Wednesday marked the first day of the annual Northside Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While it’s known for bringing an array of emerging musical talent to the area, the festival also offers an impressive lineup of panels and speakers featuring the creators of a variety of different types of media, including the latest trendy storytelling medium: the podcast.
At this point, if you haven’t heard of the podcast Missing Richard Simmons, you might be missing, like Richard Simmons. After the first episode was released on Feb. 15, the show, which follows host Dan Taberski’s quest to track down the beloved fitness icon, quickly became one of the most talked-about and downloaded podcasts, on par with smash hits like Serial and S Town. Many listeners, however, struggled with the ethics of Taberski digging into Simmons’s life without his subject’s involvement. Was Taberski really Simmons’s friend, or just looking to use his star power for his own gain? Did Simmons owe reassurances that he was okay to those who might be worried about him? More than a few major thinkpieces were penned on the topic.
On Wednesday, during a panel moderated by Charlotte Locke of WIRED, Taberski (best known for his work as the documentarian behind such films as Tattoo Fixation, Chris Gets Money and , which won the South by Southwest Documentary Short Award) attempted to set the record straight. Appearing with him were Lisa Leingang of First Look Media and Matt Linsky, an executive producer on Missing Richard Simmons and the co-founder of the podcasting company Pineapple Street Media. Taberski shared insights into what he found fascinating about Simmons and the process of making the show as real-time developments occurred and defended his work against the ethical questions many raised.
“I came to Richard Simmons because I wanted to make a documentary about him,” Taberski said. “I started taking his class in Los Angeles at his studio, Slimmons, in Beverly Hills. The first day I met him I asked him if he would do a documentary with me. That was after taking the class, and I was covered in sweat. He had already practically molested me. He said ‘No,’ but with sort of a wink, so I kept coming to class. We built a relationship, always with the idea that I wanted to tell his story. Cut to two years later, and he disappears. After about a year and half of him being missing I decided to tell the story anyways.”
The podcast form was a new medium for Taberski to explore. He described how the format enabled him to delve deeper into Simmons’s story than a short documentary would have, allowing him to incorporate his own voice and experiences into the narrative and his interviewees to feel more comfortable opening up.
“I think people were really interested in Richard Simmons. I think it was a legit mystery, not a fake mystery where you hope people don’t figure it out just by Googling the answer. There was really no answer, so I think people were intrigued by that.”
“With a podcast, it could become serialized, so you could rake up all those tension points and the weirdness and all the different sub-stories that there were to tell about Richard Simmons and break it up into different episodes that would clue you along,” he said. “Another huge thing was that it allowed me to be a character. There’s a lot of documentaries where the director is a character, and it’s really hard to pull off because it feels really self-indulgent for you to be talking about yourself. With a podcast, somebody needs to tell the story, so that allowed me to do that in a natural way without inserting myself too much into it. The third thing is that podcasting is obviously audio only, and it’s much more intimate. People were much quicker to talk to me, and they were much more relaxed and natural than when there’s a camera right in front of their face, especially with people some of which aren’t comfortable with their bodies and don’t want to be seen.”
Something that set Missing Richard Simmons apart from other podcasts was the fact that Taberski and his team had no idea what direction the story would head. While their ultimate goal was to get an interview with Simmons, throughout the podcast they were in an almost eerie one-way dialogue with a silent figure.
“I’ll start by saying that the most unusual thing was that there was no ending, and that was awesome to do because in 20 years in television and two years in film, nobody would ever let you tell a story where the ending wasn’t known yet. Even if it was a documentary and a murder mystery, they’re always going to say ‘Okay, we’re going to pretend that we don’t know what the answer is, but what’s the answer?’ Format-wise, what’s also unusual, especially with this one, was that the point was that I was not only going to be telling a story that didn’t have an ending, but that I was trying to illicit a certain ending. I was trying to find Richard Simmons. I was actually talking to somebody. There are points in the podcast where I would address him directly, which is super weird, but the format allows for experimentation like that.”
As for what led Missing Richard Simmons to attract such a rabid fan following, Taberski emphasized the genuine sense of mystery surrounding the narrative as well as the role of the media, both positive and negative.
“I think people were really interested in Richard Simmons,” he said. “I think it was a legit mystery, not a fake mystery where you hope people don’t figure it out just by Googling the answer. There was really no answer, so I think people were intrigued by that. I think we were lucky enough to also get a lot of nice attention, which was wonderful in the beginning. It was on the edge of storytelling. We were telling a story about somebody who wasn’t participating, and we were trying to elicit a response. I was clearly biased. I like Richard Simmons. I think he’s amazing, and I wanted people to know about it. Even that made some people feel uncomfortable. It started raising questions, which would’ve been one thing if I’d made a movie and put it out and then people gave it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.”
“I loved it. It is super flawed in a lot of places, but in some places it’s really wonderful. I love it so much because it’s something that happened to me. If I listen to it now, it doesn’t sound like work I did. It sounds like a memory.”
While Taberski admits that Missing Richard Simmons was far from perfect given the quick turn-around required for the final three episodes, he is satisfied with the project as a whole and relieved that Simmons, although he did not emerge from his reclusive lifestyle, appears to be well.
“I loved it,” he said. “It is super flawed in a lot of places, but in some places it’s really wonderful. I love it so much because it’s something that happened to me. If I listen to it now, it doesn’t sound like work I did. It sounds like a memory. It’s something that happened to me, and I’m happy that Richard Simmons didn’t come out with the fucking New Orleans parade saying, ‘You did it Taberski. I’m great. I’m coming back!’ But I believe that he’s okay now. The decisions he made are questionable. I don’t think the story is over, but I’m content that he’s okay.”