Part of the challenge for many crossword solvers is that you can’t adjust the difficulty of the cluing on a given day. The clues you get are the clues you get.
New York Times crossword solvers are intimately familiar with this, talking about Tuesday puzzles and Saturday puzzles and understanding what each means in terms of expected puzzle difficulty.
Our own Penny Dell Crosswords App offers free puzzles across three difficulty levels each day, but those are three distinct puzzles, not three different clue sets for one particular puzzle.
Having options for more than one set of clues is fairly rare. Lollapuzzoola has two difficulty-levels for their final tournament puzzle, Local and Express. GAMES Magazine previously offered two sets of clues for their themeless crossword, entitled The World’s Most Ornery Crossword.
The tournament final of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament offers different clue difficulties for three separate divisions. The Boswords Spring and Fall Themeless Leagues work in a similar manner, offering three levels of clue difficulty — Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy — for competitors to choose from.
The concept of Easy and Hard clues is not unheard of… it’s just rare.
And it’s only natural that someone, eventually, was going to take this concept and dial it up to a Spinal Tap 11.
The pair of someones in question are Megan Amram and Paolo Pasco.
Paolo is fairly well-known around crossword circles, having contributed puzzles to the American Values Club crossword, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, while also serving as associate crossword editor for TheAtlantic.
And Megan is an incredibly talented television and film writer who has written for Parks and Rec, The Simpsons, and The Good Place. Anytime you saw a hilariously shameless punny name for a store in The Good Place, it was undoubtedly one of Megan’s.
The instructions are simple: This crossword contains two sets of clues to the same answers. Toggle to the set labelled “Hard” to impress people looking over your shoulder. (And toggle to “Easy” when they look away.)
This 9×9 crossword’s Easy clues were fair and accessible, but the Hard clues were the real stars. They ricocheted between immensely clever, wildly obscure, and hilarious parodies of themselves.
For instance, the word JEST was clued on the Easy side as “Infinite ____” but received the brilliantly condescending add-on “Infinite ____” (novel that’s very easy to read and understand) in the Hard clues as a reference to the famously dense and impenetrable nature of the novel.
For the word APPS, the Easy clue was “Programs designed to run on mobile devices,” while the Hard clue was “Amuse-gueules, colloquially.”
(I had to look that one up. An amuse-gueule is “a small savory item of food served as an appetizer before a meal.”)
And those are just two examples.
When you finally finish the puzzle, this is your reward:
“You’re a genius! You can tell your mom to get off your case about going to law school.”
All at once, The Impossible Crossword manages to be a fun puzzle to solve on its own, a riotously fun gimmick that lampoons clue difficulty in general, and the most meta puzzle I’ve solved all year.
Kudos to Megan and Paolo for pulling it off. What a way to welcome the Cartoons & Puzzles era of The New Yorker while the rest of us close out another year of puzzling.
By the late 2000s and early 2010s, NBC’s Must See TV Thursday lineup was a thing of the past, but they were still putting out quality comedy content. My Name Is Earl, The Office, Community, Scrubs, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock all had loyal followings.
And you’d be surprised how much puzzle and game content ended up on those shows.
The Office featured in-house Olympics and betting games, as well as a Da Vinci Code-esque prank. Community had two Dungeons & Dragons-inspired episodes (which I should really cover at some point).
But those last two shows — Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock — both featured made-up games that either spoofed or were inspired by modern board games.
Parks and Recreation had The Cones of Dunshire, and 30 Rock had Colonizers of Malaar. Both of these games are much more elaborate takes on Settlers of Catan, a board game about resource management that is considered one of the top titles in modern board games.
In one episode of 30 Rock, executive Jack Donaghy is struggling with his position, given that NBC is under new ownership with Kabletown, and he finds refuge in a game of Colonizers of Malaar with the writers for comedy show TGS.
Jack believes his business acumen will make the game an easy victory, only to find the play experience strangely similar to his current problems at work. He flees the game for some fresh air.
Later, Jack returns to the game, inspired. He makes a seemingly ill-advised move — playing a fire card in a desert wasteland — that turns the game on its head. The fire turns all the sand into glass, a much-needed resource, and suddenly he’s back in control.
His success in the game inspires him to do the same with his new employers, and Jack leaves, reinvigorated.
The game itself allowed for a few silly throwaway lines, but Jack’s gaming experience was a clever way to allow him to reach rock bottom and rebound. Like many newcomers to a game, he struggled, found his way, and later triumphed, his day improved by playing the game.
Plenty of board game fans have had similarly joyful experiences.
Colonizers of Malaar, as far as we can tell, is a marketed game in the 30 Rock universe. The Cones of Dunshire from Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, is created by character Ben Wyatt and initially treated as a mistake, a nonsensical result of his boredom and frustrations.
The game becomes a running gag in the show. Ben leaves it as a gift at an accounting firm that he has been hired by (and walked away from) several times.
Later, we find out the game has been produced, and Ben stumbles across it when dealing with a dotcom company. He mentions that he invented it, but is shrugged off. He then proves not only his gaming skill but his authorship of the game when he beats the dotcom bosses in a tense playthrough.
It’s mentioned once that a gaming magazine called Cones of Dunshire “punishingly intricate,” a point that makes Ben proud.
Part of the fun of Cones of Dunshire is that the viewer never really understands what’s going on, so supposedly dramatic moments can be played for laughs. (I also appreciate that the name of the game is basically a fancy way of saying “dunce hat.”)
And, in the sort of cyclical storytelling that could only happen in a nerdly pursuit like board games, the company that made Settlers of Catan — Mayfair Games — produced a giant version of the game as part of a charity event at GenCon.
A Kickstarter campaign for a limited run of the game was launched twice, with copies costing $500 due to the insane complexity and number of pieces for the game, but it ultimately failed to reach its goal.
Nonetheless, these two fictional games made an impact on both the characters of the show and the fans as well. What more could you ask for?
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I know the last few months have been hard for a lot of people. But it’s also been inspiring to see communities rally and work together, even while social distancing, to take care of each other. And loads of creative folks out there have been raising money for charity in clever and entertaining ways.
One of the biggest annual fundraisers is Red Nose Day, a yearly international event dedicated to eradicating child poverty. There are often special TV events tied into the Red Nose Day, and this year was no exception.
NBC employed a more puzzly route than most participating networks, as they presented an hour-long show dedicated to a celebrity-filled escape room.
Musician and actor Jack Black hosted, serving as the exuberant and maniacal gamemaster for the event. Ben Stiller, Adam Scott, Courteney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow were the celebrity players, and they had one hour to escape Jack’s series of rooms. For each puzzle they successfully solved, they would earn $15,000 in charitable donations from the event’s sponsor, M&Ms.
Jack explained the rules, and then informed them that they were allowed three hints to help them solve the puzzles. Each hint was represented by a red clown nose, the official symbol of Red Nose Day.
You can watch the entire special video below, or continue reading for a recap of the show and a breakdown of each puzzle:
The celebs were escorted into an elevator and sent on their way. The team immediately started trying to figure out how to escape.
But the elevator wasn’t a puzzle room. Jack was just messing with them, sending the elevator up and down before opening it.
The group’s first actual challenge was an 80’s themed room, which contained not only numerous references to the decade (posters, movies, decor, etc.), but references to each actor’s career to serve as a distraction. Jack Black informed the audience of two key locations to pay attention to — a photo wall and the table with pizza on it — but didn’t explain the actual puzzles.
Courteney Cox stumbled upon a clue — a recorded message from Jennifer Lopez — that sent the celebs to their yearbooks on one of the shelves. Inside, they each found a different variation of a picture of people sitting on a couch, each one with more people in it.
Ben Stiller not only realized that they needed to be placed somewhere in order, but spotted where to do so.
The photo wall was a 3×4 grid, with 8 photos already placed and 4 open spaces. My first instinct would have been to place the photos in order of the rows (as if reading the photos in storyboard order from left to right, row to row).
But the photos had to be placed in column order from left to right, ignoring the rows. Courteney figured this out, and a couch folded out from the wall. Having successfully completed a puzzle, $15,000 was added to the team’s charity total.
By all sitting on the couch, they activated the TV, which aired a commercial for Rubik’s Cubes. Ben realized the pizza and tablecloth in the center of the room were covering a giant Rubik’s Cube. (Instead of being rotated and twisted, this one had removable magnetic blocks, which made solving it easier.)
The celebs immediately started checking the lockers, but they were all locked. While searching for their next puzzle, the celebs misinterpreted a banner that said “Let’s get loud” and started screaming.
It’s silly, but hey, in an escape room, sometimes you’ll try anything.
Ben spotted the clue on the floor, and Courteney realized that some of the floor tiles could be pulled up, revealing a picture puzzle to be assembled. They solved the puzzle — a picture of Jack in a mascot costume — and it opened the trophy case. That made their charity total rise to $45,000.
When Adam put the mascot head on, the lights dimmed, and he began looking for the next clue. Three of the celebs tried the mascot head on, but they couldn’t find anything. So they used one of their red noses and asked for a hint.
Jack intervened and told them to direct the mascot head’s vision toward the lockers. On certain lockers, the mascot’s head revealed in invisible ink the birthdays of the four players. After some difficulty, Adam realized they should open the lockers in birthday order, which caused all four to open. (Four puzzles completed, $60,000 earned.)
As the other players removed letterman jackets from the lockers, Courteney stepped into her locker (which was larger inside than the others) and Jack shut it behind her, seemingly locking her in. While trying to figure out how to free Courteney, they all decided to put their jackets on.
Jack directed the audience to pay attention to the janitor’s closet, the trophy case, and the cubby area for the next puzzle.
Courteney discovered her locker secretly led into the locked janitor’s closet. Meanwhile, the other players found prom tickets in their jackets.
Unable to free Courteney (the inside door handle came off in her hand), the celebs were flummoxed again, even trying to play rock-paper-scissors to open the door. (Bafflingly, Ben doesn’t know how to play.) They decided to ask for their second Red Nose hint. Jack pointed them toward the janitor’s to-do list, which has four tasks on it, three completed.
The unfinished task referenced the water fountain, and upon investigating it, Adam found the door handle for the janitor’s closet, freeing Courteney (and earning another $15,000).
Doing so activated the TV in the trophy case, and special guest “Principal” Kelly Clarkson provided a year-in-review that recounted the trophy won by each celeb, and suggested they hang up their jackets on the Wall of Fame (the cubby area).
The celebs missed the trophy clue and just hung their jackets up (not realizing that the trophies — first place, second place, third place, and fourth place — indicated the order of the jackets).
They tried birthday order again, then headed back to the trophy case, realized their mistake, and put the jackets in the correct order, earning another $15,000 for charity.
Part of the locker wall then opened up to reveal a room decorated for prom, complete with balloons and a space for couple/group photos. Jack directed viewers to pay attention to the clock on the wall, the photos of couples on the wall, and the photography setup.
Relying on the clue “it’s almost time for crown the king and queen,” they puzzled out that there are clocks on all of the photos, but it reads 9 PM for the crowned couple.
Courteney eventually realized there was a stepladder that would allow her to reach the clock, and rotated it until it read 9 PM. (Their charity total was now $105,000!)
Completing the puzzle activated the lights in the photo area. They posed for their picture, and when they snapped it, the balloon wall burst, revealing a gym decorated for prom. (It also scared the daylights out of them, which made for a great prom photo.)
Jack then fully explained the next puzzle to the audience, as the celebs had to match the images on their prom tickets to certain champagne bottles (filled with M&Ms) on the refreshments table, which would then point them to particular light-up squares on the electronic dance floor.
The celebs immediately zeroed in on the symbols on the champagne bottles, but didn’t know what to do with them. Jack taunted them, hoping to goad them into using their third and final hint, until Courteney spotted the matching symbol on her prom ticket.
Now finally pairing up bottles of M&M champagne, Courteney again figured out that the colors of each pair of bottles should combine to match the color of the podium they’re placed on. It’s a pretty impressive bit of puzzling, I must admit.
Each time they placed a pair of bottles correctly, part of the dance floor lit up.
Unfortunately, they confused the colors required to make pink with the colors needed to make orange, which slowed them down. Fixing their mistake and completing the puzzle, they ran to the dance floor with another $15,000 for charity.
The dance floor was a 4×4 grid, with each player standing in a different colored square in the bottom row. As the dance floor lit up in a sequential pattern of lights, the team realized they were playing a Simon-style game where they had to step forward in a certain order to match the pattern of colored lights displayed on the floor.
There were three rounds of the game. The first (and simplest) required a single step each onto the second row. The second required two steps (meaning eight total moves in order), and third required three steps (meaning a more complicated twelve-step order).
Once they sorted out their timing issues in the first round, they flew through the second and third rounds, solving the puzzle and earning another $15,000.
Jack then instructed the group to go onstage and sing their way out of the room as their final challenge. He noted they only had 9 and a half minutes left to escape.
A video wall across the room activated, and Adam and Mike, the two remaining Beastie Boys, wished them luck. When Jack started playing guitar over the intercom, Ben recognized the song as “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party),” which they’d have to sing karaoke-style to escape.
But Lisa didn’t know the song, and she consistently botched the rhythm on each of her turns. Thankfully, that didn’t hinder the group too much, and after being startled one last time (with victory confetti), they escaped the prom with a total $150,000 for charity, and a little over 6 minutes to spare.
Honestly, as a fan of escape rooms, I really enjoyed this. It’s a great — if highly budgeted — example of this puzzle genre, and a strong introduction for anyone who has never tried them.
The puzzles ranged from simple to moderately hard, but for the most part were fairly intuitive. Also, while it’s embarrassing in the moment to try silly things and draw dumb conclusions while trying to solve puzzles, it’s also very entertaining to watch someone else do the same.
All in all, it was a fun event hosted for a great cause, and the four celebrity players (plus gamemaster Jack) made an engaging cast of characters. The little interviews interspersed throughout also added a lot. (Plus, at the end, we found out Courteney loves escape rooms, which explains her mad puzzle skills.)
But it’s not just horror movies that feature characters with these rare qualities. Television dramas and comedies both have their fair share of top-notch puzzlers, and today, we turn the spotlight on them.
True, I certainly could have listed more detectives/investigators/crime scene techs, but honestly, they’re often part of a big team of solvers. (The casts of CSI and Bones, for instance, are effective teams, but rarely does one particular puzzler shine brighter than the rest.)
These individuals (and the occasional duo), however, most definitely perform puzzly feats under pressure.
Yeah, we’re getting an obvious one out of the way first. He’s not called the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing, after all. Although the ’60s Batman leapt wildly to conclusions that turned out to be right, we’d rather lean on the cunning cartoon version of the character from the ’90s FOX show.
This Batman outwitted the Riddler, foiled the Joker, and defeated Ra’s al Ghul, all while remaining age-appropriate for the kiddies. His comic-book counterpart might get to show off his puzzly detective skills more frequently, but when it comes to TV, it’s hard to ignore the Caped Crusader.
Sherlock Holmes / Mycroft Holmes / Jim Moriarty, Sherlock
Again, this trio is too obvious to ignore. It’s hard to pick the sharpest knife out of this particular drawer. Moriarty proves himself to be Holmes’s equal throughout the show, though Sherlock does defeat him in the end. Similarly, Mycroft is often regarded as Sherlock’s equal (or perhaps superior) when it comes to sussing out evidence.
But we always return to the often imitated but never duplicated Great Detective when we think of someone who can put together tiny details and suddenly realize the stunning whole of the case. Call it deduction or just great jigsaw skills, Sherlock has it in spades.
(Oh, and an honorable mention here goes out to Dr. Gregory House, who was based on Holmes.)
When you think of this iconic character, it’s likely that one of two things comes to mind: either his trusty Swiss army knife or his incredible knack for getting out of jams with jury-rigged, home-built, improvised equipment.
The man cobbled together a cannon from cigarette butts and built a functioning glider out of bamboo and trash bags. Any brain teaser, no matter how specious or obtuse, would fall before the mighty outside-the-box thinking of Mr. MacGyver.
Leslie Knope / Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
My first instinct was to mention Ron Swanson here, given his love of riddles and his impressive efforts to solve the Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt created for Ben in a famous episode. But one cannot honor a master puzzle solver and not give a fair shake to the woman who designed the devious scavenger hunt being solved.
Leslie Knope’s 25-clue puzzle hunt involved riddles, anagrams, a cryptex, and more, and not only did she amaze viewers, but she got Ron to admit his love of riddles to the world. They both merit mentioning in today’s list.
When your life is spent traveling through time and space, experiencing events out of order, you’d have to be a pretty decent puzzler just to keep cause and effect straight, let alone to battle threats that endanger the whole of creation. And this alien with two hearts and a police box that travels through time is one heck of a puzzle solver.
He has outwitted Daleks, demigods, and the devil himself. He has defeated aliens that move every time you blink or look away, or that you forget about as soon as you lose sight of them. I assure you, no riddle or brain teaser stands a chance against someone who thinks in four dimensions.
No, I haven’t mentioned too many actual puzzle solvers in this list — but just because people like puzzles, that doesn’t mean they’re the best solvers. Lisa, however, fits both sides of the equation.
We’ve seen her skills as a crossword whiz and her ability to crack a Da Vinci Code-esque mystery, all while navigating the perils of elementary school and a father whose choices often defy belief. Lisa is thoughtful, diligent, observant, and clever. She not only loves puzzles, but applies her puzzly mind to making the world around her a better place.
From schoolgirls to drug kingpins we go. It’s hard to pick who is the better strategist between the devious Walter White and the tactical Gustavo Fring. Granted, White does defeat Fring in the end, but not before Gus outmaneuvers old rivals and new, drives a wedge between Walt and Jesse, and builds an entire empire under the noses of the local authorities.
Walt, like a sinister MacGyver, often rigs up surprising solutions to problems, but Gus is probably the superior puzzler, someone who can plan his game three moves ahead and make the best use of his resources.
With the bumbling, insufferable bionic detective by your side, you almost have to be twice as good a puzzler to get anything done. And yet, the insightful Penny and her loyal canine companion Brain usually manage to foil the plans of Dr. Klaw despite the doltish antics of the show’s title character.
Penny is an able researcher, able to assess a situation and find the missing pieces with ease. Brain, on the other hand, is the one who puts Penny’s plans into action and adapting on the fly when things (inevitably) go awry. As puzzling duos go, they’re among the best around.
A knack for observation will always serve a puzzler well. Maybe you notice a pattern, or something missing from a room that everyone else missed. Maybe you can draw connections faster than others. All of these qualities apply to Adrian Monk, the fearful obsessive investigator from USA’s Monk.
Monk is the ultimate logic problem solver, drawing out the tables in his head and neatly placing information in each box, then finally drawing his conclusion once he has enough detail. And he’s never wrong. A master of observation and deduction, Monk is a world-class puzzler (even if he probably doesn’t solve the daily crossword often for fear that the newspaper will smear ink on his hands).
Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from television? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!
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Her fiance, fellow detective Jake Peralta, has a doozy of a last case for he and Amy to solve as detectives. He presents her with a serial arson case that seem to be connected to the Saturday crossword puzzle. Amy, as a crossword fiend, is overjoyed.
Two different buildings have been set ablaze on two consecutive Saturdays, each with a puzzle left at the crime scene. The only other clue is a note sent to the puzzle’s “author” — not constructor, oddly — Melvin Stermley.
Amy immediately geeks out, mentioning that Stermley once created a puzzle where every word in the grid was the word “puzzle” in a different language. Jake then mentions that Stermley himself is coming in to help them with the case.
While Jake expects Melvin Stermley to be “a massive dork,” he turns out to be a handsome Hollywood tough guy type. Jake is instantly jealous. (For a nice bit of insider fun, Stermley is played by David Fumero, the husband of Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy Santiago.)
Amy has set up a display with both of Stermley’s puzzles connected to the fires, and the trio begin searching for leads. When Jake asks if he has the typical physique of a puzzler, he mentions that each puzzle only pays a couple hundred bucks, so he makes most of his money modeling. (No doubt a common response you’d get from any top constructor, right, folks?)
They read over the arsonist’s letter again: “Your clues I discombulate, to teach you to conjugate. The fool who fails to validate will watch as I conflagrate.”
Stermley suggests that they look at the answer grids of his puzzles for clues. Amy then jumps to anagramming some of the answer words. (The puzzler notes that Amy Santiago anagrams to “o, nasty amiga” and Jake Peralta to “eat a jerk, pal.”) Amy and Vin decide to split up the odd and even clues, leaving Jake out.
Getting nowhere with the anagrams, they wonder if “conjugate” in the arsonist’s letter means they should focus on the verbs, “the second best form of speech, after prepositions.” Jake suggests a different path, starting with possible suspects who don’t like Stermley, and the puzzler mentions the crossword night he’s hosting at a local bar. “It’s a total puz-hang,” according to Amy, and a good place to start looking.
While waiting in line outside the bar, Jake is disappointed no one is dressed like The Riddler. Amy points out someone wearing crossword-patterned pants. (Again, a common sight at the ACPT.) They chat with one of the other people in line, a woman who jokingly refers to Stermley as her future husband.
Before anyone can enter, they have to solve one of Stermley’s puzzles. Amy is tasked with anagramming the phrase “MEET A BRAINIER STUD, A” into the name of a place in the world. (Jake’s jealousy is piqued by the anagrammed message, of course.)
She quickly solves it — UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — and heads inside. But when Jake tries to follow, he discovers he has to solve a puzzle of his own to get in. The phrase “SAD ANUS LOSER, I GO IN” must be anagrammed into a film based on a classic book. Cut to Jake sneaking into the bathroom, because he couldn’t solve the anagram.
(It was DANGEROUS LIAISONS, by the way.)
While Jake waits in the bathroom for his pants to dry — he stepped into the toilet while climbing down from the window — two puzzle fans come in, discussing Stermley’s mad puzzle skills and how “Sam” must be pissed, as Stermley replaced him doing the Saturday crossword, bumping him down to work in Parade Magazine.
They mention Sam’s toughest clue, “a 5-letter word for a game popular in nursing homes,” to which Jake replies “BINGO.”
Jake mentions it to Stermley, who says Sam Jepson is one of his best friends and has been out of town for weeks. Jake still thinks Jepson is a solid lead.
Amy and Stermley, meanwhile, have realized that both targeted buildings were at the intersection of numbered streets, and those numbered intersections also point to letters in Stermley’s puzzles: M and A. They plan to build a trap into Stermley’s next puzzle to catch the arsonist.
When given a choice between Jake’s approach and Stermley’s, Amy opts to go with the puzzle trap.
Back at the precinct, Amy has determined that the most common letters in people’s names that follow MA are L, X, R, and T — Malcolm, Max, Mark, and Matthew, for example — so Stermley constructs a puzzle using only one of each of those letters. (A pretty daunting challenge, but definitely doable — especially if the cryptic-style crossword grid on the board behind Amy is the puzzle in question. It would have fewer intersections.)
Amy plans to stake out the intersections for each of those four letters, assigning one of them to Jake. (Jake, meanwhile, makes a secret plan to have Charles stake out Sam Jepson’s apartment.)
Charles spots Sam on the move — played by crossword guru Will Shortz, no less! — and Jake leaves his assignment to intercept. He and Charles follow Sam, who sits at a corner and eats soup, then calls his Mom. It turns out he has been out of town, only having returned tonight — and his marriage proposal was rejected. Bummer.
Jake returns to his assigned intersection, and the building is on fire. He has missed the arsonist.
Amy is understandably upset with Jake when they’re back at the office. Jake confesses he’s jealous of Stermley and doesn’t want Amy to wake up one day, regretting not marrying someone as smart as her. She reassures him that he’s a brilliant detective and that’s why she wants to marry him.
The episode in question, entitled “HalloVeen,” has the officers and detectives of the 99th Precinct engaging in their annual Halloween heist to determine who is the craftiest and most brilliant member of the squad.
As the players double-cross, triple-cross, and outmaneuver each other with increasingly ridiculous and circuitous plans to acquire this year’s MacGuffin — a championship belt in the style of pro wrestling — both the players and the viewers are surprised by one player’s long con…
Jake has used the heist to propose to his girlfriend, fellow detective Amy.
Although there’s a lot of clever plotting in this episode, that’s not the puzzly moment. That comes later, as the characters each share a story explaining when they planted the idea of proposing in Jake’s head.
Jake replies that none of them are correct. It turns out, it was a quiet moment at home with Amy that convinced him: