TV Critic Ray Richmond

I speak by phone 12/23/02 with longtime entertainment journalist and Hollywood Reporter TV columnist Ray Richmond (born 10/19/57) of Hollywood Pulse.

Ray: "My mother Terri Richmond was once a leading manufacturer (Product Promotions) of sex aids and toiletries. She created these lubricants and lotions called Joy Jel and Emotion Lotion. She helped invent the sex aids business in the late sixties, based out of LA. When I was a little kid, I was packaging dildos. I have a script in me about this at some point.

"My mother claims to be the first person to give fruit scents and flavors to lubricants. She made a killing as a manufacturer of things like Hap-Penis and Joy Jel. She's now an 81-year old Jewish mother living in Studio City. You would never know. She sold her business in 1999 to a couple of people working for her. They have a factory off Alvarado in East LA.

"As a kid, I would fill jars of Joy Jel and bottles of Emotion Lotion. When I'd ask my Mom what they were for, even though I knew full well at age seven, she would say, 'For chapped lips. Do this.' And she would demonstrate just how well this petroleum jelly would help chapped lips.

"It wasn't pornography, per se, but there were always these sexually suggestive novelties hanging around. It was the ultimate sexual candy store for a little kid growing up."

Luke: "How did it affect you?"

Ray: "I'm a drooling pervert at this point. How it affected me initially is that I went completely in the other direction and was this horrible prude for the longest time because I couldn't handle the idea that my mother was doing this. It wasn't like she was a prostitute but it was very disturbing.

"To the question, 'What do your parents do for a living?' Well, my father was unemployed and my mother made sex better for the world. I asked her at age ten what I should tell people. Mom told me to tell people she was in the mail-order business, which was technically true. She mailed out these things to distributors and wholesalers."

Luke: "Did you use your Mom's products?"

Ray: "My fellow scribes are going to be reading this... I have used the products on occasion but sparingly because it is like taking my mother into the bedroom with me."

Luke: "You find that unerotic?"

Ray: "Yes. I've had mates say, 'I'm sorry, I can't handle this. It's like your mother is in the bedroom with us.' My wife is fine with it but there were sex partners in my past who were uneasy with it."

Luke: "Were they good quality products?"

Ray: "Absolutely. Just like momma used to make. If one's mother gives a stamp of approval, whether one wants to think of that in a sexual context or not, yes, they were of good quality."

Luke: "Did she give out free samples when guests came to the house?"

Ray: "No. But I do remember staying at a friend's house for a week when I was eleven when my mother went on vacation. As a gift, my mother had given them a four-pack of Joy Jel that I handed over innocently and naively. It was a bit uncomfortable for my friend's parents.

"I grew up all over the place, in and around Hollywood primarily. I went to Hollywood High School."

Luke: "Did your parents have a good marriage?"

Ray: "My parents divorced when I was six months old. I was shuttled between many places. I had a strange childhood. Neither of my parents remarried. Each realized, 'God, I wouldn't want to try that again.' I was put in an orphanage for a couple of years from age seven to nine because neither of my parents could take care of me. Then my mother started building her sex empire and I returned to live with her. You could say I grew up with 'abandonment issues.' I make light of it now, but yeah, it was pretty sh----.

"I have some horror stories. You had to eat what they made you eat. I loathe potato salad to this day because they made me eat potato salad. I hated the consistency. They made me sit at the table until I finished. Then I vomited it up all over myself. The other boys would beat up and humiliate the more defenseless kids like myself and then they'd threaten to kill us if we told the house mother. It was a charming place to be with all these kids with all these anger issues who'd been abandoned by their parents.

"I don't have great anger anymore. I just work out regularly.

"To this day, there are some of those kids who, if I ran into them, I would beat the shit out of. I would just attack them. I've never seen them but I do occasionally check the phonebook. I remember the full names of about half a dozen of them. Again, I understand that their hostility was well-founded. I understand they had their own issues and they took it out in the wrong way.

"I have two siblings, both older -- a brother, Len, 59 (from my mother's first marriage, different father) and a sister, Romi, 49. (I'm 45.) My sister is a homemaker in Seattle with two kids. Husband is a lawyer. My brother is a screenwriter/journalist who lives in Santa Monica. He did most of his more renowned writing while living in England in the 1980s.

"My childen are a son, Joshua, age 16 (turning 17 on Jan. 31). He's a high school senior. I also have a 14-year-old daughter, Gabi, and a 6-year-old son, Dylan. My wife, Heidi, is a stay-at-home mom. I'm a stay-at-home freelance writer.

"Even after my parents divorced, my father would continue to live in the house. The only way my mother could get rid of my father was to get rid of us first. After she put us in the orphanage, and he moved out, she realized, 'Hmm, this is pretty good. Fulltime childcare. I think I'll start working now.' Orphanage was like 24-hour childcare. I'm sure it had permanent negative consequences on my personality but I've adopted (Ray goes into his therapeutic voice) a heavy sense of humor to cover up whatever hurt and pain I continue to harbor.

"Yeah, I drank a little too much booze at one point in my life. Things like that. I haven't taken a drink in two years. I was starting to like it a bit too much. And I didn't like some of the feelings I had when I woke up in the morning. I miss it sometimes."

An aspiring jock in high school, Richmond developed an interest in journalism. "I wasn't good enough to be an athlete so I wanted to be a sportswriter so I could write about it. Once I got out of college, there was an opening at the Los Angeles Daily News in the features department. I worked there from 1978-85 (I wrote features and in my last year was a TV critic, then had a second go-round from 1992-96).

"I graduated from Cal State Northridge with a degree in journalism in 1980.

"I met Cathy Seipp at the Daily News. She wrote a column called Hot Tips. She was a breath of fresh air. I thought, Wow, she's as cynical and nasty as I am in her writing. I was impressed. We've had a mutual admiration thing the past 20 years.

"She's completely fearless as a journalist. When you meet her, you expect to get something different - this old cynical cigar-chomping bitch and she's completely not that way at all. She's very feminine in her way and gentle and dainty. It's like this whole other creature comes out in her writing.

"She has journalistic integrity. She knows that if you get too cozy with someone so that you can't write something negative about them when it is true, then you shouldn't be a journalist.

"I remember one time when I wrote a radio column in the Los Angeles Daily News. I said something nice about KIIS-FM in 1983 and the general manager Wally Clark sent me a case of Dom Perignon champagne. I'm in my early twenties, and suddenly this $800 gift arrives on my doorstep. I had to accept it but I felt so guilty I gave every bottle away and took to writing nasty things about them as often as possible to prove that I wasn't bought."

Luke: "How would you gauge the reactions to Cathy's columns among your media friends?"

Ray: "There's a mix of awe and confusion and hostility in equal measure. I don't know that many people now who read her UPI column. I'm on her email list. It's a shame that column doesn't go out to more people. UPI has been dying for 25 years. She gets paid so little compared to how good she is. She's the smartest and snappiest column-writer I've ever met. I've never met anybody whose prose so perfectly matches their conversational ability. She'd rather make less money and write the way she wants, even though she's a home-owner and mother."

Luke: "She turns out a lot of copy?"

Ray: "Yeah. She'll tell you too that it is never easy. It's not like she just whacks it out. She still feels it's like pulling teeth."

Luke: "Are there types of journalists who react to her differently?"

Ray: "The people who are hostile to her work have either been the recipient of her poison pen or they are uncomfortable with her brutal honesty. There are a lot of people in journalism who like to tiptoe around the minefields. She doesn't tiptoe. She stomps. She doesn't carry on a double-life. I respect someone who is the same way to your face as they are in print."

Luke: "What distinguishes her from the typical mealy-mouthed media criticism?"

Ray: "She isn't afraid to say what she feels in her head. She doesn't have a self-censor button. She takes pride in ruffling feathers. I have more fears in my writing than she does. I know that I sometimes tread carefully. Cathy says what is in her heart and then lets the chips fall where they may."

Luke: "Do you think this has come back to hurt her career?"

Ray: "I'm sure it has hurt her. I'm sure she can't get hired to do much at the LA Times because of that. I think there's something so wonderful about being able to speak your mind even if you are laying in the gutter with a bottle of Ripple because no one will hire you anymore but you know did the job as honestly as you could. That would be a career well-served and a life well-lived. There are few persons like her who will be able to look back and say, I followed what was in my heart and in my head.

"There are few people who I think are my equal in being able to write and she's unfortunately much better than me. I aspire to be as good as Cathy."

Luke: "Normally the way to play the game is to kowtow to those who can help you."

Ray: "Yes, and shift over to writing scripts. Entertainment writers are humping the leg of people they talk to."

Luke: "Doesn't (New York Times correspondent) Bernie Weinraub have scripts floating around? Peter Bart."

Ray: "Bill Carter at the New York Times. He wrote The Late Shift on HBO and Monday Night Mayhem on TNT. And he's the chief TV reporter for the NY Times writing about the institutions he has written movies for. It's mind-boggling.

"There are no sacred cows for Cathy. If she did have sacred cows, she couldn't be nearly as free and lively as she is. I have had sacred cows. I'm not proud of that. There have been forces I have kowtowed to. I have a column called "The Pulse" in the Hollywood Reporter every Tuesday. I was able to trash the sh-- out of Jennifer Lopez three weeks ago. I wrote what a media whore she was, what a marketing-created nothing she was. It was a trade saying she was a phoney, a Julia Roberts wannabe. I just thought, goddamn that's good. Cathy has those victories regularly.

Luke: "You have different constraints. You write for a trade. You're in-house."

Ray: "If there's anything you can do to not toe the company line of Hollywood promotion, you're a success. I throw the bodies around when I'm writing reviews. You're supposed to use kid gloves because the people who did the thing are reading it.

"Cathy likes me because I'm semi-fearless. She would've been like [gossip columnists] Dorothy Kilgallen of 50 years ago. Cathy's got this way about her that you want to tell her things."

Luke: "After the Daily News?"

Ray: "In 1985, I went to work on the Merv Griffin Show for ten months as a talent coordinator and segment producer. Those are fancy terms for being an in-house PR guy for Merv. I'd interview the guests in advance and write up vignettes about them and sample questions and answers and show them to Merv in meetings before the show to make sure there was absolutely no spontaneity whatsoever.

"I ended up with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner toward the end of Jim Bellows' tenure as editor in 1986. For 18-months, I wrote on television. In October of 1987, I moved to the Orange County Register as a TV critic for five years. After a four-year stint with the Daily News, I went to work at Variety (1997-99) as a cable and local TV reporter. I was clearly out of my element. I wasn't good at it. You have to care about the people you're covering to thrive on a beat like that and I didn't care enough. I wanted to be the people I was writing about."

Luke: "Don't most entertainment journalists want that?"

Ray: "Probably. I left Variety in 1998 to write a book about Andy Kaufman with his right-hand man Bob Zmuda. Bob ended up being a total jerk though I'm barred by our agreement from talking about the settlement I got."

From Publisher's Weekly, this review of Zmuda's book, Andy Kaufman Revealed: Best Friend Tells All: " Andy Kaufman got the friend he deserved in his lifetime, but this is not the biography he deserves; it is written in a well-meaning though hackneyed and hard-to-digest style. Simple points are made again and again, as if the two(!) authors were attempting to fuse a poorly-written college essay with a USA Today article. And Mr. Zmuda makes the mistake of assuming that his own history will be of much interest to the reader, who is ostensibly reading a tell-all about Kaufman, not his best friend. There are tremendous anecdotes here; about half the book is filled with glorious tales of artful mischief, hijinks, pranks, and funny stuff that Zmuda and Kaufman pulled on friends, crowds, and strangers. Fans will undoubtedly want to pick this one up, while those with a more casual interest are cautioned to perhaps look elsewhere for a less clumsily written tome."

Ray: "I feel like it's my job as a TV critic at a trade to really sing someone's praises if they're good to make sure they continue to get hired and colorfully point out deficiencies if they're not very good to make sure they don't have an opportunity to keep making bad television. But I honestly don't think that TV critics influence things as much as film critics. You have to make a night of it to go see a film. If you're a parent, you have to hire a babysitter, have dinner, and plunk down $20. TV is a two-second investment. You click the remote. TV is the package of gum at the check-out line.

"I still take the job seriously. It's not fair to the people who make television to have a burned-out critic who hates television."

Luke: "You're talking about Howard Rosenberg of the LA Times."

Ray: "I think Howard's done some great stuff."

Luke: "A long time ago."

Ray: "Maybe. I'm not a regular reader of his."

Luke: "What are the common obstacles to doing good entertainment journalism?"

Ray: "Treading carefully to make sure you continue to have access. There's always a great dance you have to do between telling the truth and keeping your access. You can get blackballed easily if you are perceived as a hostile witness."

Luke: "Have you seen people effectively blackballed?"

Ray: "Not specifically. I think the LA Times has done that to Cathy Seipp. Anyone who worked at the New Times LA doesn't stand a chance of setting foot in the LA Times after all the things that [New Times editor] Rick Barrs did.

"In November of 1992, Roseanne's then-husband had a TV show called "The Jackie Thomas Show." There were some negative reviews of the show. Roseanne sent faxes to three different TV critics - Howard Rosenberg, Matt Roush (USA Today) and me. I had five people carrying the fax to my desk at the LA Daily News. She made fun of me and finished it with "You're a f---head." I didn't think anything of it. Suddenly, I got a call from the LA Times about it. I learned Roseanne had questioned the sexual orientation of Howard and Matt and had called them "faggot." She didn't question my sexual orientation.

"The LA Times interviewed me about it. The piece runs and that morning I come to work and there are messages from Entertainment Tonight, CNN, Newsweek, US News. I had ten messages. I was on the interview circuit. 'How does it feel to get dissed by Roseanne?' I'm thinking, is this what I'm going to get famous for? The guy who got dissed by Roseanne?

"I was asked, 'Are you going to write better about her now?' Yes, please say that I am officially intimidated and I will only write wonderful things about Roseanne and her husband and any relative or friend of her. Sometimes the sarcasm got lost. Camera crews are coming in and out of the Daily News to interview me.

"I sent Roseanne flowers thanking her for putting me on the map. She then sends two thank-you cards back, saying, 'Thanks for the flowers but you are still a f---head.' So that starts a whole new round of publicity. It was frightening to see the whole media machine in action.

"This is around the time I met my wife and I'm getting all these phone calls at my house from CNN and Larry King Live. She was convinced that I was famous.

"When Roseanne sent the notes back, I thought she was in on the joke. She understands we're just playing. I ran into a couple of years later in Las Vegas. I walked up to her and asked her for a quote. She said, 'No, I'm not going to talk to you. You're a f---head.' I was disappointed because I thought she was being cool about it. It turns out that she's nuts.

"I get surprisingly little hate mail compared to some of the nasty things I've written. When it's in print, people tend to think it has the ring of truth and they are not apt to question it. People tend to give TV critics too much credit for being smart and sophisticated.

"I remember when James Woods called and left a five-minute thank-you on my voicemail after I'd written a nice review of a TV movie he was in."

Luke: "Who are some journalists who've crossed over into entertainment?"

Ray: "Robert Palm who used to write for the Herald Examiner and now produces. Jack Burditt was a copy editor at the Daily News in the early eighties and became an executive producer on Frasier."

Ray's brother's uses the name "Len," which is short for "Lennard," a name he loathes and never uses. Len is most famous for writing an acclaimed TV comedy in England called "Agony" (1979-80) and was writer-director of an independent comedy feature called "Merchants of Venus" 1998) about the marital aids trade (wonder where he got that idea). Starred Michael York. Ray's mother financed the whole film for about $300,000.

Len now lives in Santa Monica and is trying to write novels.

Ray and I talk about the parties Cathy Seipp throws with Amy Alkon.

Ray: "I've never gone. I hear they are good parties. I've got three kids. I'm a big family guy so it's hard for me to get out to parties. It's also probably held back my career a little bit. I don't really do the meet and greet thing that much but I admire people who are good at it."

Luke: "What's your relationship like with Peter Bart?"

Ray: "We left on good terms. He's the godfather of trade journalism."

Luke: "He got nailed in that Los Angeles magazine piece."

Ray: "Yes he did but Peter's a survivor. He could survive nuclear war. He knows how to play the angles. He's changed entertainment journalism. Variety was a complete old-boys network before he got there and cleaned up a lot of it. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter play favorites on occasion but there's a lot less of the glad-handing and backroom deals now. It's more above-board. There's some real journalism taking place and some real nailing of people who need to be nailed. It's not just fluff, thanks in part to Peter's influence."

Luke: "What do you think of Brian Lowry?"

Ray: "Brian is the best TV reporter in the country. A nice guy, gracious, smart, knows all the right people. He's effortless in the way he covers the industry. But canny and clever and aware."

Los Angeles Times TV columnist Brian Lowry writes Luke: "I've always felt Ray was a terrific critic -- smart, funny, biting -- who has struggled to find the right venue. I actually lobbied for him to get the job at Variety, as I recall, but he was right, it wasn't an especially good fit for him as a reporter. I also remember when he sort of gave it up to work on books, giving him that sort of Willie Wonka "Wait. Stop. Don't" warning, because that's a helluva hard way to make a living without some sort of day job.

"I would disagree on one point (though I think it's yours, so it's probably not particularly relevant to your question), which is the assumption that EVERYONE who writes about entertainment harbors a desire to get into it. While that's too often true, there are people out there (I'd like to think I'm one of them) who are genuinely committed to journalism and not necessarily starstruck by the money, perks, etc., they encounter on the other side of the wall. You can visit the mansion, as it were, without wanting to live in it."

Cathy Seipp writes Luke about Ray: "He's an extremely smart, funny writer, and one of the few here in L.A. who make me think, especially when I read something he's written on TV, "Darn, I wish I'd thought to say that." Unlike many people who write about TV, he not only has a deep understanding of how the business works -- much more than I do, really -- he's clever and observant enough to notice which particular absurd glitches in the pattern will make a good column. That's Ray as a writer. I should add that as a person, he's decent to the core, and I don't say that lightly, because it's really not all that common a quality."

Ray Richmond wrote in the 3/9/02 Los Angeles Times: My East Coast-based partner on HollywoodPulse.com, Tom Comi, was bemused on Feb. 22 to find a message in our site's contact e-mailbox from a producer at Fox News Channel, who was wondering if one of our representatives might have time to submit to a taped interview for a planned [Paula Poundstone] story.

A researcher probably entered the words "Poundstone" and "court" into the Yahoo! search engine. Positioned at No. 17 on the resultant list is a HollywoodPulse.com story from Nov. 17, 2001, headlined, "Paula Poundstone Plays Dumb After Violation." The utterly fabricated piece found the comedian expressing purported shock and outrage that a recent liquor-drinking, pot-smoking, coke-snorting binge represented a true violation of her probation.

How else to explain that Fox News had a full workweek to blow the whistle after I taped my interview with reporter Trace Gallagher on Feb. 25? The story didn't run on the network's 4 p.m. edition of "The Fox Report" until March 1. And when it aired, there I was, my frightfully jowly mug weighing in on the subject, with my name and HollywoodPulse.com affiliation gloriously emblazoned on screen.

Joe Flint On Ray Richmond

While chatting with Ray Richmond the other day, I asked him which fellow journalist would have the most negative things to say about him. Ray said without hesitation, "Joe Flint."

So I sent an email to Joe Flint at the Wall Street Journal and talked to him on the phone 12/26/02 about Ray.

Joe: "Ray came to Variety [as a reporter covering cable TV] when we were having a lot of turnover in the TV department. The person who championed Ray's hiring, Jim Benson, quit a week later. It was weird that Ray was hired because he is more of a critic than a reporter. We never hit it off because we're two totally different personalities. I was driven by aggressive reporting, something Ray hadn't done since becoming a critic."

Joe chuckles. "Ray's lifestyle and approach to the job was probably more suited to that of a reviewer. He's not a guy you want reporting on a business story. On his first day at Variety, I got a tip on something that I passed on to him around 3:30PM to investigate. He said, 'Well, I have to go to my Lamaze class with my wife at 5PM.'

"I wasn't technically his boss. I was just a TV editor and he was one of the TV reporters. I have nothing against going to Lamaze classes, but on your first day? As a reporter, he never seemed interested in getting a keen grasp of the business. I don't think he had any great desire to make the transition to reporter and work the phones and pound the pavement. When you're working for one of the trades, you're writing inside baseball stuff. You have to know all the arcane details of business relationships and who's who. And either that interests you or it doesn't, and I don't think it interested him."

Joe Flint worked at Variety from 1994-97. He then worked at Entertainment Weekly for two years before moving to the Wall Street Journal.