5 Questions with Comedian, Animal Activist, and Puzzler Elayne Boosler!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Elayne Boosler as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

If you haven’t heard of Elayne Boosler from her decades-long stand-up career — including being named one of Comedy Central’s Top 100 Comedians of All Time — you’ve certainly seen her work in radio, television, movies, and print. Elayne is a triple threat — comedian, actress, writer — and the founder of Tails of Joy, a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and caring for animals.

She became a quadruple threat last year when she added her first New York Times crossword to her accolades in a collaboration with constructor Patrick Merrell. (Of course, she’s also appeared as an answer in the NYT crossword over 30 times. In her words, “Yes, it’s cool. But one day when I’m really famous, I’m going to be 18 Down, and then 22 Across is going to say, “See 18 Down”.)

Elayne was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Elayne Boosler

1. How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve always had a touch of dysgraphia/dyslexia; my cursive writing (as they called it back in the 1800s) was always illegible, and when banks still checked signatures on checks I’d get about five calls a day. “But they are written on the same day, three checks in a row, and the signatures don’t match at all.” I know. I can read and write upside down and backwards. I remember driving in the car with my parents when I was really little, and reading a sign. I said, “Bar. R-A-B. Bar.” I can also sing any song you can throw at me, backwards, which once saved my life when I went to a school to talk to twelve-year-olds. I guess wordplay was the natural next step.

2. Now that you’ve made a New York Times-level crossword of your own, what was the most surprising part of the process for you? What did you enjoy?

I never passed any year of math in my entire life, and basically, making a crossword is math. The gentleman I made the puzzle with, Patrick Merrell, was a saint. If they threw some hyperactive puppy at me who thought she knew how comedy worked and said, “Write comedy together!”, and she emailed useless things to me three times a day, I’d kill her. Patrick was an unbelievably patient, wonderful, and talented teacher.

Though I’ve done crosswords all my life, as a layperson I never got the nuance of just how specific the theme clues have to be. It was mind-boggling. I think I sent Patrick clues and answers for a full month before he finally got to spell “water” in my hand. As an added bonus, Patrick wasn’t just brilliant about the words, he’s a crossword artist. His desire for grid symmetry and beauty was fascinating. I enjoyed all of it. Even the frustration.

Do you ever see yourself collaborating on or constructing another crossword?

I would love to collaborate on another puzzle. As you can imagine, after several months of thinking of nothing but themes, clues, and answers, I could not just turn my “crossword mind” off. So I have a LOT of lists of themes, clues, and answers, and I hope I get another opportunity to use them.

3. Many people know you from your trailblazing stand-up comedy career, or your appearances on shows like Night Court. But these days, you’re more synonymous with your charity work protecting animals. How did you get started with Tails of Joy?

I’ve always loved animals. I always knew I wanted to be a rescuer. Being on the road for forty-six years, I got to meet lots of rescuers in different states, and looked for a way I could have the most impact. What I learned was, three old ladies in Ohio will save more cats and dogs in a year than the entire bloated, overgrown Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which has $300 million and is NOT a rescue organization! I knew the “little guys” needed someone to keep them from falling through the cracks.

So I founded Tails of Joy twenty years ago, and that’s what we do. We’re a nationwide and beyond, all animal (dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, sea life, wildlife, snakes, bunnies, big cats, primates, elephants, bears, everybody!!) rescue and advocacy group, which provides “Little Guy Grants” to the smallest, neediest rescue groups or individuals all across the country. If you’re reading this and you need help with an animal, contact us! All my money goes there. Every time a dog walks by my husband says, “There goes our beach house.”

4. What’s next for Elayne Boosler?

Thanks for asking. I have a boxed set of four of my specials, plus a new CD — Timeless — coming out on Comedy Dynamics on August 31st. I’m featured in the new season of “CNN’s History of Comedy”, Sunday nights at 10pm, and I’m featured in HBO’s new documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”. I have a new piece up at CNN.com, “Elayne Boosler: Saying ‘Joke’ is no Excuse for Offensive Behavior.” And I spend hours every day doing rescue.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

I’m sure they already know this. When you look at a puzzle and you can’t fill in even one word, and you walk away, you come back later and sit down and fill it all in in five minutes. What does that tell you? The subconscious is always working, it’s always carrying out your directives, conscious or not.

So it’s very important to always try to speak in the positive, because you are actually giving your brain orders. In comedy, I have never said “I killed” or “I died”. I don’t say that. If you want to remember your keys, don’t say “I hope I don’t forget my keys”, because your mind hears “forget my keys”. You have to say, “I hope I remember my keys”. In essence, the subconscious has no sense of humor, so be careful how you program it.


A huge thank you to Elayne for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (or visit her website, Elayneboosler.com) for updates on her many MANY ongoing projects, and be sure to visit Tails of Joy to explore all of the wonderful work she does for animals.

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The New York Times Crossword, Accordion to Weird Al

 In February of 2017, The New York Times celebrated a landmark in the history of puzzles: the 75th anniversary of the NYT crossword.

And ever since, to commemorate that puzzly milestone, top constructors and Times favorites have been pairing up with celebrity fans and puzzle enthusiasts to co-construct puzzles for the Times!

This year, you might’ve encountered some of these collaborations, like news pundit Rachel Maddow’s March 2nd puzzle with constructor Joe DiPietro, or “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radner’s meditation-themed puzzler from January 31st with constructor Jeff Chen.

Over the last year, names as diverse as John Lithgow, Elayne Boosler, Joy Behar, Mike Selinker, Lisa Loeb, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Clinton have contributed their puzzly efforts to this marvelous project.

And yesterday, another famous wordsmith and master of punnery made his New York Times debut.

[Image courtesy of Instagram.]

Yes, the immortal “Weird Al” Yankovic teamed up with Puzzle Your Kids mastermind and friend of the blog Eric Berlin for a cheese-themed Wednesday outing that delighted fans and solvers alike.

Al has certainly been keeping busy lately, launching his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour — his words, not mine; I loved the show I attended! — and working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create The Hamilton Polka, an ambitious and hilarious take on the wildly successful musical.

The puzzle was Eric’s 40th Times puzzle, and Al’s first. Not only did the puzzle feature those signature cinematic cheese puns — like A FEW GOUDA MEN and THE PELICAN BRIE — but there was plenty of nerd culture featured in the fill and cluing.

Tom Lehrer and John Cleese were both name-dropped, as well as Legolas, Wile E. Coyote, WALL-E, Mr. Clean, and Bones from the original Star Trek.

Eric offered some insight into the puzzle’s creation while discussing the puzzle with Wordplay’s Deb Amlen:

My very first attempt at the grid included one of my favorites from his list, QUESOBLANCA. I was under the misapprehension that queso is not just the Spanish word for cheese but also a specific kind of cheese. Whoops, not quite. (This was entirely on me, I should note — Al, not knowing during his brainstorming that the end result would be restricted to specific cheeses, had several cheese-adjacent puns in his list, including FONDUE THE RIGHT THING and CHEESY RIDER.)

And appropriately enough, Al had a bit of fun promoting the puzzle on his Instagram, claiming, “If you’re REALLY good, you don’t NEED the clues!”

For the record, I needed the clues.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2017!

2017 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and tackled the Crossword from Hell. We accepted the challenge of diabolical brain teasers, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even pondering our place in the world of puzzles as electronic solvers like Dr. Fill and AlphaGo rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about the legacy of female codebreakers in World War II, game dice from centuries ago, theories about Shakespeare’s secret codes, and the long history of cryptography and the NSA. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, popular culture, famous quotations, and even the natural world as we pondered whether bees are verifiable problem-solvers like crows and octopuses.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Puzzles for Progress, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, dazzling corn mazes, and the ongoing Kubrick’s Game interactive experience.

We cheered the 75th anniversary of the New York Times Crossword, and chronicled the many celebrations that marked the occasion, from guest crossword constructors like Bill Clinton and Lisa Loeb to a puzzle-centric cruise across the Atlantic!

We also mourned as friends and fellow puzzlers passed on. We said goodbye to David Lindsey and Raymond Smullyan, two underappreciated giants of the field. The pun-fueled show @midnight this year, which inspired our monthly hashtag game, also closed up shop, sadly.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, made puzzly bouquets in honor of International Puzzle Day, marveled at the records broken at the Rubik’s Cube World Championship, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and New York Toy Fair, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, Lollapuzzoola 10, and Crosswords LA.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Pi Day, the Super Bowl, and Star Wars Day to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you. We even discovered Puzzle Mountain!

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked five years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I recently penned my 800th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2017 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for the Penny Dell Crosswords App. From monthly deluxe sets and bonus boxes to Dell Collection sets and holiday bundles, dozens upon dozens of topnotch puzzles wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And just last month, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Daily POP Crosswords — bringing you fresh, up-to-date cluing and relatable themes in world-class puzzles created by some of the industry’s best constructors! (Many of whom you’ve gotten to know in our recent interview series, Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors!)

But whether we’re talking about the Penny Dell Crosswords App or Daily POP Crosswords, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, the blog has over 2200 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2017 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2018!


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Celebrity Constructors Galore!

[Bill Clinton enjoys a puzzle and a snack. Image courtesy of The New York Times.]

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of collaborations between established constructors and celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought with culinary wordplay.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

None other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 6th saw musician Lisa Loeb duet with crossword gentleman and friend of the blog Doug Peterson. Their theme involved concealing one-word #1 hit songs (including one of Loeb’s!) in larger phrases, leading to a Rihanna reference with UMBRELLAPOLICY, for instance.

And big names continue to appear.

Comedian and Tails of Joy pet advocate Elayne Boosler teamed up with Patrick Merrell for the July 12th puzzle, where they did modern day versions of classic films. For instance, Taxi Driver became UBERDRIVER and Holiday Inn became HOLIDAYAIRBNB. It was an excellent collab that made the most of Merrell’s gift of grid fill and Boosler’s wit and wordplay.

Clothing designer and television host Isaac Mizrahi joined forces with constructor David J. Kahn for the July 30th puzzle, employing crafty clues to put a spin on DIY construction phrases like “Cut and dried” and “On pins and needles.”

Tying a given puzzle’s theme to the guest constructor has been a recurring theme with the 75th anniversary puzzles, and the duo of Mizrahi/Kahn produced arguably the best examples thus far this year.

Most recently, constructor David Steinberg paired off with host, comedian, magician, and performer Neil Patrick Harris for the August 24th edition of the puzzle. Their magic-themed puzzle not only incorporated different parts of a standard magic show, but it concealed the name of a famous magician by hiding him among the down answers. (Or it would have, if he hadn’t escaped!)

Brilliant execution makes for a clever puzzle that Jeff Chen of XWordInfo declared one of his favorite puzzles of the year. (Of course, readers of the blog shouldn’t be surprised after solving the crossword Neil included in his autobiography.)

With more celebrity constructors still to come, including “a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others” (according to Will Shortz), I am definitely looking forward to seeing what other tricks these constructor/celeb duos have up their sleeves.


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Presidential Puzzling

crossword-newspaper

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of established constructors collaborating with celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

And for the May installment of this celebrity series, none other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

clintonandhume

The puzzle was offered free online by The New York Times. Although the Friday puzzle is usually themeless, there was a link between three of the main answers, DON’T STOP, THINKING ABOUT, and TOMORROW, which of course spell out the title of his campaign song.

Will Shortz offered further details on the creative process:

In the case of today’s puzzle, Judge Fleming constructed the grid, with some input from Mr. Clinton. The president wrote most of the clues. When the judge proposed tweaks to certain clues, Mr. Clinton objected: “Too easy and boring. Might as well print the answers in the puzzle.”

I found it to be a pretty fair solve, although there were a few outlier answers that were much, much tougher than the rest of the field. (Either that or I need to bone up on my Indonesian geography.)

Shortz also offered a glimpse of the celebrity constructors to come, teasing readers with mentions of “a pop singer with a No. 1 hit, a noted fashion designer, a standup comedian, a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others.”

It’ll be interesting to see which celebrity solvers have accepted the challenge of constructing a puzzle of their own.


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Riddle Me This, Batman!

With so much Dark Knight-related news floating around, this might very well be the Year of Batman.

Not only is it the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in comics, but he’s going to be all over screens in the coming months. There are already teaser images out for the 2016 Batman Vs. Superman film, plus Fox’s upcoming prequel drama Gotham. As if that wasn’t enough, it was recently announced that the entire 1960s television series is coming to DVD and Blu-ray!

So it’s the perfect opportunity to take a look at Batman’s puzzliest foe, The Riddler.

Played by Frank Gorshin (and John Astin, in one episode) in the 1960s TV series, The Riddler was absolutely manic, often breaking into wild fits of anger and laughter, compulsive in his need to send taunting riddles to the Caped Crusader. (This actually became a point of contention with his fellow villains in the Batman film, since they didn’t appreciate Batman being tipped off to their plans by the Riddler’s riddles.)

His riddles were similarly inconsistent and unpredictable. Some of them were genuine puzzlers (highlight for answers):

  • How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people? Make applesauce.
  • There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke? They throw one cigarette overboard and make the boat a cigarette lighter.

Others were similar to children’s jokes, silly in the extreme:

  • What has yellow skin and writes? A ballpoint banana.
  • What suit of cards lays eggs? One that’s chicken-hearted.

While Gorshin’s Riddler is probably the most famous and familiar version of the villain, my personal favorite was the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series.

This Riddler (voiced by actor John Glover) was more suave, sophisticated, and cunning. In his debut episode, entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, he challenged Batman and Robin with a boobytrap-filled labyrinth, complete with numerous riddles that were far more challenging than Gorshin’s Riddler would ever use.

Fittingly, a final riddle — the Riddle of the Minotaur — awaits Batman at the center of the labyrinth. Can you solve it?

I have millions of eyes, but live in darkness.
I have millions of ears, but only four lobes.
I have no muscles, but I rule two hemispheres.
What am I? The human brain.

This version of the Riddler only appeared a few times in the animated series, due to the writers’ difficulty coming up with his riddles and keeping his complex plots simple enough to fit into a single episode’s runtime. Nonetheless, this Riddler remains a fan favorite.

In the film Batman Forever, Jim Carrey actually gives us three versions of the Riddler: the scientist Edward Nygma (who definitely has a screw or two loose), the businessman Edward Nygma (a charming, public facade betraying none of his truly villainous tendencies), and the Riddler (a diabolical, borderline insane villain with an ax to grind with Bruce Wayne). Whether you like Carrey’s take on the character or not, he embodies an effective combination of Gorshin and Glover’s Riddlers.

Of course, despite his bizarre plan to read people’s minds through television and become smarter by doing so, this Riddler had one advantage over the previous versions: he had puzzlemaster Will Shortz designing his riddles for him.

While each riddle by itself meant little, except for providing a challenge to Batman’s intellect, all of them combined revealed the Riddler’s identity and set up the final showdown between the heroes and villains.

As for the newest version of the Riddler in Fox’s fall premiere Gotham, we don’t know a lot about him, since this is set in the days before Batman prowled the streets.

Apparently, the younger Edward Nygma (played by theater actor Cory Michael Smith) is a forensic scientist working for the police (who may formulate his notes in the form of riddles).

Hopefully, this Riddler will carry on the fine tradition of Riddlers past, challenging the defenders of Gotham to outthink him, rather than outfight him.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!