As an avid David Letterman fan, I tried to tune in to his The Late Show as often as possible, but I always tried extra hard when I saw certain celebrities on his guest list. Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, and Will Smith were among some of my favorites. Dave had a great rapport with them, and, despite Dave’s closed-off nature outside of the show, those guys seemed especially friendly with him. Of course, some celebrities had the same effect on America at large. If certain guests were on, you knew that night would be a can’t-miss episode, totally worth watching.
Richard Simmons was one such guest. His flamboyant advocacy for fitness and self-esteem was the stark contrast to Dave’s cigar-smoking self-depreciation. Even after Letterman’s heart surgery, when the quick puff o’ the cigar became a thing of the past, Dave retained the sardonic outlook on life that established his success, and Richard Simmons was his absolute Bizarro. Dave wore gray suits; Richard wore bird suits. Dave was a grumbler; Richard, a screamer. Since opposites attract, Simmons’ appearances on The Late Show are some of the most memorable of its decades-long run.
I knew of Richard Simmons’ recent, uncharacteristic reclusiveness through TMZ. The guy’s been off the radar for three years. I reveled a bit in the Hollywood mystique of the story but figured that today’s 24/7 news cycle would eventually recover the truth. This year’s success of the podcast Missing Richard Simmons is an odd reconciliation of those phenomena, answering questions while posing new ones. Perhaps Simmons isn’t the victim of black magic or obesity but simply wishes to retire, yet if he isn’t in any danger, is it really our business?
I listened to the entirety of Missing Richard Simmons, a six-episode podcast produced and hosted by Dan Taberski, a documentarian and former producer for The Daily Show. Since I just confessed to enjoying TMZ, you’d think I enjoyed MRS, too. Yes, it is, in part, celebrity tabloid, shrouded in a concern for Simmons’ welfare. Yet, by the end of the series, I felt the same way this Uproxx writer did. The podcast was certainly entertaining, but I think the host missed his genre. He shouldn’t have been shooting for the introspective documentarian vibe. He should’ve been exploring an unsolved mystery.
When I was a kid, I loved reading about Bigfoot. And the Loch Ness monster. UFOs. In the ’80s, before everybody had a camera in their pocket, the idea of the unknown was a genre in itself. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries, or alien autopsy specials hosted by the likes of Jonathan Frakes, were believable because, well, how could we know otherwise? Today, we’re way more Scully than Mulder. With phones and news media everywhere, surely someone would’ve caught a Sasquatch by now. The supernatural genre has given way to reality TV, and I think Missing Richard Simmons comes close to filling that void — close, but, like Dave, no cigar.
If you listen to MRS, you’ll hear the host repeatedly ask, “Where is Richard Simmons?” The answer (his house) is discovered pretty quickly, but with unsubstantiated rumors about black magic or sudden obesity, the mystery is less where and more why. That’s where the true eeriness comes in — and, frankly, that’s why Richard has endured for so long. Why was he so giddy all the time? Now, why has that changed on a dime? Taberski could’ve played up the urban myth angle so much more, or at least picked up where Letterman left off. Sarcastic speculation and frank cynicism would’ve been much more forgiving. By leaving us with unanswered questions by way of displaced sympathy, he does the very opposite of what a good host should do.
In a podcast interview with the comedic Sklar Brothers some years back, Simmons talks about his Letterman experiences. He says Dave was tough on him, and often left him in tears, but he also says that Dave always paused to make sure Richard could share his message. Once, after an appearance on The Late Show, thousands of viewers wrote their Congresspeople about getting physical education back in schools. Comedy with a purpose is always can’t-miss television. Sometimes that purpose is mocking society, per Letterman. Sometimes it’s trying to make society better, per Richard Simmons. The secret isn’t talking about what’s missing. It’s offering something worth finding.
To be continued …!