Magazine Racket – The New York Times


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Wordplay, The CROSSWORD COLUMN
Make some noise for Sam Ezersky’s scheming Sunday puzzle.
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SUNDAY PUZZLE — This grid solved for me like a giant Saturday puzzle that happened to have a theme. A high difficulty level is to be expected from Sam Ezersky, who has been constructing mainly for Friday and the weekend for a few years now (when he gets a break from the Spelling Bee hive, of course, and his day job as the digital puzzles editor). This is Mr. Ezersky’s 38th crossword for The Times, and it corresponds to the day that he will be running the Brooklyn Half Marathon, in case you want to cheer him on. Undaunted, Sam is not. He said, “Hoping solvers won’t be struggling on Sunday morning as much as me!”
Full disclosure: I did struggle, a lot, with whole swaths of today’s clues. And I stumbled mainly because of misdirects that seemed designed to befuddle, and not because of difficult trivia (BHARAT is an exception) or those answers that sit on the tip of your tongue until a few letters emerge as hints. “Happy companion,” for example, refers not to any mood but to the cheerful Snow White character who palled around with DOC, Bashful, Sleepy and the rest of the gang. And “Be philanthropic, say,” solves to DO GOOD, not “donate.”
57A. This is another debut that defies my logic (in a data output context, no less). “N/A” has meant “Not Applicable” to me for my entire life, but that might just be because I’ve successfully avoided knowing Excel that well.
74A. This is a true Natick, a crossing of two entries that you can’t be expected to deduce. I didn’t know STU here (he’s the Ed Helms character), and I definitely didn’t know KLAUS at 52D (brother to Violet and Sunny Baudelaire, and a new character in the Times puzzle).
5D. This is one of several interesting debuts today, and it seems paradoxical: How could any search engine, even one in the 1980s, be PREWEB? You needed a lot of patience to flip through FTP file directories, apparently. This entry ends in another debut that I could not believe was real, but there are places where you can actually order an Irish CAR BOMB cocktail (even though its creator has apologized for the awful name that he coined in the 1970s).
6D. In Louisiana, it’s zydeco; in Texas and Mexico, accordions mean conjunto or TEJANO music, inspired by European polka rhythms from the 19th century.
53D. “Certain college member,” naturally, had to be a “proctor” for university exams, right? Wrong college: The puzzle calls for an ELECTOR.
70D. This joke comes around about once a decade in the crossword: One “Ounce of praise” is apparently the measure of a single KUDO.
There are eight entries in the theme set today, all in the Across clues and one in two parts. Their clues are all pun questions, answered by a common phrase that takes on new meaning with the addition of a couple of letters. The title of the puzzle, “Magazine Racket,” hints at those letters, but I’d be surprised if anyone noticed that connection anywhere but in hindsight. (I certainly did not. Both “Magazine” and “Racket” can refer to a number of things when considered cryptically — publications, storage spaces, frauds, loud noises, sports equipment and so on.)
I stumbled on the trick once I had nearly filled in a few of the themers; I think that 107-Across, “Where Sweet’N Low displays its logo?,” clinched it. The answer is FRONT OF THE PACKET, a minor revision of where Mr. Ezersky hopes to be this weekend, perhaps while you’re reading this. Several other entries now made sense. At 23-Across, “Bit of company swag for a Genius Bar staffer?” is an APPLE JACKET; at 28-Across, “Elements of a Sherlock Holmes sports mystery?” combines an Arthur Conan Doyle supporting role with a British pastime for WATSON AND CRICKET.
I think that’s the most whimsical example in the bunch, but I also really love the answer to “How much Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain could score, hyperbolically?,” a revision of which might refer to how one feels finishing a half marathon, or a crossword like this one: LIKE A MILLION BUCKETS.
The “letter/phonetic change” pun puzzle has eluded me for too long! As a solver, I grew up delighting in gems like USE THE FORCEPS LUKE and PIZZA RETREAT but never found myself interested in brainstorming any myself. I wanted every last theme I created to feel unusual, or at least technically intricate. After all, as a constructor, I’ll always be most drawn to crosswords in a challenging sense: Can I pull off such a crazy theme idea based around this one example? Can I pack a wide-open corner with all this jazzy fill?
Today’s puzzle is the result of dialing things back a notch while still staying true to my quirks. It occurred to me one day that there were plenty of words like JACKET, BUCKET, TICKET, etc., and so I simply pursued a way to create punnery around this. I’d wanted to make a pun theme forever, but the set of examples needed to really sing. It took a bunch of imagination on the cluing side to make this a reality in my mind, along with the desire to pack in as much content as possible — wouldn’t it be weird if I only had a small selection of -CKET examples? Too much theme tends to cause filling troubles, so I knew what I was getting into — but hey, constructor quirks.**
We talk a lot these days on the editorial team about what makes a good pun, and everyone’s mileage varies; for me, though, it all comes down to whether or not I can imagine the punny phrase used in a goofy, real-world, outside-of-crosswords context. There’s “crossword funny” — i.e., OK, you’ve found that adding a few letters can make something wacky — and then there’s “dad joke funny.” My goal is to impart the humor of the latter within the constraints of the former. At its best, it leaves you with both groans and ahas. My fingers (and words, of course) are crossed.
Enjoy my latest for The Times, a privilege as always!
**P.S.: Bits of fill like EATS PALEO? PREWEB? File these under “constructor quirks,” too. My style is to err on the side of peculiarity over boredom any day of the week.
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