The PTL Club: One of the funniest shows ever? Mark certainly thought so.
John Cleese tells a story about the early days of Monty Python's Flying Circus, when the fledgling series was difficult to catch due to its erratic broadcast schedule. A friend of his from Newcastle managed to tune in one night and laughed at a long and rambling introduction featuring a boring documentarian droning on about Newcastle's ancient monuments. Only after twenty minutes of the program had elapsed did the friend realize that he wasn't watching Python. He had been laughing hysterically at a straight documentary feature.
That incident occurred over forty years ago, yet it illustrates a strange duality that persists in our media-saturated culture. Only a small percentage of all programming appeals to any particular viewer as genuinely entertaining, a perception that leads us to bemoan the paltry amount of worthwhile broadcasts among an ever-increasing buffet of cable channels. Yes, you really can have 100 channels and nothing to watch. But that is true only if we demand to enjoy shows as they are intended by their creators to be enjoyed. The dichotomy of modern television is that a large portion of it is unintentionally entertaining.
My brother Brian once encouraged me to tag along on a social call that did not appeal to me. My reluctance was born from a previous visit that lasted much longer than I had anticipated. Even though Brian assured me that we would leave for home whenever I liked, I wasn't convinced that I would have the opportunity to express that desire without offending our host. Somehow we arrived at a clever solution: a code word, one unlikely to come up in normal conversation yet not so obscure as to raise suspicion, would be my subtle signal that it was time to go.
"What's the code?" asked Brian.
"Put-In-Bay," I declared instantly. Why the name of a village on Lake Erie's South Bass Island should spring to my lips remains a mystery, though I suspect my brain subconsciously fetched the handiest noun that might elicit a laugh. Indeed, it did bring forth a chuckle from my brother, partly because the phrase Put-In-Bay is naturally funny and also due to the potential awkwardness of inserting the unwieldy moniker into casual conversation.
You have to be good to grab the attention of renowned puzzlemaster Will Shortz.
SPOILER ALERT! This week's post is about a crossword puzzle that I created and submitted to The New York Times. For the most satisfactory reading experience, I advise you to attempt to solve the puzzle first. To do so, you will need to download the free Across Lite crossword application. If you're a fan of the NYT Crossword, you've probably already done this. Next, download my crossword puzzle in Across Lite format. You'll be able to tackle my puzzle on your computer, or you can print it out and have at it with a pencil. Either way, good luck!
The summer of 2009 became the Summer of the Crossword Puzzle for me. As a teacher who works according to the traditional school calendar, I have the luxury of indulging my interests every June, July and August. What's more, as the father of two active girls who participate in a variety of summer activities, I am often sitting poolside during a swim practice or waiting for the morning's cross country training to end. Short of good conversation with a fellow human being, I have found that a decent crossword puzzle is an ideal way to pass idle time. It's also a wonderfully engaging distraction from the dull concerns of everyday life. That summer, the crossword puzzle rose in my estimation from a mere diversion to a worthwhile pursuit.
Key to my conversion from a casual solver to an enthusiast was the understanding that not all crossword puzzles are created equal. There was a good reason why certain puzzles had been exasperating to me: they were filled with crosswordese, the arcane vocabulary of obsolete little words that are used almost exclusively by struggling puzzle constructors simply to make a crossword work. Even the most esteemed crossword of them all, that of The New York Times, was once guilty of this under the stewardship of former puzzle editor Eugene T. Maleska. His legacy of impenetrable obscurities was quashed by current Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, whose philosophy leans toward making crossword puzzle solutions more dependent on wordplay than trivia, and what trivia there is should be universal rather than local. In shortz (I apologize for that), a good crossword puzzle is challenging yet accessible.
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