‘Missing Richard Simmons’ Is a Fascinating, Frustrating Exploration of a Gothic Pop-Culture Mystery

missingrichardsimmons
Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.

In this column I have written about great podcasts widely heralded as milestones for the medium, like President Obama on WTF. I’ve also written extensively about podcasts that are fascinating because they so thoroughly devolve into shitshows involving some of the biggest creeps in standup, like Carlos Mencia and Gallagher on WTF. Incidentally, I’ve also written about podcasts not hosted by Marc Maron as well.  

I find myself writing about the controversial, widely criticized podcast mini-series Missing Richard Simmons partially because it is gripping, entertaining and culturally significant podcast event (and it does not seem hyperbolic to describe it as an event more than just six half-hour podcasts) that has exploded out of the podcast ghetto and reached an audience that doesn’t generally listen to podcasts. But I’m also writing about Missing Richard Simmons because it’s so problematic on so many levels, and all the more interesting and thought-provoking for being so flawed.

Missing Richard Simmons has crossed over to the massive, mainstream Serial podcast audience partially because it also taps into the public’s undying fascination with a great mystery. Like The Jinx and Making A Murderer, Missing Richard Simmons riveted a public whose intense fascination elevated them to pop culture events.

Missing Richard Simmons is like Making A Murderer and The Jinx as well in that it has been widely criticized for exploiting its subject and dealing with its subjects in a manner that is disingenuous at best and wildly unethical at worst. Like the rest of the country, I was entertained for the podcast’s three addictive hours and now I get to stand in stern judgment of it.

Missing Richard Simmons raises many ethical questions, both intentionally and by continually invading the iconic, reclusive fitness guru’s life in ways that can’t help but make you feel protective of him and his intense yet clearly fragile emotions. The podcast mini-series is the brainchild of producer Dan Taberski, a wry Ira Glass type (although when my wife was playing this podcast in the car with my two year old he thought Taberski’s voice was mine) who was at one point a friend of Simmons and a regular at his gym Slimmons.

Taberski and Missing Richard Simmons makes it clear that Slimmons was no ordinary gym. It was more like a weird fitness cult, complete with a charismatic, melodramatic leader allowed to grope and touch and fondle his acolytes (in this case male students, who were invariably ordered to take off their shirts) and generally treat them like slabs of meat in sweatpants. At Slimmons, this was Simmons, of course, and the classes he taught sound like a cross between a weirdly chaste exercise orgy, an EST-style retreat, and some weird happening.

Through Slimmons and his many other enterprises, professional and otherwise, Simmons became not just a friend but an inspirational, motivational figure in the lives of hundreds of worshipful followers for whom he wasn’t just the screaming famous guy bantering with David Letterman but a man who called every Thursday to check up on a formerly morbidly obese woman from the Midwest or sent friend’s children money on holidays.

Yet if Simmons had seemingly countless intense yet inherently limited relationships with people who came to Slimmons or knew him through his relentless evangelizing on behalf of exercise and diet, his life seems largely devoid of true emotional intimacy. Simmons has somewhat famously never spoke publicly about his sex life, or romantic life, except for winking innuendo designed to obfuscate rather than explain.

And then one day around three years ago Simmons simply disappeared. The most screamingly, intensely, masochistically public celebrity imaginable, who seemed to feel he owed it to everyone he met to give them everything within himself, spiritually, physically and otherwise, became intensely private and was seen no more.

Missing Richard Simmons chronicles Taberski’s attempt to get to the bottom of Simmons’ disappearance. He wants to know what motivated Simmons to go into hiding and what his life has been like since he went away. But he also wants to know why Simmons cut off contact with the people who adored him and that imagined he adored them in return. Why did he go away without saying goodbye?

Yet Missing Richard Simmons quickly invites less flattering questions like, “Is it really Taberski’s business, or the general public’s, what Richard Simmons has been doing with his life?” and “Is it unethical and predatory for Taberski to keep searching so persistently for someone who so clearly does not want to be found?”

Missing Richard Simmons teases a Sunset Boulevard scenario involving Simmons’ gruff, powerful and imposing housekeeper/soulmate and her war of wills with Simmons’ former personal masseuse. It also briefly explores various red herrings involving Simmons possibly transitioning or recuperating from a serious injury but ultimately ends with a frustratingly vague, “Eh, something must have happened for him to go away, and it must have been bad.”

Listening to Simmons’ friends discuss Simmons’ life, it seems like age caught up with Simmons and that after decades as the Energizer Bunny of pop culture, he grew exhausted by a lifetime of performing relentlessly for anyone who would watch. That doesn’t just mean the people in the audience for his shows or his customers. It could be the tourists on a “Bus Tour of the stars.” Simmons gave and gave and gave and then it seems like he came to a point where he could not give any more.

To put it in The Giving Tree terms, it’s like Simmons is the tree and he gives, and gives and gives to friends and employees and random strangers for literally decades and then he finally reaches a point where he literally cannot give anymore, when he’s just a stump, and Taberski is poking him, saying, “Hey, remember when you had all those branches and I used to snag a fuck-ton of apples off you? That was great. Grant me a ten minute interview about why you’re not giving people free shit anymore. Do you feel ashamed? Do you feel guilty?”

What makes Missing Richard Simmons so addictive despite itself is that Taberski is a funny and likable guy, a real NPR type in the best and worst sense of that phrase, and Missing Richard Simmons is funny and fun in a light, quirky kind of way that betrays a fundamental lack of seriousness and scruples. If Taberski had done justice to the tragic as well as comic aspects of this story the mini-series wouldn’t be so relatively superficial and light.

It’s a testament to Missing Richard Simmons’ simultaneously appealing and maddening lightness that its three hours of gossipy psychodrama fly by breezily before taking forever to reach a conclusion that listeners will beat them to by several episodes: that while Simmons life may be sad or weird he does not appear to be in harm’s way and is entitled to a little privacy and rest after giving so much for so long.

It similarly will takes listeners much less time than Taberski to figure out that the best way Taberski can honor Simmons’ complicated, contradictory and intense legacy is to maybe to leave him the hell alone.

Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.

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