad Lib might become accidentally offensive due to some real-world event like an actor’s untimely death. But for much more mundane reasons, most books end up needing one or two new stories. “Having a story idea you can write in twenty-five minutes and send back is always a good plan,” Clark says. But he doesn’t write any of these surplus ideas as full drafts ahead of time. “I’m not crazy!”

As one of the core Mad Libs writers, Clark is usually working on four books at a time. He has some book ideas of his own – he jokes about books on saltwater fish tanks and the LA housing market – but he’s busy enough with assignments without pitching his own. “I can write a Mad Lib about anything, so I’m super happy when they give me ideas.”

Breaking In

Mad Libs writers aren’t fulltime. Many also work in TV; some are doing other jobs at Penguin. The author of Eat, Drink, and Be Mad Libs works in a restaurant. There’s actually no one person whose sole employer is Mad Libs; Marchesani and Sedita both work on other imprints for Penguin as well, and that’s their usual source for writers. For example, Clark (who’s written TV pilots for USA, Logo, and Disney, and writes for the Nerdist web series Neil’s Puppet Dreams) first worked with Sedita on another children’s book, Fish Happens, an advice book narrated by the penguins from Madagascar.

While there’s a low turnover, Marchesani occasionally hires a new writer, especially when she’s licensing something unfamiliar and needs a true fan. She asks all new writers to audition with two sample mad libs in different formats, which she edits and sends back. No one’s first Mad Lib is good, and some great writers never master the medium. “I’ve worked on Mad Libs long enough I like to think I could fix anybody,” she says, but it proves useful to have reliable writers who know the craft as well as she does.

Clark’s advice to hopeful writers is to practice. First play loads of Mad Libs (at $4 a book, it’s cheap research), then write some of your own and playtest them. It’s not the kind of work you cold-call for, but for a humor writer, it’s a neat skill to have ready if you’re ever called up.

The Mad Lib format hasn’t changed over fifty-plus years in print, but it’s sprouted variants online that need their own writing strategies. Later this year, Penguin is updating the iOS app with gameplay changes. The Mad Libs Facebook page throws out the old rule of hiding the sentence until the blank is filled, making its feed feel like a game of Cards Against Humanity. And Sedita has long imagined more playful merchandising for the brand that’s been making other brands’ merchandise for years. “I have this fantasy of creating a pair of men’s briefs that have a Mad Lib on the front, saying ‘you can’t handle the ___.’”

Photo by CJ Buckwalter.

Nick Douglas edits Slacktory, a blog of original comedy and videos.

What a _________ Job: How Mad Libs Are Written