Merl Reagle

Twisted But Fair

Merl Reagle

It's hard to find a more appropriate subtitle for an article on Merl Reagle than his personal motto: Twisted but Fair. If you've ever solved one of his crossword puzzles, you'll understand exactly what the motto means.

Time and again Merl pulls off the impossible by finding a way to weave a quirky observation about the English language into an unwelcoming grid to create a puzzle that is both ingenious in design and hilarious in substance. Even if it takes him several years to nail it!

Few people have had more influence on the evolution of the American crossword puzzle over the last couple of decades. And few people cause so many chuckles each weekend as word buffs around the nation plow into Merl's Sunday Crosswords with religious devotion.

But best of all, he's just a really cool dude...

Tell us about the guy in the picture.

After I got the Sunday crossword job at the Washington Post, this was the publicity shot they used. Took only four hours! (I just don't take any pictures of myself.)

The big crossword is on my living room wall — it's a blowup of a puzzle I did called "If I Owned a Travel Agency" and has clues like "I'd send Sylvester Stallone to ..." (THE ROCKIES) and "I'd send the Three Stooges to ..." (THE POCONOS), etc.

It's a plastic wall hanging that I've had since 1998 — Reader's Digest actually paid for it as part of a photo shoot they did at that time. (They were reprinting a piece called "Confessions of a Crossword Fanatic" or some such that I'd written for the Philadelphia Inquirer.) The Digest took about 70 photos and printed what I thought was the absolute worst one — I looked like an embarrassed geezer. But this one, which the Post took, turned out better than I thought humanly possible.

The wall puzzle can also be seen in the movie "Wordplay" when I'm sitting at a table making the "Wordplay" crossword. The director, Patrick Creadon, sent me an early print of the film and neither of us thought much of it at the time, but when we were on the publicity tour in 2006 we were in the audience for many of the screenings and every time this scene came up the audience bust out laughing — thinking, I guess, that if you're a crossword guy, what else would your wallpaper look like?

But the deeper meaning, I guess, is that it represents the culmination of many years trying to make it as an independent Sunday crossword constructor. My better half, Marie Haley, deserves just as much credit for this as I do — probably more — since she's the one who said, rather than just send promotional letters to newspapers, that we should actually fly out to meet the editors in person and make the pitch. I don't like to fly even when it's for a vacation.

Describe the last meal you personally cooked.

Last meal I personally cooked was scrambled eggs with veggies and different varieties of cheese. I'd call it my specialty, but since it's the only thing I ever cook, maybe "specialty" is overstating it.

When you're filling in bureaucratic forms, what do you enter in the box labeled 'Occupation'?

"Syndicated crossword puzzle author."

Crossword constructors often complain about the remuneration in their field (although they really should talk to an expert Scrabble player before complaining!). When it comes to paying the mortgage, do you ever wish you were as good at Soccer as you are at words?

The reason I wanted to get into syndication was to be able to make an actual living at crosswords. You can make half-decent money as a freelancer but only if you make lots of crosswords.

I wanted to make one big Sunday crossword every week that could be solved by as many people as possible. And since most of my puzzles were on the humorous side, I felt that they were more of an "entertainment feature" and thus more in tune with other syndicated features, like the comics.

Of course, when we started in the early 1990s, "crosswords as entertainment" was an oxymoron to most editors.

What are your main crossword gigs at the moment. Do you call them gigs?

Actually, yes, I call them gigs. I'm syndicated in over 50 newspapers, including the...
  • Washington Post,
  • San Francisco Chronicle,
  • Los Angeles Times,
  • Seattle Times,
  • Philadelphia Inquirer,
  • Cleveland Plain Dealer,
  • Hartford Courant, and the
  • Arizona Daily Star.

For the L.A. Times Sunday magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday magazine, each of which comes out once a month, I make a special crossword-type puzzle that's different from my usual Sunday fare.

I also make puzzles every other month for AARP the Magazine, which used to be Modern Maturity (and whose circulation is something like 22 million). And I have a lot of once-a-year gigs (like year-in-review puzzles and the American Crossword Tournament).

I could count on one hand the number of crossword constructors who are well known to the public. In fact, even if I lost a couple of fingers in an accident I could still get there. But you've even appeared on The Simpsons! Do you like being well known? Was there a particular lucky break that led to a quantum leap in your public profile, or was it a succession of events and circumstances?

Merl Reagle on The Simpsons

Merl Reagle and Will Shortz
in The Simpsons. Check out
Merl's behind the scenes.
I've been interviewed many times over the years — by the New York Times, New Yorker magazine, "Nightline with Ted Koppel," lots of magazines, and most of the newspapers that carry me — which is very gratifying, but it was also necessary.

In a world where most people think the New York Times is the only good puzzle in America it was important to say, hey, there's another option, at least on Sunday.

Merl Reagle on Oprah
Since my puzzle was usually gag-oriented and a little different I found a pretty good niche. When I was interviewed I often quoted freely from my own clues — you know, "I'm not a bad duck, I'm just mallard-justed," that kind of silly stuff, which made the interviews pretty lively.

But such publicity still doesn't make you famous — if your puzzle doesn't appear in the local paper, local crossword fans don't know who you are.

Merl Reagle in Wordplay

Merl & cast in the 2006 hit
documentary film Wordplay
Even the quantum leap you mention — being on "The Simpsons," which came on the heels of being in "Wordplay" and being on "Oprah" — was more of a résumé boost than the kind where you're recognized on the street.

It does, however, increase my ability to do other things I love to do — like speaking engagements, which is just me doing a pretty entertaining hour of fun and games with an audience.

(In fact, I'm one of the featured speakers later this month at the Tucson Festival of Books).

BTW, what's with the lack of punctuation in emails? I thought all cruciverbalists were grammar Nazis!?

Hey, I am a grammar Nazi. My quirk, to save time, is to write in all lowercase. But for you, I'm capitalizing on the opportunity. So to speak.

I can see you as a kid in class making jokes that only you and your teacher appreciated. Was it a bit like that?

I was a combination of very good student and jokester. I was chronically well-behaved, so I would not call myself a class clown, but I was a pretty funny kid. Pretty funny-looking, too.

I spent sixth grade in Gloucester City NJ at Mary Ethel Costello School, and my English teacher, Mrs. Blechman — perfect name, isn't it? — gave us 12 spelling words every week.

One week she was testing us aloud and we had to write the words down as she said them, and after the third word I noticed she was following a pattern — the first word from the list, then the last word, then the second word, then the next-to-last, etc.

I had the list memorized, so after the fourth word I just wrote all the rest of the words down and sat there with my arms folded. She actually said, "Merl, aren't you taking this test? I said, "Yes, as long as you keep doing what you're doing." Which she did.

Got pretty famous for that little incident.

When was the last time you had a crossword puzzle rejected?

Geez, I can't remember. When Will asks for a puzzle for the tournament, for example, I usually run a bunch of ideas past him, including the theme answers, so he knows what he's getting before I even start constructing it. Since I don't submit puzzles as freelancers do, I don't have to face that kind of music.

It does remind me of the first puzzles I submitted to Margaret Farrar at the New York Times when I was 16. I sent her three themeless 15s — one had DEAD AS A DOORNAIL and ROTTEN IN DENMARK in it and another had EDEMA and RALE in it, which she rejected as being "not the cheeriest" answers in the world.

She said, "The subway solver does not want to read about death, disease, war, and taxes. They get enough of that in the rest of the paper. The crossword should be an entertaining respite from all of that." But she took the third one, which was the first time she'd ever seen triple stacked 15s in a puzzle.

I was kind of a crossword showoff in my teens.

Are other crossword editors scared of you? I mean, it's hard to imagine Will Shortz dropping you a line saying "Dude. This is, like, the New York Times. I can't publish this crap, man!" But seriously, what was the last non-trivial editorial correction you were asked to make to one of your submitted puzzles?

No, I'm too easygoing to be scary. Will and I have a great working relationship. But I will say that one of the reasons I wanted to be syndicated was so that I was the last person to see the puzzle before it was printed. No one edits it after I do.

In my early days, when I made puzzles for certain outlets I always felt that the puzzles were often not as funny after they'd been edited. By being self-syndicated in newspapers I could make sure that the setup and the payoff were as sharp as possible.

As to non-trivial corrections, I do remember making a puzzle called "Worst-Ever Menu Typos," where one of the answers was MARYLAND CRAPCAKES, and I kinda knew I was pushing my luck. Two newspapers did object, so I had to redo that entire third of the puzzle.

I also once did a puzzle called "Tontoisms," with clues like, "How does Roy's horse feel after eating his oats?" Answer: TRIGGER HAPPY. And I did this in full worry mode, knowing that, historically, American Indians have never been happy with Tonto as a character, the same way that Hispanics have never liked Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez character. But I thought, let's see what happens.

Well, the first time I did it, no one said a word. The second time, however, the San Francisco Examiner said no. So my backup plan was just to call it "Tarzanisms" instead, which worked fine.

In the early days crosswords were about ... well ... words. Now you can have trademarks, symbols, phrases, and even partial phrases. What happened, and where does all this shenanigans stop?

There are partials and there are partials. To me, SAY MORE is an okay partial because it's sort of a complete thought, as in "NEED I ___?" But HIT THE (as in "___ hay") and FLIP A (as in "___ coin") are not too pretty. They seem just chopped off.

Partials come in handy because very often the alternative is a really obscure word and I'll take a partial from a common expression over a lousy piece of crosswordese any day.

As to rebus puzzles, I love them, both as a solver and as a constructor. I think, though, that some of them go too far, and that some are flawed in concept.

For example, in many of the puzzles where circled letters form a picture of something, the "picture" is way overshadowed by the black squares. Constructors should keep in mind that nothing trumps a black square!

I also think that the "game within a puzzle" idea often doesn't work. I remember a puzzle that tried to meld a chessboard with the squares of a crossword and it just did not quite gel.

Very often an idea is good, but the execution is not. Gotta give them credit for trying, though. For me, rebus puzzles are all about the solver — I don't want to impress the hell out of everyone, I just want the solver to catch onto the idea and have a good time.

And then there are these things called 'Themes'. What is a crossword theme, and how does it improve the crossword experience?

A crossword theme is a consistently executed, recurring motif that runs throughout the puzzle. It usually involves the puzzle's longest answers, but not always. A theme can be just about anything, but it should be consistent to help the solver get the idea.

Solvers like them because it's an added dimension, something to discover as they solve, and if the theme is funny, it makes the entire solving experience more of a fun game than a word test.

For me, themes have three parts — the theme answers, the clues, and the puzzle's title. If you have a puzzle of French-translation gags, like TOUR DE FORCE clued as "Inspect a police department, in French?" then a good title might be "Toulouse-ly Translated."

Everything has to have snap for a good theme to work.

I reckon one of the most satisfying things about your job would be giving people a chuckle on their way to their boring job. But then I was thinking, you wouldn't get to see those chuckles would you? Do you just sit at your desk smiling on the morning of the release of your 'Absolutely kick-ass funniest puzzle ever' KNOWING that people will be chuckling, or do you go on busy commuters dressed up as an old woman spying on the commuter solvers? Have you ever dressed up as a woman, by the way?

Yes, I mention this very thing in my talks. I'm the kind of person who is okay with the idea that thousands of people might be laughing at the gags but I never hear it.

It's like being a standup comic but delivering the routine in code — people have to actually work to get the jokes. (Fortunately, I get enough mail to know that people are getting the jokes.)

What are three crossword themes you would beg constructors to STOP submitting?

  1. The kind where after solving it, you have to fold or cut up the puzzle to make something appear.
  2. The kind where dropping a letter or adding a letter or changing a letter leads to an answer that, while technically solvable, has not even a whimsical connection to reality.
  3. The kind where anagrams are formed, but the anagrams sound like they were written by an excited half-literate idiot.

Is the end nigh for interesting, original crossword themes? Does it get harder each week to come up with new ideas or cool twists on old themes?

I have 20 notebooks — no kidding, 20 — filled with puzzle ideas. Many of these are for simple themes I've done before, like "If I Wrote the Dictionary," "Movies That Shouldn't Be Shown Together," and "Sorry, Wrong Letter," and I will just keep doing "sequels" to those puzzles.

I have tons of puns that don't fit into any particular category, so rather than force them into something I'll just do a couple of "Pun Clearance" puzzles during the year. I don't feel the need to create a brand new theme every time I make a puzzle; I just want the theme answers, on their own, to be really entertaining.

When I did my "Lipstick on a Pig" puzzle for the tournament two years ago, I sort of wondered why no one else had already done one.

From my discussions with speed solvers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, they tend to ignore themes to save time. Is that frustrating or disappointing when you've put so much effort into creating a great theme?

I know what I'm getting into when I make a puzzle for the tournament, so I expect the top people to just race through it. This doesn't mean they don't appreciate the humor, though — they can smile and speed-solve at the same time, and they usually come up to me afterward to say so.

But the vast majority of solvers are there to have fun, so they enjoy the puzzle pretty much as it was intended, which is very gratifying.

You are renowned for creating 'wide open' grids. But what exactly is a wide open grid, and why is it a good thing?

I don't do too many wide-open grids any more because I've become a theme-centric guy more than a themeless guy, and it's the themeless puzzle that's known for being wide open — which just means there are fewer black squares and thus lots of wide-open areas of nothing but long, stacked, interlocking words and phrases.

With the advent of computers and database word lists this type of puzzle is now a lot easier to create — not easy, just easier — and with the computer's help the words are a lot more interesting. Used to be that words like SEERESSES were always on the bottom and that entries containing J's, Q's, X's, and Z's were rare in wide-open puzzles. Now they're commonplace.

I find them very interesting — just to see how amazingly "crosswordable" the English language is. There are records now for fewest number of words in a daily puzzle (52 — given the general rule that you can't have more than 38 black squares), fewest number of total black squares (which I think is 17 or 18), etc., etc.

When do you consider it the right occasion to do something 'out of the box' with a puzzle you're working on, and violate one of the sacred rules of crossword construction?

About once or twice a year. My "Tower of Power" puzzle, which ran in January, was like that. I even debated whether to run it at all, since it was so different, but I felt the final answer was such an astounding coincidence that I couldn't just run it as a novelty puzzle somewhere.

But in general, if there's a good reason to throw the rules out the window, I'll always do it.

What's your take on crosswordese (the use of 'obscure words' just to make the grid work)? Specifically: How do you decide whether a specific entry is crosswordese? How do you decide when 'enough is enough' in a puzzle?

For me there are a couple of different kinds.

One is the usual obscure word that is often tagged as "appearing only in crosswords." I do not include EMU and GNU among these, since they are not obscure, but I do include ALOP (drooping), and RIA (estuary) — that kind of crap.

The other kind are those whose meanings are gettable but which just are never seen or used in the real world, like...

  • ACER — "good tennis server"; never heard anyone say this; hard to find it online, too.
  • ACERB — when clued as simply "bitter"; ACERBIC, yes, ACERB, no.
  • IRANI — strictly a variant but always clued as simply "Tehran dweller".

I actually object to the latter three and their ilk more than the obscure stuff. Don't know why, but I do.

Are you a high-tech constructor, a Luddite, or somewhere in between? Quick now: How would you clue 'Luddite'?

"Anagram of DILUTED."

Actually, I do use Crossword Compiler now, since it makes puzzle construction a lot easier.

I don't use prefab word lists, though — it would make my life a lot easier, but I never learned how to do it.

Do you think computers have made much of a difference to the nature of crossword puzzles and the industry in general. If so, do you think the influence is positive or negative? Can a computer-generated puzzle make people laugh, for example?

The computer has relieved the constructor of the "burden" of doing a crossword's fill, the incidental words.

Most constructors use some version of an auto fill feature that fills grid sectors automatically — the constructor still has to decide which fill is best, but the computer does most of the grunt work .

As a result, the quality of the fill is often much better than it used to be. People still have to think of the themes, though. And they still have to clue it — unless they have massive databases that do that automatically as well (and many do). Overall, I'd say this has led to better themeless puzzles than themed puzzles.

And I guess it's possible for a computer to make people laugh. Mine just pisses me off constantly.

A couple of years ago I heard about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and started to follow it keenly from afar. Can you describe your involvement with that tournament, including how it came to be? Can you tell us one of your favorite highlights from that tournament over the years.

It started in 1978 — a manager of some sort at the Marriott in Stamford CT called Gene Maleska, the editor of the New York Times crossword at the time, to see if he would consider running a crossword tournament at the hotel as a way of luring New Yorkers up to Stamford and staying over.

Maleska wasn't interested but he referred him to a constructor friend of his in Connecticut named Norton Rhoades. Norton mentioned it to Will and Will jumped at the chance, so that's how it started.

I entered as a contestant the second year, 1979, and took third place, and the following year I had a puzzle in it, which I think was the first-ever drop-a-letter puzzle (it was movie titles with one letter dropped, like TARS AND STRIPES FOREVER ("works on city roads one's entire life").

Since then I've been a judge and I've had a puzzle in the event (going on 34 years now). I'm also one of the two commentators on the final onstage puzzle — the finalists solve on big boards so the crowd can see. NPR's Neal Conan and I do the commentating — he does the play by play and I do the "color." You can see us doing it in "Wordplay."

One interesting thing that happened two years ago was that for the first time, all three A-list finalists had the exact same score. Two of them made errors, but Tyler Hinman could win if he figured out one last section.

Tyler got stuck on the clue "They're tied at the top," with the letters being C O L _ A _ E R S, and he had almost no time left when he finally got it — CO-LEADERS. Which is amazing since this was the only time that co-leaders went into the final!

And here is that 'Best of ACPT' moment...

What are some other highlights on your Cruciverb Calendar?

Geez, trying to relax a few days would be a highlight! I've got a lot of puzzle contest ideas, a pretty good game show idea (probably won't happen, but it's still a pretty good idea), and lots of non-crossword puzzles which I'd like to turn into a book one day.

I also want to write a book or two about all of the interesting word stuff I've collected over the years, and I want to do more speaking engagements.

You're renowned for enjoying anagrams. Are you a dedicated Scrabble player? If not, why the hell not?

Not dedicated, but I do like it. (Funny ... if you drop the E out of "dedicated" and scramble, you get "addicted," which is almost the same thing.)

Scrabble has always been the opposite of crosswords to me, since in the contemporary crossword world we try to avoid as much of the obscure stuff as possible, whereas in Scrabble, the more obscure stuff you know, the better your scores can be.

But I am a pretty good anagrammer, so I do enjoy Scrabble a lot.

If you could change one thing about the crossword construction industry, what would it be?

Not the crossword industry per se, but getting newspapers to learn how a puzzle should be presented.

It's appalling how newspapers display their crosswords — clues are too tiny, the clue numbers are aligned flush left instead of flush right (like a column of numbers to be added), fonts that make the numbers wander all over the place (or that make "111" look like a black splotch), multi-line clues that wrap flush left under the number instead of flush with the clue — making the scanning of clue numbers much harder.

The very people who are still buying newspapers are the ones who are over 50, who don't have the eyesight of a 20-year-old, and yet they make the older solvers strain to solve the crossword. All that a designer or layout person has to do is go down to a grocery store and look how crossword magazines lay out crosswords, and everything would be fine, but they never do.

They insist on designing the hell out of the puzzle or imposing some style rule on the clues which makes them unreadable. Very arrogant and dumb.

For somebody out there who is interested in getting into constructing quality crosswords, can you give your list of the very best books, websites, forums, and software you recommend they check out immediately?

And if I ever write a book on themes I'll let you know!

If they can only fit the titles of three of your crossword puzzles on your tombstone, which ones will make the cut?

Geez, it's like picking which of your kids you like!

I have a lot of ones that have gotten a good deal of publicity — one called "Shades of John D. MacDonald" about the author's 21 Travis McGee novels (a puzzle that works despite the odds against it being about a billion to one), one called "Gridlock!" with triple interlocking 21s through the center (across and down) filled with the names of popular car models (as if stuck in a traffic jam), but I guess my favorite — at least my most recent favorite — is one called "Kindergarten Crime Spree," which was actually two crosswords on consecutive Sundays, with the first puzzle saying "Continued Next Week" and Part 2 ending with a pretty hairy triple-letter square that I'd been trying to make work for about ten years — the theme is basically a "Dragnet"-style narrative about a series of crimes taking place in a kindergarten; Part 1 is about the crime, Part 2 is about the grilling of the two 5-year-old suspects. How it finally worked out amazed even me, and, as Billy Wilder would say, I'm no pushover. Had the idea for 10 years; took me two years to make it.

And finally, can you tell us one thing about yourself that other cruciverbs reading this interview probably don't know?

When I lived in Tucson AZ in the early 1970s I was the rock critic for the evening paper. I had a very florid, overheated writing style at the time (which I'm glad to say I've outgrown), but when the Rolling Stones came to town I wrote a very positive review in this weird, overblown style. When Stones bass player Bill Wyman published his massive pictorial history of the Stones concerts (several years ago) he used two quotes from my review in the book. He didn't quite spell my name right, which I don't mind (and I'm certainly used to), but his last comment was, "I think she liked us!"

Thank you so much for your insightful and entertaining responses Merl! Now I'll throw it over to our readers...

BTW If you enjoyed this interview I would love to know about it — writing on the Web can be a lonely business! You can let me know in a microsecond by just clicking the 'Like' button...

Have Your Say On Merl Reagle

Do you have something you'd like to add about our good friend Merl?
  • Maybe he's had a big influence on your own grids?
  • Perhaps he's just given you a good belly laugh when you needed it?
  • Or maybe you know something about him the rest of us don't?
Whatever it is, please take the time to tell us about it!

What Others Had To Say About Merl

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About a year ago, I made the acquaintance of Merl quite by chance. This occurred when I found out his email address in Florida and sent him a question …

Merl sneaks in an extra general Not rated yet
In the July 3, 2011 Washington Post, in addition to the 14 U.S. Civil War generals found in the horizontal answers (7 northern/7 southern), Merl tucked …

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It was in the early 90's and I attended my first NY Times Tournament. Somehow, I got Merl to talk to me about crosswords. He was a very busy man and …

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AND FINALLY... All good things must come to end folks. But this isn't quite it!

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