The Moral Panic Around ‘Missing Richard Simmons’
Over the last six weeks, Missing Richard Simmons has become the biggest podcast in the world—a Serial without the murder and, even better, without the too-charming potential murderer.
And because it has reached a certain level of popularity, it is also the thing you must feel bad about enjoying, since every compelling piece of media must now be a secretly disturbing look into your vengeful and malicious soul.
Yes, you. You’ll like this podcast about an extremely public figure who is the focus of a kid-gloves, Blues Clues-caliber investigation, and very fancy publications are here to chastise you for it.
“No one has a problem with the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, and that’s a problem,” a headline blared in The Week last week.
But it’s hard not to look at all of this canned backlash and think, not even Richard Simmons was this performative.
Missing tries to find out what happened to Simmons, the ’80s exercise-tape impresario, after he disappeared suddenly from the public eye four years ago.
This isn’t a J.D. Salinger situation. He hasn’t built a bridge and moat to his wooded birdhouse-slash-mansion in the forest and shooed away trespassers with rocks and sticks.
When podcast host Dan Taberski says Simmons disappeared overnight, he means it. He left the public eye with the suddenness of a car accident.
Taberski was a student of Simmons’s West Hollywood exercise class, where a clientele composed mostly of women and gay men threw a couple of bucks in a tip jar to lose weight to Rihanna with Simmons every week. Then, one week, he didn’t show up anymore. A sign at the exercise studio said that Simmons was having knee surgery and he’d be back next month.
Then the next month. Then the next month.
Simmons never returned. In fact, after he no-showed that dance class four years ago, he stopped talking to everyone in his life entirely. That includes the sometimes depressed class attendees that he often counseled on the phone and in person through rough times. No contact with anyone, ever again, and no reason was ever given. To anyone.
It is, in a very literal sense, a true mystery, about an extremely public figure.
Still, the Times was quick to tsk-tsk it in its culture section.
“It’s not quite a public shaming; Mr. Taberski is careful to express respect for Mr. Simmons. Call it a public hounding,” Amanda Hess wrote last week.
And then the kicker: “A friend who claims to want to help Mr. Simmons should probably just leave him alone.”
Ah, yes. That old journalistic mantra: You should probably just leave that shady situation—the one that goes unsolved even after months of interstate investigation—entirely alone.
Pardon the spoiler, but Missing Richard Simmons is a dead show now, and that’s how it ends. Nobody really knows what’s up in Simmons’s Hollywood home, why he’s gone dark, and why it happened so quickly. The last episode was a mystery in itself, plopped online Monday morning, four days early, and with substantial bits that were teased in the previous episode cut out.
The podcast itself, in hindsight, is lacking. Taberski trots out a weird couple of sentences that appear to be carefully, and maybe legally, constructed to disavow previous accusations about a housekeeper wrongly accused of entrapping Simmons in an elder-abuse fiasco.
But that allegation had already been famously reported in TMZ in 2015 and was never too publicly shouted down. In fact, that’s where I stood on Richard Simmons’s whereabouts: I thought he was somehow tied up in a Hollywood mansion signing off on bad wills left and right to unscrupulous people. That was until Missing Richard Simmons showed up and enlightened me into a hapless confusion.
I now know it’s complicated, and not necessarily nefarious.
Still, by now, the think-piece claws were out. This was the icky, problematic, supposedly fun podcast we’ll never listen to again.
At some point, however, in chase of clicks and the woke-est possible thought, writers should take a step back and wonder if their impeccably pure critical-thinking skills may have forced themselves to align with some tricky figures and ideologies.
After more than 1,100 days without hearing anything from Simmons about his disappearance, Simmons’s rep Michael Catalano referred to the podcast as President Donald Trump’s favorite expression, “fake news,” in an interview with Entertainment Tonight on Monday.
We now know what that phrase, “fake news,” usually means when spouted by defensive spokespeople: There’s something more there. Maybe somebody should dig into it?
And responding to some of the articles condemning the podcast in an interview with Nightline, Taberski was asked to defend his deep-dive into his former teacher. One question asked if he believed he was conducting a “witch hunt.”
Those lightning quick to condemn anything popular, if imperfect, in search of a rocketship to moral high ground now face an icky problem of their own: The witch hunt, it turns out, is within them.