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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Decoder Ring

Why did the mullet become a thing? Why did everybody go crazy over Cabbage Patch dolls? And why would anybody ever go on a reality TV show? These are the typical questions you'd find asked in Slate's Decoder Ring, one for the smartest podcasts out there and one that more people should be checking out. In each episode, host Willa Paskin, usually the TV critic for Slate, picks up a different cultural object — a word, a phenomenon, a moment, a device — and subjects it to a simple question: why? This week, Nick talks to Willa about how she and her producer go about choosing the topics of their deep-dives, what makes her so interested in cultural histories and how they pulled together their epic two-part series on Jane Fonda.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Servant of Pod Decoder Ring Episode 34

Tue, 3/9 8:30PM • 24:05

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

laughter, jane fonda, decoder ring, episode, mullet, jane fonda workout, feels, willa, people, story, celebrities, podcast, important, karen, jane, called, interview, mysteries, listening, written

SPEAKERS

Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Berkley, D. Giles @ItsRellzWorld (Twitter video excerpt), Willa Paskin, Nick Quah, April Williams, Nate Sloan

Willa Paskin 00:02And I just learned blueberries weren't ****in' a big deal fruit until recently! The reason blue raspberry was around is because in the 50s and 60s we didn't really eat that many blueberries! What are you talking about? That's crazy! I loved that. It just delighted me. We eat more figs than blueberries in the 1950s. What??

Nick Quah 00:24This is Willa Paskin. She's a television critic for Slate and the host of its podcast, Decoder Ring. And as you can hear, she is genuinely excited about blue food. Willa loves a good backstory.

Willa Paskin 00:37So I was an anthropology major in college--eyeroll, whatever--but I've just really always, always been really interested in why people care about the things they care about. There's lots of ways to formulate that interest. But I'm like, why is this thing a thing that people are into? Why is it popular, or intense? What is this thing emitting that makes people... why do we care about what we care about? And I want to talk to people about it, because it's so fun to talk to people about what's interesting. I mean, it's like, why do we care about the things we care about? We can do this, we can explore all these like things, but now it's just so fun to learn about them.

Nick Quah 01:14From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Willa Paskin and Decoder Ring: the best podcast you should be listening to.

Nick Quah 01:41So, full disclosure: Decoder Ring is one of my favorite podcasts. I love the rabbit holes that Willa Paskin and Ben Frisch, her producer, dive into for each episode, telling us the stories behind stuff that many of us have heard of, but don't really know much about--like who coined the term mullet?

===Decoder Ring Episode “Mystery of The Mullet”=== Willa Paskin 01:59

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So yeah, the first documented usage of "mullet," noun, nine, from 1994--it doesn't come from some random Usenet page. It comes from the Beastie Boys.

Willa Paskin 02:15

The Beastie Boys, the rap-rock outfit consisting of Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, Mike "Mike D" Diamond, and Adam "MCA" Yauch--who died in 2012--released the song "Mullethead" in June 1994. The lyrics--which reference late-stage mullet sporter Jean-Claude Van Damme, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kenny G, and Joey Buttafuoco--get at the idea, still with us, of the mullet-haver as a particular kind of macho sleazebag. They skewer and condescend to a stereotype of lower class, bridge-and-tunnel guys-- douches with stonewashed jeans and mullets driving into New York City to start fights and hook up with underage girls.

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Nick Quah 02:53Or how did "Friday," the song by Rebecca Black, take off?

===Decoder Ring Episode “Gotta Get Down on Friday"===

Nate Sloan 02:57

Anyone who thinks that this song only caught on because it was, I guess, so musically offensive, I think is completely misguided.

Willa Paskin 03:06

Nate Sloan is an assistant professor of musicology at USC and the co-host of Switched On Pop, a wonderful podcast about how pop music works.

Nate Sloan 03:14"Friday" is absolutely plugged in to the most successful formula of popular music. Traditionally,

in an earlier period of popular music, after that chorus, you would go back to the verse. "Friday" doesn't do that; it does this gambit, which is very typical of 21st-century pop music, it adds this section called a post-chorus.

======

Nick Quah 03:44So what makes a worthy mystery for Decoder Ring?

Willa Paskin 03:47You know it when you see it! You know it when you see it, you see? That's what I'm saying!

Nick Quah 03:51I hate to say it, but you're absolutely correct. [Laughter] That judicial ruling of pornography applies. [Laughter] No, it is genuinely the surprise that I get from Decoder Ring, that surprise that makes you go, "Oh, ****! That's dope!" [Laughter] That's what I look for in a show.

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Willa Paskin 04:09Yeah. I mean, that's awesome. I'm so happy that I make a show that can make anyone feel that way. That's great. I want everyone... that's what I want. I want people to be like, "That weird thing? Okay, cool, let's do it!" Okay, so obviously the show is about "cultural mysteries," very largely, largely construed. And actually, I think we have two kinds of episodes. And one is the kind that starts with a genuine question. So that is like, where the "Karen" comes from, or what did happen to hotel art? Or we have something we want to find out. And then the other kind is where we're like, "We have a story. It's really good. We're just gonna make up a question for it." [Laughter] But then often what we actually uncover is not at all what I was genuinely expecting. I, for better or worse, I'm doing my thinking as it's happening. So then sometimes it turns out to actually have been a cool mystery, that there really was a good question. [Laughter] So it is just what kind of grabs our fancy. And so I think that as the show has gone on that has sort of more and more oriented around these sort of mass phenomena, because I'm a TV critic. I'm interested in things that are popular and why they're popular, but I don't know that there is... it just is like "we know it when we see it."

Nick Quah 05:24Yeah, okay, let's unpack that a little more. [Laughter] I really want to sit in that feeling. You use the word "feeling." You take a subject, you take a story, you take a question, and you're looking for this "feeling." What is that feeling?

Willa Paskin 05:38Well, it's almost just like I know what it's not. It's almost easier for me to say it... like, there's a couple things we've backed off of. Like, we were maybe going to try to do an episode about the Winona Ryder shoplifting scandal, which we were like, "Ooh, fun!"

Nick Quah 05:50Which, again, this sounds to me like peak Decoder Ring episode. [Laughter]

Willa Paskin 05:54Totally. And I started digging into it and I realized it was just super depressing. It's actually just a pretty sad story about a person who was probably on a fair bit of drugs and was really messed up, because being a young woman--she was 29--in Hollywood is a disaster, and tracking down everyone who was involved in the case, it was just gonna involve a lot of talking to lawyers, and eyewitnesses... It suddenly just got really creepy feeling. It's not that it's not a good story for some podcast, or a podcast I think is like less light than ours--I don't mean that as an insult to us--but I like that it's a sort of buoyant show, and I didn't quite know how to do that.

Nick Quah 06:34You use the word "buoyant," to describe the show. And it sounds like you like you mostly choose not to cover topics that are not particularly dark, or that some true crime podcast would cover. Why is that buoyancy you focus on?

Willa Paskin 06:48Well, I would say a couple things, like I think "Gender Reveal Party" definitely has a super dark side that I think we handled. [Laughter] We tried a true crime story that actually I think we sort of... this one called "The Grifter," that sort of coalesced in my mind how it like, it's a little bit hard for us to do just any kind of story. And Ben has produced and written a couple episodes that I think are really bittersweet.

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He's just much more interested and in touch with bittersweet feelings, and I'm just like, "No, I want to be entertaining!" [Laughter] And I don't know that that's right. I kind of just think that's what I'm supposed to be doing. You're gonna give me like half an hour, or 45 minutes, and I'm gonna show you a good time. But I think it's also that I want us to be able to get into serious... I think the "Karen" episode's a great example. I think that episode is actually very entertaining and does what it's supposed to do, but it's obviously about a super serious, heavy thing. We had to walk that line.

===Decoder Ring Episode “The Karen”===

April Williams 07:37

So, the way I've been thinking about it, I think the reason why "Karen" is having a moment is because we were seeing a lot of white entitlement in the age of COVID.

Willa Paskin 07:46 April Williams again.

April Williams 07:47

I don't know if you all have seen the meme that says, "Karen wants to speak to the manager of Coronavirus. She wants the country to be reopened."

Willa Paskin 07:56

In the months since mid-March 2020, when America began shutting down to contend with COVID, there has been a seemingly endless stream of white people trying to enforce their own personal set of rules.

===Twitter Video excerpt===

D. Giles @ItsRellzWorld 08:07

Y'all, Karen is showing out in Trader Joe's. She does not have on a mask and somebody said, "**** you, leave," and she is... [Audio trails off]

======

Willa Paskin 08:18While most of these Karens have been aggressively lax and skeptical about public health protections, like the woman in Tennessee who brandished a sign saying "Sacrifice The Weak, Reopen Tennessee," some have been overly strict, ready called the neighborhood watch on anyone not wearing a mask-- that anyone, more often than not, being a person of color. All of these COVID... [Audio trails off]

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Nick Quah 08:38Well, okay, so that's super interesting to me, because I feel like that sensibility is scratching at something that feels really important. I feel like a lot of the times, not just of "culture reporting," quote- unquote, but other kinds of narrative storytelling, there's artificial premiums placed on harder, serious stories. And as I think personally, I think it's much harder to pull off something that is something that

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feels substantial, but also uplifting--not uplifting, maybe that's the wrong word--but it's like, joyful. One of the things that I really respond to about Decoder Ring is that it pushes past that artifice. "This thing is important, not because it's serious, necessarily. But because it's important, almost." Does that make sense? [Laughter]

Willa Paskin 09:24Yeah! I mean, totally. I have no idea if it's harder, because I haven't done the other thing, which seems really hard too. [Laughter] And there's a way, for me, that hiding out in "not serious" feels safer, because this is just, I mean, we're having a lark. But I will say, again, my background is in television, so it's like, I have a lot of experience thinking about things that are not important, but that are important--that move of, this is this cultural object that seems like it's not serious. It's not like, you don't have to think about it, but if you do, there'll be so many interesting, and insightful, and important things you can learn in thinking about it, like in thinking about some VH1 reality show that you've never seen. [Laughter] It's all there, you know? I commented, I'm not doing something important. If I made you laugh at lunch while you were reading about some TV show, that's what... I do the thing because I like it, not because it's like, good, right? If I was trying to do something good, I would like go out and help people. I'm just doing the thing that I think is fun. So the best I can do is make it fun for everyone who's consuming it too.

Nick Quah 10:31Willa's main gig is TV critic. But a few years ago, she wanted to try something new. She and the powers that be at Slate kicked around a few ideas for podcasts, like an interview show about television. But Willa was hooked on the idea of solving cultural mysteries, and that's how Decoder Ring was born. She says making Decoder Ring feels different than anything else she's ever done.

Willa Paskin 10:55It's the most rewarding and interesting thing I've ever done at any point in my career. The writing still hurts. [Laughter] Because writing hurts. But it hurts less.

Nick Quah 11:04 Relatable.

Willa Paskin 11:05It hurts less than like, writing features. And you just make something in a different way than when you write something. It feels like it's... almost feels like it's 3D, like you made a sculpture. It's not a painting or something. But it's not a sculpture, obviously. [Laughter] But something about it, it just feels like there's there's a craft involved in it. Which I mean, not in the annoying way that actors say that, I mean, literally like you're putting pieces together, you're moving them around, you have all this audio. Which is also true of writing but something about it being a script, it's just way more fun.

Nick Quah 11:39Okay, so which episodes stand out to you as ones that have really surprised you as you were making them?

Willa Paskin 11:45Yeah, well, the "Mullet" episode is really interesting, because we sort of got delivered that story. A reader emailed us like three-quarters of that story. And I was like, "What? You have to be kidding! 'Mullet' definitely existed." And I was just like, this is so fun. And then the fact that we--that Ben,

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actually--found this "smoking gun" that proved that the lead that maybe mullets had existed before wasn't true, was... that, we discovered making it, but I don't know. We had somehow accidentally ended up on mullet and found out it didn't exist. That would have been definitely one of the most surprising findings we had. But that's not what happened. You know, "Baby Shark" I didn't know was about Jaws. I didn't know that when we started. Oh, "Unicorn Poop," I was delighted to learn that there was truly an origin of the unicorn poop cookie. I was just really delighted that there was an origin of unicorn poop. Like I was like, there's not gonna be like, a smoking gun. And there is, and that really tickled me.

Nick Quah 12:44Coming up: how Decoder Ring channeled another beloved podcast to tell the whole story of an actress and her exercise tape.

Nick Quah 13:04In 2020, Decoder Ring took on the story of a cultural icon: Jane Fonda.

===Decoder Ring Episode “Jane Fonda’s Workout, Part 2: Hanoi Jane’s VHS Revolution”===

Willa Paskin 13:13

So there's something about The Jane Fonda Workout that's never quite made sense to me. I know I'm inclined to see mysteries everywhere, but I saw one here, between the legwarmers and the leotards.

Willa Paskin 13:29Here's me trying to explain myself during an interview:

Willa Paskin 13:33

It is like mysterious to be thinking about all the facets of Jane Fonda and being like this woman at the height of her acting career, truly, and fairly controversial political activist, got into everyone's homes as this mastermind aerobics instructor? [Laughter] It's such a weird thing. She wanted to do that? And then she did it? Like, what?!

======

Nick Quah 14:01So how did you even land on the story?

Willa Paskin 14:04It's my favorite one we've ever done, I'm obsessed with it. [Laughter] Yes, okay. What happened? What happened was, I was listening to the Dolly Parton miniseries, from Jad and Rod, from the Radiolab guys. And in it, there's an episode about 9 To 5, the movie that Jane Fonda made with Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda is interviewed in it, talking about Dolly, and I actually have now gone back and listened to this quote, so I misremembered it a little bit. But at the time, she was just talking about how Dolly has this incredible connection with her audience, and how she's never had that. She's not... people don't see themselves in her, that's not what her relationship to her audience is, so she can't... it's not important, basically, that she not be political, because people don't need to identify with her. And I just thought, "Someone should do this for Jane Fonda." [Laughter] This woman has had this crazy life, just this crazy life, about which at the time I was just like, really serious activist, really serious actress, and

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also she made an exercise tape? And the exercise tape! I was really interested in the exercise tape because it just seemed so anomalous. And then this summer we were working and we're sort of not... [Laughter] We are not always working many episodes ahead. [Laughter] And we were trying to do the Winona one and it was not... I was like, could feel that it was not gonna work. And I was like, "Hey, Jane Fonda! She's actually around all the time right now." It's the pandemic, everyone's doing... "What if we do The Jane Fonda Workout?" And I was like, the thing that's great about this is I don't need Jane Fonda to do this, because the thing that I had realized really quickly, when I sent out a couple emails to some people who have written about her, was that essentially our whole thing about "Hanoi Jane" and this whole idea that, there's always, "she's the villainess of the right who literally got soldiers killed in Vietnam"--this real fury at her had not really started at Vietnam. It's not to say people weren't mad at her during Vietnam, but that it had actually had this whole second life. The second life, that we're still living in, during the Reagan administration, and I got that from literally sending one email to Mary Hershberger, who wrote Jane Fonda's War. And I was like, "Oh, that's an episode." Basically, if I can do the history of the workout, and it backdoors into, "we don't even think about Jane Fonda right," I don't need Jane Fonda, which is great, because we know I'm not gonna get Jane Fonda. But then we got Jane Fonda!

===Decoder Ring Episode “Jane Fonda’s Workout, Part 1: Jane and Leni"===

Jane Fonda 16:25This is an important interview that we're doing, Willa, and let me explain.

Willa Paskin 16:31

And within seconds of starting to speak with them, it became clear to me that that water, and not an oral history of The Jane Fonda Workout, was going to be the subject of our call.

Jane Fonda 16:40

This is an important interview that we're doing, Willa, and let me explain why. And I'm very moved that we're going to do this. I have become famous for the workout. It's known as The Jane Fonda Workout. But the person that created the workout was not me. It was Leni Kasdan.

Willa Paskin 17:02

Jane has written and spoken about Leni, but they had never done an interview together before this. She was doing it now to try to credit Leni and to make amends for a wrong she'd done her back in the 1970s.

Jane Fonda 17:13

I did not really understand who Leni was, and what the workout meant to her. And it was like this is her Sistine Chapel--she put it together deliberately, and it was her life. And I am sorry to say that I didn't really realize that.

======

Willa Paskin 17:34And now I know, knowing what I know, that basically Leni had... Jane was basically trying to find an opportunity to talk about it with Leni, because Leni had been like, "You need to give me credit," and I

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just happened to wander into this moment at the right time. And it was really a process of discovery. Every time I talked to Leni on the phone, I understood the situation better and more clearly, and I realized I hadn't understood it at all. And everything that I thought the episode was gonna be about, this cultural history of Jane Fonda, ended up being the second episode. The first episode, I had no idea it existed until I got on the phone with those people. I mean, that was the most fun. [Laughter] It was the one. And I think that show is like... Ben, the producer, he was like, "This is kind of our heavyweight episode," and he's totally right, it's us resolving this... [Laughter] And I was like, "But I love heavyweight, that's so great!" That's what I want to hear. I wish I could do that a billion times--but, you know, not every one. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 18:30It's like a prequel and then it sets up the story that you actually wanna pursue, and the story that you pursue... Let me just put it this way: Jane Fonda, after listening to the episode, feels like the eternal celebrity. She...

Willa Paskin 18:43Oh my god, Jane Fonda, what a boss! [Laughter]

Nick Quah 18:46I think one of the big things that--the second episode particularly made me think a lot of--is the nature of activism specifically, and how activists have become celebrities, celebrities are naturally activists; they cannot say anything without having political import, necessarily. The walls have been dissolved, and it feels like it's a logical endpoint, we were always going to get to this point. But I wonder how you feel, having reported out the story, how you feel about that relationship between celebrity and activism now?

Willa Paskin 19:18Oh, actually, my read of it is pretty different. I actually think Jane Fonda proves most celebrities aren't doing shit, you know? [Laughter] She really was getting arrested for Native American rights, like starting in 1970. She did the work. She stopped doing movies, she was going everywhere, across the country, wherever they asked her to. She was like being quiet, and listening, and stuffing envelopes; she was doing the work. And then at some point realized that, yes, attention was gonna accrue to her even though she wasn't the best spokesperson, right? Even if she knew the least. And she had to figure out how to deal with that and live with that. And it was hard. She talks about it, she talks about how she's sort of talking in like, Katharine Hepburn, Ivy League vowels, at the beginning of the 70s, and there's a bunch of interviews that she did in '75, before the war is over, but when her image rehabilitation is already starting, where it's very, like, underscoring how domestic she is, and her and Tom Hayden are like, they don't have any, you know, they live in this house, and they're raising their kid, and she's just like a mom. And "she's like a regular person" kind of thing. And you can see her sort of trying to talk about it more calmly, talk about how she was, she knows she was angry, and she was shrill, and she's not anymore. But she's doing all this thinking about how to present herself, but she's still doing the work. You know what I mean? [Laughter] She never stops and it's just like, I'm sorry, there aren't that many celebrities getting arrested in front of the White House to protest climate change right now. I mean, I know she was with Amy Schumer. But that's not a thing a lot of people are doing, and Jane Fonda's 81 and she's doing it still. And she never stopped doing it. It's just like, Muhammad Ali is another person who had real, real consequences for his political beliefs, right? And she actually had real consequences. Jane Fonda, in our terminology, got pretty close to getting canceled for being right about Vietnam. Do you know what I mean?

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Nick Quah 21:11 [Laughter] Yeah.

Willa Paskin 21:11Being right, but also, at the time, being with the majority of Americans being like, "We're fighting this war, we shouldn't be fighting this war." And I don't see a ton of celebrities doing that. I mean, there's activists--activists becoming celebrities, to me, is a different thing. And activists, there's obviously a lot of people doing really great work, but they're not, you know, that feels different to me. I don't see a lot of celebrities doing what Jane Fonda does. I mean, I don't even begrudge them that. It's so fraught, you know?

Nick Quah 21:41So the show is going to a seasonal model, which means that this summer we're going to start getting new episodes of Decoder Ring every week, which means that that's a lot of new episodes. So what are you gonna do? What's left? Do you have a white whale, Moby Dick subject you wanna go over now?

Willa Paskin 21:55Totally no. Totally no. I have such a boring answer to this question: no, no, no, no, no. But...

Nick Quah 21:59You've done everything already. [Laughter]

Willa Paskin 22:00No, I haven't done everything at all! It's that I... none of the ones we've done have been Moby Dicks for me either. I mean, the Jane Fonda was maybe the closest thing I wanted to do. There's a couple that I want to do, that I don't want to tell you, because they're really good ideas. [Laughter] I don't want to give them to you. I'll tell you one, cuz I don't think it's gonna happen. It's also not that good an idea, which is that we really have been wanting, since the beginning, people have been like, "You should do one about very special episodes." Of TV.

Nick Quah 22:24 Oh my god.

Willa Paskin 22:25Right. And we were like, "Well, what's the very special episode?" Obviously the Saved by the Bell, "Jessie's Song.”

===Saved By the Bell Episode “Jessie’s Song”===

Elizabeth Berkley 22:30[Singing] "I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so... scared!”

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Willa Paskin 22:39

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So I've been trying to get Elizabeth Berkley to talk to us for like a gajillion years, and I thought I was gonna be able to get her to do it because she is now again on Saved by the Bell, but I still failed.

Nick Quah 22:50Well, I hope Elizabeth Berkley answers your call and we can get that episode. Willa, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Willa Paskin 22:58 Thank you!

Nick Quah 23:18Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

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This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.