Unlike many of my esteemed radio producer colleagues, I really like the six part podcast series Missing Richard Simmons by Dan Taberski.
Yes, of course I feel uncomfortable that Taberski stalks the flamboyantly self promoting, short shorted fitness guru, who–after decades of sunning himself in dazzling celebritydom–mysteriously retreats from the public eye without explanation, to the great consternation of his fans.
But ethics is not the podcast’s major problem. Its length is. The last few episodes could’ve been condensed into one or two in my view, because the so called investigation into his disappearance (which is really rampant speculation) doesn’t advance the story, nor do we feel any more empathy for the characters, including Taberski.
In fact, the podcast is fairly thin on content after the first episode, and had it been a simple one hour offering, perhaps listeners may not have been so disturbed by Taberski’s protracted stalking of Simmons in the guise of trying to get to the ‘truth’ of Simmons’ disappearance from public view.
Despite this, the initial episodes are very engaging. They explain how Simmons actively befriends just about everyone he meets including Taberski, phones many personally to help them through their weight loss journeys (Simmons was obese as a child and suffered as a result). He cries, he emotes, he over-shares. Simmons is intimate with the members of his exercise class in a way I can’t imagine Michelle Bridges ever being. Simmons purposefully insinuates himself into people’s lives.
That’s why I understand why Taberski, who had visited Simmons in his home, feels like he is a ‘friend’, and how puzzled he is when the consummate attention seeker suddenly becomes a recluse. Simmons is not just any celebrity. The man even personally greets busloads of gawking tourists who come to his home. He does more than project a friendly image. He is his image. And that’s why I think Missing Richard Simmons is an insightful commentary on what it means to be a public figure today.
The general agreement is that the private/public divide remains intact as long as celebrities stay within the confines of their own created projections, do not stray out of the limelight of their own reflected glory. But Simmons clearly broke this rule by trying to be ‘real’ with people he met. Even professional in-your-facer Kim Kardishian, despite exposing more of herself than we fear to see, doesn’t do ‘real’. Well, maybe there is just no ‘real Kim’ left, but then, I don’t care.
But Taberski makes me care about Simmons. Because it seems obvious to me that he cares about Simmons.
And while this fossicking around in the trail left by someone’s life raises similar ethical questions to those raised by the more substantial and engagingly complex podcast series S-Town, the big difference is that Missing Richard Simmons is NOT journalism. S-Town and its sibling Serial follow journalistic conventions, while Missing is a procession of Taberski’s obsessional thought bubbles in podcast form. Not everything we encounter in the public realm has equal value. So if you just take this podcast at face value – that it’s just Taberski’s ruminations – what’s the harm?
If you’ve never taken a selfie or posted something private on social media, then yeah, by all means, be self righteous, appropriate the higher ethical ground. But today, most of us constantly blur the boundaries between private and public. And we consume ‘reality TV’ as if it were real, while rejecting news and reportage as if it were fake.
Missing is a podcast that illuminates and questions this 21st century phenomenon. And that should make us all uncomfortable…
Here are a few reviews of Missing Richard Simmons:
Postscript: Richard Simmons issues statement on April 20, 2017 that he’s not missing. But Dan Taberski probably still misses him….