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VOL. 127 | NO. 160 | Thursday, August 16, 2012

Vic Fleming

Modern Crossword Humor

By Vic Fleming

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The past two weeks I’ve highlighted some stuff in New York Times crossword history that served to give crosswords a bad name. That is, obscure, nobody’s-ever-heard-of-‘em words and their clumsy, who-gives-a-darn clues. My focus was exclusively on the Farrar and Maleska Eras, so called for the Times’ first and third puzzle editors.

Will Weng was the Times puzzle editor from 1969-77, between Farrar and Maleska. Merl Reagle pointed me to a Weng-era puzzle containing the following answers: AMAPA, RICAMA, TARROS, ESPIRITU, AUTOGENY, TROCOS and FLOYDOY. All in one puzzle! Despite putting out stuff like that, Weng brought a sense of humor and playfulness to the Times that was said to be lacking in his predecessor. And that his successor surely quashed.

Apart from the Times puzzle, which just happens to be the focus of this series of columns, Reagle has long advocated fun and comedy in crosswords. That, plus a keen sense of business and a savvy, hard-working partner named Marie, has led to considerable success in the fickle world of cruciverbalism. Merl’s almost-30-year-old syndicated Sunday puzzle now appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle Times and 40 other papers.

In fact, the argument could be made that Merl Reagle’s comedy-in-crosswords movement bore its greatest fruit when Will Shortz became puzzle editor at the Times. Shortz’s philosophy of puzzles was starkly different from Maleska’s. And it didn’t take long for Asian rivers and extinct insect species to disappear almost completely from Times puzzles. Shortz brought a much lighter touch to the table than Maleska, though not as overtly comical as Reagle, who by 1993 was successfully ensconced in building his own puzzling realm, so to speak, parallel with that of the Times.

I wanted this week to print some of the more memorable clever, humorous, upbeat and lively clues and answers from Times puzzles of the past few years. I put out a call to other crossword authors. By deadline, I’d heard from Peter Abide, Erik Agard, Gareth Bain, Sam Ezersky, Pamela Feiring and Jeffrey Krasnick. And here’s what we came up with:

Tell-tale weapon? CROSSBOW (David J. Kahn, 6/6/99)

Standard pick-up line? GET IN (Elizabeth Gorski, 10/10/04)

English passage? ACT OF PARLIAMENT (Patrick Berry, 10/22/04)

Jazz scores – BASKETS (Peter Abide, 11/27/05)

Ones seeking steady work? ACROBATS (Byron Walden, 12/24/05)

Any intelligence at all – OUNCE OF SENSE (Manny Nosowski, 6/9/06)

They may be pulled – ALL-NIGHTERS (Victor Fleming and Bruce Venzke, 1/28/07)

Punch with a kick – SANGRIA (Tony Orbach and Patrick Blindauer, 6/29/08)

Certain sex scandal, in slang – BIMBO ERUPTION (Paula Gamache, 3/27/09)

Russian famously played by an Egyptian – DR ZHIVAGO (Doug Peterson 12/4/10)

Wheelie supporter – BACK TIRE (Joe Krozel, 9/30/11)

Growing concern for a surgeon, informally? BOOB JOB (10/1/11, David Quarfoot)

Where to see the writing on the wall? FACEBOOK PROFILE (Caleb Madison, 10/14/11)

Like winter in Siberia – COLD AS HELL (Gareth Bain, 1/25/12)

They may be pint-sized with big heads – ALES (Victor Fleming and Sam Ezersky, 7/28/12)

Get the picture?

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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