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“Scams, cons, robberies, and fraud!”
With these five tantalizing words, comedian Laci Mosley welcomes listeners into her delicious Earwolf podcast, Scam Goddess. Mosley is a historian of the hustle and a collector of fine con art, a self-proclaimed scammer herself and the show’s proud namesake. But she is also a professional comedian and actor, most famously from PopTV’s Florida Girls and the Upright Citizens Brigade. As such, her show exists at the nexus of two of podcasting’s most popular genres: comedy interviewing and true crime.
Blending these two genres is hardly new territory for audio, of course, with shows like My Favorite Murder and The Last Podcast on the Left long beloved by fans for making what could be very scary very funny instead. What has made Scam Goddess so suddenly and immediately popular since its launch in September 2019, though, is the unique delight with which its host discusses the ins and outs of great scamming.
In each episode, Mosley invites fellow improvisers and podcasters to riff on stories of criminal deception. The show’s opening segment, “Hot in Fraud,” is dedicated to recent swindling trends in the news or alerted to Mosley by her fans, the so-called “Con-gregation” (a name coined by Paul F. Tompkins in the premiere episode). The core segment, “Historical Hoodwinks,” dissects more world-famous cases, like the Ukrainian adoption grifter or Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, with Mosley reading from a script compiled by a research assistant, Sharilyn Vera. And in “Scammer of the Week,” guests celebrate the fools whose dopey ripoffs, schemes, and chicanery went shamefully awry.
All this goes down in a rush of witticisms and one-liners. Mosley is whip-fast with jokes, upstaging and amusing even her funniest guests with zingers. After six months of listening, the two sounds I most closely associate with the show are the Hustle & Flow–inspired theme song (a harmonized banger written and performed by Mosley herself) and the near-constant rumble of her guests’ giggling.
The host tends to treat her chosen kin — the scammers — with awe and admiration, rather than sanctimonious disgust or fury. It sounds hokey, but there’s something genuinely beautiful and honest about this. Instead of dismissing her subjects as evil, psychotic, or stupid, Mosley is quick to defend the broken-down strivers, disenfranchised, or in some cases, misguided geniuses simply trying to keep the hustle alive.
To be clear, Mosley is far from an apologist for scammers with clear malice in their hearts. She is careful to avoid victim-blaming, and offers trigger warnings to help protect her audience when things get too upsetting. In fact, it is in those episodes where Mosley actually learns on-air that a con artist whose chutzpah she might otherwise praise has crossed a line from audacious into something more despicable that the podcast gains the frisson of dark, prickly humor that has become its signature tone.
That “Is it funny or is it horrible?” tension is never more palpable than in the best episode of Scam Goddess so far, “The Boy Band Bummer With Teresa Lee,” released on January 6, 2020. Above all others, this episode is the perfect entry point for newcomers for two key reasons: the profound yin-and-yang chemistry between the host and her guest, and a particularly thrilling climax to the week’s main scam.
If Mosley’s comedy can be described as zippy, bombastic, and cheeky, then her guest, comedian and filmmaker Teresa Lee, is the opposite: mellow, muttered, and perfectly deadpan. Lee is so tranquil that she doesn’t even respond at first when Mosley introduces her, as if she forgot they were recording.
So it takes them four unusually shy minutes of ice-breaking to get to Lee’s own complicated relationship with fraud. Even though she admits that she, too, has participated in certain scams — lying on her restaurant résumé, using Beyoncé’s face to promote a web series, producing comedy for UCB for no money — Lee ultimately reveals that her feelings are completely opposed to Mosley’s. Not only does she not like scams; actually, she says, “I hate when people get tricked. I feel almost like a visceral sadness. And I also hate being dishonest.” In that moment, the women establish the roles that carry them through the episode: Mosley, the enthusiastic con-noisseur, and Lee, the sensitive advocate of the innocent.
This dynamic immediately comes to bear in the “Hot in Fraud” segment, which features a letter from someone Mosley nicknames “A Playa From the Himalayas.” When “Playa” details his experience getting gifted (and grifted) with cheap gift cards, Lee immediately takes his side and labels him a victim. Mosley, however, is less sympathetic: “Playa From the Himalayas,” she jokes, should have known not to open someone else’s mail like he was someone’s “Black mama.” On the other hand, he should have known how to differentiate a regular website from the trashy one advertised on the cards: “Guys, if you ever go on a website, and they got one picture, two tabs, and no links? They got what we call a school-size paragraph? Remember when a paragraph used to have to be three-to-five sentences? That was a scam!” Ultimately, she suggests that “Playa” is as much scammer as scammee.
After 20 minutes of debate, Mosley introduces the “Historical Hoodwinks” segment, this time devoted to one of pop music’s greatest crooks: “con artiste” and “boy-band scammer” Lou Jay Pearlman. Mosley warns that the story of Pearlman — a Svengali for ’90s hit-makers like ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and O-Town — is unusually wrenching compared to her more typically light show. Not only did Pearlman force the talent he managed into abusive conditions, she explains, but he was also accused of money laundering, running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, and ultimately, sexual crimes against his talent.
Mosley and Lee acknowledge that Pearlman’s behavior was revolting, but both can’t help but recognize such behavior as par for the course. “[Producers] are mean to us,” Mosley says. “Then you get famous and everyone want to suck on your bootyhole.”
At one point, they riff for five minutes about the hilarious cruelty of Pearlman leaving an unused Rolls Royce outside ’N Sync’s un-air-conditioned studio as a way to motivate the boys. Then, when Mosley explains that Pearlman also siphoned money from ’N Sync by illegally claiming to be in the band, they go ballistic: “Lou Pearlman was the sixth member of ’N Sync?” Mosley cracks. “He’s the cute one!” Lee laughs back.
Even so, 45 minutes into the episode, Lee begins to sound distressed as Mosley narrates more about Pearlman’s scams. Sensing her guest’s growing discomfort, Mosley rushes to move on to the last segment. At first, Mosley reassures Lee by telling her that Pearlman is in jail getting his ass “beat, beat, beat — every day!” But as she reaches the end of the notes Vera collected for her, Mosley lets out a gleeful gasp: “Uhhhhh, Lou dead!”
At the revelation that Pearlman actually died in prison in 2016, the tension that has grown throughout the episode shatters, and Lee and Mosley break into gales of laughter. It isn’t so much that they’re reveling in a troubled man’s death — on the contrary, Mosley says she wishes he was alive and spending more time in jail — as sharing in the relief of some minor justice served.
The catharsis is so strong that neither woman can stop laughing for the next (and final) eight minutes. They wrap up by cracking wise about the “Scammer of the Week,” Joshua Louis Brown, who was arrested for taping “a license plate handwritten in crayon” to a stolen car. For the first time in the episode, Lee and Mosley fully agree: The real idiot was the Pennsylvanian chump who left his car unlocked and running in a gas station parking lot for Brown to steal. Ecstatic to finally fully vibe with Lee, Mosley seizes the moment, and deploys her signature sign off: “Con-gregation, stay scheming!”
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