June 27, 2009

Fourth Bloggiversary Contest: Chock-full of badness

Many thanks to everyone who participated in the Crossword Fiend Fourth Bloggiversary contest! I had a blast reading all your submissions. Some were actually good, many were bad, and a select few were really quite terrible indeed.

Before we announce the winner of a signed copy of Dean Olsher's From Square One, let's lay out the case for (or against) each of our three finalists, Jangler, Joon, and SethG:

Jangler's contribution is, he reports, one that has been rejected by multiple editors:

"Counting Carbs"

Stanislavski's innovation (1)--METHODACTING
"There's No Business Like Show Business" singer (2)--ETHELMERMAN
They're usually capitalized (3)--PROPERNOUNS
Candy flavor (4)--BUTTERSCOTCH
Suffix that can follow the starts of x-, y-, z-, and w-across--ANE.

My god! It's a theme built around not just a terrible little suffix that is a minor blight upon each puzzle it appears in—but also around the chemical compounds methane, ethane, propane, and butane. Those of us who've not studied much chemistry are unlikely to take enjoyment in a theme that spotlights these things.

Joon amplified the badness of Roman numerals as fill by making long Roman numerals into the theme:

DCCLXXXII (9) Year in the papacy of Adrian I
DCCCLXXIV (9) Year in the papacy of John VIII
MDCCCLXXXVIII (13) Year in the papacy of Leo XIII
MCCLXXXVI (9) Year in the papacy of Honorius IV
MCCCXXVII (9) Year in the papacy of John XXII

"Year of the pope" clues are useless to most solvers who aren't scholars of Catholic history, and it's difficult to deduce which numerals appear where. Sure, the MDCLXVI set narrows down the choices from 26 letters to 7, but that's not so helpful.

SethG's submission plays the "embedded word" game with a set of unfamiliar embeds parked in a disparate group of phrases:

Mustachioed Hawaiian? (15): FU MANCHU UKULELE
Show albino eyelash tattoos? (14): EX
Throws lizards at alien believers? (14): GEC
Paris's "strong" preference? (15): MIGHT
With "The", what part of Micronesia can be found in the answers to w, x, y, and z across? (15): FEDERATED STATES

Not only are Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and Yap likely to be unrecognizable to most non-Micronesian people, but the theme clangs with discordance thanks to one actual phrase (title of a Woody Allen movie) following three completely contrived phrases.

So, which one is the very worst? Read on...

After much deliberation, I've selected SethG's theme as the very worst one. HNPE is real, but probably even less familiar than the lesser-known of the Federated States. He's verbed a noun (GECKOS). He's anthropomorphized a musical instrument. As much as I love geography themes, this one is pretty awful. Congratulations, Seth! It can't have been easy to pull this theme together. It's one thing to create a lame theme out of laziness, but this? This smacks of hard work for a suboptimal outcome.

Congratulations, Seth! I'll put you and Dean in touch with each other so you can let him know who to inscribe the book to. ("My 12-year-old niece is a huge fan...")

Several of the contest entries were themes I'd like to see. They're mostly not daily newspaper crossword material, but I loved them. Take Donna Levin's menstrual euphemisms theme, "Varsity Rag":

VISITOR PARKING (14) = Space for patrons
THE RING CYCLE (12) = Wagnerian epic
CURSE THE GODS (12) = Rail against one's fate
JURASSIC PERIOD (14) = Time of the dinosaurs

The theme entries' key words alternate between the beginning and end: monthly VISITOR, your CYCLE, the CURSE, and a PERIOD. Too bad Deb Amlen is the exclusive crossword creator for Bust magazine, because this could be right at home there.

Janie's "None for Me, Thanks" is horrifying in the clues, but entertaining in the answers:

CHITTERLINGS (12) -- Pig's large intestine often seen on the dining table
SWEETBREADS (11) -- Pancreas or thymus, often broiled
HEAD CHEESE (10) -- Meat and tissue from pig's skull cooked, chilled and set in gelatin
THAT SOUNDS OFFAL (15) -- Alternate title for this puzzle
CRIADILLAS (10) -- Bull testicles and Spanish delicacy
LAMPREDOTTO (11) -- Fourth stomach of the cow, boiled in broth and seasoned with parsley sauce and chili; Italian favorite
LIVER SAUSAGE (12) -- Sheep stomach stuffed with ground lamb's liver, rolled oats and bits of cut up sheep

I would be laughing my way through a puzzle with a theme like this. Probably would be able to skip a meal afterwards, too!

KarmaSartre's grouping of "Famous SNL Quotes" has dreadful (and funny) clues, but the payoff is remembering the assorted SNL skits that presented these phrases:

CHEESEBURGER (12) -- Instructions from photographer to one-time Chief Justice after "Say"
MORECOWBELL (11) -- Alexander Graham's obviously boviner brother
CHOPPINBROCCOLI (15) -- Extremely creative person's sick euphemism for pleasuring oneself
NOCOKEPEPSI (11) -- First line of the twelfth verse of "How Dry I Am"
PEOPLELIKEME (12) -- What people secretly think when asked whom they would like for friends

It's a little bit of a cheat to have both CHEESEBURGER and NOCOKEPEPSI, as they're both from the same series of Belushi skits. But those skits are classics!

"Anonymous coward" (really someone who'd already submitted two themes) went with a smooth, more modestly sized theme that is unsuitable for the newspaper owing to the F-bomb that ties everything together:

UP WITH PEOPLE (12) Worldwide motivational organization
OFF THE CUFF (10) Impromptu
IT TAKES TWO (10) 1995 movie starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen
YOU NEVER KNOW (12) "There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is ___" (Famous quote by former pitcher Joaquin Andujar)
F*** (4) Word that can precede the starts of ___, ___, ___, or ___-across

It's potty-mouthed, sure, but solid as themes go.

This was an educational contest, wasn't it? It's good to delve into the development of bad themes to elucidate what makes a good theme. Thanks again for playing, everyone!