As a Brit, my knowledge of fitness guru Richard Simmons is limited, and I have no real cultural history of attachment to him or his work. My only prior experience with him comes from an episode of my adolescent obsession, Whose Line is it Anyway? There was a point during the late 2000s when the show returned to screens, both the British and American versions, and I became wildly enamoured with both, scouring YouTube for episodes and segments I might have missed. One such episode, available in its entirety on the site at the time, was from the American version and featured Simmons as a guest player. The exceptionally enthusiastic man, in short shorts with a halo of curly hair, threw himself with aplomb into the proceedings, getting physical and just dirty enough to send 17 year old me into paroxysms of laughter. My hysterical reaction was less from Simmons himself, who I honestly found rather cringe-worthy in his full-on nature, but in the reactions of the other comedians. In one scene, Greg Proops, wiping away tears of laughter, says “I’m just so happy”.
That reaction seems to be the backbone of the new podcast, Missing Richard Simmons, which has already built up a mountain of hype as the podcast du jour. Simmons, who made millions from his Sweating to the Oldies fitness tapes, is credited with helping countless people not just with their health but with their lives. Here was a man of such public visibility, one who went out of his way to talk to people and take photos, and all seemingly for the sheer joy of it.
And then he disappeared, dropping out of the spotlight and cutting off contact with swaths of confidantes without warning.
The podcast’s host Dan Taberski is one of those former friends, one who regularly attended his fitness classes and even had dinner at his house. His journey to uncover what happened to Simmons is rooted in exploring that dynamic – how can a man who was a friend to all he met simply disappear?
Part Serial, part Mystery Show, Missing Richard Simmons is a curious listen. It’s a seemingly low-stakes case of such specificity and strangeness that it could so easily go off the rails at the drop of a hat. Taberski’s observations are interspersed with old fashioned detective work, interviews with an assortment of strangers connected by Simmons, and clips from old chats, exercise videos and TV appearances, where Simmons reveals wit and vulnerability behind the terminally delightful persona. Regulars to his exercise classes discuss his penchant for invading personal space and abundant crying sessions, ghosting every attendee like a close personal-friend. Late night phone calls are made, birthday parties are attended, and this rickety space of warmth and safety is built that feels too personal for outsiders.
Taberski is jovial but also self-aware enough to know that his single-minded fascination with this case is just a little bit creepy, particularly as he goes snooping at Simmons’ mansion in episode 2. His exploration is empathetic – he wants Simmons to feel as loved as he made others feel before he disappeared – but also punctured by occasional reality checks. In the second episode, he interviews Willam Belli, a friend and collaborator of Simmons who’s best known for appearing on RuPaul’s Drag Race. After several chats with other acquaintances who encourage Taberski in his quest, Belli is definitively against such snooping, supporting Simmons’ choice to simply “bye, girl” everyone after years of offering up every part of himself. Simmons was a celebrity unlike any other, but that celebrity did not count as public ownership.
It remains to be seen how this show will maintain the consistence of its first two episodes, which are warm, intriguing and just bonkers enough. An ongoing mystery presents no conclusive end in sight, and any that may arise aren’t guaranteed to be satisfying to a thrill-seeking audience. As a character piece of an enigmatic figure whose impact stretches far and wide, Missing Richard Simmons is at its most compelling, and if that ending never comes, at least the journey presents a compassionate study of the need for community.
Missing Richard Simmons is available to download from iTunes, Stitcher and whatever podcast app you use.