“Missing Richard Simmons” and Fan Responsibility

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Missing Richard Simmons host Dan Taberski promoting the podcast on The Wendy Williams Show.

I like Missing Richard Simmons a lot. I reviewed it positively, and the show even used a quote from my article for a post. It’s a podcast that’s very easy to like, and even easier to get sucked into. It’s an impeccably put together production with a charming host, an incredible concept and a fascinating balance of mystery and self-help. It’s like a melting pot of all the internet’s favourite things: Celebrity, true-crime investigations, kitsch, comedy, and irresistible sadness. The Serial phenomenon mostly bypassed me, and I fell behind on Welcome to Night Vale dozens of episodes ago, so there’s something undoubtedly enticing about being part of a popular thing’s success from the beginning. However, the concerns I had about the show from its pilot have begun to overwhelm my enjoyment of it, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve become part of the problem. My hobby has become an implicit endorsement of something altogether more insidious.

There’s a moment in the pilot for my favourite TV show Hannibal, where the eponymous psychiatrist comments to Will Graham, empath extraordinaire, that his habit of analyzing others is almost instinctive, and something he can’t necessarily shut off. I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot since I started listening to Missing Richard Simmons. Dan Taberski, the show’s host, is a self-deprecating kind of fellow with a folksy charm that would make him a hit at any dinner party. He positions himself as Simmon’s friend, but as he makes clear in the pilot, he was also working towards making a documentary of Simmon’s life, which came to a screeching halt when the subject cut himself off from the world. Why does he want to find Simmons, he asks himself, presumably before the audience can ask: For a number of reasons, but the main one seems to be fascination. Simmons fascinates Taberski, and that drives forward his investigation. Perhaps Taberski was indeed a friend of Simmons, but it’s become painfully clear as the episodes move forward that he can’t turn off the documentarian inside.

Missing Richard Simmons is a self-aware show, to some extent. Taberski jokes of his creepiness when he and his producer head to Simmons’ house, uninvited, in episode 2. He frequently asks is Simmons’ life is any of his business, and is even called out by some guests, like Willam Belli, who reminds us that Simmons is allowed to go away and owes people nothing of his life. To Taberski’s credit, and that of the countless guests he has on the show who knew, loved, and miss Simmons, he makes a compelling case for continuing the investigation. On paper, it makes sense: Why would someone of such public visibility simply cut everyone off with no explanation, and does that render the relationships lost from that choice valueless? It’s the stuff of detective novels, but it’s also an attempt to bring sense to a situation where there may not be any, and an explanation is not owed.

The explanation could also be very simple: Depression. Taberski talks about Simmons’ history of depression, as do others, yet it’s never accepted as the reason for his disappearance. Questions are raised as to whether it would be such a problem that it would lead to one totally shutting off from civilization, but those are dismissed by Taberski (as are rumours Simmons is transitioning genders). Depression is not a neat concept. Its rules are ever-changing, the goalposts moving daily, and its power all-consuming. If Simmons is depressed, why would that deserve an explanation, especially for someone who’s turned the mystery into an Agatha Christie adventure? Journalism comes with ethical guidelines for such matters, and covering them with the sensitivity they deserve, but Taberski is not a journalist, and Missing Richard Simmons is not Serial: It’s entertainment. Therein lies the issue.

The thing about conspiracies is that they’re pathetically easy to get sucked into. Hear enough theories and even the most logical being will start to ask questions, no matter how silly they are. Taberski is very smart on this front. He justifies possible explanations for Simmons’ disappearance away with the kind of sureness that most journalists would kill for: Simmons calls into The Today Show but we never see his face and isn’t that kind of suspicious? His social media is being updated regularly, but tweets are being recycled and the spelling doesn’t seem like Simmons’s so who’s really behind it?

These developments are teased as clues that will be discussed in later episodes, like minor cliffhangers, and I cannot deny the allure of such a structure. The show is clearly made by masters of the medium (including Jenna Weiss-Berman, who was referred to as “the Shonda Rhimes of podcasting” by a New York Times Magazine editor). It keeps me listening, even as the ad breaks for Audible puncture the illusion.

I’ve frequently advocated for ethical fandom, and for consciously making choices in your consumption of pop-culture that fit with your morals. I try not to force these on anyone else because it can be a tough road to navigate, but I’m also staunch in my opposition of that which I do not desire to endorse. I don’t watch Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movies, and I was very clear in my reasons for not supporting Casey Affleck’s Oscar win. These decisions are minute in the grand scheme of things, but the soft power I possess is something I wish to use wisely. There’s also a bigger problem here – what if the entertainment you’re enjoying is directly contributing to someone else’s pain? This is what makes my enjoyment of Missing Richard Simmons so complicated, to the point where it now feels dirty. I’ve endorsed this show, I’ve given it a glowing review, and you can find my words on a pretty graphic on their terminally upbeat Facebook page. What’s my responsibility here, and now much has my endorsement allowed them to continue doing this potentially invasive thing for my entertainment?

I doubt my influence is that wide reaching – at least if our page view numbers are anything to go by – but this podcast and its surrounding furor have left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a numb sort of guilt. Missing Richard Simmons has a lot of unanswered questions to deal with, particularly regarding its relationship between the subject and the journalist-slash-entertainer, and it’s forced me to further reassess my own relationship with pop culture as a fan. I’ll let other listeners make up their own minds on this matter, and I don’t blame anyone who sticks around for more from this admittedly fascinating show, but for now I think I just need to leave Richard Simmons alone.

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