Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
In March, The New York Daily News shocked a lot of people with an article called “The Haunted Twilight Of Richard Simmons” that delved into a juicy, perplexing mystery. What, exactly, happened to Richard Simmons? Why had the brash and camera-loving pop icon disappeared from public sight for two years? Was he being held captive by a housekeeper with an almost supernatural hold over his emotions and his life? What could have driven this intensely public figure into hiding?
The article made it seem like Simmons was the Norma Desmond of the exercise world, a diva in the twilight of his years who had receded into a private, haunted world of his own macabre design after the outside world began to seem too cruel. I wasn’t surprised by the article because I am never surprised to discover that the lives of the massively rich and famous are sad and lonely, but I was saddened by it. Simmons consequently popped up to assure the public that he was not being imprisoned by his household help, and that he was doing just fine, but his assertions didn’t seem terribly convincing.
I suspect that the article will be particularly depressing to listeners of Sklarbro Country and Sklarbro County. The Sklar Brothers had the curious good fortune to once share a flight with Simmons (and, adding to the surreality, Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA as well as Laura Dern and her actress mother Diane Ladd) that the brothers were able to mine for material for their standup act, as well as material for the podcast.
Even more impressively, the Sklar Brothers were able to leverage their crazy flight with Richard Simmons into a Richard Simmons appearance on Sklarbro Country that offers a fascinating look into the over-active mind and constantly moving body of one of pop culture’s true characters that stands in sharp contrast to the joyless, essentially imprisoned figure depicted in the New York Daily News article, even as hints of darkness litter the interview.
Indeed, the Richard Simmons who showed up to record Sklarbro Country is a raging comet of out of control, joyous energy. He clearly loves being Richard Simmons, and all the things that come along with it (like the attention of everyone you encounter, famous or otherwise) and is intent on playing that role to the hilt.
Simmons is so overflowing with the kind of energy generally only seen in people addicted to crystal meth that at times he’s downright sub-verbal. Simmons ebullient presence implicitly asks, “Why bother talking and conversing like a normal person familiar with social mores when you can scream, trill, sing, croon, joke and overwhelm the recording with the battering-ram impact of your personality?”
In the giddy build-up to Simmons’ appearance the brothers acknowledge that Simmons is such a force of nature that he alters the molecular structure of every room he enters. The Richard Simmonsness of his existence is so intense and so crazy that it inevitably becomes a dominant force, even in a scenario like the one on the plane that first brought Simmons and the Sklars together, which involved an identical twin comedian team so loopy from having just performed that they were liable to wonder if they were merely hallucinating the whole experience, two generations of heavyweight American thespians (both of whom have worked with David Lynch) and one of hip hop’s true sonic mad scientists.
So it’s not surprising that the brothers essentially threw out the traditional format of the show and eschewed funny/crazy current sports stories in the news for an hour long jaunt through the crazy funhouse that is Richard Simmons’ brain. Simmons seems incapable on focussing on anything for longer than a few seconds, but the Sklars reach him on a level he understands – the level of schmaltz, sentimentality, maudlin emotional manipulation – when they talk to him about the many similarities between the eternally child-like Simmons and the Sklars’ late father. It’s a connection that clearly means a lot to the Sklars, but it’s also fun to think of Richard Simmons as some crazy bizarro world version of their late, dearly lamented patriarch, who similarly had a genius for bringing people together and turning any boring experience into a memorable event.
There are dogs on cocaine who are able to focus more than Simmons on this podcast, but it isn’t long until melancholy begins to seep in. There’s a distinct bipolar quality to Simmons’ energy here. There’s that intense manic energy that makes the world seem almost unimaginably exciting and fun coupled with hard crashes that replace the electric excitement of the good times with an all-consuming blackness.
Simmons talks about being fundamentally quiet and shy around famous people, which seems at once insanely counter-intuitive (he’s Richard Simmons! He’s the loudest, brashest guy ever!) and perfectly understandable, as I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to grow up a fat gay kid. So both sides of Simmons appear here, the gleeful bon vivant and the deeply sad, troubled man with a lifetime of psychological scars that recede with time but never completely disappear.
Simmons has obviously told these stories a million times but they’re still fascinating. Simmons emerges as something of a Zelig/Forrest Gump figure, the kind of guy who somehow ends up being a fixture on General Hospital despite not being an actor. Simmons is so overwhelmed by his own journey that he’s clearly on the verge of tears talking about the letters he’s received from the overweight, suffering and yearning.
It’s The Richard Simmons Show all the way, as Simmons offers common-sense mantras for taking care of yourself like, “Love yourself, move your body, watch your portions.” Simmons leaves a strong impression everywhere he goes, and in this unforgettable hour plus of personality overload, he brings that out of control charisma to the comedy podcasting world.
The Sklar Brothers have a Howl mini-series called Finding The Funny but when fate engineered to put them and Richard Simmons (and RZA, and Laura Dern, and Diane Ladd) on the same magical flight, the funny found them, but given the sad nature of Simmons’ current condition, it’s less funny than achingly bittersweet.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.