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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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Bones

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we join the forensic team at the Jeffersonian Institute to uncover what happened to a prominent puzzler. It’s Bones, episode 8 of season 10, “The Puzzler in the Pit.”

The episode opens, appropriately enough, with Special Agent Seeley Booth solving a crossword. (Given the looser grid construction, it’s either a British-style crossword or a cryptic crossword. Either way, points to Agent Booth.)

Both he and forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones, to some) are called into work after a body is found in a fracking pit. The harsh chemicals in the pit are causing the body to deteriorate faster than normal, but some clever chemistry saves the day. Although a blood sample the team collects is too degraded for a positive match, they manage to identify the body from a rare surgery performed a few years before.

The body belongs to Lawrence Brooks, reclusive syndicated crossword constructor, considered by some to be a master in his field. His wife quickly points the fickle finger of blame squarely at his ambitious assistant, Alexis Sherman. Apparently, Brooks promised to use Alexis’s puzzles and dangled the possibility of a promotion to co-editor, but delivered on neither.

An analysis of a cast Brooks had on when he died reveals crossword clues written on it, but in two different handwriting styles. Some of the clues are straight-forward and simple synonym-style clues, hardly the work of a master constructor like Brooks.

“Despise,” 4 letters. Hate
“Blood feud,” 8 letters. Vendetta.

Other key words on the cast include punish, attack, payback, and justice. The team suspects the other clues are a message from his killer.

When Booth and Special Agent James Aubrey interview Alexis, she plays a nasty phone message from an unidentified man, claiming that a stranger has been hanging around lately. Alexis agrees to help a forensic artist sketch the mystery man.

Sadly, this is the last appearance of a visible puzzle in the episode, leaving solvers with Brooks’s murder to solve instead of a crossword grid.

The team swiftly gathers several suspects:

  • Emory Stewart (the man who matched the forensic artist’s drawing) claims to be writing a book about Brooks, and denies having left the phone message. He suggests another suspect:
  • Donald McKeon, Brooks’s old college roommate and a fellow crossword constructor, who admits to leaving the angry phone message. When the team finds one of Brooks’s puzzles in McKeon’s possession, they accuse him of theft and murder, only for McKeon to claim Brooks had stolen the puzzle from him. (He says his copy of the puzzle is from a old publishing trick, mailing something to yourself to provide a verified date for the contents, like a poor man’s patent.)

[Not an image from the episode, just one of James Addison’s puzzly envelopes.]

Meanwhile, the team discovers that Brooks’s bones had been weakening for months before his death, implying illness or injury. As it turns out, Brooks might have been seeking treatment for early onset Alzheimer’s, triggered by a head injury in a boating accident years before.

The Alzheimer’s treatment explains the condition of his bones, and the illness itself explains both the different handwriting (a dementia symptom) and the conflict with McKeon. (Brooks may have stolen McKeon’s puzzle unknowingly.)

This points back to Mrs. Brooks. It turns out she was publishing puzzles Brooks had previously created but deemed unusable. She had accidentally published McKeon’s puzzle. She mentions being broke, and not knowing what happened to hundreds of thousands of dollars that should’ve been in their bank accounts.

[This is your brain. This is your brain on Internet gambling…]

It appears that Brooks gambled his money away in online gambling. But when Booth and Aubrey lure out the bookie who broke Brooks’s fingers, the bookie says that Brooks was bankrolling a woman: his assistant, Alexis.

The assistant confesses to stealing from Brooks, but claims she would’ve paid him back. She is booked for theft, since they can’t yet prove she committed the murder.

The team discovers Brooks’s neck was broken, and doubts that the assistant could’ve done it.

Oddly enough, the solution appears while the team rallies around a pregnant coworker, Daisy, who solves the case during her pre-delivery contractions. She supposes that the blood sample they found with Brooks wasn’t his. It has to be that of a blood relative.

Brooks had a son. Which brings us back to Emory Stewart, who turns out to be Brooks’s son from a previous relationship. Emory talked to Brooks, but when they met in person later that day, Brooks claimed to have no idea who he was. Angry, and unaware that Alzheimer’s was behind Brooks’s faulty memory, Emory shoved Brooks down a hill, unintentionally killing him.


This episode goes against the standard crossword mystery convention of having a puzzle at the center of the murder. There’s no puzzle left behind by the killer, no cryptic clue scribbled onto a grid by the victim, no need for a detective with a knack for crosswords to crack the case. There’s simply a murder mystery and a bit of fun clue-fueled wordplay.

Sadly, we never return to the curiously unpleasant list of clues and words on Brooks’s cast, which was one of the most interesting plot points to me. Oh well. (There’s also the whole “wife knows husband has Alzheimer’s, but doesn’t report him missing” plot hole. But, hey, puzzles, not plot holes, right?)

[Mr. Shortz, looking none too amused by the plot of this episode.]

This episode does raise an intriguing idea, though. Imagine a murder mystery dinner set at next year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where something dastardly had happened to Will Shortz. (Thankfully, we can lose the fracking pit and its acidic unpleasantness with this scenario.)

Who would YOU suspect had done the heinous deed? His equally ambitious and capable assistant? A wronged fellow constructor? Perhaps a jealous ping-pong rival? There’s a lot of possibility there.

Of course, considering how Puzzle #5 decimated the competition last year, perhaps Brendan Emmett Quigley would be a more likely target.

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