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Fran Lebowitz on the Internet, COVID, the Kardashians and her pal Marty

Fran Lebowitz is one of the American culture’s true humorist geniuses. Her dry wit and sage perspective on life, politics, people, and really, everything, have made her a living legend, especially to older audiences who’ve read her essays or seen her appearances on late-night TV over the decades. With the success of the Netflix series Pretend It’s a City —directed and co-starring by her longtime comrade Martin Scorsese– during the height of the pandemic, a whole new generation has discovered her brand of satiric social commentary and more so, her inimitable spirit. Sharing her fierce point of view and laugh-out-loud funny takes on the world, both random and significant, Lebowitz’s speaking engagements are ca n’t-miss events and the closest thing to actually get the privilege of a one-on-one conversation. We still can’t believe we actually got to have one, but we did.

FRAN LEBOWITZ: You know, I’ve always done this. I’ve done this since 1978. I’ve always done these kinds of speaking dates. Since the Netflix series, I do them more often.  I used to do like, maybe 15, now I’m doing like 100 million a year. That has everything to do with the Netflix show.

That show was so good. I assume the interest level for you has just exploded since it aired.

There’s no comparison. I mean, I personally do not have a cell phone. Right now, I’m speaking on someone else’s phone. I don’t have a computer. I’ve never seen Netflix so I never saw it. Netflix kept postponing it and so because it was postponed so many times, it ended up coming out during the height of a lockdown. Apparently, everyone in the entire world except me was watching Netflix. So, you know, I mean, I’m not saying COVID was a good thing. It was a horrible, tragic thing. It still is. But it was very helpful to my series.

Yeah, absolutely. So are you saying that you never actually saw the show?

I saw in Marty’s screening room. I saw it many times. But I never saw it on Netflix the way most people watched it.

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And you’re still not a Netflix subscriber even now?

No, I’ve never been because you need a WiFi connection.

You don’t have WiFi? 

No.

That’s so interesting. Is there a reason that you don’t want that technology even to this day, or even since the special? 

You know, the initial reason is, I don’t know how to type. And so when they first invented this stuff, even now you’re typing all the time, or texting, whatever. I have a tremendous antipathy to machines, not just modern technology. I never had a typewriter. I’m the sort of person if a machine breaks, I hit it, and then I beg not to break. So I didn’t want all these machines in my life. I’m just not interested in this. I don’t hate it. I don’t think it’s terrible. People seem to think I’m not aware of it. I think I’m as aware of it as you could possibly be. Because people talk about it all the time. You know, people say to me, ‘Twitter- do you know what that is?’ Yes. I do. Also, people are constantly showing you their phones. Even people you don’t know on the street.  I feel that I have enough of this in my life.

I hear that. There’s definitely positives and negatives, too.  As a journalist it’s a necessary evil on some level. As a speaker I guess not as much. For these engagements, what is the structure? At the Ace Hotel in L.A., you’ll have a moderator, but will it be as conversational as the Scorsese show? Will audience participation be an element? 

Yes, it’s always the same no matter where I am in the world. The difference is the person who interviews me. So in L.A., it’s John Brion, who you surely know is a fantastic musician. Also a friend of mine. They interview me on the stage for 30 minutes, then they leave the stage. Then I go to a lectern and I answer questions from the audience for an hour. The audience questions to me are the most fun. I love doing this and I do it all over the world. It is actually something that I would consider to be a recreational activity for me.

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Do you ever get nervous or feel pressure to be funny or profound?

Never ever. I actually just enjoy it. I have never felt nervous. Once 100 years ago, I fell asleep in the Letterman green room. I don’t feel nervous in any public appearance. I just don’t. It’s a lucky thing. It always surprises me that actors, a lot of actors have horrible stage fright. I always think like, why are you an actor if you’re terrified of it. But to me, it’s just enjoyable.

Well, I’m sure it’s going to be really enjoyable for your fans. Advancing the L.A. show, I’m wondering about your thoughts and perspective on Los Angeles. Obviously, you’re known for being New York royalty. But in terms of L.A., and your take on it, what can you share?

You know, the thing is I don’t hate L.A., I just prefer New York, because I prefer cities and L.A., I know, it’s a city in some official way. But most people live in houses and drive in a cars. To me that’s not a city. There’s many very good things about L.A., I’m not saying there aren’t. I’m simply saying, I choose to live in New York. It used to be truly just the movie business and the television business. And it seems more varied. So it is more interesting to me.

When’s the last time you came here for a visit?

Well, I don’t visit, I work. For my vacations, I stay in my apartment. I was in L.A. -I don’t remember- less than one year ago. I did these speaking engagements, seven at a small theater in Santa Monica.

Well I’m sure when you come back, one thing you’ll notice is that the homeless problem has worsened.

That’s everywhere, by the way. That’s everywhere. In the United States. It is worse in some places than others. No question. It’s really bad in L.A. It’s horrible in San Francisco.

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What about New York? What’s it like there?

It’s not delightful here. There’s tons of homeless people everywhere. But you don’t see it very much in Europe, I can tell you that. And you don’t see it very much in Scandinavia. It’s not bad certainly in socialist countries. They provide for people. This country, you are on your own.

The weather here is obviously nice so it just facilitates more people being unhoused, whereas in New York, I can’t imagine being outside in the winter.

There’s actually a law here. I don’t see it being enforced too much. There’s some kind of law here when the temperature goes below a certain number, they go around forcing people to go into shelters. The homeless shelters must be so horrible that people prefer to freeze outside. In Berkeley where I was for a week, half the town is in tents.

It’s a real problem everywhere, especially in Downtown L.A. Speaking of cities and the challenges of living in them, the thrust of Pretend it’s a City was really diving into the nuances of urban life. When people think of New York, they think of you. I wonder, you know, you mentioned the car culture here in L.A. versus New York. That’s one of the biggest differences, you’re just in the streets more there. Do you still enjoy being in the streets with all that humanity?  These days, are you constantly recognized and how do you interact? What is your daily life? 

Well, yes, I’m much more recognized since the Netflix series than I was before. You know, I’ve been recognized for quite a long time, but there’s no comparison. I don’t know how many millions of people watch Netflix, and watch it all over the world. A lot of people who stop me in the streets in New York are not from New York. Sometimes people say to me, ‘I knew I would see you when I came to New York.’ And I think it’s just not logical. But I am in the street a lot because I walk a lot, it’s a good form of transportation because you don’t have to actually be in a subway, car or a cab. So I’m in the street a lot. Lately, several people from China have stopped me and told me, ‘we’re not allowed to watch you, but we do.’

Are you noticing multi-generational recognition? Younger adults probably weren’t aware of your work before the series, right?

There’s lots of kids. I think that it’s a little hard for me to tell. I always had quite a few kids. When I do these speaking dates, I would say, you know, depending upon where I am, but in general, the audience is at least 25% people in their 20s. And I know that because during the questions, they always tell me how old they are.

Everyone was home and looking for unique entertainment and a lot of the conversations between you and Marty were timeless. So it wasn’t planned to be sort of be a COVID times thing?

No one knew about COVID or that it was coming, not even Netflix.

[Laughs] What’s really interesting is that especially these days where television seems like it’s made for people with ADHD, and attention spans reared on computers– we just want to see quick, fast, colorful entertainment. So just seeing two people sitting down and having a conversation, even brilliant people like you and Marty, on paper it doesn’t seem like it would be this big hit. But it really was. Why was it the right show for the right time? 

Marty’s really coming along, don’t you think?

[Laughs] Yes he’s got a bright future. [Laughs]

I mean, he’s a great, great filmmaker. So one of the weird things was before we started doing it, Marty said ‘I don’t know how to this,’ which is very chilling, because of course, I certainly don’t. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I never did this before. I never made a series.’ So I said, well just make a movie and cut into seven pieces, which of course is not what you do. But it turned out that he knew how to do it very well.

So you were happy with how each episode was edited? Was there anything that you two disagreed on? Like, ‘Oh, I really don’t want that in or I do want that in?’

He actually had already made a movie about me for HBO about 10 or 12 years ago, called Public Speaking and I didn’t have any control over. This I did. And you know the truth is, I asked him to take something out, he did, I don’t remember what it was. Editing for Marty is an endless thing. I mean, I truly believe if they had not taken say, Mean Streets, away from him, he’s still doing editing it. I saw it I don’t know how many times, but every time I saw it, it was different. Every episode was different. Finally, when he said, it’s all done, all seven episodes, I saw them all at once so I could get more of a sense of it. Then they were going to show it to me with the color correction and I said, ‘No, You’re not,’ because I really don’t like to watch myself at all. I said they could tell me what the color was and I was going to imagine it.

I wanted to know about your thoughts on COVID. What have we learned since going through it? Did you ever get it?

You know, I actually thought I’d hadn’t had COVID. But I was in the UK last year for like nine days. I was supposed to have eye surgery, not cosmetic surgery! And I had to get a COVID test at the hospital. And I was positive and they postponed my surgery. So I must have had COVID when I was in London without realizing it.

I think what we could have learned was that it could be over. What we did learn was that something like 50% of the population of the United States are morons. The idea that someone says here’s a vaccine and you say anything, but thank you, is psychotic to me.  If everyone had taken the vaccine, then there’d be no COVID. But now, this will never end. That is very clear to me and to anyone else, it’s totally clear that it will never end. It keeps changing and it’s just never gonna end now. There was a real chance at ending it. If 100% of the population or the vast majority of the population had gotten the vaccine, it would have ended, but now, it never will.

That brings me to my next question. Disinformation. The internet is filled with it. You don’t do social media or have WiFi but you seem very aware of what it’s all about. Specifically Twitter is very much known for this. As someone respected for your opinions, your wise opinions, what do you think about people sharing there’s online?  Everyone has an opinion but they only share “facts” that support their point of view. Do you think that it’s a good thing that there’s a forum for everyone to share opinions? Or not?

I think that if people say ‘this is my opinion,’ then who cares? Fine. But that’s not what they say. They say things, and give information that is lying. It is lying to say that these vaccines, for instance are anything but incredibly beneficial. They are not dangerous. They are not some sort of democratic plot. They are incredibly beneficial and we should thank these brilliant scientists who invented them. It is a lie to say that Donald Trump won the last election. That’s not an opinion, that’s a lie. In your own life, if you know someone who lies, you just don’t talk to them anymore. I hate lying. It’s the thing that I actually hate the most. And political lying is incredibly dangerous. We live in a world where no evidence is evidence. Everyone in the country saw what happened at the Capitol. Everyone saw it. Many who saw it said, ‘this is just political discourse.’ No, this is violence. But it is absolutely true that the internet allows these things to be incredibly contagious, because nothing spreads faster than a bad idea, and that has always been true.

Disinformation is out of control, but what I hate just as much is just how mean people are on the internet.

People are mean in life. A human being is part of a horrible species. So people are mean. And the thing that strikes me about social media is it causes everyone to spend the rest of their lives like they’re in junior high school. You don’t have to participate. You know, people ask me, ‘Are you afraid of being canceled?’ And I was thinking, I could be canceled and I wouldn’t even know it. If I’m canceled, don’t tell me.

[Laughs] I love that. I know you don’t have Wi Fi so you’re not watching a lot of TV but do you still read newspapers? Weeklies, dailies, magazines? Where do you get the bulk of your news?

I get the Sunday New York Times. It takes me the whole weekend to read. I do not know how people read newspapers every day. Newspapers are the thing that’s disappeared the most as far as I can see. It used to be, you know, the city used to be knee deep in newsprint, covered, and every subway had them.  If you sat down in the subway, you got to pick up the newspaper first. The trash cans were full of newspapers. It was just a sea of newsprint. It’s very rare to see someone reading a newspaper now. Most people read the Times online. They don’t read a paper- paper. I don’t think it makes a big difference except that, obviously, what’s online changes all the time. They keep it more up to date.

I also listen to the radio. Whenever I say this on a speaking date, and I look at the kids in the audience; I always like say, ‘I listen to the radio. Look it up.’ New York has an all news station. I turn it on and off a 1000 times a day when I’m doing chores. I’m very up to date on local crime. I feel that I am as informed of the news as anyone who has all the modern devices.

Do you keep abreast of pop culture and who is the hot famous person of the moment? Do you know about the Kardashians and Elon Musk or any hot topic water cooler gossip at any given time? 

Don’t keep track of it or follow it. But I feel like it follows me, because people talk about it all the time. I was once in a restaurant in New York a couple years ago and I was sitting at a table with several people and someone at the table, who I have to say is from L.A., recognized one of the Kardashians coming into the restaurant. ‘I don’t remember which one,’ she said. And then she’s like, ‘where’s the other one?’ ‘Where’s her boyfriend?’ I’m like how do you know that? How do you know which is her boyfriend? And then another Kardashian came in and that’s her boyfriend. ‘No, no, no, that’s the other one.’ I said if you know this stuff, you should keep it yourself.

So, I know there are Kardashians. I don’t really remember how many Kardashians there are. But truthfully, I know people who not only know which Kardashian is which, but know the names of their many children. There’s nothing immoral about this. But frankly, it just seems kind of dopey to me. I don’t care. I don’t think the Kardashians are a danger to the United States. Kevin McCarthy is a much greater danger than the Kardashians.

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