(Podcast art for Missing Richard Simmons)
Have you heard about the new podcast Missing Richard Simmons? I listened to the first three installments this morning and am hooked. Not since the first season of Serial have I been so sucked into a podcast, glued to my iTunes the way I imagine Americans would gather around a shined-up wooden radio cabinet in the 1930s to listen to Our Gal Sunday or Amos ‘n’ Andy (without the latter’s controversial racism).
Well, it’s not that Missing is without some controversy of its own, though. Writing for Vulture, Nicholas Quah praises it, but hits hard at the potential ethical conundrum that is at the very core of the show:
Let’s get this out of the way: Missing Richard Simmons is the best thing I’ve listened to in a long time and is, by far, the strongest narrative podcast out there right now.
There is a ton to love about this show. It’s lusciously produced, weaving together interviews, narration, and time and place with such verve that it makes each episode a joy to consume. It features a fascinating mystery centered around a compelling figure — Simmons, the fitness guru once synonymous with the ’80s who now exists as something of a cultural knickknack — that the show fleshes out as a near-saintly individual who, at the same time, remains eminently unknowable. And perhaps most intriguingly, it’s also refreshingly earnest; the show carries itself with an intense sweetness, an optimism so bright it shines with burning heat.
Despite everything that I adore about this show, and all that praise I just offered, it’s near impossible to look past the fundamental moral quandary that looms over its production and, really, existence: What right does a documentarian, or even a friend, have to waive a person’s right to himself?
Missing Richard Simmons follows documentarian (and former Daily Show producer) Dan Taberski as he tracks down and tries to understand what happened to Simmons, who, after decades of tireless friendship and generosity — through his exercise studio, personal classes, and overall persona — suddenly and inexplicably withdrew from the world. A big component of that process involves explaining Simmons, which Taberski does by way of situating the man both within the lives of the people that he’s brought into his world and within the culture at large.
It’s part private-eye tale and part biography, with the added twist of being structured as if it is some sort of narrative high-wire act: according to interviews with the producers, the “real ending” of the story is still up in the air, meaning it remains to be seen whether they actually get Simmons to talk to them, and whether the project ultimately ends up being consensual.
As much as I’m fascinated by Missing, I repeatedly asked myself if Taberski was wrong to have made it. Simmons isn’t dead, and what right do any of us have to speak, speculate and fixate on his absence from public life?
I don’t totally know. But if you’d like to listen to the first episode, here you go:
Richard Simmon’s sudden and unexpected change to private recluse made me think of a couple verses from Job, chapter 14: “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil. Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” After we’re gone, what will be our legacy? What will remain?