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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Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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Lollapuzzoola 11 is near!

Saturday, August 18, marks the eleventh annual Lollapuzzoola!

The marvelous indie offspring of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Lollapuzzoola is a favorite of both solvers and top constructors, all of whom descend upon New York City to enjoy what can only be described as “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.” (At least, that’s what they say on their website.)

The format is simple. Four divisions — Express (experienced solvers who have contended in or won tournaments before), Local (solvers with some experience), Rookies, and Pairs (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

With seven tournament puzzles — designed with inimitable style, both fun and befuddling in how often they innovate classic crossword tropes — you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve!

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.

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But if you can’t make it to NYC that weekend, worry not! There’s an At-Home Division that will allow you to participate as if you were there! You’ll get your puzzles by email the day after the actual tournament for a very reasonable $15 fee! Not only that, but you’ll be able to submit your times (and your number of blank/wrong squares) to be officially ranked in the At-Home Division lineup!

It’s one of the highlights of the puzzle world each year, and I’m definitely looking forward to tackling the puzzles! They’re a diabolical treat each and every year! (For a full rundown of the event, check out this interview with Local Division winner and friend of the blog Patti Varol!)

Are you attending Lollapuzzoola or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Garfield

Puzzles are ubiquitous. Once you start looking around for them, you’ll find them in every nook and cranny of popular culture.

Sometimes, they’re the basis for an entire episode of television, as in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Parks and Rec. Sometimes, they serve as a linchpin metaphor, as they did in Sleepy Hollow. Other times, they’re good for a funny aside, as in Gilmore Girls, or as a prop to reveal deeper character insight, as on The West Wing.

Over the years, I’ve seen puzzles incorporated into storytelling in dozens of ways. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble across puzzle references where I least expected them: the funny pages.

Yes, they’re such a part of the cultural fabric that they’ve even infiltrated comic strips.

The other day, I stumbled across this Garfield comic strip from last year:

Now, it’s meant to be funny, but I think any puzzler who has stood onstage in front of a whiteboard at ACPT, Lollapuzzoola, or another crossword tournament would agree with Jon over Garfield here.

That was one example. As it turns out, when you start digging, you find crossword gags strewn through the Garfield comics.

Like this one from November of 2005:

That’s a pretty simple gag, but it’s also a nice bonding moment for Jon and Garfield, as Jon’s rampant procrastination dovetails nicely with Garfield’s bottomless love for Italian food.

Jon has less luck making a puzzly connection in this comic from February of 1998:

If you ask me, a cookie and a crossword puzzle sounds like an excellent way to spend time with someone interesting. But I’m biased. I love cookies.

And as you can see in this comic from February of 1979, Jon’s crossword struggles have been an ongoing issue for decades now:

But it’s not just crosswords. Sudoku has gotten a fair amount of attention in the Garfield strip over the years. That’s understandable, as it’s one of the most recognizable pencil-and-paper puzzles in the world.

And as someone who isn’t the fastest Sudoku solver in the world, this series of comics from January of 2010 (an entire week’s worth!) speaks to me. I get it, Jon. I get it.

Honestly, it makes sense that Odie would have Sudoku wired. He’s a puzzle dog. He’s been appearing in crossword grids for years.

There’s a lovely callback to that previous crossword gag.

Finally, Jon triumphs! I admire both his resilience and his unwillingness to give up. Though, given that it took a week to complete a Sudoku, maybe Jon should stick to other puzzles.

Heck, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have the perfect book for him to try out.

[All images are courtesy of Garfield.com.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Constellations

Plenty of games offer ambitious goals for the players to achieve. You become a real estate tycoon in Monopoly, a castle owner in Castellan, and a time-traveling adventurer in U.S. Patent Number 1. You could traverse the country in The Oregon Trail, save the world in Pandemic, or conquer it in Risk. That’s part of the magic of games.

But what if you could build the night sky? What if you could harness the stars themselves, assemble constellations, and place them into the heavens above?

Now that is a puzzly endeavor worthy of your attention. And that’s the concept behind the game in today’s product review. We’ll be trying out Constellations by Xtronaut Enterprises.


Constellations combines the resource management card game mechanics of Just Desserts with the pattern-matching tile play of Carcassonne to create an educational and engaging play experience.

Each player starts with five star cards. Each star card represents a different type of star (or in some cases, two of that type of star). The star cards are used to assemble various constellations in order to score points.

The game begins with one constellation already placed in the sky, as well as three possible constellations to build. Players may reserve one of the three constellations, making it their primary goal and removing it from play for the other players.

As you can see in the picture above, different constellations require different combinations of star cards. Some constellations are simpler, so they’re worth fewer points. Other constellations have higher values, but more complex combinations of star cards, which may be harder or more time-consuming to collect.

[One constellation tile, plus the star cards played to complete it. As you can see, you can use extra stars as needed (like a Two B-Type Stars card above), as well as using O cards as wild cards (as I did for the two A-type stars needed to complete this constellation.]

Once a player has gathered all of the star cards necessary to complete the constellation, they then must play it in the night sky, placing it adjacent to one or more of the constellations already completed.

You score points by placing a constellation so that the gemstones along the edges match the neighboring constellation(s), and there are additional points available for placing constellations beside other constellations (as they would appear in the actual night sky). For instance, Leo Minor offers a two-point bonus when placed next to either Leo or Lynx.

Different arrangements of gemstones around the edges of the constellation tile require you to be crafty when and where you place your tile, since more matching gemstones means more points.

[In this layout, Taurus was added perfectly, matching gemstones with both Perseus and Ophiuchus. Pegasus, on the other hand, matched Perseus nicely, but only matched one gemstone with Orion.]

Unfortunately, you have to play a completed constellation, and sometimes the gemstone patterns don’t match up at all. If that’s the case, you’ll lose two points for a constellation played out of place. (Once again, the closer you get to placing your constellation as it would actually appear in the night sky, the better it is for your game.)

All of the game’s mechanics are designed around actual science, which is a very cool touch. The star cards include “Did You Know?” facts about each type of star, and the instruction booklet also includes a short guide to stargazing, star classification, and little write-ups for each constellation included in the game. (There’s even a criss-cross-style crossword on the back page!)

Constellations is great fun, requiring strategy, timing, and puzzly observational skills in order to effectively play the game. The educational aspect doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, and the alternate rules offered in the back (as well as rules for shorter and longer gameplay times) offer an impressive amount of replay value.

All in all, Constellations mixes card games and tile games with ease, and it makes for a fun and mellow gameplay experience.

[Constellations is available from Xtronaut Enterprises and other select retailers.]


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Tackling the 2018 Indie 500 Puzzles!

June 2 marked the fourth annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, the third had a time theme, and this year was fashion-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down and tackle them. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the event in the future.


Before the official tournament puzzles start, there’s a warm-up puzzle, a 13x grid entitled “Top Gear” by Neville Fogarty and Erik Agard. The hook is simple and accessible — celebrity names where the first name is a type of top, like COTTON MATHER for “crop top” or SHERMAN HEMSLEY for “tank top” — and with good fill and some tricksy cluing, you’ve got a nice pace-setter for the tournament puzzles to come.

Interesting grid entries included COSTUME CHANGE, GAINER, OMEN II, and THAT TOO. My favorite clue was the Arrested Development-inspired “What you might find in a bag marked ‘DOVE – DO NOT EAT'” for BAR SOAP.

[Image courtesy of Vertigo Mag.]

#1 On the Walk by Angela Olsen Halsted

The tournament proper opened with this terrific puzzle. The grid had solid fill entries with very little crosswordese, making for a marvelous introduction to the high quality level you’ve come to expect from Indie 500 puzzles. The theme entries all contained the word CAT in shaded boxes in the grid, slowly descending the main diagonal path of the grid, making for a literal catwalk.

The comment beneath the title, “Please, no meowing,” is not only a fun hint, but a hilarious callback to the Crossword De-Cat-hlon puzzle from last year’s Lollapuzzoola tournament, which had solvers meowing out loud as part of the solving experience. (That’s immediately what came to mind for me, anyway.)

All in all, a cracking opener for the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included PREGGERS, SABRA, ANITA HILL, and IMAC. My favorite clue was “Something you shouldn’t tell a woman to do” for SMILE.

[Image courtesy of Slideshare.]

#2 Unmentionables by Anna Gundlach

Puzzle 2 immediately raised the difficulty level, layering long interesting entries along the top right and bottom left corners of the grid to challenge the solver a bit more.

Couple that with a hook that required some very tight grid construction: unclued entries (making them “unmentioned”) in the grid like BRIEFS and BRA, each of which appears under the word WEAR in the grid. So you’ve got unmentionables and underwear. A really fun and clever execution of a good hook.

Interesting grid entries included AFAIK, RED STATES, TWENTY-ONE, and ROOMBA. My favorite clue was easily “Things that might come out in a row?” for SWEAR WORDS.

#3 Mall Shook Up by Laura Braunstein

As you might expect from the title, this puzzle involved clothing stores at the mall which had been all jumbled up. For example, one line read SECRET BANANA GAP, referencing Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, and Baby Gap. So those missing words would end up in other jumbled store listings. Laura went above and beyond in her store mixing, probably providing the most entries I’ve ever seen in a puzzle of this style.

There was one awkward crossing that tripped me up — NEW ME crossing AD WAR — but for the most part, this was a strong puzzle to mark the halfway point for the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included MANTA RAY, NO REPLY, TONSURE, RICOTTA, and BREW PUBS. My favorite clue was “Cat in a Blake poem” for TYGER.

[Image courtesy of Garment Care.]

#4 Tailoring Instructions by Andy Kravis and Sophia Maymudes

Probably the hardest puzzle in the tournament, strictly for its cluing style for the theme entries, which felt more like Crostic clues. Each themed hint would have a straightforward clue, and then in parentheses, tailor’s instructions for how to trim or manipulate the actual answers to fit into the grid.

For instance, the clue “Setting of ‘The Hobbit’ (‘Take this one up a bit’)” takes the full answer reading down, MIDDLE EARTH, and “takes it up a bit,” excluding the bottom two letters and leaving the answer MIDDLE EAR.

Although the vocabulary of the grid itself wasn’t much harder than the usual fare, this was definitely the toughest theme to unravel. Kudos to those who did so in a timely fashion.

Interesting grid entries included GO PRO, RIHANNA, LIAISE, RAIN GOD, and TRANS AM. My favorite clues were “App for a lift but not a Lyft” for UBER and “Word after baby or before cat” for FAT.

[Image courtesy of Cyanide & Happiness.]

#5 Coin Purses by Neville Fogarty

The visual design here — featuring shaded boxes forming u’s in order to create little visual purses, complete with a coin (a box with a circle inside, waiting for a correct answer). Managing to name four five-letter purse brands — GUCCI, COACH, FENDI, and PRADA — each one with a letter inside that spelled out CASH, and the very clever revealer in the center of the grid, reading simply “moneybags.”

Interesting grid entries included IM FED UP, LEFT ARM, DINGUS, TENUTO, DINOS, and SPAMBOT. My favorite clues were probably 2 Down and 44 Down — clues reading that each entry was an anagram of the other — eventually revealing LIMEADE and EMAILED as the anagrammical pair.

#6 Addition by Subtraction by Lily Silverstein and Erik Agard

The final puzzle provided a really solid challenge for the solve, but otherwise was relatively straightforward. The revealer here was POCKET SQUARE, and indeed, there were four black squares that served as hidden pockets for missing letters throughout the grid. For instance, when applied to the bottom left corner, the answers TIE and NEON, as well as URS reading down, became TIE ONE ON and OURS.

And wouldn’t you know it, those pocket letters spelled out the word DONE when solvers were done. A challenging and worthy finale for the event.

Interesting grid entries included E-SHARP, ALDO GUCCI, ATTAQ, and ICE PLANET. My favorite clues were a tie between “Simba’s kingdom” for ANIMALIA and “Figure with two axes, perhaps” for GRAPH.

It was a strong closing puzzle — and the clues on both the Outside Track and Inside Track were well-written and clever — but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the bonus puzzles in the packet.

The Tiebreaker concept made for a theme that was brilliant in its literalness. The grid featured shaded boxes, each split by a black square, which “broke” types of ties. AS/COT (alas and cotton), BO/LO (garbo/locke), and CRA/VAT (fulcra/vats) were all tiebreakers. A marvelous visual gag. I loved it.


Overall, this was the best edition of the Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mingled the inventiveness of the previous three tournaments with strong grid design, clever clues, and a real willingness to play around with crossword conventions.

The constructors made the most of the fashion theme, resulting in some super-impressive wordplay and theme ideas. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!

Note: There were additional puzzles included in the puzzle packet, but since they were outside the regular tournament puzzles, I didn’t review them. But believe me, they are worth your time.


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