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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Neil Patrick Harris: Actor, Magician, Puzzler?

I’m a puzzle guy, so naturally I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles, whether it’s in the newspaper, the bookstore, the Internet, or anywhere else I happen to be browsing.

But sometimes, you stumble upon a puzzle in the unlikeliest of places. Like a celebrity’s autobiography.

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I recently got around to reading the autobiography of comedian, actor, magician, award-show host extraordinaire, and all-around champion of entertainment Neil Patrick Harris, and, as you’d expect from someone as creative as him, it was no ordinary affair. It’s written in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you can make life decisions (as he did) and see where they lead!

Some lead to hilarious fake deaths, while others lead to genuine poignant moments from his life. We learn about his career, his discovery of magic, the peaks and valleys of his acting career, and his search for love, and it’s a great story. But he also includes messages from friends, drink recipes, and other hidden gems in the book, one of which was an unexpected cryptic crossword puzzle!

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Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m hardly the strongest cryptic solver around, but I couldn’t resist tackling a surprise Neil Patrick Harris-themed puzzle. (Thankfully, I was able to call in a friend who’s really good with cryptics for the clues that stumped me.)

To Neil’s credit, there are some very clever clues here, in addition to more traditional cryptic clues like “Let show (4)” for RENT and “Symmetries halved and reversed produce a ceremony (5)” for EMMYS. And, as you’d expect, most or all of them apply to events in his life, so you have to read the book to have any chance of solving this one.

Let’s look at a few of my favorites:

  • Sounds like an assortment of taxis in which you were the MC (7): An assortment of taxis is a CAB ARRAY, which sounds like CABARET, a show in which he played an emcee.
  • Costar a large, fake amount of money? (7): Actor Nathan FILLION costarred in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog with Neil, and FILLION certainly sounds like a large, fake amount of money.
  • He was against you, and it sounds like he’s against everything (4): There’s a terrific story in the book where Neil is accosted by actor Scott CAAN, whose name sounds like CON.
  • Lothario! Unhinge 90 bras, boy!: This one takes a little work. “Unhinge” indicates this is an anagram clue, so if you anagram “ninety bras,” you get BARNEY STIN. Add “SON” as a synonym of “boy,” and you get BARNEY STINSON, the lothario he played in How I Met Your Mother.

Once you have your 24 answer words, it’s time to fill in the words Framework-style. Quite helpfully, there are several places in the grid where only one word fits, due to word length, which offers the solver several points of access.

However, only 23 of those words will fit in the grid, allowing for an alternate solve for the answers RENT and PENN. But there’s only one way to place the other answers so that the shaded squares spell out a ten-letter word that has a special meaning for clever and attentive readers, a code word Neil suggests as a sign of kinship with the reader.

I debated whether to share the word here, but I don’t want to deprive others of the joy of solving a surprisingly tough and enjoyable puzzle lurking inside an already fun read.


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