For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with Missing Richard Simmons, the podcast phenomenon that has hovered near the top of the iTunes chart since February. After learning about the pod from numerous, mostly positive media profiles, I started tuning in to Missing Richard Simmons around the time the third episode premiered. Pretty quickly, it became something between a hate-listen and a source of genuine curiosity. On one hand, I find the arc of Richard Simmons’ life and career to be incredibly fascinating — it’s like Citizen Kane in short-shorts with a potential What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?-style twist ending. On the other hand, I was constantly annoyed by the transparent machinations of the pod’s narrator and protagonist, Dan Taberski, a documentary filmmaker who claims over and over, with increasing disingenuousness in the series’ six episodes, that Missing Richard Simmons was a “grand gesture” to a supposed friend.
For those that haven’t heard the podcast: Missing Richard Simmons is a six-episode series about the “disappearance” of Simmons from public life since 2014. Taberski, a former producer for The Daily Show, became an acquaintance of the fitness guru after working out at Simmons’ Beverly Hills exercise studio, Slimmons. Taberski and Simmons apparently had even discussed making a documentary about Simmons’ life. But those plans were scuttled when Simmons mysteriously withdrew from public life three years ago. So Taberski did the next best thing: He made an unauthorized podcast in which he investigates various conspiracy theories about Simmons’ retirement, including a story forwarded by Simmons’ former masseuse about how Simmons’ housekeeper is holding her patron hostage with spells and witchcraft.
Much of the ground covered in Missing Richard Simmons was first reported in an engrossing New York Daily News article from 2016 by Andy Martino. I remember being riveted by Martino’s story, reading with my mouth literally agape. Not many Americans have lived a life as rich, amazing, and strange as Simmons, who grew up a lonely, obese child from the poor side of New Orleans and then proceeded to build an empire out of Deal-A-Meal cards and Sweatin’ To The Oldies tapes. (Oh and he also appeared as an extra in Fellini’s Satyricon along the way.) That Simmons might’ve ended up imprisoned inside his planation-style L.A. mansion — like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, or Charles Foster Kane — only seemed to add to the mythic nature of Simmons’ life.
But did that actually happen? Missing Richard Simmons strongly suggests that it did until, oddly, it swiftly changes course in the final episode.
As Missing Richard Simmons unfolded, a backlash kicked in, spurred by accusations that Taberski was “morally suspect” for hounding a man who has made it clear that he’d rather not be bothered. If Taberski is morally suspect, does that make Martino and the New York Daily News also culpable? As someone who questions Taberski’s motivations and methodology, I say no. Martino didn’t pretend to be anything beyond what he is — a journalist. Taberski meanwhile presented Missing Richard Simmons as an act of altruism, a last-ditch effort to reach a man he cares about and perhaps assuage the concerns of the many friends, sorta-friends, hangers-on, and sycophants that Simmons has ghosted. But it simply doesn’t wash.
In the classic journalism-ethics study The Journalist And The Murderer, Janet Malcolm argues that reporters frequently lie to their subjects in order to elicit information. Taberski doesn’t quite do that to his subject — for one thing, he never actually talks to Simmons. But I suspect that he’s lying to everyone else, most of all the audience. If he were simply a journalist or filmmaker pursuing a good story, his invasions into Simmons’ privacy would be more forgivable. (As a consumer of articles and books about famous recluses like Howard Hughes, Syd Barrett, Fiona Apple, and Terrence Malick, he’d even have my appreciation.) But the conventions of the storytelling podcast require that Taberski have personal stakes in this story — it has to be about him, and his struggle to get over the “loss” of Simmons, as much as Simmons himself.
This obfuscation culminated with the season (or is it series?) finale episode, which was posted suddenly on Monday afternoon, a few days before Missing Richard Simmons’ usual run date. In the episode’s introduction, Taberski admits that the finale wasn’t finished until right before it went up, and that he removed content that he had teased at the end of the fifth episode. He claims that this is a byproduct of following Simmons’ story in real time, though the only “news” with Simmons in recent weeks has been the publicity ginned up by Taberski’s podcast. What seems more likely is that Taberski was influenced by the growing criticism of Missing Richard Simmons, which included being called out by The New York Times last week for the series’ nadir moment in episode five, when Taberski discussed a theory forwarded by tabloids like TMZ and The National Enquirer that Simmons is transitioning. This was Taberski and Missing Richard Simmons at its worst, indulging in prurient rumors denied by Simmons and his closest associates while affecting the superior stance of the concerned friend who would never out his buddy Richard. No, Taberski was merely reporting what others have said.
Say what you will about TMZ, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be noble or apologize for its fascination with celebrities. Taberski however turned the last episode of Missing Richard Simmons into a kind of mea culpa. He backs off from the salacious claim — stated by others, but strongly insinuated by Taberski — that Simmons is being held captive by his housekeeper, Teresa Reveles. Taberski finally comes to what should’ve been an obvious conclusion all along: Richard Simmons doesn’t owe anyone anything, and has the right to live quietly if he so chooses. Until Simmons speaks publicly about some unreported issue that’s kept him out of public view, he should be left alone.
But Taberski just can’t help making Missing Richard Simmons ultimately about himself. No, dear listener, this podcast wasn’t a waste of time after all, because it was really about the process of grief over losing Simmons among fans like Taberski.
Taberski’s self-aggrandizement culminates with a phony bit of introspection in which he alludes to Simmons buying his idol Barbara Streisand a $100,000 diamond ring in spite of never having met her. (Streisand later returned the ring.) Taberski likens his podcast to this “grand gesture” from a devoted follower to a long-time hero. The difference is that Simmons lost 100 grand when he bought that ring, whereas Taberski stands to gain a lot from Missing Richard Simmons. Romantic gestures to honor heroes aren’t typically monetized with ads for Squarespace and Lyft.
I wish Taberski had just cut the B.S. and been more honest: He pursued Richard Simmons not for Simmons’ sake but his own. The only point of telling this story — and, in spite of everything, Taberski is unquestionably a skilled storyteller — is furthering Taberski’s career. In that regard, Missing Richard Simmons is an unmitigated success, and I actually don’t think that’s some great sin. It simply means that Taberski is not a friend, but rather just another journalist.