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The Mad Lib legacy

The Mad Lib legacy

In October, the world lost the humorist Larry Sloan, best known for creating Mad Libs. In this popular kids’ game, one volunteer asks the players to fill in the parts of speech in a story. Only the volunteer doing the asking knows the story, and the players’ random nouns and adjectives make for some ridiculous prose when everything is read together.

I think the game became so popular for two reasons. The first is my latest Internet Theory, that good ideas survive into the Internet age, but great ideas thrive in it. I admit that by this standard, journalism is a mediocre notion at best, while cute pictures of cats are the greatest human inventions.

But think about it. Isn’t the Mad Libs concept, which two generations have associated with the erstwhile touch of newsprint paper and smudged pencil marks, actually present in the most successful websites ever?

Take a few key tools of election discussion, from the past and present. Facebook: Fill in name (real or slightly off, to evade boss or underlings), riff on your interests, declare “single” or “it’s complicated,” and you’ve got a unique profile from which to post political or banal updates. JibJab: In this darling of the 2004 and 2008 elections, instead of an adverb or present tense verb, you fill in your face. Tumblr: Just call it [latest debate meme].tublr.com and you’ve got yourself a winning blog (or do this). And who could forget the Sarah Palin baby name generator?

Of course, the Mad Libs concept itself has also gone online.

There’s even more to Mad Libs, though. They haven’t endured for half a century just because people like to fill in stuff and guffaw at the results. The second reason for their popularity and longevity is that at their heart, those books or ridiculousness let us play. They let the silliness out so we can see what truths it leaves in its weird, messy path.

This is something I often forget to do, even though I remind myself again and again.

Others get on my case, too. Poet and teacher Natalie Goldberg chimes in when she tells us, in Writing Down the Bones, to unstick themselves from the conventional sentence by choosing a boring passage and throwing the words around in random order. “By cracking open that syntax, we release energy and are able to see the word afresh and from a new angle,” Goldberg explains. And New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg reminds me to “learn to be patient in the presence of your own thoughts.”

I could even throw in Picasso here, or Escher. Their work imagines impossible juxtapositions of physical presence that jar and loosen my vision.

Or, if you will: Vision juxtapose that loose. Presence jar. Imagines, my and.

When I hit the sweet spot releasing point, I know it. I find myself floating in that hysterical high brought on by a good Mad Libs session, or submerged in a dream mentality. In those states, whether I arrived through a kiddie parlor game, visual art, or Internet memes, I hurdle past my usual tedious self. I imagine this is what it’s like to be doused with truth serum. Or dead. Or immortal.

I’ll leave the last word to Spindleworks artist Rita Langlois*, who has taken this leap and, to me, sums up life on the other side:

Tomorrow we don’t know

if we’ll be here or not

That’s a funny question

I say the truth

I ain’t lyin’.

*Poem excerpt from the 1996 collection I Say the Truth, I Ain’t Lying.

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