It’s a simple question that comes with a complex answer: Is Richard Simmons okay? Three years ago, the fitness guru abruptly cut off contact with all of his friends and family. On a Serial-esque new podcast, Missing Richard Simmons, filmmaker and former Daily Show producer Dan Taberski explores why Simmons ghosted his old life.
This is a pretty unique idea for a podcast. What inspired you to tell this story?
I first met Richard because I heard he was teaching a class in Beverly Hills for $12 and I couldn’t believe it. I went and it was incredible. He’s telling stories and he’s wearing weird outfits. The music is incredible, and sometimes it was music he would write himself. Sometimes he would read a poem. It was insane. Richard had this studio for 40 years and it was like his own Cabaret, and he knew that he would go three times a week to this place and he could perform for the people who loved him. And he did, and it was wonderful.
I wanted to make a documentary about that. And that’s how Richard and I got to know each other. We started talking about it and we became friends and started hanging out a little bit, and then he disappeared. I realized he wasn’t calling anybody, and to be honest, I just couldn’t let it go. I wanted to know he was okay so I started pursuing it.
The show will last only six episodes. What can listeners expect to hear?
This story takes a lot of twists and turns. This isn’t a podcast about a celebrity and the fans who love him. This is about Richard Simmons the man and all these people who he made intense personal relationships with. I don’t talk to any fans [on the podcast], I just talk to friends and they’re very protective of him. … At the same time, we sort of peel away the layers of the interesting, complicated guy he is and remind people about how important he is and how he changed things.
Listeners have started to compare the show to Serial. How does that feel?
It’s bananas. Just the fact that people are listening to it and are into it, it makes me feel like I’m not crazy. The fact that people are comparing it to Serial is terrifying and super exciting. It puts more pressure on the ending because I will say this, we don’t have an ending yet.
The podcast now ranks at the top of the iTunes charts. However, there have been skeptics who think Richard should just be left alone. How do you respond to the criticism?
I would say that Richard Simmons used to wake up at four in the morning and call 30, 40, 50 people a day — people who lived in the middle of nowhere, who were alone and needed kindness — and he would help them. He did that for 40 years and most people didn’t even know he was doing it. So I see this [podcast] as our chance to repay that favor and to show somebody like Richard a little bit of empathy now. And [for] me and all the people who have participated in this podcast, we are just happy to have the chance to do that for him.
(Editor’s Note: Since 2014, Simmons’ withdrawal from the public eye has sparked a number of rumors ranging from a hostage situation to him transitioning into a woman. He has denied all the claims. In June, his rep said: “[Richard] has decided to live quietly the last few years. He had knee surgery a few years ago and has a bum knee. He is still on Twitter and Facebook and works behind the scenes continuing to inspire and motivate people to lose weight. When he decides to come back, he will come back.”)
Have you heard from him?
What I will say is that there has been some stirring. People are taking notice.
If you could talk to Richard now, what would you say?
Here’s the thing about Richard Simmons. When you talk to Richard Simmons, you don’t control the conversation. Richard controls the conversation. He’s a force of nature. And if he weren’t that, I would be shocked. I’m sure the conversation would be not what I expected, hard to keep up with, and hit every possible topic. I would just want to know that he’s okay and to understand a little bit about why he decided to do this.
You’ve been working on this project for nearly 16 months. During this time, what have you learned from the experience?
I think spending so much time thinking about Richard and talking to all the people he helped, I think it’s just made me really understand how powerful sincerity and kindness are. Just to see the power of how taking people seriously and showing just simple kindness, how powerful and important and difficult that has been, it’s been pretty intense. Hopefully if I can learn to just have a modicum of that kindness for other people than I’ll be in good shape.
How do you envision this podcast ending?
I want this to be a gesture to Richard, to tell his story and to let him know that he’s maybe a little more understood than he thinks. Once that’s done, regardless of whether or not [he] decides to talk to us, I think I will have achieved my goal. That’s its purpose, to reach out to him. This is our grand gesture. It’s complicated, but it’s a bit of a love letter.
Missing Richard Simmons is on iTunes, Stitcher, and anywhere podcasts are available. New episodes are released every Wednesday during the show’s run.