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So What Do You Do, Ray Richmond?

The critic and entertainment columnist dishes on how he wound up watching TV for a living

By Kate Coe - March 14, 2007
Ray Ray Richmond watches television for a living. While this might be a dream job for some, Richmond insists that it's brutally hard work. His weekly column, "The Pulse," appears in The Hollywood Reporter, is syndicated by Reuters, and is a must-read in Hollywood, while his blog, Past Deadline is a daily stop for readers addicted to his cynical, yet sentimental, outlook on television, pop culture and the media.

When approached we approached him for this interview, Richmond shunned the usual give-and-take of the process, and wrote it all himself. He then sent it to himself for editing, and sent it back for a rewrite. Finally, we were able to wrestle it away from him:

Name: Ray Richmond
Position: TV critic/entertainment columnist
Publication: The Hollywood Reporter
Company: The Nielsen Company (formerly VNU)
Education: B.A. Degree, Califiornia State University @ Northridge, 1980; A.A. Degree, Los Angeles Valley College, 1977; Diploma, Hollywood High School, 1975
Hometown: Born in Whittier, CA (hometown of Richard M. Nixon, thanks very much), and raised literally in and around Hollywood, and its rundown suburban environs.

First job: I had a couple at the same time, actually. I earned $1.65 per hour flipping burgers and dropping fries at Carl's Jr. in Hollywood for a few months. (I was 15, but managed to alter my birth certificate to appear 16). I also worked as a vendor at Dodger Stadium in the early-to-mid 1970s, selling Cokes and ice cream and (occasionally) peanuts in the stands. (Peanuts were the prime product; you needed mucho seniority to work your way up to these, and I never quite got there.) To this day, I have a measure of regret. The job kept me in superb shape, toting 24 bottles of Coke on my back up and down stairs on hot Sundays. Then, there was the day a gang member grabbed one of my bottles, and used it to attack a fellow gangbanger in the stands. That wasn't a good day.

Last three jobs: (This presumes what I'm currently doing is considered a "job"): TV reporter/critic/columnist, The Hollywood Reporter, 2000-present; TV reporter/critic, Daily Variety, 1997-99; TV critic/columnist, The Los Angeles Daily News, 1992-96

Birthdate: October 19, 1957. I turned 30 the day the stock market crashed (Depression Jr.). It was a helluva way to enter official yuppiehood.

Marital status: Twice-divorced. (I wave a white flag, ladies; you win.)

Favorite TV show: The Office (NBC edition). Steve Carell. Rainn Wilson. It's not TV, it's art.

Last book read: To quote the immortal Chauncey Gardener, "I don't read books. I watch TV." If pressed, however, I will admit to having read The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich. And a terrific read it was.

Most interesting media story right now: The shakeout that finds print journalism fighting to hold onto its niche -- any niche at all will do -- and the cyber world essentially usurping it with its immediacy and reach.

Guilty pleasures: Extra-sharp aged cheddar -- life is too short not to always have some on hand. Taking in my dog to get groomed monthly, which is God's way of telling me I'm probably too well off. My National Enquirer subscription (I always shower immediately after digesting). Tom Goes to the Mayor on Cartoon Network.

There is an enormous amount of great stuff available on the 17.4 million channels that now exist. There's a lot of crap, too, but anyone who believes TV can't carry cinema's jock just ain't paying attention.

First section I read in the Sunday paper: Somebody still reads the Sunday paper? Wow, how last century is that? Actually, I still do receive The L.A. Times 7 days a week, though it causes people in my building to look at me dismissively and mutter under the breath, "Oh hey, if it isn't Joe Intellectual. College grad scum."

What I mean is, I usually pick up the Sports section first, under the philosophy that there are no guarantees in life and one should, therefore, eat dessert first. Once I'm fully informed about what's going down in the NBA, and which spoiled millionaires are bitching about their various meritless paternity suits, I dive into the front section.

How I got into journalism: Oh, is this journalism? God, why didn't someone tell me before I went and committed my whole life to it. I am SO embarrassed. Wow.

I've been doing this stuff since my first year of college, when I worked for a regional newspaper chain on the West side covering high school football and basketball on Friday nights for $5.00 per story. It was a big deal when we got a 50 percent raise to $7.50. I caught on part-time at the L.A. Daily News -- then still called the Valley News and Green Sheet -- while finishing my higher education at Cal State Northridge in 1978-79. I penned features and short press release rewrites about things such as the Miniature Rose Club of Greater Pacoima. I worked at the Daily News until 1985, crossing over from general features to TV critique fulltime in 1984. I moved from there to "The Merv Griffin Show" for 10 months in 1985-86, then back into TV critique and reportage for the late Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (may it rest in peace) in 1986-87. From there, I went to the Orange County Register as TV critic for five years (1987-92), and then back to the Daily News as TV critic (1992-96). Finally, I jumped to the trade world and Daily Variety in 1997, to cover and review TV, then to the Hollywood Reporter. My duties with the Reporter began small and have steadily increased year by year, adding the column in 2002, and the blog in 2006.

What my average media day is like: I'll devour my L.A. Times (that takes roughly 125 seconds), and scour various online sites (including, uh, mediabistro.com) in the morning. I may watch a DVD or two that I have to review. Then, I'll make some phone calls setting up interviews, and get "Past Deadline" up to date before indulging in a languid three-hour lunch with the Davids (Katzenberg, Geffen, Duchovny) at The Ivy. Actually, lunch is processed turkey on whole wheat at my desk. I'll read some more and write some more, and yak on the phone some more. I'll head off on my five-second commute from the desk to the living room (I work at home). If I ever run into gridlock during this commute, I'll know it's time to give the men in the white suits a call.

Isn't television the ugly stepsister to film? How do I deal with the indignity? Oh that's ridiculously easy. I don't consider TV the ugly stepsister at all, or even the ugly step-person -- must be politically correct here. Television is the most pervasive medium on the planet, and there is an enormous amount of great stuff available on the 17.4 million channels that now exist. There's a lot of crap, too, but anyone who believes TV can't carry cinema's jock just ain't paying attention. The big screen, I dare say, has more meritless crud percentage-wise. The creative gulf between the two is hardly as vast as it was once thought. Any medium that has The Simpsons and The Sopranos need not apologize for anything. That said, I'm not altogether sure that TV critics serve much of a real purpose. TV is such an impulse buy -- a five-second time investment, potentially -- that it can feel occasionally like spitting into the wind, a headwind at that.

Do I ever want to use my cool inside knowledge to pitch a show? I stopped thinking that way after I sidled up to a certain network entertainment president and said, "I've got a show for you." He asked, "What's it about?" And I said: "Nothing." That was our last conversation, as I recall.

Any illusions about Hollywood shattered now that I'm here? Since I literally grew up here -- comparing my handprints and footprints to those at the Chinese Theater from the time I was four -- I've always felt rather clued in just by virtue of absorbing the environment throughout my life. On the other hand, it was hugely shocking and devastating to learn that, for instance, Hoss and Little Joe didn't actually live on the Ponderosa (they were merely actors pretending to live there) and -- more recently -- that showbiz agents are occasionally disingenuous, and often merely out for themselves. It remains flat-out astonishing.

How do I choose what to cover in TV? I'm assigned reviews by the Reporter's chief critic Barry Garron. I often am obliged to review the second-tier stuff that's on Hallmark Channel, BBC America, and Oxygen, whose slogan ought to be, "Way less breast cancer programming than Lifetime!" I also simply follow what's in the news, as far as subject matter for my Tuesday column ("The Pulse"), and in updating the blog regularly. Of course, the Isaiah Washington "faggot" story remains the biggest single event of our lifetime. So I continue to be all over that. I think it's so huge because Washington is the first man in the history of this great nation to openly disparage homosexual men. So it's easy to understand the ongoing obsession. I've a feeling this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Someone will go off on a Jew, and be forced to enter anti-semite rehab ("Repeat after me: I support the state of Israel..."). But seriously, most of what I cover is either obvious or assigned to me, which is cool.

Do I still get a little kick out of being at the Hollywood Reporter and pretending to be a big shot? You know, I do. It's not an ego trip so much as an ego side-journey. It still baffles me that I write it, they publish it, and people read it. I've lived in constant neurotic fear that at any moment, someone would knock on my door and tell me, "I'm from The Hollywood Reporter. They wanted me to deliver the message that this just isn't working out anymore. The jig is up. We're on to you. We all know you can't write. Nice going, being able to fake it for the better part of three decades. But it's over. Drop the keyboard, and step away from the monitor, please." That it hasn't happened yet is an ongoing joy. I still get a charge out of seeing my name and my writing in print. It looks so... grown-up.

Proudest moment of my career: This one. Right now. Oh, and the time I was sitting on a sofa with George Burns, while working as a talent coordinator and segment producer for "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1985, and he said, "You know kid, you got a great mug. You ever thought about being in showbiz?" True story. I've also smoked Cubans (not the people, the cigar) with Milton Berle at the Friar's Club, and interviewed Lucille Ball at her Beverly Hills home in 1984. She got blasted on strawberry margaritas, and I with her. She talked about how much she loved Vivian Vance and cried. Just she and I sharing her couch and cocktails and old stories: It was an out-of-body experience.

Biggest influence on my work: The contemporary stylings of Isaac Mizrahi. That, and the feminine grace with which Katie Couric recites her script from a Teleprompter. Those aside, I get actual inspiration from fellow journalists like my friend Cathy Seipp, who freelances for many publications including National Review, and is so fearless in her commentary that I sometimes feel phony and dishonest by comparison for playing the game by the rules rather than challenging and probing as she does. She tosses the bodies around seemingly without fear of reprisal. If I've learned anything in all of my years as an ink-stained hack, it's that there is no substitute for honesty and integrity. Minus those, as a member of the media you have nothing. If you harbor sacred cows and espouse views fueled by compromise/conflict, you're in the wrong business.

Coolest story I ever worked on: See Lucille Ball interview above.

Pet story loved/worked on that got killed late in the process: In the early '70s, I was assigned to cover a break-in at the Watergate Hotel that was traced back to the current Presidential Administration. But my editors were concerned that to overplay the story would be perceived as alarmist and scandalmongering, so it was bumped to page 16 and buried with the headline, "Watergate Hotel Burglarized, Seen By Everyone As Really No Big Deal At All." And there went my Pulitzer.

If I weren't a journalist/writer, what would I do? God, probably comb trash dumpsters for bottles and cans, or be forced to call people at random hoping to convince them to change their long-distance carrier (not quite as fulfilling as collecting the recyclables). I might try to teach. English. Badly. Good thing I wound up here. I clearly have no other marketable skill.

How I kick back: I don't, actually. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

Kate Coe is the co-editor of FishbowlLA

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]



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