12 Kooky Facts About Koosh Balls

Fun fact: Ruth Bader Ginsburg once weighed in on Koosh balls in a court case.
Fun fact: Ruth Bader Ginsburg once weighed in on Koosh balls in a court case.
Sven Schmutzler/istock via getty images plus

Kids of the late 1980s and ‘90s loved their Koosh balls. They were easy to catch, easy to throw, and didn't hurt nearly as much as traditional balls when you got hit by one. Here are a few things you might not have known about the weird, wonderful toy.

1. Koosh balls were created because the inventor’s kids couldn’t master playing catch.

In 1986, engineer Scott Stillinger was having trouble teaching his two young kids how to play catch. Balls were too bouncy, and bean bags too heavy. The California resident soon realized he needed a better ball—one that was soft, wouldn’t bounce, and could be grasped easily. “I intuitively knew that a rubber-filament ball would do the trick, so I set out to try to find a way to make that,” Stillinger told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989. He started with a box of rubber bands and then refined the design of his energy-absorbent ball, eventually settling on natural rubber latex in non-toxic colors.

2. Scott Stillinger was so confident about Koosh balls that he quit his job to make them.

In late 1986, Stillinger showed a prototype of the ball to his brother-in-law, Mark Button, who’d worked in marketing at Mattel. The men—and their wives—were confident enough in the product to quit their jobs and start a toy company called OddzOn Products. Stillinger later called their early prototypes “crude ... When I look back at how crude they were compared to where we are today, we were crazy.” But when they showed the ball to a store owner, she told them, "You're going to be millionaires.” Stillinger built the machine that would make the balls and operated it out of a barn near his house.

3. Scott Stillinger filed for a patent on Koosh balls in 1987.

The patent, which was granted in 1988, outlined the issues with regular balls:

“One of the problems with many conventional throwing/catching devices is that, on impact, they do not absorb much energy, and accordingly, tend to bounce and get away from one's grasp easily. Also, they sometimes hurt to catch. Another problem is that, typically, they do not offer a surface configuration that promotes quick, sure gripping.”

Their ball—“an amusement device which has a substantially spherical configuration, and which is formed from a large plurality of floppy, elastomeric filaments that radiate in a dense, bushy manner from a central core region”—would “avoid these significant disadvantages in a very practical and satisfactory manner”:

“The filaments are sufficiently floppy to collapse on impact, thus to absorb enough energy to avoid any tendency to bounce. They are also sufficiently dense and floppy that they tend to quickly thread their way between the fingers of a user on contact with the hand. These features promote sure and quick capture of the device during the act of catching.”

4. There were more than 200 potential name options for Koosh balls.

Stillinger told People in 1989 that "Through a process of surveys and logic, we decided on Koosh.” According to The Secret History of Balls, the duo started with more than 200 names before asking kids and adults to pick their favorite from a list of finalists. The ball is also said to be named after the sound it makes when caught.

5. A standard Koosh ball is made of 2000 rubber filaments.

Placed end to end, the filaments on each 3-inch-diameter ball stretch more than 300 feet. The filaments have a nickname, by the way: Stillinger and Button called them “feelers.”

6. The media made fun of Koosh balls, and the industry didn’t get it—but customers loved it.

According to The Secret Life of Balls, “The media reveled in making fun of the soft ball. A Sports Illustrated writer compared the Koosh to a Star Trek tribble, while another reporter likened it to a ‘psychedelic sea urchin.’” Koosh balls were also called “The Pet Rock of the ‘80s.” Worse, some people in the industry just didn’t get it: One retailer even thought the filaments were defects and began cutting them off.

But in the end, those reactions didn’t matter much. The Koosh ball hit shelves in 1987, and by 1988, the ball—which a PR person for OddzOn described as a “cross between a porcupine and a bowl of Jell-O”—was a Christmastime bestseller. The next year, it was in 14,000 toy stores across the country and available in 20 countries around the world. Stillinger and Button were creating more versions of their popular ball, which would eventually be available in three varieties: Regular, fuzzy (which had twice as many filaments as the regular), and Mondo, which was the size of a grapefruit.

In 1990, Stillinger said that he and Button were “surprised by the extent of [Koosh’s] success,” which was accomplished without spending money on consumer advertising. Koosh balls benefited from placement next to registers—where customers couldn’t resist picking them up—and word of mouth. Soon, it was appearing in a Kansas community college’s physics class and in physical therapy sessions. There was even a fan club that would mail Koosh product suggestions to OddzOn.

7. The Koosh ball had its own book.

Published in 1989, The Official Koosh Book featured 33 “Kooshy Activities,” including a form of tag called “Koosh Attack” and games like “Lakroosh,” “Hopskoosh,” and “Kooshy Kooshy Koo.”

8. There was a short-lived Kooshball comic book series.

Koosh Kins—a comic book about six living Kooshes (Grinby, Boingo, GeeGee, Slats, T.K., and Scopes) produced by Archie Comics—debuted in 1991. The series ran for just a few issues and was, of course, accompanied by a toy line of Koosh balls with faces and hands.

9. There was a lot of secrecy surrounding Koosh balls.

Or at least where it was made: According to a 1990 newspaper article, OddzOn Products was so wary of competitors stealing its secrets that it kept the exact location of its Silicon Valley manufacturing plant a secret.

10. Ruth Bader Ginsburg weighed in on Koosh ball copyright.

When the U.S. Copyright Office declined to copyright the Koosh ball in 1988, OddzOn sued, calling the decision “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” By 1991, the case had reached future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In her decision, Ginsburg noted that “OddzOn sought copyright registration for the KOOSH ball to block importation of less expensive ‘knockoffs,” but that the Court couldn’t make a decision about the ball’s copyright:

“We again emphasize that we decide simply and only that the refusal of the Copyright Office to register the KOOSH ball, in the circumstances here presented, does not constitute an abuse of discretion. We do not decide on the copyrightability of the item, and we intimate no opinion on the decision we would reach if the matter came before us in an infringement action.”

Why couldn't the court make a decision about copyright? The issue was whether or not the functionality of the ball was inseparable from the utilitarian aspect of it. In U.S. law, and as Ginsberg noted in her ruling, it’s only possible to copyright things that “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” The Copyright Office felt that the Koosh ball’s looks and functionality were inseparable from the function—and, therefore, uncopyrightable.

11. Stillinger and Button sold their Koosh ball company in 1994.

When the duo decided to sell OddzOn in 1994 to the New Jersey Company Russ Berrie and Co., they had sold 50 million Koosh balls and were making an estimated $30 million a year; the Koosh line consisted of 50 products, including key chains, finned footballs, and lawn darts. Hasbro purchased the company in 1997. (Today, Hasbro licenses Koosh balls to the company Basic Fun.)

12. A woman sued after getting hit in the face with a Koosh ball on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show.

In 2001, 69-year-old Lucille DeBellis went to a taping of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. She was sitting in the studio audience when, according to the details of her lawsuit (as reported in the The New York Post), she was “suddenly and without warning struck in the face with a hard object”—a Koosh ball, which O’Donnell and her staff often shot out in the audience with the help of a Koosh-throwing device known as the Fling Shot.

Two years later, DeBellis filed a $3 million lawsuit against the producers of the show, claiming that “The Cuzball [sic] struck plaintiff squarely in the mouth, causing her to suffer pain and swelling, as well as bleeding in her gums.” The effects of the hit were long lasting, according to the lawsuit:

“[B]ecause of her physical discomfort and embarrassment with regard to her appearance, [DeBellis] was forced to spend the duration of the 2001 Christmas season in her home and turned down many opportunities to attend holiday parties and various social events … [It] adversely affected [her] relationship with her boyfriend.”

DeBellis settled with Warner Bros. and Time Warner Cable in 2004.

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.