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Podcast host, A.J., with two sons and wife, wearing matching "Team USA Jigsaw" shirts at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship 2019
A.J. [left] with his family. Puzzle propensity runs in the clan! A.J.'s new puzzle podcast is out now.
Julie Jacobs

A New Podcast for Puzzle Lovers, by a Puzzle Lover

Journalist A.J. Jacobs hosts a star-powered puzzle podcast...or should I say, puzzle-cast?! (Nah, I probably shouldn't.)

Neil Patrick Harris is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wondercade. In his spare time he also acts — fairly well, too, as his Tony and Emmy Awards can attest.

October 12, 2023 10:12 am

I sat down with A.J. Jacobs, journalist and self-proclaimed human guinea pig, whose byline you may have seen over the years in places like Esquire and Entertainment Weekly. (He’s also chronicled some crazy experiments in books and articles he’s written: like when he outsourced his entire life to personal assistants, or his quest to live life as literally as the Bible commands. He’s basically the Evel Knievel of stunt journalism.) A.J. is awesome, and he’s out with a new iHeartPodcast called The Puzzler, in which he solves puzzles in bite-sized episodes in real time alongside celeb guests like The Daily Show alumni Roy Wood Jr. and Mo Rocca. Delightful. -NPH

Okay, so, as you may or may not already know, I love puzzles. Hopefully you love them, too. Puzzles rule. We made an entire Wondercade-themed Whodunit, after all. Scroll down; it’s there at the bottom. But come right back up here. I’ll wait…

…see, toldja. (Hi, glad yer back.) So it should come as no surprise that I’m pleased as punch to introduce you to a podcast that’ll serve you some audio-based brainteasers. Writer and renowned puzzle-lovin’ pooh-bah A.J. Jacobs just launched a new bite-sized podcast called The Puzzler, inspired by his book of the same name: each episode is less than 10 minutes, drops every weekday and has A.J. try to solve the puzzle of the day with a celebrity guest (like Ken Jennings earlier this week). I chatted with my fellow riddler-in-arms about the new show, which I love. And you will too.

Neil Patrick Harris: Hello, A.J. Glad to have you here. (Was gonna encode that greeting in binary as a built-in puzzle but then got lazy.) This is not a puzzle per se, but it is playful: please explain your new podcast in haiku.

A.J. Jacobs:
New puzzles served fresh
Monday, Tuesday, and so on
Listen, laugh, and play!

NPH: Bravo, well done you! I thought you would find that hard. Color me impressed. (Those three sentences are also a haiku. Kaboom.) I have to ask, what’s entertaining about listening to someone else solve puzzles? That sounds to me like when, in the early 1980s, my uncle used to come over to our house and show us slideshows of his vacations. Though, I have to admit, Uncle Jim was decades ahead of his time on the socks-with-sandals trend one sees all over Brooklyn these days.

AJ: The idea is that the listener solves the puzzles along with the celebrity guest. Or, better yet, you solve the puzzle before the celebrity guest, so that you can feel superior and chuckle at the celebrity’s charming lack of solving prowess. I got an email from someone who solved a phrase before Michael Ian Black, their favorite comedian, and it made her day. The puzzle was a ditloid, where you have to guess what the letters in a phrase stand for. The one she got before Michael was…

4 S and 7 YA

(The clue from me included a very bad Abraham Lincoln impression.)

NPH: Interesting. Ask me to do my bad Martin Van Buren impression for you sometime. (Spoiler alert, it involves glue-on muttonchops.) What’s your favorite puzzle website, platform, etc.?

AJ: Wondercade, of course. Also, we just started a website, ThePuzzler.com, that I’d love for people to check out. We’re trying to build a puzzling community. It’s run by our great team of puzzle geeks, including our Chief Puzzle Officer Greg Pliska, who writes many of the puzzles for the show. I’m also a big fan of Eric Berlin’s Puzzlesnacks. He is one of the modern masters. And, though I’m jealous of their reach, I have to give it up for the New York Times Games section. I’m afraid they’ll keep adding more addictive puzzles and I won’t get any more work done ever. I’m already a daily Spelling Bee-er, Connections-er and Crossworder.

Podcast host A.J. playing chess on a round table across from Garry Kasparov
A.J. playing chess with grandmaster Garry Kasparov (not for the podcast). Ya know. As one does.
Julie Jacobs

NPH: I know and love all of those, too. You should check out this new game that might become popular, called Wordle. On a related note, what is the single best, most amazing kind of interactive puzzle, and why is it escape rooms?

AJ: I am indeed a huge fan of escape rooms. Though I also truly love my wife’s company, Watson Adventures Scavenger Hunts, which puts on highbrow scavenger hunts in museums and historic neighborhoods, and please don’t edit this out or I will be served divorce papers! But back to escape rooms. I think they’re great because, when done well, they have mental puzzles, but also physical puzzles. Like, can you use this broomstick to open this secret door? Another huge advantage of escape rooms is that they are perfect for the nudist community. I am not a member (sorry) of that community myself, but I’ve heard naked escape rooms are popular. You can go in, close the door, take off your pants, puzzle your ass off, and then put your clothes on and leave. You can’t do that with bowling.

NPH: I mean, you could. I’m no stranger to swingin’ balls and stiff pins, if you catch my meaning. Rank these 4 classics, best to worst. Jigsaw. Sudoku. Crossword. Word jumble.

AJ: First, these are my personal rankings. There is no objective best or worst puzzle. Some people like logic grids, for Pete’s sake. But here goes:

1. Crossword
This is my first love. In fact, in my book, I talk about what I thought was the greatest moment of my life: A few years ago, I was the answer to One Down in the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was on cloud nine. But then, my brother-in-law wrote me a very brother-in-law email. He did congratulate me, but pointed out that I was in the Saturday NYT puzzle, which is the hardest of the week. All the answers are totally obscure. So his point, or at least what I took away, is that this is not a compliment. It’s proof that no one knows who the hell I am. The twist is, I told that story on a podcast, and one of the listeners is a crossword constructor, and he put me in a Tuesday puzzle, where I totally don’t belong. You belong in a Tuesday puzzle, not me!

2. Jigsaw
I was never a huge fan — until I researched them for my book. I found some amazing, creative jigsaw makers out there, including Stave Puzzles, which are hand-carved wooden puzzles made in Vermont. (Liberty Puzzles are also great). Sidenote: as part of my book, I represented the United States in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championships in Spain a couple of years ago. We came in second…to last. Sorry, America!

3. Word jumble
Third. Nothing wrong with a jumble! I wrote about the history of anagrams in my book. King Louis XIII of France had a fulltime royal anagrammist who would make up anagrams of royal family names. I don’t begrudge them their obtruding edge. (That’s my attempt at an anagram joke).

4. Sudoku
I respect them, but they don’t give me huge pleasure. I also interviewed the inventor of KenKen, who says KenKens are much better than Sudoku, so maybe I absorbed some of his passion.

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