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Host Willa Paskin talks about topics versus narratives, translating fabulists, and creating a sound landscape for the world of Mae West. Slate Plus members have access to this whole interview. Sign up for Slate Plus to access this exclusive episode and support the show. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In the early 1930s, Mae West’s dirty talk and hip swiveling walk made her one of the biggest movie stars in America. But before West hit the big-screen, she was prosecuted for staging not one, but two scandalous plays. In this episode, we look at how West honed her persona when she was under the bright lights of Broadway and the flashbulbs of the tabloids — and briefly behind bars. More than a century later, her career arc offers a blueprint on how to survive a scandal…and maybe even come out ahead. This episode relied heavily on a lot of archival material and innumerable books: When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex and American Entertainment by Marybeth Hamilton; When Brooklyn was Queer by Hugh Ryan; Lillian Schlissel’s introduction to Three Plays by Mae West,  Mae West: a biography by George Eells and Stanley Musgrove; Mae West: An Icon in Black and White by Jill Watts;  Becoming May West by Emily Wortis Leider; Gay New York by George Chauncey;  Mae West, She Who Laughs Last, by June Sochen: Goodness Has Nothing to Do with It by Mae West; and Linda Ann Losciavo’s play “Courting Mae West” and her blog, which you can find at Maewest.blogspot.com.  This episode of Decoder Ring was written by Willa Paskin. It was produced by Willa Paskin and Katie Shepherd. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director. Thank you to Benjamin Frisch for this topic.  If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
When you think of an alien abduction, what do you picture? Humanoid creatures, medical experiments, lost memories retrieved through hypnosis? That narrative was largely unknown until Betty and Barney Hill went public about their own alien abduction in the 1960s. Betty Hill’s niece, Kathleen Marden, recounts how the story went viral and her aunt and uncle became unwitting celebrities. Then professors Susan Lepselter, Chris Bader, Joseph O. Baker and Stephanie Kelley-Romano explain how the Hills’ alien abduction changed science fiction forever. Thanks to Eric Molinsky for bringing us this story that originally aired on his terrific podcast Imaginary Worlds. Eric’s got a lot more stories like this one so subscribe wherever you listen.  Decoder Ring is written by Willa Paskin and produced by Willa Paskin and Katie Shepherd. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director. If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Rod McKuen sold multiple millions of poetry books in the 60s and 70s. He released dozens of albums, was a regular on late night, and was even nominated for an Oscar. So, how did the most salable poet in American history simply disappear? On today’s episode, Slate writer Dan Kois went searching for Rod McKuen, a famous poet who isn’t so famous anymore. We’ll hear from Stephanie Burt, Mike Chasar and Barry Alfonso, author of Rod’s biography A Voice of the Warm. Along the way, Dan meets Andy Zax, a guy who, like him, was bewildered by this forgotten star—until he became an accidental fan, and then somehow the only person keeping Rod McKuen’s flame alive. This episode of Decoder Ring was written by Dan Kois and edited by Willa Paskin. It was produced by Willa Paskin and Katie Shepherd. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director. If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
What do we lose if we lose the mall? 70 years into their existence, these hulking temples to commerce are surprisingly resilient and filled with contradictions. In this episode, Alexandra Lange, the author of the new book Meet Me at the Fountain: an Inside History of the Mall walks us through the atriums, escalators, and food courts of this singular suburban space. We also hear from mall-goers whose personal experiences help us make sense of this disdained yet beloved, disappearing yet surviving place. This episode of Decoder Ring was written by Willa Paskin and produced by Willa Paskin and Katie Shepherd. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director. If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Summer 2022 Teaser

Summer 2022 Teaser

2022-07-1901:00

Decoder Ring is coming back with a new season featuring a whole new set of questions.... Like, is the shopping mall really dying? How did a poet who sold millions of books and records 50 years ago, come to be completely forgotten? And what does a century old Broadway scandal involving Mae West have to tell us about the creation of celebrity? You can hear these episodes and more on the new season of Decoder Ring. Launching July 26, 2022. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Storytelling Craze

The Storytelling Craze

2022-05-1742:322

When did everyone become a storyteller? Decades after George Lucas and Steve Jobs made storytelling a big business, every company now wants to tell “Our Story.” Instagram and TikTok let everyone else tell their “stories,” and the number of people calling themselves storytellers on LinkedIn is now more than half a million. Something we have done for the entirety of our existence as a species has become just another fad.  In this episode of Decoder Ring, we’re going to look at where this trend came from and where it’s going. What Willa discovered changed the way she now thinks about stories—and it might do the same for you.  Some of the voices you’ll hear in this episode include Margaret O’Mara, historian and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America; Michael Simon, director and producer; Francesca Polletta, sociologist at University of California, Irvine; Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller at Microsoft; Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author of All Marketers Tell Stories; Everett Cook, Associate Editor at Axios Local; and David Paskin, Willa’s father.  Decoder Ring is written and produced by Willa Paskin. This episode was edited by Dan Kois and produced by Elizabeth Nakano. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director. If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Thanks Avast.com! Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In the 1970s, a song about protesting truckers topped the music charts in multiple countries, and kicked off a pop culture craze for CB radios. In early 2022, that same song became an anthem for a new trucker-led protest movement in Canada and the US. How did C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” come to exist, and what had it been trying to say?  For this episode, which was inspired by a listener’s question, we’ve updated a story that originally aired in 2017, but that could not be more relevant today. Slate producer Evan Chung is going to take us through the history of this bizarre number-one smash, an artifact from a time when truckers were also at the center of the culture. It touches on advertising, hamburger buns, and speed limits but also global conflict, sky-rocketing gas prices, and aggrieved, protesting truck drivers.  Some of the voices you’ll hear in this episode include Bill Fries, advertising executive; Chip Davis, singer and songwriter; and Meg Jacobs, historian and author of Panic at the Pump. This episode of Decoder Ring was written and produced by Evan Chung and Willa Paskin with help from Elizabeth Nakano. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director. If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Sideways Effect

The Sideways Effect

2022-05-0339:055

In 2004, the indie flick Sideways was released in just four theaters, but it had a big impact, earning five Oscar nominations and $110 million worldwide. “I thought it was just going to be a nice little comedy,” filmmaker Alexander Payne tells us. Instead, the movie became known for something else so notable that it has a name: The Sideways Effect.  In this episode, we explore all the outsized effects of this one little movie on the huge wine industry. Did a single line of dialogue really tank merlot sales for decades? Did an ode to pinot noir jumpstart demand for this expensive grape? Did Paul Giamatti’s sad sack character change our relationship to yet another wine, one that was barely mentioned in the film? Today on Decoder Ring, all of these questions and this one: Is it long past time to start drinking merlot? Some of the voices in this episode include Laura Lippmann, crime novelist; Tim Farrell, wine buyer for Brooklyn Wine Exchange; Rex Pickett, novelist and author of ‘Sideways,’ Alexander Payne, director, screenwriter, and producer; Jeff Bundschu, owner of Gundlach Bundschu; Steve Cuellar, professor of economics at Sonoma State University; and Kathy Joseph, owner of Fiddlehead Cellars. We also mention Travis Lybbert’s paper corroborating the “Sideways Effect,” which you can find here. Decoder Ring is written and produced by Willa Paskin. This episode was produced by Elizabeth Nakano. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts.  If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
When we think of method acting, we tend to think of actors going a little over the top for a role – like Jared Leto, who allegedly sent his colleagues dead rats when he was preparing to be The Joker, or Robert De Niro refusing to break character on the set of the movie Raging Bull. But that’s not how method acting began. On this episode of Decoder Ring: we look at how “The Method” came to be so well-known and yet so widely misunderstood. It’s a saga that spans three centuries and involves scores of famous actors, directors and teachers. And it altered how we think about realism, authenticity, and a good performance. Our guest today is Isaac Butler, who wrote The Method: How The 20th Century Learned to Act. Decoder Ring is written and produced by Willa Paskin. This episode was produced by Elizabeth Nakano. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts.  If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In the early 2000s, an arms race broke out in the world of men’s shaving. After decades with razors that had only one blade and then decades with razors that had only two, the number of blades rapidly spiraled up and up and up. It’s a skirmish sometimes referred to as The Razor Blade Wars, and it was a face-off about innovation, competition, capitalism, masculinity, and most of all, how strange things can become after you’ve created something that’s the best a consumer can get — and then you have to keep going. Some of the voices you’ll hear in this episode include Rebecca Herzig, author of Plucked: A History of Hair Removal; Tim Dowling, Guardian columnist and author of Inventor of the Disposable Culture: King Camp Gillette 1855-1932; Dan Koeppel, razor blade zelig; and Kaitlyn Tiffany, writer for the Atlantic.  If you want to read more about razor blades, check out: Cutting edge : Gillette's journey to global leadership King C. Gillette, the man and his wonderful shaving device Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market Decoder Ring is written and produced by Willa Paskin. This episode was produced by Elizabeth Nakano. Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts.  If you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, email us at DecoderRing@slate.com If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you get ad-free podcasts, bonus episodes, and total access to all of Slate’s journalism. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Spring 2022 Teaser

Spring 2022 Teaser

2022-04-1201:00

Decoder Ring is coming back with a new season featuring a whole new set of questions…and some good surprising answers. Like, how did razors come to have such a ridiculous amount of blades on them? Did one line from Paul Giammati in the movie Sideways really change Americans’ wine buying habits? And why is our understanding of method acting wrong? You can hear these episodes and more on the new season of Decoder Ring. Launching April 19, 2022. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Custer's Revenge

Custer's Revenge

2021-12-2344:482

Custer's Revenge is widely considered one of the worst video games ever made. Originally released as part of a series of Swedish Erotica-branded adult games for the Atari 2600, Custer's Revenge involves moving a pixelated General Custer across the screen to rape an Indigenous woman tied to a post. It's unfathomably racist, sexist, and un-fun to play. Today on Decoder Ring we tell the story of how Custer's Revenge came to be, the people who protested it, and the even stranger story of how the whole thing became a considered trolling operation. This is the final episode of our current season, but we'll be back in 2022. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Note: This episode has been edited to correct a misstatement about Women Against Pornography's aims. The group did not advocate the banning of pornography. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Fame That Got Away

The Fame That Got Away

2021-12-1441:405

Today on Decoder Ring: Three stories about fame, and one about monkeys. Are primates susceptible to celebrity endorsements? What does fame do to the mind of a famous person? Who were the famous tattooed ladies of the 1880s? And what's it like to be in a rising rock band, only to see everything fall apart over a beer commercial? If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Truly Tasteless Jokes

Truly Tasteless Jokes

2021-12-0746:454

Note: This episode is about offensive material, and so contains explicit and offensive language. Truly Tasteless Jokes were a series of joke books that dominated the bestsellers list during the 1980s. An equal opportunity joke book: Truly Tasteless Jokes were collections of jokes ranging from Helen Keller, to dead babies, to sexist and racist jokes that from the vantage of 2021, seem entirely abject. For readers in the 1980’s though, these books were ubiquitous. On this episode we dig into the history of these books and their author Ashton Applewhite. It’s a story that involves the tangled history of 1960’s free speech politics, conservative backlash, and the strange moment in the 1980’s when left and right wing speech politics converged to help make these books mainstream.  If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In literature, the choice to become a vampire is a metaphor for transformative experiences. On this episode, we bring you a story from Slate's Hi-Phi Nation podcast, which explores problems in contemporary philosophy through story. From real-life blood suckers, to Lord Byron, to Twilight, vampires are a tool for philosophers to think about otherness, sexuality, and the transformative experiences we all go through in life. To listen to more Hi-Phi Nation, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
You Just Lost The Game

You Just Lost The Game

2021-11-2324:333

When you think about the game, you lose the game. When you lose the game you must declare that you have lost the game, causing all others in your vicinity to also lose the game. That’s it, that’s the game.  The game is mind game that trades on a quirk of human psychology, and is so intensely viral that it went from a college science fiction club in-joke to an endemic mind virus in only a few decades. If you’re a bit older and already know about the game, you likely learned about it in the aughts, but the game continues to spread through social media, most recently on TikTok, where the game became a meme over lockdown. On this episode, we examine the game to figure out how it works, where it came from, and the curious psychology that powers its viral nature.  Note: A version of this episode was originally released as a secret bonus to our 2018 episode “The Incunabula Papers”, but this is its official public release. The episode has been updated with new voice over, sound design, and minor story changes to bring it up to date in 2021. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Alberta Rat War

The Alberta Rat War

2021-11-1639:362

Rats live wherever people live, with one exception: the Canadian province of Alberta. A rat sighting in Alberta is a major local event that mobilizes the local government to identify and eliminate any hint of infestation. Rat sightings makes the local news. Alberta prides itself on being the sole rat-free territory in the world, but in order to achieve this feat, it had to go to war with the rat. On this episode of Decoder Ring we recount the story of how Alberta won this war, through accidents of history and geography, advances in poison technology, interventionist government policy, mass education programs, rat patrols, killing zones and more. The explanation tells us a lot about rats and a lot about humans, two species that are more alike than we like to think.   If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Great Helga Hype

The Great Helga Hype

2021-11-0952:205

In the summer of 1986, both Time Magazine and Newsweek ran blockbuster cover stories on the same subject: a secret cache of provocative, intimate paintings by Andrew Wyeth, one of America's most famous artists. These paintings were completed over fifteen years and all featured the same, often-nude model named Helga, and had been hidden from his wife and the public for 15 years. The implication was obvious: Wyeth had been having an affair with this woman. But just as the story was breaking in Time and Newsweek, it began to unravel, and something even stranger and more complex emerged. On this episode we examine the story of these secret paintings, the backlash to that story, and question if, maybe, that backlash was itself overdrawn. This is the first episode of our winter season. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Selling Out

Selling Out

2021-08-0648:0510

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey invited Jonathan Franzen to come on her show to discuss his new novel The Corrections. A month later she withdrew the invitation, kicking off a media firestorm. The Oprah-Franzen Book Club Dust-Up of 2001 was a moment when two ways of thinking about selling out smashed into each other, and one of them—the one that was on its way out already— crashed and burned in public, barely to be seen again. So today on Decoder Ring, what happened to selling out? This is the last episode of our current season. See you in a few months! If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. For a behind-the-scenes look into some of the articles we read when we create the show, check out our Pocket collection at http://getpocket.com/slate . Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Comments (33)

Jason Frederoski

Why did I get this show in my down loads? is it like U2 and iPod? They pay to have it automatically put in my down loads?

Aug 17th
Reply (1)

J G

I had the whole set of Larry Wilde's books, they were hilarious

Jun 29th
Reply

Wonderhussy Adventures

I loved those books! And I still do. Nothing is sacred... just laugh

Jun 28th
Reply

Shannon Compton

Well please generalize a whole political party and tell us what the cool kids think so we can all agree and use that agreement to shame people. Cool.

Jun 3rd
Reply

Brandy C.

The funny thing, as time goes on, pinot noir (of the $20 and under variety) has become more and more over extracted to the point of tasting pretty much like merlot. Most people just want to be told what to like. Few want to figure it out themselves.

May 3rd
Reply

ID19619055

I see what you did there with how the party is still young and flexible and we don’t know where it’s going. 😂

Mar 20th
Reply

HaulAway

39:59 "I know a lot of people probably who listen to the podcast are humans..." 😆

Feb 12th
Reply

Carly Strickland

I cannot even describe how thirsty this episode made me.

Feb 9th
Reply

Big Ball of Yarn and Depression

I hate the pretentious idea that being displayed in a hotel somehow strips art of its value. It sounds like the snobby man interviewed would only be happy if all "good" art pieces were completely unaccessible to anyone other than the wealthy and privileged few.

Jan 29th
Reply

Cornet Emelyne

you instantly know this is pre-pandemic because the host had to explain what tiktok was 😂

Jan 29th
Reply

Dannielle Furness

, no

Dec 4th
Reply

April

Jesus Willa sounds like she's yelling

Aug 26th
Reply

Chak Olate

In The Tootsie Shot, I was disappointed they didn't even mention The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She did it in 1970, before any of the movies mentioned.

Jul 24th
Reply

ISN

Love the subject matter, research is great. however I could not listen to the last episode about the color blue in food. The hosts voice is so lazy... The end of every sentence is filled with gravel. it's too bad because it is an excellent podcast but the lazy delivery makes it non-listenable

Dec 26th
Reply

Jesstifide

80’s Massachusetts we called it an Ape Drape.

Aug 23rd
Reply

Somnambulist_23

Can you do an episode on Four Loco? 🙏

Jul 25th
Reply

Yasmine C

I'll never forget that poop game I used to play on my phone. It was adorable. I think it was called super poo. 💩💩💩

Apr 28th
Reply

upendar kattal

I'm from India and I remember my father hating laugh track on some Indian shows they used on. but I really enjoy them 😀

Apr 17th
Reply

GAlexSan

Fascinating history that is a good perspective to realize today is not necessarily hugely different from moments in the past.

Mar 2nd
Reply

Tanja Budde

Hi

Jan 18th
Reply (1)
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