Feature

Leonard Stern, 1922–2011

The TV writer who laughed all the way to the blank

As a prolific television writer and producer, Leonard Stern helped create gag-filled shows, including The Honeymooners and Get Smart. But outside Hollywood, his most enduring contribution to comedy was Mad Libs—the fill-in-the-blank parlor game he accidentally invented in 1953 with humorist Roger Price, while trying to describe a character’s nose. “I asked Roger for an idea for an adjective, and before I could tell him what it was describing, he threw out ‘clumsy’ and ‘naked,’” Stern said in 2008. Both men burst out laughing, and they quickly wrote up a batch of zany stories with blanks for missing words. The book series became a publishing sensation, selling over 110 million copies to date.

The son of a New York City auctioneer, Stern got his start in show business at the age of 16, when he began writing jokes for comedian Milton Berle’s radio show, said the Los Angeles Times. He soon made the jump to TV, and over the next four decades worked on 23 shows, picking up Emmys for his contributions to The Phil Silvers Show and Get Smart. As head writer on The Steve Allen Show in the late ’50s, he persuaded the host to ask the “audience for an adjective and noun to describe comedian Bob Hope,” said The Washington Post. The memorable result: “And here’s the scintillating Bob Hope, whose theme song is ‘Thanks for the Communist.’”

“Sales for the fun word books exploded” after that show, said PopEater.com. But “even with Mad Libs a success, Stern continued writing and producing,” creating the 1971 Rock Hudson show McMillan & Wife and directing the 1979 film Just You and Me, Kid, starring George Burns and Brooke Shields.

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