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Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month host Willa Paskin,Slate’s TV critic, takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speak with experts,historians and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means and why it Matters.

Today: The clown has existed in various forms for thousands of years, what changed and made us suspect and fear them? The modern birthday clown is a very recent invention, by going back into the history of clowns and clowning we see that clowns are far more complex and capable of far more expression than the kids entertainment of Bozo and Ronald McDonald. How those complex figures transformed into obligatorily sunny commercial mascots may also explain why they are increasingly seen as sinister today. 

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