The name Larry Sloan may not ring a bell, but surely you’re familiar with the wildly popular humor books that he published. His biggest success, the Mad Libs series – in which players complete sentences with random words and then read back the invariably silly result – has sold an estimated 110 million copies worldwide.
Publishing actually was a second career for Sloan, who died on Oct. 14 at age 89 in Los Angeles. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, the New York City native worked for a couple of decades as a Hollywood publicist for such stars as Mae West and Carol Channing. But in the early 1960s, his life changed when his high school friend Leonard Stern, a writer for such TV shows as The Honeymooners and Car 54, Where Are You?, and TV personality Roger Price approached him with an idea they had for a word game that they called Mad Libs. The three formed Price Stern Sloan, a West Hollywood-based publishing company that went on to strike gold with other humor books as well. Sloan ran the business end, but he also traveled the world to discover new books, and even began coming up with ideas for quirky, offbeat and innovative volumes himself.
Here are some of Sloan’s other greatest hits.
- The VIP Desk Diary. According to a 1963 account in the Los Angeles Times, Sloan and his buddy Stern came up with this early 1960s bestseller, which was their idea of what the desk calendar of the world’s richest man would look like. It was filled with scrawled things-to-do reminders like “Ship the Rolls to London for lube job” and “Buy a kid to play with the dog.”
- How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Very Lovely Training Manual. Sloan actually suggested the idea for this 1987 hit to writer Dan Greenberg after Greenberg complained that he should write a book about Jewish mothers because that was why he had to see a psychiatrist.
- Solving the Cube. According to a 1982 article in the New York Times Book Review, Sloan went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and presciently bought the English-language rights to a how-to Rubik’s Cube manual originally written by a Swede named Cyril Ostrop, who wanted his wife to solve the puzzle. It went on to become a phenomenal seller.
- The World’s Worst Knock-Knock Jokes. Stern and his family actually coauthored this 1981 book, which immortalized such jokes as “Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Sam and Janet. Sam and Janet Who? Sam and Janet Evening.” He used the self-deprecating concept in other “world’s worst” books, such as The World’s Worst Elephant Jokes.
- The Questron series. In the mid-1980s, Sloan went to Hong Kong and came back owning the rights to an innovative idea: A book that contained a microchip activated by a battery-operated wand, so that when a child pointed at the answer to a question, it would beep and display a green light if the answer was correct, and buzz and show a red light if it was wrong. Sloan developed the concept into an actual product, which took months of painstaking effort to find inks that would react to the wand’s infrared sensor. But the books sold out so quickly at toy stores that publishing giant Random House agreed to buy a piece of the action from Sloan.
After selling the company to what is now the Penguin Group in 1993, Sloan and Stern started another outfit, Tallfellow Press.
Here’s a YouTube clip from a TV show based upon the Mad Libs series: