Hi, folks. The Post Magazine puzzle of December 27, “Letter Heads” was an example of a metapuzzle, also known as a meta for short. A meta is a crossword that, in addition to the normal puzzle grid, contains an extra, hidden challenge designed to lead solvers to a unique answer word or phrase. I’m a big fan of this kind of puzzle because I believe that the adrenaline rush one can get from successfully solving a meta is often much greater than the pleasure of finishing a normal crossword. So, fair warning: I am planning on writing additional metas for the Post down the line when the inspiration strikes.
This post will explain the solution to the Dec. 27 meta, and for those who may be new to meta-solving, I’ll provide some additional resources at the end of the post that you might find fun and useful.
This meta asked solvers to find an Oscar-winning actor who would complete the puzzle’s theme set. In any metapuzzle, it’s critical to take account of both the title and the theme entries (or at least what you think the theme entries might be). There were 12 theme entries in this puzzle:
- 22A: [Former Condé Nast chairman] is SI NEWHOUSE.
- 24A: [Director of the 1916 film “Intolerance"] is DW GRIFFITH.
- 34A: [Cthulhu’s creator] is HP LOVECRAFT.
- 38A: [Issue for one who stinks, familiarly?] is a BO PROBLEM.
- 55A: [Signatory to a global charter, briefly] is a UN MEMBER.
- 58A: [Kind of genetic pair] is XY CHROMOSOME.
- 80A: [ESPN writer named the 2011 Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association] is LZ GRANDERSON.
- 85A: [On-call worker] is an ER DOCTOR.
- 101A: [Talk radio setting, often] is an AM STATION.
- 103A: [La Liga team that beat Atlético Madrid for the 2015 championship] is FC BARCELONA.
- 117A: [Oxygen and Ion, e.g.] are TV NETWORKS.
- 119A: [Barack Obama was featured on its December 2015 cover] is GQ MAGAZINE.
Each theme entry begins with a pair of initials, which is fitting for the title “Letter Heads.” The key to figuring out the meta was to see that those 12 pairs of initials consisted of all letters of the alphabet except for two of them: J and K. So the final step is to find an Oscar-winning actor whose name would fit an initial pattern of JK ___ (or KJ ___, if you weren’t sure). If you scroll through a list of Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actors — or even if you just start to Google “actor JK” — you’ll find your answer to the meta: JK SIMMONS, who won an Oscar for his role in 2014’s “Whiplash.”
Several solvers have asked me why I opted for JK Simmons when “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling would have been an equally suitable meta answer. In fact, my original plan was to point solvers to a famous author rather than an actor…..but as I found out, there’s another author out there named JK Beck (or rather, it’s a pen name of the author Julie Kenner). She writes romance novels, but she has also written fantasy novels as well, albeit with an edgier, more adult world than the one Harry Potter inhabits. With apologies to Ms. Kenner, it’s likely that the vast majority of solvers in this situation would say Rowling was the meta answer. But even so, I didn’t like the thought that this would be an ambiguous meta with a technically correct second answer. I’d have had to alter the instructions to differentiate Rowling from Kenner, perhaps to the point of limiting the number of possible answers too much: a famous author of children’s books? an author whose books have been adapted into movies? Ideally a meta should have only one correct answer unless there’s a good reason, so rather than complicate things, I just went with Mr. Simmons.
My hope is that this was an easy-ish meta for solvers to grasp. Even if you didn’t know who JK Simmons is, or even if you didn’t quite see that the theme set used every letter for the opening two initials except J and K, you could look for an Oscar-winning actor with a pair of initials at the beginning of his name and still find the right answer — I don’t think there are many actors who fit that description.
Other notable clues and answers:
- 63A: [LaBeouf parodied as a cannibal in a music video by Rob Cantor] is SHIA. If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes and do it.
- 4D: [“Baba O’Riley" rockers] is THE WHO. One of my favorite bands.
- 39D: [Insects that attack Nicolas Cage in “The Wicker Man"] is BEES. All you need know about that movie is this scene.
- 98D: [Kids’ film in a frozen land that isn’t “Frozen"] is ICE AGE. There once was a time when you could watch a kids’ movie in a frozen land and *not* have that one famous song stuck in your head playing a billion times.
- 99D: [Donna’s portrayer on “Parks and Recreation"] is RETTA. It’s a bit surprising her name hasn’t been in more crosswords of late. She was in a recent, highly popular TV series for almost every episode of its seven seasons and has very crossword-friendly letters for a five-letter answer.
For those who are new to solving metas:
- It’s not always easy to know what to do because the mechanism for hiding a meta often changes from puzzle to puzzle. But here are the basic steps: 1) Read the instructions that tell you what it is you’re looking for. 2) Take note of the theme entries and see if you can find out what the pattern is between them. 3) Take note of any answers or clues that seem a little odd. 4) See how the puzzle title might relate to your answer or the theme entries in particular. Crossword constructor Matt Gaffney has written a helpful primer to get you started.
- Speaking of Matt Gaffney, he also runs a really fun weekly crossword contest by e-mail subscription, which is what got me into writing metas of my own. His metas range from easy at the beginning of the month to very difficult at the end of the month. If you’re looking to tackle metapuzzles, this is the place to start.
- Pete Muller writes a monthly series of music meta crosswords (or MMMM for short), and the 2016 series should be kicking off in a couple of weeks.
That’s all for now. See you next time!
**Special thanks to Dan Feyer, Erik Agard, Erin Milligan-Milburn, and Neville Fogarty for test-solving this puzzle, and to my copy editor Jenny Abella for her thorough proofreading and fact-checking of clues.**