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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Ray of Light-Heartedness: AOTL Interview With Ray Richmond


I may invoke a little Henry Ford when I sum up my friend Ray Richmond; say what you want about him as long as you say he is irreverent, independent and committed to the progress of humanity. He is also a highly dedicated journalist who has covered entertainment and television since 1984 in addition to penning the books “The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family,” “TV Moms,” and “My Greatest Day In Show Business.” He has also been a contributor to Ahead On The Left. In fitting fashion he accepted the offer to be the first AOTL interviewee where he shared anecdotes and his thoughts on the state of journalism today.

It’s probably good that my first interview is with someone who has interviewed people for a living so I won’t have to drag information out of you.

I can even do both sides of it actually. I can ask the questions and give the answers. It’s funny. You know the actor James Woods, right?

You interviewed him for your book “My Greatest Day In Show Business.”

This was for a different thing. It was for something he had done on TV and we missed each other somehow as far as our appointed time on the phone and he gets my voicemail and he says ‘that’s alright. I’ll give the interview for you. You would have asked me this and this is what I would have answered. Then you would have asked that and I would have answered this’. He did this for ten minutes on my voicemail, he conducts the interview.

Was it fairly comprehensive?

It was! It was funny and comprehensive, and perfect.

Did you have to go back and call him to fill in the blanks?

I didn’t. It was exactly enough. It was like wow, that was pretty cool.

You’re not still doing interviews anymore are you? What is it you’re doing right now?

I am actually. I was doing some work for Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood. I just interviewed a few Emmy nominees in advance of the Emmy awards, you know, Q&As with various actors.

Did you talk to anyone who won?

I did. I could look it up even as we’re speaking right now. Of course I have no memory left at all. It’s completely sapped because of drugs and Alzheimer’s.

In that order?

Actually not anymore. Now it’s the other way around. But I spoke with Jimmy Fallon the host. That was actually really good. He was pretty good on the show too. I talked to Sharon Gless, Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart. He’s Sir Patrick Stewart now.

That’s right.

So I got ask him what it’s like to be a Sir. I actually reminded him that when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered in 1987 I was working for the Orange County Register as the TV critic, I was the guy that said ‘what kind of blasphemy is this. Some stupid bald-headed British guy is playing the captain? This thing is never going to fly.’

No pun intended.

I reminded him of this and he says in that authoritative voice ‘you wrote that?’ I said yeah, but I didn’t mean it’ and he said ‘I said the very same thing.’

So you and he agreed.

We agreed but the way he said it was in the most intimidating way imaginable.

With that voice of God of his.

Exactly. I thought ‘oh fuck. I’ve offended God’. So I did a lot of interviews for Deadline Hollywood. I’m still doing stuff for the Hallmark Channel. I do the worst imaginable things for the Hallmark Channel given my general manner and style, doing this stuff that’s sweet and syrupy, but it works out well. I do stuff for their press kit material.

How do you describe your style?

It’s a little bit out there. I like to have fun and make people laugh and be as entertaining as I can instead of the usual question answer question answer question answer, blah blah.

Kind of like what I’m doing with you?

Exactly. You kind of want to shake things up a little. Sometimes I’ve been called on the carpet for being overly eccentric or a little too out there. I always err on the side of being off the wall to get attention, to get a laugh. There’s so much shit on the Internet now. The material is just never-ending and I think the only way to stand out and break up the monotony is to do something different. Why would they want to stop and read something if it’s just more of the same shit someone else is doing which is why I applaud you for what you’re doing with Ahead On The Left. You’re doing something different.

Oh. Thank-you.

You’re also being a good Democrat in a time when it’s hard to be a Democrat.

You went to journalism school. Where did you go from there? Did you intend on covering television or is that something you happened into?

I sort of just happened into it. I went to journalism school. I really loved journalism. I actually wanted to be a sports writer. I’m actually kind of a frustrated jock at heart, but I realized that it really takes up all your nights and you really can’t have a life if you’re a sports writer and you’re always on the road and I didn’t want that. Then I ended up getting a job at the features department at the LA Daily News while I was still in school at Cal State Northridge in late 1977. In the features department I found I really enjoyed writing features and I seemingly had a knack for that. The TV thing didn’t come up until 1984 when the TV critic had quit and they sort of asked me ‘do you watch much TV’ and I said yeah I watch TV.’ They asked if I wanted to be the new TV critic and I said sure. That’s pretty much how it went down.

I want to go back to journalism school because I know you have a funny encounter involving Carl Bernstein if you want to talk about that.

Oh sure. Usually you don’t want to talk about these things until all the principles are dead, but I could well be dead before they are so this is 1978 I believe. It’s after “All The President’s Men,” Nixon had resigned three and a half years before. Woodward and Bernstein of course had taken down the presidency and they came from the Washington Post.

So it was a big deal, Carl Bernstein was going to be speaking to the journalism department at Humboldt State University, our little 80 person journalism department. I attended there for a year. Everybody was all excited ‘Oh my God! Carl Bernstein is gracing us with his presence.’ Everyone then was wanting to become an investigative reporter. Journalism schools were being flooded. The only school not being flooded was Humboldt State. So anyway, Carl Bernstein is there. We have a little party for him after he speaks and I’m there with a woman who basically I had been fucking for about five days, Robin. We’re talking with Bernstein, the party’s winding down and he, kind of apropos of nothing looks at us and then looks around and asks ‘is there anyplace in Eureka where I can get a massage at this hour?’ Five of six of us look at each other like ‘what the fuck is he talking about’ except Robin of course, the woman I had been shagging for five days who looks up and says ‘oh I give great massages’. The five people that are there with me look at her. I’m staring daggers at her like ‘did you just fucking say that to Carl Bernstein?’ He asks if that’s okay, looking at me knowing that I was with Robin and I said ‘shhhhhure, fine.’

So Carl Bernstein and Robin pile into my Toyota Corolla and I take them to her apartment. I went upstairs to wait it out for about 45 minutes, just laying on the bed trying to read something thinking ‘oh my God. Carl Bernstein’s probably getting a blowjob downstairs from this woman.’ And he of course was married at the time to Nora Ephron. They made a movie about his dalliances.

“Heartburn.”

“Heartburn.” Precisely, and this is one of those dalliances that inspired “Heartburn.” So about 45 minutes later Robin comes running upstairs pulling her shirt down over her head. Bernstein is shirtless and pulling on his underwear running to the bathroom. She walks in the door, this is the greatest line in history, takes my hand, looks me straight in the eye and says ‘it’s not what you think.’ I’m like ‘of course it’s what I think, but it’s fine. I don’t have any claim on you. I’ve known you for five days.’

So Bernstein finally comes out of the bathroom, we pile back into my car, I’m taking him back to his motel in Eureka and he’s not making small talk, but microscopic talk; barely visible talk. And he actually says just before exiting the car ‘if you’re ever in Washington I’ll give you a tour of the Post.’ Can you imagine? ‘Hey Carl, remember me? You got a blowjob from my girlfriend at Humboldt State. Can I have a tour?’

But it was a good school. I learned a lot. And I love journalism. There’s a little sadness to it now to some degree. Not to sound like an old fart who decries the good old days.

No, do, because I was going to ask you about this anyway.

Journalism really is disappearing as an art form and as a literary tool in the form that I remember it. It’s still there on the Internet and such, but the depth of reporting still only exists a few places like the New York Times, the New Yorker, or Rolling Stone even sometimes too, but too often there is a decided lack of depth which has been replaced too often by fluff and headlines. So much of covering entertainment is about the TMZing of celebrities, catching them at their worst. I just don’t give a shit about Lindsay Lohan and all this other crap. I knew it was time to leave the trades because I just don’t care about the promotion of the industry execs and the upward progression of those people. They don’t care about what happens to me. Why would I care about them?

Didn’t Edward R. Murrow even have to delve into covering some fluff in order to keep balance and interest?

Oh yeah. And I’m not being arrogant about it either. It’s not like I’m too good for it. I feel like too much of one is replacing the other. It’s not like they’re coexisting; it’s actually replacing it and blogs, are really not journalism. I don’t care what anybody says. They are opinion. They are not news. There are no checks and balances with them. They are simply opinion and they have their place and it’s great, but it is just opinion and it is not going to take the place of news coverage.

There is a lot of analysis that goes on with blogs I think, but I was discussing this with a friend yesterday how blogs are often cited as news. It’s almost like there’s no such thing as journalism school anymore.

Right. These things are partisan pieces. They are not unbiased. And it’s expected that you’re supposed to put a slant on things in a blog, but if you’re covering actual journalism you try your best to keep your opinion and your own view out of it. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find that.

If you had it all to do over again and you didn’t fall into television would you have chosen another area to cover?

I probably would have chosen politics. Even though right now I’m really down on the political process. I just feel like it’s a bunch of people who are bought and sold by Big Business. There’s no real politicking or actual serving the people going on. I would have probably gone into something that had more social value to it. One time I actually put a little social heft into the process when I was covering entertainment and I wrote about Merv Griffin and outed him. Do you remember that whole furor?

You outed Merv Griffin?

Did I not tell you this story?

You told me about when you were working for Merv Griffin you were working late one night while Merv and friend were upstairs in his office not wanting to be disturbed.

Oh yeah. This is a whole other story. This was like my greatest moment in journalism. Merv died in August of 07. I had a Friday column at the time at the Hollywood Reporter. Basically the column was Merv Griffin was gay. Can we get over this in the purportedly liberal-minded Hollywood? Why should we be snickering about that in the corner? Why is that a shame for the man? Why can’t it simply be he was a coin collector, he was a great TV producer, and he was gay? So I wrote a column about this sad thing that the man had to die taking this secret to his grave. Of course everyone in Hollywood knew, but most people in the country didn’t know he was gay even though it was the worse kept secret in Hollywood. So I wrote this column. Literally the lead sentence was ‘Merv Griffin was gay.’

I thought it would never go out into the light of day, but one editor said ‘hey, I like it.’ Another editor was like ‘hey, good job.’ I asked myself is it actually possible this thing could get published? I told them they better run it up the flagpole to make sure. It was kind of a hot potato. They said sure. Basically, anyone who could have stopped it or would have stopped it was on vacation. It was August. And it fucking runs. I ran out and bought five copies. I couldn’t believe it.

Within an hour shit completely hits the fan. It runs the day of his funeral. It was not my intention for that to happen, but I was fine with that. His production company ended up pulling a hundred thousand dollars in advertising. There was a new editor who hadn’t even started. She was in New Orleans with a sick relative. She turned out to be a really spineless person. She freaked out. They can’t reprint the paper, but they pull it offline.

When I found out about it I told them they had to put it back up. I said we are admitting furor here. ‘I don’t care if you think it was a mistake to publish it. You’ve got to keep it online. You have to support me.’ They said ‘sorry, we’re keeping it offline.’

There’s a gay radio host named Michelangelo Signorile. He finds out about this and he instructs all of his listeners to call the Hollywood Reporter. Five thousand people called in protest. It crashed the phone system and crashed the Internet. Now everyone is going crazy. I talked to the editor again. I said ‘you have to restore this. I’m telling you. I will sing your praises as First Amendment heroes but you better fucking put it back online.’

So they did. Then it became a big cause célèbre. I did seven different radio shows. I got newspapers calling me because I was the guy that outed Merv Griffin. It was exactly the point I made in the column. It was perfect. They couldn’t handle the fact that somebody was gay. Everybody was losing their fucking minds.

Where did all the backlash come from?

I was getting emails saying ‘you and you’re gay agenda you fucking faggot.’ I’m like ‘hello, I do not have a gay agenda. The agenda is equality.

I ended up getting a nomination for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) award and trust me, it’s the first and only time anyone will be outed in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter or any other major Hollywood trade. I knew there would be a little bit of a backlash. I had no idea it would be a shitstorm. I almost got fired over it. I had to plead for the job of the copy editor and the editor who let it go in. I said ‘if you’re going to fire anyone, fire me. But you better not fire any of us.

How long did it take for everything to die down?

I’d say two weeks. But to this day it is the proudest moment of my career by a wide margin. When I was finally let go from the paper I had all kinds of issues with this one editor that got rid of me, but it was cited as a reason: ‘and you had that whole thing with Merv Griffin.’ So now it can be told that it was a contributing factor to my being fired.

You have other revolutionary events under your belt as a journalist. You were the first journalist to actually watch a voice taping of “The Simpsons.”

I guess that’s true. I guess I was. I totally forgot. That was great. It was in part because I had done their book review. You have to give yourself a little credit there too. It almost killed me, but I really wouldn’t have been able to finish it without you. You should have gotten credit on the cover as well too, but as they say, life ain’t fair.

I don’t think things would have ended up any differently. I’d still be here interviewing you for my blog instead of sitting in a penthouse office somewhere.

You and me both. I’m struggling for work too. It ain’t like that sure made my life. On snpp.com I’m a big deal. Did you go to the lunch they threw after the book came out?

Yes

Matt Groening actually said it was the best product to have come out of the Simpsons franchise.

“I heartily endorse this event or product.”

Exactly

I should say that like Krusty the Klown.

I just got an email like that today. It was a request for a donation in the LA AIDS Walk and it was signed ‘sincerely, your name.’

Before I go I just want to say good luck and best wishes in light of your upcoming wedding.

Thank-you. I look forward to seeing you there and receiving your blessing, literally.

Likewise.

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