John and Brad! I love these guys, John one of the founders of the Boswords tournament, and Brad editing for it. During a historically rough time, when a ton of people needed a lot of diversion from the woes of the 2020 world, these online competitions provided a huge amount of entertainment.
Themelesses featuring grid-spanners often live or die on the quality of those marquee entries. Some of today's resonated strongly for me. I've said I COULD EAT A HORSE many a time, and I sarcastically often ask my daughter, CARE TO ELABORATE? regarding her various experiments in straight-faced lying.
It's unusual for me to solve a themeless that has feature entries new to our XWI Word List. John and Brad debuted three today! I couldn't piece together THE MUDVILLE NINE at first, but I eventually pulled Casey at the Bat out of the corners of my memory.
I filled in ___ SATISFYING and pondered, what could the first word be? Given that my kids turn into demons when given bubble wrap, I figured it had to be CHAOTICALLY or ANNOYINGLY. Perhaps I had a typo and the entry was SERENITY NOW? I had to mull over ODDLY SATISFYING, but I ended up deciding it was an oddly satisfying entry.
DRIVEWAY MOMENTS didn't click until most of the letters were in place, but what a self-explanatory, descriptive term. That is, unless you have kids who notice you drive up and bang on the car window yelling WHAT DID YOU BRING ME.
I appreciated that John and Brad didn't stop at those five grid-spanning entries, but laid out six more long entries. This math dork loved the CALCULUS clue, misdirecting with "has its limits." Fun to see it near SUM TOTAL, too.
Great clue for PRESS ONS. "Digital applications," as in fingers = digits.
There were some compromises, like SALE TAGS not doing much with that long slot, and some ATTY EAN HIES ORIG to hold everything together, but I enjoyed picking up those new long phrases, easy enough to make sense of.
Perhaps I'd get some MOMENTS if I parked in someone else's DRIVEWAY …
TERRY CREWS! "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is one of my favorite shows (Will Shortz has guest-starred on it!). That entire cast is great, but Crews is a standout. There's something so loveable about this badass officer who loves his twin daughters almost as much as he loves his yogurt.
Sad to say, I thought MOVEMBER was simply when Facebook and Twitter got flooded with pics of truly heinous mustaches. It's to grow awareness of men's health issues? That's great, but I'm hoping it also grows awareness of Gillette products.
There were a lot of manly entries in today's puzzle, so many that I wonder if female solvers will be turned off. NASCAR DAD next to GRAYBEARD. STUNTMAN over HIROHITO. CONAIR. At least there are a couple of dorks in the mix, URKEL and MILHOUSE of "The Simpsons." Still, I can see how female solvers might feel alienated.
It's not my favorite of John's products, with quite a bit of glue (AGA CHA DAR MCI MSS) to hold together a 70-worder, and THE DOLE feeling uncomfortably politicized.
However, I was glad to get some fun highlights in SLOW CLAP, and the misdirect around INKWELLS — not my old HP desktop, but my grandfather's literal desktop. Great wordplay in the ATLASES clue, too. Self-help book for those feeling lost, that's hilarious!
SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT was just in another recent crossword. Perhaps it's both there and here today! That darn cat.
Will Shortz once told me that solvers like to fill in boxes, the more definitively, the better. There's something so satisfying about completing that last square and calling it a victory. So I immediately paused when I saw the note about 16 possible solutions. Talk about indefinite!
However, I enjoyed Andrew and John's concept. There have been a lot of Schrödingers in the NYT by now, and this one isn't quite like any I've seen.
And how meta, that TWO is played upon in the lower right corner! So appropriate for having TWO solutions down there.
It wouldn't have occurred to me that there were multiple solutions if it hadn't been for the note, though. For example, in that lower right, I put in TEEN and WOWS without another thought. Even after realizing that there needed to be an alternate solution, I struggled to come up with OWS as "reactions to shocks." A stretch.
Also a stretch: I NEED / SOME SPACE. It's not nearly as good at explaining the concept as CROSS THE BORDER.
All in all, a solid construction, impressive considering how difficult it is to work around Schrödinger squares. The solve left something to be desired, though, since it's already hard to know what to put inside a Schrödinger box, and having a combination of rebus / single letters makes it that much more confusing.
I wonder if putting a circle between the two squares — giving a place for solvers to write in the back-and-forth letter — would have made for a more satisfying (if not as Schrödinger-esque) solve.
ADDED NOTE: It wasn't until Andrew and John sent their thoughts that I noticed which four letters were swapping back and forth: M E O W. What a nice touch!
Appropriate that there are three Xs in this grid! MANSCAPING is innocent enough in some senses. Trimming unwanted chest and back hair for cosmetic appearances — sure, it's a little icky, but it's a part of life for many. Then there are the other senses ... don't Google it without your adult filter on. There are some things you can't unsee.
At the symmetrical location to MANSCAPING is DOMINATRIX? Yikes! The images of the MANSCAPING the DOMINATRIX would do ...
DOMINATRIX was one of my favorite entries of the puzzle, especially considering the clever clue. You whipper-snapper! Not the innocent kind, either!
Along with PANSEXUAL, this one has an edgy feel overall. Some edginess is good for the NYT.
I appreciated the three Xs — it's not hard to work a single X into a themeless, but two can be tough, and three insanely difficult to do well. Seamless today, Often, I feel like constructors convince themselves to do bad things with crossword glue in order to work in those rare letters. Andrew and John did very well in this regard.
Speaking of crossword glue, even the dabs they used weren't that bad. And CEE was a win in my book, a great clue referring to the third character to appear in Macbeth. That's a letter character, not an actor!
Strong work overall. A ton of great entries like HOTLANTA, MINOTAUR, STAR WARS, THE AMISH, CARPACCIO, along with very little crossword glue. That's A LOT TO ASK, and Andrew + John delivered. If it hadn't been for my own squeamishness around one entry, it would have been in POW! contention.
D "evolving" to DARWIN, what a fun idea! I usually think of "evolving" as one element changing for the better, so my first thought as a constructor might have been a word ladder (from ... (some six letter word) to DARWIN?). But word ladders can be pretty dull, so I like the concept here.
Each of the themers is so colorful. DARN TOOTIN, they are! Great work there.
Now that I think of it, the progression from amoeba to invertebrate to mammal, etc. is a kind of growth, isn't it? Okay, maybe this interpretation is a lot more appropriate than a word ladder.
Never mind me. Ahem.
Ah, five themers squished together. That was almost necessary since DARWIN at the very end forced BOBBY DARIN to move to row 12, instead of row 13, where it'd usually be. Everything gets crunched up, and O ME did we get a lot of crossword glue.
Will strives to avoid non-common abbreviations and initialisms since if you don't know them, there's no way to infer them. NMI is a prime example (no middle initial). Along with HALER ORY SYL TAUR ERL etc. it felt like a lot to wade through.
Thankfully, there was a good amount of long(ish) fill to help lift the solving experience, IRON MAN, GAP YEAR, PAR THREE making me wonder if I ATE CROW on my critiques! It's still not a trade-off I would have personally made, but I can see the appeal.
Heck, even BIRYANI, PERUSAL, CASSETTE are pretty interesting. Okay, that's a lot of solid bonus fill! Definitely helps to balance out the grid liabilities.
Perhaps an evolutionary step (sorry, couldn't help myself) would have been to shift DARN TOOTIN all the way to the left, so that DARWIN could be placed vertically, down off that D. Total grid redesign of course, but that would have allowed for better spacing of the long themers (BOBBY DARIN moving to row 13).
Overall though, it was something new for me, and the novelty was much appreciated. Really neat to get a theme from a debut constructor related to her profession!
I've seen plenty of triple-letter themers before, most notably employed by a Superman theme. I liked John's take, using TRIDENTS — think of it as TRI D E N T S — as a rationale for featuring triple Ds, triple Es, etc.
I also liked John's unusual grid layout. It's rare to start with a long themer at 1-Across because look what it forces: a big chunk of white space up in the NW's business. That's a themeless-esque swath, rarely easy to fill, especially when already constrained by a long theme answer.
I was all set to give the thumbs-up, what with delightful PARANOIA / ALAN ALDA, and only UNA and COL as prices to pay.
But ... SAAR.
That's one of those words I'd think triply about before including in an early-week puzzle. The crossings are fair, but it's one of those entries that might cause newer solvers a lot of pause. You don't want to give newbies any reason to do something else. Let's get ‘em hooked, people!
Usually, I don't care for long fill in the across direction, as it tends to muddy up theme vs. fill. But today's theme was easy enough to pick out that I didn't wonder how WAR HORSE was tied in. I did have a slight pause to count how many Ts were in the middle of LATTE ART, but that was okay too.
I personally much prefer long fill in the down direction, as it's more easily identified as puzzle snazzification unrelated to theme. I mean, PALME D'OR is great! And BOHEMIA! And … KID FLASH? I can name all four people who have been the Flash in the DC universe, but KID FLASH is only vaguely familiar. Still, I enjoyed looking him up.
There were too many SAAR, ALAI, ERN, SYST odd ducks for an early-week puzzle, but the theme was interesting enough, and the long fill did mostly sizzle. Reasonable balance.
NO PUN INTENDED is such a great way to anchor a themeless. Something that most everyone has heard (way too often from me, as Jill sadly would note); easy to riff on for a fun clue. Good stuff.
IM A GONER is fantastic, too. Again, a super-familiar phrase ripe for a great clue.
RAMI MALEK is a different story for me. I vaguely knew his name, since Jill and I suffered through a few episodes of "Mr. Robot" (sorry John!). But I don't know if he's gotten to the point where I think all educated solvers ought to have heard of him. Thankfully, all the crosses felt fair, although DEMOB is such a bizarre word that the M gave me worry at first. RABI MALEK / DEBOB? As in, Bob's your uncle?
Okay, maybe not.
OMEGA DOG felt somewhere between the two extremes. It's something you should be able to figure out due to its definition, and the fact that it's composed of two familiar words. Although it's an interesting entry, I'm not sure if I'd ever use OMEGA DOG in conversation or otherwise.
I don't mind a couple of ELEV, NEV, NOT DO kind of entries — a couple are usually inevitable in any themeless. Today, what bugged me more was all the tough names. RAMI MALEK kicked it off, but ABUJA, EDD, SARG, KELSO, THARP made the puzzle feel too much like a trivia contest. Any of those are fair game (well, EDD and SARG probably less so), but overall, they combine stick out.
Top-notch clue for TTOP. It's a borderline entry, but a clue misdirecting toward the Grand Prix race, away from the Grand Prix model car, makes it fine in my book.
A lot to love about the puzzle. PIXY STIX bring me back to when I loved those disgusting things. What a fantastic brand name! POST TRUTH had the opposite effect for me though, as I depend on crosswords to let me escape from the state of real life these days.
★ I love it when 1.) I can't guess the theme, even after seeing all the themers, and 2.) when it immediately comes to me after uncovering the revealer. (It's not so fun when #1 happens without #2.) I sat for a long minute wondering how SKRILLEX could possibly be connected to PAT SAJAK, SPIDERMAN, and MINNESOTA FATS, but great moment of clarity when I realized that they're all masters of (some sort of) SPIN.
MINNESOTA FATS' spin skills might not be immediately obvious to some, but to those of us that played pool for four hours a day during freshman year (don't judge me), putting spin on the cue ball is a critical mechanic of the game.
And SPIDERMAN spins a web, of course, while SKRILLEX spins records. PAT SAJAK might not actually do the spinning of the Wheel of Fortune, but he'd be my first choice for that type of SPIN CLASS. (I always wondered if contestants could adjust the amount of force they apply to their spins to aim for certain slots. Anyone know?)
Even with MINNESOTA FATS being an awkward 13 letters, Andrew and John did a nice job of executing. A 13-letter middle themer tends to force big corners, and I love it when those big corners yield such great material as WINE LIST / ELEMENTS / DETOXES, and TOPICAL / MARADONA / ICE TONGS. I love it even more when you can carefully pull off these swaths of goodness without much crossword glue. LSTS isn't great, but if that's the only price to pay, I'm eager to shell out.
(OXO clued as "random string of Os and Xs" isn't great, but since OXO is a big brand name, the entry doesn't bother the constructor in me at all.)
I have so much fun with these "how are these seemingly unrelated themers related" puzzles. Neat reveal in SPIN CLASS. Along with strong execution, it's my POW!
Hey, a Monday featuring a trick! It's a lot of fun in print, where each clue number is doubled — thus getting even more at AGAINST ALL ODDS — but even without this customization, the puzzle works well.
At first I was a little confused why John worked in ZERO in addition to what I would have expected (just TWO FOUR SIX EIGHT), but then I remembered he's a math professor. There's some debate as to whether ZERO is an even number or not, but there is no doubt that it isn't odd — neat math factoid.
Going away from the usual 15x15 to 14x16 is also a nice touch, to continue avoiding ODDS. Neat that it happened to work out perfectly with that 14-letter AGAINST ALL ODDS! (A 14-letter revealer in a 15x15 is tough, since you end up having to put the revealer in row 12 instead of 13, thus squishing themers together.)
Strong themers (I wasn't familiar with EIGHT MEN OUT, but it was fun to learn that eight refers to the number of players involved in the Black Sox scandal), snappy long fill like SNOW TIRE and TURN SIGNAL, and not much crossword glue — just some IN SO, ENV, ADES minor bits — made for an enjoyable early-week puzzle. I even enjoyed PSYOP, an uncommon Monday piece of fill but very colorful and interesting.
The only hesitation I had was the SEGO / OSSA crossing. That might be a toughie for novice solvers. I think it's probably fair, but not ideal.
Three great extras — 1.) Woodsy OWL ("Give a hoot, don't pollute!" 2.) one of my favorite TEE shirt slogans ("I'm With Stupid") and 3.) DIAGON Alley of the Harry Potter world — helped win me even further over. I often find myself on John's wavelength, and today was no exception.
Really fun to see a kooky twist on what's often an unremarkable day of the week for the NYT puzzle.
I like themes reinterpreting snappy phrases in a kooky way. Fun to get ones like BRING THE HEAT = directive about the Miami HEAT NBA team.
COOL YOUR JETS was my favorite (per John's comments, I wonder if this makes me old ...), as it evoked an image of the coach turning the tables on his players, dumping icy Gatorade all over them. CATCH SOME RAYS also amused, making me imagine an enforcer trying to round up man-children sneaking out of their hotel rooms to go have some fun.
The only one I hitched on was COUNT THE STARS. At first, I wondered if this puzzle used a different theme type, perhaps where two words are switched in a phrase? But STAR THE COUNTS isn't anything. Took me a while to realize that some people lie outside and literally COUNT THE STARS. It still doesn't register as a beautiful phrase to my ear, but it does seem valid. Kind of a shame that it kicked off the puzzle, rather than getting tucked away in the middle. It also would have been nice to avoid two phrases with THE (COUNT THE STARS and BRING THE HEAT). I liked the diversity of YOUR and SOME in the middle of the other themers.
With four themers, I always expect a few bonuses in the rest of the puzzle, and John doesn't disappoint. singing DON'T. STOP. thinking about tomorrow, don't. stop. DAMMIT JOHN NOW I CANT STOP THINKING ABOUT DON'T STOP! Earworm aside, I loved that, ART CRITIC, POWER SUIT which sounds like some futuristic exoskeleton, the full COCA COLA, even PHOEBE and OH SNAP! Great stuff packed in, JOYOUS!
Not too much crossword glue, either. ISLIP seems esoteric to me, but New Yorkers probably disagree. HALAL might be tough, but I think it's perfectly fair. So really just some ASTR and that bottom right corner, what with STET, CEE, UIES, HST. They're all minor — and some would argue all of them are perfectly fine — but what a pile-up. Still, I do like how they made POWER SUIT and JOYOUS possible.
Fun puzzle, perfectly pitched (groan) for a Wednesday.
I've never actually seen "Scarface," but SAY HELLO TO MY / LITTLE FRIEND is so ubiquitous, the source for many internet memes. Great idea to use it as a reason to rebus-ize PAL, making each of those squares literally a "little friend." Rebuses have become somewhat overdone, so having an added layer like this is much appreciated.
Even though I'm a bit rebused out, it's still fun to find those special squares, a bit of an Easter egg hunt. I like when they're hidden in colorful long phrases like FACE PALM, and I especially like when they run across a phrase like RAP ALBUM, disguising them even further. Not quite as fun to get them in shorties like NEPAL and SEPAL. I am glad that John chose all solid words though — he could have easily resorted to such oddities as PALA or PALP or COPAL or TYPAL or something.
Incorporating six rebus squares in a grid that already contains SAY HELLO MY / LITTLE FRIEND isn't easy. I do like the open feel of each of the four corners, giving those areas a themeless feel. Tough though — when you fix a crossing pair of answers into place, those big regions get much, much harder to fill smoothly and colorfully than usual. While I do love OH SNAP, BEER TENT, PLAYBOY, and OVEREASY spread through the four corners, each comes with a bit of ANENT, ABAS, LO-RES (dictionary has it as "low-res"), ALAE. ANENT feels particularly egregious without some hint of its old-school usage.
Two things some solvers might not get:
So, some nice bonus fill and a great rebus rationale, with some roughs spots in execution.
A fun solve today, plus a nice change of pace. A majority of themelesses feature four sets of stacked answers of 8+ letters, but John shortens things up today. It's often quite difficult to find jazzy answers in the seven-letter length, because the jazziest of answers are usually two-word entries. Not to say that single-word entries can't be snappy — SPAMBOT and FOOSBALL are cases in point — but it's much easier to create flash in a grid with those beautiful MAN-CAVE and FEAR NOT! type entries. John does well to take advantage of all his seven and eight-letter slots.
Integrating Scrabbly letters (JQXZ) can be a tricky endeavor in a themeless, as they often produce compromises. I like what John's done today. MCQ is a slight blight in my eyes, given that the movie hasn't reached the notoriety of The Duke's other movies, but it does enable such a snazzy stack in the starting corner. That's the way to launch a themeless.
And I appreciated the slew of X's in the SE corner too. It was especially fun to see X-AXIS from a math teacher, and the "plotting" misdirection made it even better. I really enjoyed meeting John a few months ago. It's a privilege to know a little something about particular constructors, which often makes my enjoyment of their puzzles even greater.
That's not to say the SE corner was perfect, of course. Given all those X's in there, we were bound to see a MAXENE, who according to the NYT was "the one on the left." Not the most ringing endorsement of one's crossword worthiness. Crossing the TABOR made it tricky, although I did appreciate pulling out memories of Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam on the drum and fife.
There was one crossing that baffled me. LARD for [Enrich] and DUCAT for [Admission ticket]? Apparently LARD as a verb means "to enrich or lace heavily with extra material; embellish" or "to fill throughout; inject." Who knew? (Don't answer that, smarty-pants.) And DUCAT I know mainly as a slang term for money, but apparently it's also slang for "an admission ticket." I do like learning new pieces of information from crosswords, but those two together... well, I guess it is a Saturday. Saturday puzzles are supposed to be hard! (Grumble grumble.)
Finally, what a beautiful bevy of clever clues today. [Sweet Jazz sound?] had nothing to do with music, but the Utah basketball team and John Stockton's nothing-but-net SWISH. [Moral duty?] was a great repurposing of a common phrase, this time with "duty" meaning "levy." SIN TAX! And my favorite in recent memory was [Complex data]. Took me ages to figure out that "complex" wasn't talking about difficulty level, but an apartment complex! Bravo for spicing up the otherwise neutral entry, RENTS. Please sir, may I have some more! I so much appreciate that type of wordplay clue in my Saturday puzzle.
Fun theme today, second day in a row with a revealer involving a homonym. AN I FOR AN EYE amused me, plus it looked so weird in the grid: ANIFORANEYE I couldn't help but like it. Ani DiFranco, a crossword-friendly singer, this one's for you!
Nice grid layout today. I really liked having four themers plus the reveal, which gives more body to the theme. And John does a great job of spacing out his five themers, not creating any really tough to fill sections. The result was a smooth fill, not any one entry making me wince. There were a couple of HOR and ORU type entries, but as a whole, the puzzle came easily to me, without much of a hitch. Very nice work.
Let's take a look at those two gluey entries, HOR and ORU. Ideally, I would have preferred not to have them, and that could have been possible if HUGH LAURIE had been broken up at the A, reducing the constraints in that NW sections. However, I like the choice John made here. HUGH LAURIE and RAZOR SHARP add a lot to the puzzle, so I think it's a more than favorable trade-off; HOR and ORU easily being cheap prices to pay to get the longer, snazzy fill.
Speaking of good longer fill, John does a nice job with BABY FAT and HANDS UP! I'd call it four for four hits in the longer fill slots.
Not the most mind-blowing of themes for a Thursday puzzle — all in all, I tend to agree with John that I'd personally prefer to have crazier themes on a Thursday — but executed very well. And again, I'll repeat that this is simply a personal preference. I know a lot of solvers who would much prefer to have their Thursday NYT puzzles be on the easier, more doable side.
Finally, a favorite clue for me was [Joy-filled?]. Not ELATED or BEAMING, but "filled with Joy" the dish soap. Really nice.
A perfect puzzle for a math teacher, no? It's not often I get a chuckle on a Monday NYT, so I really enjoyed getting to COUNTEREXAMPLES, or COUNTER EXAMPLES as per the theme. The four (non-revealer) themers are all professions where counting is indeed necessary, thus, COUNTER EXAMPLES. Fun interpretation. But seriously, John, you wouldn't include MATH TEACHER? I was counting on you.
The grid is absolutely packed today, the 15/11/15/11/15 making for a whopping 67 letters of themage. It's a wonder that John was able to work in two nice long downs, PRATFALL and MOCCASIN. Too often in these circumstances, it's so difficult to work in long fill that the best a constructor can do is put in something long for length's sake. But both PRATFALL and MOCCASIN are beautiful entries.
There is so much overlap between the five themers that I was worried to see a bunch of crossword glue, especially at places where there are five letters exposed. But check out the NE corner: UMPIRE and MANAGER have five spaces between them (where ERNIE sits), yet that corner is so smooth. Some people may complain about AERIE, but it's a fine entry in my book, especially since it reminds me of The Eyrie in "Game of Thrones."
Even the symmetrical corner gets executed pretty well, ABOIL sitting in between CENSUS and COUNTER. ABOIL in itself is pretty iffy, but to work in the crossing MOCCASIN and SULTAN is pretty cool.
Overall though, it tended to add up for me. You get an AON here, ANE there, along with an ASTA, ESTE, NO USE, TSOS... John did well to space them out through the grid so they didn't pile up on top of each other, but it felt like more than I would like to see in a Monday puzzle. Trade-offs, as always — with such high theme density, it's pretty difficult to pull off something completely smooth.
In terms of theme selection, all of them are nice, snappy answers. BLACKJACK PLAYER really did it for me, especially after reading "Bringing Down the House," the story of the MIT (card-counting) blackjack team. I might have liked to see more professions directly involved with counting like ACCOUNTANT or ABACUS WORKER or something, as I imagine a BANK MANAGER would focus more on people management, but you can't have 'em all. A fun theme providing me a chuckle is a good Monday puzzle in my ledger.
Such a fun time meeting John at the ACPT a week ago! We toiled away at judging (read: goofed off in the back room) and attended two imbibement meetings hosted by Will (what happens in Brooklyn stays in Brooklyn). A math teacher by profession, John is a really nice guy.
To the puzzle! A vowel progression of the pattern G?M* (in search strings, the ? can stand for any letter while the * can stand for any number of letters), John goes one step further than most, including the Y for a sixth entry. Five entries are hard enough to integrate smoothly, and six is even harder.
A typical trade-off is that with six themers, it's difficult to incorporate much long fill. Often, you need to deploy your black squares to separate the themers, and working in even one set of long downs becomes difficult. But John blasts that notion apart, giving us the sparkle of SEDUCTIVE FANTASIES (math teacher or Walter Mitty, hmm?), DRESS CODE, and JIM PALMER. More good long fill than we usually see on a Monday — very impressive!
Regarding the short fill, Will and I have a difference of philosophy when it comes to Mondays. I totally get that he wants to make even the easiest puzzle something that the erudite NYT audience will appreciate. I would prefer to make the Monday puzzle something a beginner could tackle, thus encouraging audience growth. I think seeing IRAE, NILS, ADANO, A TEST in a grid would turn off a true beginner, thus losing a potential customer, as I tend to think of things more from the business side than anything. I appreciate that Will wants to keep his current audience happy, though. It's his prerogative, of course.
As for the theme, I like vowel progressions — I think they're fun. As my good friend Andrea Carla Michaels (ACME as we call her) says, they're almost lyrical, poetic. I would prefer for a little more tightness than what we have today, as GUM sticks out to me as the only full word chunk and GYMNASTICS is the only themer without two words. But what can you do — this particular G?M* sequence isn't particularly amenable to that.
Raising another glass to Walter — er, John!
P.S. I pity the fool.
Hilarious theme today. Took me a while to figure out what was going on, especially for a Monday, but when I finally uncovered ITS RAINING MEN I chuckled. Neat idea and I really appreciate the image of CHARLEMAGNE dancing to the song. Bravo!
Nice change of pace to have theme answers run in the vertical direction, and I really like it when there's a real reason to do so (evoking the image of falling rain). Very cool. This type of arrangement can be tricky because long fill in the across direction can muddy up the theme, making the solver think that any long across answers are thematic. John does well in this regard, only using two long across answers, ALCATRAZ and PARMESAN. Even though there isn't any other long fill, I appreciate how John incorporated the fun KALKAN and DEAR ME. Fun 6's.
In terms of short fill, there's a touch too much crunchiness for my taste. As with every five-theme answer puzzle, smoothness can be an issue, and the inclusion of AROO, OSO, BEI, ESTOP, and ASCAP are a lot of any day of the week. I don't usually mind a smattering of the lesser offenders, but I SHOT, AMER, plus the pile-up of acronyms and abbreviations (MSU, INT, NATO, ECON, MSRP, etc.) detracted from my solving enjoyment.
Finally, although I really liked the cleverness of the theme, I would have loved to see four reigning men who were related in some way. Perhaps it's just having watched The Tudors that made me wonder why HENRY VIII didn't get his props? And apparently dusk has set on the poor Sun King, LOUIS XIV.
Anyway, enjoyable start to the week. I'm still giggling, imagining KING ARTHUR and CHARLEMAGNE prancing about together.