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Television

Trump. ‘Cats.’ Peloton. Kanye. Why culture sounded like Mad Libs in 2019

Clockwise, top left: " Masked Singer,” Lindsay Lohan, Baby Yoda, Trump, Taylor Swift, Kanye West
Clockwise from top left: “The Masked Singer,” Lindsay Lohan, Baby Yoda from “The Mandalorian,” President Trump, Taylor Swift in “Cats” and Kanye West.
(Michael Becker / Fox; Chris Pizzello / Invision; Disney+; AP; Universal Pictures; Amy Harris / Invision)

If you were a child in the United States at any point in the last 50 years or so, chances are you’ve whiled away at least a few hours playing Mad Libs, amusing yourself on a long car ride by turning the word “fart” into as many parts of speech as possible.

The fun of the game — in which players fill in the blanks using randomly selected words — comes from the nonsensical, puerile and strangely evocative sentences that result from tossing a bunch of nouns, verbs and adjectives together.

It has been ubiquitous for generations, selling more than 100 million print copies. It has inspired numerous novelty editions, been spun off into an app and evolved into a shorthand term for any kind of incomprehensible linguistic jumble.

2019 brought the evolution of a new, unsanctioned form of the game: pop culture, Mad Libs-style. The chaotic and absurd spirit of Mad Libs seemed to infuse much of the year’s entertainment (and the media’s coverage of it) in ways that were sometimes amusing, at others unsettling.

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There’s always been weird news. But this year saw a proliferation of headlines that read like a screwball patchwork of incongruous cultural references. From collective meltdowns over Sonic the Hedgehog’s human teeth and Taylor Swift’s “cat boobs” to the news of Eva Longoria directing a movie about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Johnny Depp’s supposed plans to produce a musical about Michael Jackson’s glove, much of the pop culture news of 2019 felt like Mad Libs written by a pack of sugar-addled, celebrity-obsessed middle-schoolers.

This year, good news was overshadowed by a government shutdown, impeachment debates, mass shootings and cheating scandals.

The rise of these word-salad news items is partly a result of the industry-wide pressure on digital journalists to cram as many trending search terms into as short a headline as possible and pounce on the latest social media controversy. But it also reflects the unpredictable, deeply entangled relationship between politics and pop culture in the age of Donald Trump, not to mention the ways in which entertainment has become more fragmented, derivative and confusing than ever.

‘The Masked Singer’ shrouded in Mystery
“The Masked Singer” host Nick Cannon, right, with unidentified singer the Monster on Fox’s new variety show.
(Fox)

The first TV hit of the new year, “The Masked Singer,” arrived on Fox on Jan. 2 and gave an inkling of the weirdness to come. Based on a South Korean format, the reality competition show featured B-list celebrities like LaToya Jackson and Tori Spelling singing karaoke while disguised in elaborate costumes — a peacock, a bee, a lion — that looked like something from a psychedelic furry convention. A panel of marginally famous judges (e.g. Jenny McCarthy) tried to guess their identities. The aggressively random show spawned headlines (“Donny Osmond Revealed as Peacock”) that probably seemed like gibberish to anyone not constantly immersed in a constant stream of pop culture news.

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“The Masked Singer” was but one of many aggressively random unscripted TV projects to debut in 2019. There was also “Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club,” an MTV series about the actress’ efforts to open a nightclub in Greece. This month, Fox will unveil “Flirty Dancing,” a show in which strangers learn a dance routine and then meet for the first time on a blind date and wordlessly perform together. Other shows followed the formula of [COMPETITION] + [OBSCURE CRAFT], including “Blown Away” (glass-blowing) and “Wrap Battle” (gift-wrapping). Coming soon is “Full Bloom,” about “the colorful word of competitive floristry.” The soon-to-launch mobile video platform Quibi — a name that appears to have been fashioned with leftover Scrabble tiles — has plans for a true-crime renovation show called “Murder House Flip.”

Twitter played an outsize role in the Mad Libs effect by amplifying seemingly absurd comments and oddball local news items, turning them into viral sensations and creating a self-perpetuating loop of controversy and pushback. In August, an Arkansas man named Willie McNabb argued that he needed an assault weapon to shoot the “30 to 50 feral hogs” that run into his yard and threaten his children. The comment somehow sparked a Twitter pile-on of snarky jokes that was soon followed by “well, actually” explainers about the real menace of feral hogs in rural America. More recently, an allegedly sexist holiday ad for the high-end stationary bike, Peloton led to a frenzy of outraged hot takes (and contrarian defenses). Then, “Deadpool” star Ryan Reynolds took pity on the poor actress in the commercial, cast her in a commercial for his gin company, and that round of pop culture Mad Libs was complete.

But no one bears more responsibility for the Mad Libs-ification of the culture than Trump. His peculiar fixations, penchant for sparring with celebrities and tendency to unhinged rambling — both on Twitter and in real life — have transformed the political news cycle into a 24-7 stream of stories about countries you’ll never visit, bands you’ve forgotten about and whatever strange idea happened to pop into the president’s head while on the phone to “Fox & Friends.” (“Nickelback Dragged Into Trump Feud With Bidens After U.S. President Shares Doctored ‘Photograph’ Video”; “Trump Confirms Denmark Snub to Greenland Purchase Offer Led Him to Cancel Trip”; “Trump: People Are Flushing Toilets 10-15 Times.”) Fittingly, there’s now a presidential edition of “Mad Libs, complete with a cartoon rendering of Trump on the cover. But chances are, the real-world news is already whacked out enough.

Trump supporter Kanye West shares the president’s stream-of-consciousness style and boundless ability to baffle. His humorless, mercurial temperament and unshakable belief in his own abilities means the rapper will do innumerable head-scratching things such as design igloo-like affordable housing prototypes inspired by “Star Wars” or force his wife, Kim Kardashian, to circle words in the dictionary for fun. As part of a spiritual awakening this year, West also delivered a rambling sermon at Joel Osteen’s megachurch and appeared covered in silver body paint in a nativity-themed opera he staged on a Miami barge.

From its start in 1953, Mad Libs has always been tied to pop culture. According to the official history, Leonard Stern, a writer for “The Honeymooners,” was trying to find the perfect adjective to describe Ralph Kramden’s new boss’ nose. His friend Roger Price threw out “clumsy and naked.” They both laughed at the idea of a “clumsy and naked” nose and, lo, a game was born.

It took them five years to come up with a name, inspired by a conversation between an actor and his agent overheard at Sardi’s in New York’s theater district. They decided to self-publish the game, and their fledgling business got a major boost when Stern, by then head writer on “The Steve Allen Show,” persuaded the host to introduce guests using the Mad Libs format. “And here’s the scintillating Bob Hope, whose theme song is ‘Thanks for the Communist.’”

A funny line and in 2020 — who knows? — maybe a TV show.


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