'Revelations' About a Precursor to 'Mad Libs'

Literary detective Paul Collins has uncovered a literary ancestor to mad libs, the party game that was first popular in the 1950s. The discovery of a book called Revelations of My Friends points to an earlier origin.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Perhaps you've made Mad Libs; that's the word game in which one friend asks the other to fill in parts of speech to complete an unknown story. Mad Libs became familiar in America as a party game in the 1950s, but they may have had a literary ancestor.

Our own literary detective, Paul Collins, has recently uncovered as much. He joins us now from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

Paul, thanks very much for being back with us.

PAUL COLLINS: Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: So you've discovered early Mad Libs - on parchment or what?

COLLINS: I found in an auction a book called "Revelations of My Friends," which the title would not necessarily indicate that this was some sort of parlor game, nor would the cover for that matter. It's actually got a very pretty Art Nouveau cover on it. But if you open it up, what you find are these pages - they're actually pages, they're bound together with a little perforation. And the top page has a bunch of cutouts and has instructions to enter a noun or a verb or an adjective. It's all fairly familiar in a way. And also a little space cut out in the bottom for you to draw a portrait of yourself. And then when you tear along the perforation, it reveals a story underneath that you've filled in the words for.

SIMON: That's Mad Libs exactly. Now, so you found this at an auction?

COLLINS: Yeah. And there's no author on them. There's no date. However, once I started looking into it, I found newspapers ads for these going back to 1912. And they may well have been around before that as well.

SIMON: Well, what were they called then, if not Mad Libs?

COLLINS: These books, I mean even the title "Revelations of My Friends" is very curiously old-fashioned sounding. Mad Libs is a name that Leonard Stern and Roger Price came up with. And they'd actually originally come up with the idea in 1953 when they were writers for "The Honeymooners." And the legend is that one of them was trying to think of an adjective and hadn't told the other one even what he was wanting it for it yet, when the other one simply called out clumsy. And it gave the idea for actually just putting in random words into a script.

And it wasn't until about five years later that they actually had the term Mad Libs come into mind. And that's when it really jelled.

SIMON: Paul, let's play "Revelations of My Friends," can we? Do you have a usable text there?

COLLINS: Yes, I do, in fact. I'm going to ask you a few personal questions, Scott.

SIMON: All right.

COLLINS: Name a place.

SIMON: Chicago.

COLLINS: Chicago. Term of abuse.

SIMON: Interviewing people? No. I'm just trying to...

COLLINS: As it is in an insult.

SIMON: Okay. Chowderhead.

COLLINS: Chowderhead...

SIMON: Chowder head.

COLLINS: Good one.

SIMON: Yeah. Okay. Yeah.

COLLINS: A term of endearment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I remember now why Mad Libs could make you squirm. Why don't I just say teddy bear?

COLLINS: Excellent.

COLLINS: Another term of abuse.

SIMON: For some reason, only the really profane ones are flashing through my mind at the moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Isn't that always the way it is? All right. Numbskull.

COLLINS: And one last question. A sum of money?

SIMON: Oh, let's say $55.

COLLINS: Okay, this is the revelation about you.

SIMON: Okay.

COLLINS: I am an ardent suffragette and have made many eloquent and moving speeches in favor of votes for women. Some time ago I was speaking at Chicago and began my remarks by calling the prime minister a chowderhead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COLLINS: This met with a mixed reception and so with great diplomacy I next spoke of him as a teddy bear. My speech was punctuated by a voice from audience calling out, Numbskull, which somewhat interfered with the thread of my discourse. I was knocked down and then arrested for creating a disturbance. I was sentenced to three months or a fine of $55.

And at the bottom of the page there's the picture, or course, and the caption here reads, This is what I looked like on my way to the police station.

SIMON: You know, this game works, doesn't it? Paul Collins is our literary detective and a writing professor at Portland State University. Thanks very much.

COLLINS: Oh, it's a pleasure as always.

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