CTS #16: The Improv and Riddle Crosswords

Crosswording used to have more thievery.

Two installments earlier, we mentioned the problem of taking material for a puzzle without attribution. In the course of researching this entry, I looked up Cruciverb.com’s database of clues with the word “quip” in them. (You’ll need to be a Cruciverb member to get to most of the crossword-authorship-related links I’m about to drop on you.) And I found a fair number of crosswords using unattributed “quips” that belonged to other sources– quote crosswords in disguise, if you will. Thankfully, the practice seems to have petered out around 2004.

I’m not just talking about unattributed “quips” that have floated around with anonymous authorship. Those are more debatable. But there are also cases where some quick digging, confirmed by multiple sources, makes it clear who exactly is not getting their due props.

“A study of economics usually reveals that the best time to buy anything was last year.” –-Marty Allen, not Alice Long

“Cats are smarter than dogs. You can’t get eight cats to pull a sled through snow.” —Jeff Valdez, not Nancy Salomon

“Diets are for people who are thick and tired of it.” —Jacob Braude, not Joy M. Andrews

“Dogs act exactly the way we would act if we had no shame.” —Cynthia Heimel, not Patrick Jordan

Yes, some of the constructors have “massaged” their quotes a bit, altering their wording slightly to make them fit into the grid. That doesn’t really count as making them original. And yes, crossword clues are often freely “borrowed” without consequence, but borrowing the whole backbone of your puzzle is larceny on a grander scale.

(Incidentally, before anyone points it out, the anonymous Winston Churchill cartoon in the last installment really was anonymous, part of the offerings on CartoonStock.)

<Obama>Let me be clear:</Obama> I’m not accusing anyone of intentional skullduggery, or even passive-aggressively “wondering” about that. (As an indirect beneficiary of her advice, I regard Nancy Salomon as somewhere between a patron saint and the tenth Muse.) It’s easy to overhear a quote, mostly forget it for five years, then have it “come” to you in the guise of your own idea.

Solvers don’t especially care if the aphorism in their puzzle comes from a comedian they’ve never heard of or a crossword constructor they’ve never heard of. But sometimes they will have heard the joke before, and to prepare for that, a quick googling to confirm originality or decide attribution is good ethics and good sense. The result might be a little less fun for the solver than the chance to say “gotcha, I heard this one years ago!” But constructors, that’s just a sacrifice you’ll have to make.

The constructor should not get discouraged if he/she keeps discovering his/her original idea is not so original. Because the “quips” that do appear original with the constructor aren’t necessarily… well… remember our theory about how puns can “work” for a crossword yet be immense groaners when read aloud? Even the solvers’ feeling of cleverness is less pronounced when it takes longer to get to a not-that-rewarding punchline:

“Are persons who draw faces of suspects known as con artists?” —Ed Early

“The fellow who wed a dogcatcher said marriage gave him a new leash on life.” —Mel Rosen

“I could never bring myself to buy a dog at a flea market.” —Mel Rosen

“If Hercule Poirot changes his mind, wouldn’t some say, ‘A Belgian waffles?'” —Robert O. Dillman


For all that, the improv crossword, built around a quickie saying that is original with the speaker, is a form worth exploring. Like any medium, crosswords can adapt material produced for other environments, but something special can happen when they run ideas developed just for them, as I think is true of the following examples. (Always a chance that the constructor’s uncle or nephew suggested it to them, off the record.) Some of them can stand with the best quotables from other sources:

“If Harry Potter is a great wizard, why doesn’t he cure his nearsightedness?” –Patrick Jordan [pictured]

“I drove my dog nuts. I’d yell ‘fetch,’ then throw a boomerang.” —Patrick Jordan

“I’d like to see them come out with Chicken Soup for Dummies’ Souls.”Cathy Milhauser

“A person who says ‘I won’t say another word’ always does.” —Harvey Estes and Nancy Salomon (am I forgiven, Nancy?)

Others make creative use of the crossword format– abbreviations, the use of non-alphabetic squares and the crossword’s ever-exacting space restrictions:

Region capture 5“My calendar concurs, work weeks suck. At the end of each one it reads, ‘WTF!'” –Brendan Emmett Quigley with Francis Heaney [pictured]

“If I had a nickel for every time I put a dollar in the bank I’d have 1/20 what I have now.” —Henry Hook

“Haste makes waste, or so it’s said; you must take pains to plan ahea–” —Bill Zais and Nancy Salomon

Similar to the quote and improv crossword, and bound by similar opportunities and pitfalls, is the riddle. Riddle crosswords are not rhetorical queries with no elegant, simple answer, like Jordan’s question above about Harry Potter’s nearsightedness. They contain the answer to the riddle within the text of the puzzle itself. (If they didn’t, they’d be contest crosswords, about which more later.) Because that answer is the punchline, the structure of the puzzle has the focus that’s sometimes a challenge for quote crosswords, and because the solver’s sense of participation in arriving at that punchline is stronger, the constructor can get away with a bit more punniness.

A… bit more. The second and sixth example below, both of them quoted from anonymous sources and neither of which are redeemed by a really inventive grid, don’t really strike me as in the same league as their peers. Found in many a joke book and relying on a single pun, they don’t afford the same level of challenge and reward to the solver.

Region capture 6“[Q.] What word do vegan zombies chant as they attack? [A.] GRAAAAAINS.” –Anonymous, quoted and creatively reformatted by Matt Jones

“[Q.] Divide the circumference of a Jack-o’-lantern by its diameter and what do you get? [A.] Pumpkin pi.” –Anonymous, quoted by Lee Weaver

“[Q.] How can you tell if two people are married? [A.] Do they yell at the same children?” —Mel Rosen

“[Q.] How did the oak ask out the maple tree? [A.] ‘I wood pine fir yew.'” —Zach Jesse

[Q.] “What is black and white and red all over?” [A1.] A sunburned zebra. [A2.] A bashful penguin.” –Anonymous classic, quoted by Randolph Ross

“[Q.] What would you get if you threw a piano down a mine? [A.] A flat miner.” –Anonymous, quoted by Michael Shteyman (using an unusual 15-10-15-10 division, but eh)

“[Q.] Why are computers like bikinis? [A.] They save you a lot of guesswork.” —Patrick Jordan

Riddles mesh surprisingly well with the crossword format. I usually find telling riddles a lot more fun than being told them– their answers are tough to guess, and if I show the slightest hesitation, the riddle-teller will usually pounce on me, merciless as the Sphinx, and tell me the answer. This makes me feel dumber, not smarter, and puzzles should be about achievement, not being browbeaten. But in the comfortable environment of the crossword, with its multiple paths to every answer, the obnoxious riddle is on my turf, and I can show it who’s boss. Yeah. You’re not so clever now, are you, stupid riddle?

Next time out: the narrative and the multi-parter. We’ll have a few stories to tell.

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6 Responses to CTS #16: The Improv and Riddle Crosswords

  1. Howard B says:

    I dunno. Sometimes even an awful pun or riddle in a small puzzle is worth the groan or chuckle. It’s a guilty pleasure, I admit. (I especially laughed at the GRAAAAINS punchline above).

    Although I agree just as often that the payoff is not worth the wait, especially if in a larger-size puzzle. It’s the difference between listening to a master comedian and listening to that relative at a family gathering that always takes 15 minutes to set up a story joke, then forgets the punchline, mistimes it, or botches the wording. The more time and effort, the more you expect.

  2. pannonica says:

    Needing to see Evad’s Gravatar here.

    T, will you be providing a unified dendrogram of your taxonomy at the end of the CTS series?

  3. seahedges says:


    Nancy Salomon, beyond doubt the greatest mentor in the history of American crossword puzzles, counts three vowels in her surname, an A followed by two Os, thus: SALOMON. With a plethora of collaborations to her credit, she’s seldom solo, mon.


  4. T Campbell says:

    You can see how I’d confuse the two.


  5. pannonica says:

    —”Count on it!”

    Glad to hear it! Perhaps a permanent home could be found for it on one of the blog’s tabs. And, if I may further overstep my boundaries, it would be great if such a diagram were interactive, such that hovering over a name would reveal a brief definition. The names, of course, would also link to the corresponding CTS post.

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