Netflix series with Fran Lebowitz stirs memories of UCSB appearance
Tourists standing in the middle of the sidewalks and gawking at sights in New York City annoy Fran Lebowitz.
They get in her way as she hikes the streets of her hometown.
There are numerous other things that irritate, amuse and confuse her, all of which she discusses with her longtime friend, the famous director Martin Scorcese, in the popular new seven-episode series currently streaming on Netflix.
It’s called “Pretend It’s a City” and Ms. Lebowitz, author/humorist/raconteur, does the talking, mostly griping about the highs and lows of urban life.
Mr. Scorcese makes a few observations here and there, but mainly he laughs at what she has to say.
This reporter can relate to the laughter.
I interviewed Ms. Lebowitz by phone before her appearance sponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures on Oct. 12, 2012, at the university’s Campbell Hall.
“Ready to Rant” was the headline on the following story, which appeared in the News-Press on Sept. 23, 2012:
Being funny is like being tall, observed Fran Lebowitz.
“You are either born that way, or you’re not. It’s not something that is acquired,” said the woman who has been described as a “purveyor of urban cool, witty chronicler of the Me Decade and the cultural satirist whom many call the heir to Dorothy Parker.”
At 5 feet 4 ½ inches, the 61-year-old gravel-voiced New Yorker is not tall.
But Ms. Lebowitz is definitely funny as the News-Press discovered during the lengthy phone interview — with frequent lapses for giggling on the listener’s part — from her apartment in Manhattan.
“I’m sitting here looking through an auction catalog for furniture. Good furniture is probably my greatest interest other than books. I look at furniture auction catalogs the way others look at pornograhy. I mostly look, rarely buy,” said Ms. Lebowitz.
The daughter of furniture store owners, she lives in an apartment in what is now called NoHo — “a meaningless phrase” — that is filled with “big and heavy 19th century American furniture.”
The area is large enough for her library of 9,500 books, which Ms. Lebowitz describes as a “very promiscuous collection. I’m a slut for literature. I’m addicted to books.”
Especially ones written by the late John O’Hara, one of her favorite writers. She considers “Appointment in Samarra” one of the best American novels.
“If you read all of his books, you pretty much know all of the 20th century. Unfortunately, O’Hara was an underrated writer because every single person who knew him hated him. They thought he was a jerk, an idiot, a social climber. He had a special talent for dialogue, for which critics panned him,” said Ms.Lebowitz, who wrote the introductions when Modern Library published two of his books, “Appointment in Samarra” and “Butterfield 8.”
The author of two books of essays, “Metropolitan Life” and “Social Studies,” she has also written a children’s book, “Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas.” Her books of essays were collected in “The Fran Lebowitz Reader.”
Ms. Lebowitz is a former columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and a documentary about her, “Public Speaking,” directed by Martin Scorcese, premiered on HBO in November 2010.
Her writing has been described as “pointed, taut and economical and is equally forthright, irascible and unapologetically opinionated.”
When asked what she is writing now, Ms. Lebowitz dodged the question by saying, “a tiny amount, not enough. I have an unfinished novel that I have been working on for many years and also another one that was meant to replace that one and is half finished.”
Does that bother her?
“It bothers me a great deal. It even bothers others a great deal,” she said with a chuckle.
One of the requisites to be a good writer, Ms. Lebowitz believes, is a Catholic grammar school education.
“The only people who know grammar are those who went to Catholic grammar school where the nuns taught them about diagramming and stuff like that. I did not, but I have a list of friends who went to Catholic schools — one from kindergarten through grad school — and when I need help, I call on them,” she said.
Ms. Lebowitz unabashedly admits that most of her time is spent “sulking,” which is time-consuming and very enervating. I sulk about everything. I don’t have pet peeves. Pet and peeve are too small words. I am pretty much in a constant state of rage, and I don’t understand how people aren’t in a constant state of rage, too,” she said.
What fuels this anger?
Mainly, the behavior of other people.
“No one does anything correctly, meaning the way I would do it, from the president down to the phone company. Nothing is further down than the phone company. People are never on time, and they have horrible manners. People thank you for calling back. You should call people back; it’s the polite thing to do,” said Ms. Lebowitz, continuing to rant with a scathing opinion of the United States Congress:
“Whatever happened to that wonderful phrase, ‘Throw the bums out?’ “
Her thoughts on the upcoming presidential election?
“I would bet you $100 that Obama wins, but I wouldn’t bet you $1,000. I can afford to lose $100 but not $1,000,”
Which brought her to “these people, by that I mean Republicans. They never, ever get over anything. They spend all their time and money lecturing on the founding of this nation as if they were there. They constantly complain about how much they hate government and yet do everything to control it. There are places a person can live without government. I say, ‘Please be my guest. I’ll drive you to the airport.’ ”
At one time, Ms. Lebowitz calmed down by playing the drums on a set in her former apartment — at 4 in the morning.
“The walls were a lot thicker than the place I’m in now,” she noted.
It was a big drum set, and she played along with tapes.
“My secret desire in life was to be a drummer, but I gave the set away a long time ago to a young man. If I see drums at a club or a party now, I’ll play,” she said, adding, “but I’m not by any stretch of the imagination even a mediocre player.”
Ms. Lebowitz said she does 20 appearances a year, and she likes the format in which she’s interviewed for a half-hour, then takes questions from the audience for an hour.
“This makes it more fun for me and the audience,” said Ms. Lebowitz.
“On the West Coast, I usually get more questions about the environment. They ask about some little bird or animal that is endangered and I know nothing about. I live in New York City. I always take the side of the animal because on the other side is usually a big oil company. I’m a nature lover when an oil company is involved,” Ms. Lebowitz said.
Her response was immediate when asked if she remembered any unusual or memorable queries.
“The best one I was ever asked in my entire life was at a talk in San Francisco during the Iranian hostage crisis,” Ms. Lebowitz said. “The hostages were held for 444 days from 1979 to 1981, and the country was obsessed with the situation. Someone asked, ‘Who was your favorite hostage?’
“I had no favorite hostage, but I had my least favorite hostage wife, who shall remain nameless,” said Ms. Lebowitz. “All she did was promote herself every time she was on camera. I got the feeling that when the hostages were finally freed, she was probably disappointed.”
More comments by Lebowitz
“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”
“I place a high moral value on the way people behave. I find it repellent to have a lot, and to behave with anything other than courtesy in the old sense of the word — politeness of the heart, a gentleness of the spirit.”
“Do not, on a rainy day, ask your child what he feels like doing, because I can assure you that what he feels like doing, you won’t enjoy watching.”
“Success didn’t spoil me. I’ve always been insufferable.”
“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”
“Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.”
“Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try.”