I was a weird kid growing up. I never really saw the world the same way other kids did and never understood why everyone wanted to be the same as each other. In kindergarten when kids wanted to be doctors and firemen and nurses and whatnot I wanted to be a swimming pool builder. When it came to music there were divisions between the Jackson 5 lovers and the Monkees fanatics, but I was grooving to Argent. Eventually it got to the point where expressing these opinions stopped getting shrugged off and instead became the focus of taunts. It became safer to outwardly blow with the prevailing winds while internally sailing at different tides. Suffice to say I got so good at keeping things to myself that sometimes I even forgot what I truly believed.
In my youth I met a girl who had a litmus test for guys who wanted to date her. She would ask a potential suitor who their hero was and use that answer to determine if they were worthy. Though others knew of this test they failed to warn me in advance that there was no way to give a right answer because she only ever asked it as a way of turning down guys she wasn’t interested in. But, unaware and willing to bite, I considered the question seriously and said that I didn’t have a hero because I didn’t believe in hero-worship. I thought that might have actually worked in my favor, sidestepping the issue entirely with what I thought at the time was a clever answer, but instead she whipped back with “My father is my hero.” Trumped. How do you beat a girl’s dad in a hero contest? You don’t. End of conversation.
I’ve thought about that question a lot, especially as popular entertainment seems to have made us culturally obese with the glut of heroes and superheroes. It used to be good enough for a regular man to be a hero and make a stand, but now they have to be super in some way, above and beyond all reasonable ability, beyond pain, beyond the ability of an average man. Kids are brought up thinking the best thing to be is recognized as being above all others and invited to become wizards and fight the ultimate evil in the universe. As those grow older their heroes have to battle the undead or accomplish some heroic feats in dystopian games. Entering adulthood, their heroes must be even bigger and so they must be masters of weapons and never get hurt, or be able to perform superhuman feats either through technological or genetically modified advantages. Heroes used to fight for human things – peace and justice and poverty and abuse – but now they must save the world, battle evil beyond the scope of all out human resources, and look good doing so.
But this last week a man named Leonard Stern died. He was one-third of a law firm-sounding publishing company called Price Stern and Sloan and was generally recognized as the co-creator of Mad Libs back in 1958. But in thinking about his passing, and the business he and his partners created, I realized the answer I should have given was the one I once uttered back in the fifth grade. If there was anyone in the world at the time that I considered a hero it was the person who I wished I could be back then, Roger Price.
Mad Libs are, of course, a marvel of simplicity, pure comedic genius that took advantage of grammar for its humor. You couldn’t get any more intellectual in creating low brow humor than through the completion of a Mad Lib story. They were like an adult party game that adapted perfectly to any situation, and were just rude enough to play into a boy’s sense of humor.
But Roger Price also invented the Droodle in 1953. These were simple drawings within a box that appeared at first to be as cryptic as hobo pictographs that became humorous cartoons once you read the caption beneath them. For puzzle enthusiasts they were like visual riddles, but riddles best appreciated by absurdists.
As with Mad Libs, it was the deceptive simplicity of the humor that plays well with young and old. I don’t now how but I knew, back then, that this was the man responsible for both Mad Libs and Droodles and can remember thinking very clearly “This is something an adult can do for a living?” That was when I knew I wanted to grow up and be Roger Price.
Price wrote for Bob Hope, he was a game show panelist in the early days of television, he wrote for the Tonight Show and the early years of Mad Magazine. Later, with a bit of success behind him, he opened a gallery dedicated solely to cartoons. What joke-loving, art-making, dangerously verbal kid wouldn’t want to be like that when he grew up?
The problem is that there aren’t clear road maps kids in figuring out how to make a creative life. By fifth and sixth grade boys who plan to become athletes can join local teams and know the high school-college-professional progression toward their dream. Doctors and lawyers and teachers and other educated careers require good grades in school. But creative types aren’t generally encouraged in school, their individual paths aren’t clear, and in order to start at a young age usually requires some level of entrepreneurship that tends to run counter to growth of the creative spirit.
But that’s beside the point. What I realized just this week was that when I was asked who my hero was I should have been able to tap into that fifth grade moment and announced that my hero wasn’t a warrior or out to save the world but something a little more human scaled. He amused and brought laughter into the world – something heroes rarely do these days without cracking wise while someone else is suffering – and was a creative rather than a destroyer.
Roger Price, hero, the inventor of the Mad Lib and the Droodle.