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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Women of Letters: Doing Good with Crosswords!

The puzzle community is awesome. I have chronicled numerous examples of this fact during my time writing this blog, and yet, I am endlessly stunned by the generosity and thoughtfulness embodied by so many puzzlers I know, as well as others I hope to meet in the future.

Today, I have the privilege of sharing another marvelous charitable puzzly project with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Patti Varol, alongside constructors Angela Halsted and Amy Reynaldo, assembled a who’s who of top constructors for a project called Women of Letters.

The idea is as simple as it is marvelous.

If you donate to one of the worthy causes pictured below — including Girls Who Code, Sanctuary for Families, Girls Not Brides, Planned Parenthood, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 18 pages of original puzzles by topnotch constructors like Robin Stears, Lynn Lempel, C.C. Burnikel, Laura Braunstein, Tracy Bennett, Andrea Carla Michaels, and more!

It’s a little extra incentive to do a bit of good in the world, plus it highlights the hard work and boundless creativity of women in the puzzle community. Kudos to everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Women of Letters.]


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Puzzles for Progress!

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[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, there’s no doubt that we’re living in uncertain times. And in uncertain times, people come together in the spirit of cooperation. They reach out to one another, and remind them they’re not alone.

I’m proud to say that the puzzle community is no different. I’ve detailed several wonderful charitable programs in the past spearheaded by puzzlers, and today, it’s my pleasure and my privilege to bring another to your attention, my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Constructor Francis Heaney has assembled a who’s who of top constructors for a project called Puzzles for Progress. And, like all great ideas, it’s very simple.

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Once you’ve donated to one of the worthy causes detailed here — including the ACLU, the NAACP, The Trevor Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to puzzlesforprogress@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 20 pages of original puzzles by great constructors like Erik Agard, Patrick Berry, Patrick Blindauer, Emily Cox & Henry Rathvon, Amy Goldstein, Joon Pahk, and more.

It’s a little extra incentive to do a bit of good in the world, and I applaud everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Puzzles for Progress.]


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An Act of Puzzly Generosity

[Image courtesy of Solutions for Change.]

Instead of the usual Follow-Up Friday post, in the spirit of the season, I wanted to talk about an act of generosity that touched my heart.

The puzzle and game audience is one of the kindest, most inclusive groups I can think of. Just this year, I’ve done several blog posts involving different donations and charity efforts spearheaded by puzzlers and game companies.

Back in January, I talked about StrataSphere, a Kickstarter game campaign that allowed supporters to use their contributions to donate copies of the game to schools.

And in July, Mike Selinker and the crew at Lone Shark Games organized a Humble Bundle loaded with terrific puzzle suites to raise money for WorldBuilders, the It Gets Better project, and Child’s Play.

Heck, just last week, I wrote about how all the proceeds from this year’s GCHQ puzzle book will be going to charity.

Those were only two of many generous campaigns. Today, I’d like to put the spotlight on another company doing good.

The folks at Ceaco and Gamewright recently donated $3 million in games and puzzles to the Toy Industry Foundation’s annual Holiday Toy Drive!

According to Nora Meiners, Ceaco’s marking coordinator, “It is important for Gamewright and Ceaco to donate to the Toy Industry Foundation’s Toy Drive because we know that our puzzles and games are presents that kids can grow and learn from; it would be unfortunate if that wasn’t equally accessible for all kids regardless of the income barriers in their families. We are gifted to work in an industry that offers wholesome family entertainment so we donate and spread that joy further when we can.”

It’s an amazing gesture, one that is so incredibly typical of the puzzle/game community, a community I’m proud to count myself a part of.

For more information on the Toy Industry Foundation, click here.

And happy holidays to you and yours, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!


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The GCHQ Strikes Again!

Last year, one of the toughest puzzles I encountered all year was the GCHQ Christmas Card.

The GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding Bletchley Park and its successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

And last Christmas, they released a puzzly Christmas card that challenged the staunchest puzzlers, with over 600,000 submissions, but only 3 successful solutions!

This year, they’re doing things a little bit differently.

[Click here for a larger version.]

This puzzle is the first step in a larger event that the GCHQ expects will take MONTHS to solve. (Their official due date for submissions is February 28, 2017!)

The big change here is that instead of a series of webpages available free to the public, they’re releasing this puzzly master challenge as a book containing over 140 codes and puzzles.

But it’s for a good cause, as “all GCHQ’s proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Heads Together campaign, supported by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge, who wrote the foreword for The GCHQ Puzzle Book.”

The Duchess writes:

I have always been immensely proud of my grandmother, Valerie Glassborow, who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. She and her twin sister, Mary, served with thousands of other young women as part of the great Allied effort to break enemy codes. They hardly ever talked about their wartime service, but we now know just how important the men and women of Bletchley Park were, as they tackled some of the hardest problems facing the country.

In a new century, their successors at GCHQ continue this intellectual tradition. Like their Bletchley predecessors, they have become well known for valuing and understanding the importance of mental wellbeing. This is so important when dealing with such discretion and the pressure which comes with this.

William, Harry and I are very grateful that this book is supporting our Heads Together Campaign. I hope it will not only amuse and challenge readers, but help to promote an open discussion of mental health problems, which can affect anyone, regardless of age or background. Together, we are aiming to change the national conversation around mental health from stigma and fear to openness and understanding. Those who buy this book and support the Heads Together campaign will be playing a part in helping people get the important mental health care they deserve.

Puzzles and charitable works: a perfect holiday match, to be sure.

For US shoppers, the book is available as a Kindle ebook through Amazon.com, but if you want a paperback copy, you’re better off ordering it from Amazon.co.uk. With shipping and conversion, it still cost me less than $20.


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Embracing the cold for a good cause

[A Boston crowd takes part in the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Photo courtesy of Forbes.com]

You’d be hard-pressed to find another Internet awareness campaign as cleverly designed and effective as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that swept the world this summer.

If you somehow managed to miss it, people were challenged on video to donate to research battling ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and if they didn’t do so within 24 hours of being challenged, they had to donate AND dump a bucket of ice water over their heads on video to spread awareness of the disease and the campaign.

[Note: Specific dollar amounts and whether or not the ice bucket was involved in each challenge varies, depending on who tagged who. I’ve read conflicting reports, so I’ve tried to encapsulate (to the best of my ability) most of the videos I’ve seen.]

This charity drive took the Internet and the world by storm. Fire departments, casts of television shows, athletes, comedians, YouTubers, business magnates, and actors joined thousands of others in spreading the word about ALS. Everyone from Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking to George W. Bush and Donald Trump posted videos.

Everyone seems to have favorite ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos, whether it’s Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch’s video, Isaiah Mustafa’s video with Old Spice commercial silliness, or Taylor Swift’s fan-fueled group video. But, as you might expect, my personal favorite Ice Bucket Challenge video has a puzzly twist.

YouTuber Amanda McKenna (of Amanda’s Chronicles) executed a Rube Goldberg-inspired Ice Bucket challenge with Doctor Who flavor and terrific results. Check it out:

To donate to ALS research, click here. And if there are any great Ice Bucket Challenge videos I missed, please let me know!

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 our library of PuzzleNation apps and games!