by Sam Bednarchik
11 April 2017
At first glance, Dan Taberski’s “Missing Richard Simmons” seems an odd choice for First Look Media. The production company’s mission to provide a platform for innovative political voices outside of the industry fold has little to do with a long-time “Daily Show” producer and his podcast about hunting down a missing pop cultural icon. More typically on-brand FirstLook productions include The Intercept, its “fearless, adversarial journalism” site, whose investigative pieces frequently provide stellar deep dives into topics ranging from Seal Team 6 to the ongoing Russian hacking investigation; or the “Politically Re-Active” podcast, hosted by comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, both of whom discuss current politics from the vantages of race, class, and age.
Taberski’s podcast, however, investigates the sudden disappearance of Richard Simmons from the public eye. In addition to Simmons’ varied television appearances and his semi-annual “Cruise to Lose,” he’d been regularly leading his aerobics class at Slimmons for over 40 years. Then, on February 15th, 2014, Simmons did not show up to teach his class. Then he failed to show up the next day. Then again the next. He has not been seen publicly since. Taberski, a friend of Simmons’ and a regular member of Simmons’ workout class, was already planning a documentary on his aerobics instructor and so, when Simmons disappeared, he decided to turn his documentary plans into a detective-narrative podcast.
However far afield this premise is from First Look’s core tenets, as the six-episode series plays out, its thematic concerns develop—even if they never quite crystallize into full coherence—into classically political questions: What do members of a community owe to one another? What obligations does friendship, or more generally relationship, entail? And how much privacy do individuals deserve?
It’s not Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or anything, but these questions find an especially potent platform during Taberski’s interviews. Take episode one’s Kathy, a hair stylist living in the midwest who runs into Simmons at a supermarket one day, years ago. She hands him a note with her phone number telling him how big a fan she is of his. Surprisingly, he calls her. Regularly. The two speak for years, as Simmons calls to coach her through her weight-loss regiment and, occassionally in the middle of the night, to share with her some of his own pain.
Or episode two’s Gerry “GiGi” Sinclair, 94, who’s been attending Simmons’ workout class for 40 years. (More than that, the two became close friends, so much so that Simmons attended and spoke at her 90th birthday party.) Both GiGi and Kathy worry over their friend’s absence. They want to confirm that he is safe and healthy.
Willam Belli (also in episode two), on the other hand, defends Simmons’ choice to disappear entirely: “He might have been done, and he doesn’t owe shit to anybody. He pulled back that curtain a little bit and gave people that personal interaction and now they feel a loss.” Taberski points out the Richard hasn’t merely abandoned his Slimmons class but also individuals (like Kathy) with whom he actively sought out and forged relationships. Belli insists that Simmons—and, by extension, we might presume any individual—owes others neither his continued presence nor an explanation for his disappearance.
These interviews—Belli’s in particular—offer up tantalizing questions about the fine print of our social contract, about the obligations or debts incurred by community. Simmons’ long-time nutritionist Winifred Morris misses the point when she argues that Simmons has not broken any laws sinc he never referred to himself as a therapist and never had any of his friends or confidants “sign” anything. No one is interested in the legalities of Simmons actions, but the ethics. Simmons’ platform is, after all, an ostensibly ethical one: his “Cruise to Lose,” his workout videos and diets, his regular class all promise to further his acolytes along the path to the good life. In a fascinating episode four soundbite, Simmons explains that he briefly attended seminary but left when he found that “[his] pulpet could be bigger.” The subsequent clip of one of his early mall-set infomercials sounds uncannily like the contemporaneous Sunday-morning televangelism programs that targeted similar demographics. In short, Simmons certainly branded himself as one out to save lives, and maybe even some souls. And so it might follow that anyone in the business of the good life ought to have a good explanation when their actions worsen the lives of those closest to them.
Or at least I think these are the questions that Taberski means to get at.
Taberski occupies a precariously liminal space between friend and fan, and oscillates between representing Simmons’ friends and his public, often far more messily than Taberski acknowledges. Taberski, for instance, makes a rather sanctimonious to-do about refusing to discuss Simmons sexuality, about 60 seconds before he shares that he and his husband have at least once double-dated with Simmons and Mauro Oliveira, Simmons’ male massage therapist. We might also acknowledge the obvious compromises of the medium: Taberski did not disclose the findings of his investigation in, say, a regular email to Simmons’ closest friends but instead broadcasted them on a very public platform. (As I write this, a story breaks across the internet about Taberski having left a boom box, Say Anything-style, outside of Simmons’ home, a move that feels less personal than it does a PR stunt.) When in the closing minutes of episode five Taberski asks Simmons (who may or may not be listening) to “give us the chance to repay the favor” and to “let us be the empathetic ones for a change, give us the chance to say that what you’re feeling is okay, and to say thank you for what you’ve done,” it’s entirely unclear who this “us” has become. Is this an exclusive group of friends like Gerry and Kathy, or all of Taberski’s listeners?
This strange position that Taberski occupies gets at the symptomatic quality of the podcast’s larger schizophrenia. “Missing Richard Simmons” is, we might say, two different podcasts uncomfortably opposed to one another. Episodes one, four, and five offer fascinating and, more importantly, humanizing insights into Simmons’ life. Taberski details Simmons’ New Orleans childhood, his own struggles with eating, and the intense psychological atmosphere of his cruises so masterfully that Simmons is effectively de-sensationalized. The portrait that Taberski paints in these episodes is so far from Simmons’ simpler camp persona that I at least felt as though Taberski’s podcast had achieved exactly what it set out to do: he found Richard Simmons.
Episodes two, three, and six, however, remind listeners that Taberski wants literally to find Simmons, to locate him: Simmons the missing person, Taberski the scrappy detective. Not only are these episodes significantly weaker, but they undo the loving labor of their counterparts, effectively re-sensationalizing Simmons. Where the other three episodes find striking moments of insight (e.g. unless you’ve heard episode five, you’ll never know just how sobering the image of Simmons’ flattened hair is), these three episodes bury Simmons under conspiracies and plots: a captive in his own home; a victim of a witch’s spell; forced at gunpoint to call in to a talk show and attest to his health and safety. (This last example is from the fourth episode but it sounds, in spirit, like a hangover from the third.) And let’s not talk about the amount of airtime that Oliveira’s overpriced ebook receives. I wondered as I listened to these episodes whether Taberski actually believed that Simmons was in danger or, more specifically, if he really believed in the possibility that Simmons’ long-time housekeeper Teresa Reveles was holding Simmons hostage.
I wondered, too, if he saw that such conspiracies missed the point of the podcast’s philosophical questions. Teresa-as-villain and Teresa-as-witch provide an easy escape from the thornier questions of the obligations and entailments of social ties. If, after all, Simmons has been a captive in his own home these past years, then surely any questions as to his right to abandon close relations are null. Moreover, these pulpy plotlines obscure what is a fascinatingly atypical domestic situation (that is, the long-lasting close relationship between Simmons and Reveles). Taberski repeatedly attempts to fashion it into something more sinister. And, we might add, something far more tired. He doesn’t see that the story he’s telling is already better than the story he wishes it were.
Given the obstructive—and really, destructive—nature of its forced detective plot, “Missing Richard Simmons” asks another, less political question: Have we reached a point at which popular narratives might try trusting audiences to listen without the promise of something pulpy and lurid?
This mystery-making impulse is one that seems to be growing steadily across popular podcast productions. Sarah Koenig’s “Serial” is one such example, forcing a detective narrative where it never belonged. It’s one thing to take a test drive to Best Buy, another to suggest that Koenig might actually crack the decades-long case. What was most compelling about its first season was its story about the gross miscarriage of justice, equal parts thrilling and tragic. When the podcast series came back for a second season, this time to focus on Bowe Bergdahl, the show’s half-hearted attempts to make Bergdahl’s story a mystery for Koenig to solve simply betrayed a lack of faith in the material itself.
Now, as the people behind “Serial” and “This American Life” release their newest (and enormous) podcast hit, “S-Town,” we see them drawing from the same well. “S-Town” was marketed for the weeks leading up to its release with a recording of a voicemail that Brian Reed received about an unsolved murder. This murder, we learn as early as the first episode, likely did not even happen. Listening to the episode, I felt both disappointed but wholly unsurprised: the mystery-making impulse has become so common in the podcast storytelling world that I expect these narratives to deliver on their promises. Neither, though, have I stopped feeling frustrated about being misled.
Sam Bednarchik is a freelance culture writer and a PhD Student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.