To play Celebrity, you need a crowd. A group of friends on a getaway weekend is good; an extended family gathered on a winter holiday is even better. Get two of your host’s most unbreakable salad bowls, a bunch of slips of paper—four or five per player, depending on your group’s tolerance for a lengthy game, though my madman editor says his family uses eight—and as many pens and pencils as you can find. (My mom, who loves games, keeps precut slips and a handful of pens in a desk drawer, to render this step toward Celebrity completely frictionless. It’s not a bad life practice.)
Now, everybody write down the names of five well-known people, historical figures, or fictional characters, and put the slips in one of the bowls. Remind the crowd that the name should be known by 50 to 75 percent of those present, according to your best estimate, and placate the aunts who worry their inclusions will be too basic. Split into two teams by going around the room and counting “1,” “2.” Shout down the uncles who insist it’s not fair when you end up on the same team as your mom, because you have a psychic connection. (You’ll need that psychic connection later.) Get the person in attendance who knows the game best, and is a teacher or ex-teacher, to explain the rules. Shush every cousin who talks too much during this explanation. Although you may already be exhausted, the game itself is yet to come.
Celebrity is played in three rounds. First is a round that’s like Taboo. Get somebody to set an iPhone timer for a minute. A player from one team has that amount of time to get their team to guess as many celebrities as possible, without saying the people’s actual names. (“OK, this is a singer. She wears really bright red lipstick. She drinks Diet Coke. She has that song, what’s it called, ‘Shake It, Shake It.’ ” “Taylor Swift!!!” “Yes!”) In the fog of war, the paper slips will flutter like snow, and you will need to get your ex-teacher to remind everyone that slip management is crucial to the game’s smooth progress. (Count the ones you got your team to guess, tell the score-keeper the number, and put them in the second bowl; return the ones you didn’t get to the first bowl, for the next player to pull, and don’t you dare tell anyone what they said.)
The key to dominating at Celebrity is working memory. You need to hold in your head a running list of the celebrities that have been named, so you can call them forth during the next two rounds. That’s because in Round 2, the players pull from the same pool of already-used slips and may use only one word to evoke the person’s essence. (“Lipstick!”) In Round 3, they must act out the name, Charades-like. ([Mimes singing, drinks an invisible Diet Coke, shakes hands in the air, points at lips.]) By the time everything is over, you’ll be spent, so make sure the dishes get done before you start.
My own extended family has been playing Celebrity off and on for about 20 years. We are a raucous bunch, and the game’s high level of interaction (yelling, laughing, interrupting, reprimanding) suits us. (Most of us.) We don’t get to play it at every gathering, because Celebrity is a project. When we get the people who are interested in a game in one room, usually at the tail end of a visit, it’s possible that some faction might try to veto it in favor of something more self-contained and mild, like Scattergories or Bananagrams. (Fight this faction! They must be vanquished.)
But even with those missed opportunities, at this point we’ve got a pretty good track record with the game. I love watching the way everyone’s relationship to Celebrity has evolved. When we started, my littlest cousins were too young to know many of the names we used, and we had to tolerate a lot of Hermione Grangers and George Bushes on their behalf. There were a few years there where everything balanced out, and most of us knew the names of the same people. Now, with the oldest kids in the next generation pushing third grade, we’re about to get a new infusion of asymmetry.
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It once annoyed me, but now I believe the gaps between players’ levels of knowledge are a feature, not a bug. In my 20s, I got frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to be obscure—to slip in a name of some author I’d learned about in grad school, a member of an early-20th-century president’s Cabinet, or an internet personality. At the time, I thought it would be more fun that way—it would be harder to guess the name, and people would have to get more creative in the process. But I see now that I was being pretentious, and in my family’s Celebrity tradition, the pretentious shall be mocked. Once, a Thanksgiving guest from outside the family placed 19th-century Russian spiritualist H.P. Blavatsky in the bowl; every year since then, as we mark up our slips, somebody will mutter “H.P. Blavatsky,” and we’ll all laugh.
Twenty years on, I’m much more tenderhearted, and I’d play the game even if the bowl were full of easily guessed Hillary Clintons and L.M. Montgomeries. I love nothing more than the exercise of looking around the room at my dear ones—not as Extremely Online as me but politically informed, in an NPR kind of a way—and calculating which names might populate their mental landscapes. Which celebrities should we invite into this wood-warmed room, to share our holiday with us? I’m already making my list.