Fran Lebowitz is doing fine—although, is she really? “How are you?” I asked recently, after ringing up the notoriously contemptuous New Yorker. “I haven’t decided yet,” she mused. “How are you?” I laughed nervously, offered a middling response—“I think I’ve decided I’m fine”—and she returned a dubious sense of solidarity: “OK. I’ll go with that then.”
This is prime Lebowitz, the author, social commentator, epigrammatic grouch, and professional complainer who became an unlikely star of pandemic-era streaming when Martin Scorsese’s Netflix docu-series, Pretend It’s a City, appeared in January of 2021. In seven episodes, Scorsese chatted and guffawed with his friend, Lebowitz, who quipped and bristled her way through wide-ranging topics—from art (“We live in a world where they applaud the price but not the Picasso”) to money (“Hating money is OK if you also hate things, because then you’re the Dalai Lama”). Throughout, Scorsese intercut clips taken from her various speaking engagements over the years.
At 71, Lebowitz seems peerless in having turned wit into a vocation. At first, this was in writing; the New Jersey native’s two best sellers, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, came out in 1978 and 1981, respectively. But then she moved on to public speaking, after running up against what she has termed a “writer’s blockade.” All the better to witness her unique gravitational pull—possessed only by those apparently determined to repel. Scorsese first dedicated a project to the nation’s curmudgeon in 2010’s Public Speaking.
Having recently returned from Europe, Lebowitz continues her tour at the State Theatre, in Minneapolis, on April 14. Ahead of that, I got to chat with her about the pandemic in Europe, her view of Minnesota, and a topic she has a singular perspective on, as someone without a cellphone: cellphones.
You’ve said that New York City really isn’t America, and you’ve mentioned the relative ease of living in other cities—but I’m wondering if anything else sticks out to you while on tour. Maybe it’s the people, or the sensibilities. Does it feel kind of like visiting a foreign country?
Well, it isn’t like visiting a foreign country. I mean, to me, the great thing about the United States is that everyone speaks English, or some approximation of English, generally. I just came back from Europe, and people are always apologizing for their English, even though I speak—like most Americans—no other language. I always say, which is true: No one speaks English more poorly than the native-born American.
So, it’s very important to me to be able to, you know, read the signs around me. I mean the actual signs. It’s important to me not just that people speak to me in English—which, of course, everyone has to, because I’m monolingual—but it’s important to me that I understand the words around me. And so, at least I can say I do that.
The thing I most noticed this time, because I haven’t done this since the pandemic, is how much more open Europe is. It’s just completely open. And I don’t mean because they don’t have mask rules, which they do some places, and some places, they don’t. It’s really just because it seems to me—I’m not certain this is true—but it seems to me that the employers in Europe did not ask people if they’d like to come back to work. Here—at least, certainly in New York—they did ask people, ‘Would you like to come back to work?’ And, of course, people said, ‘No.’ But in Europe, I think they just told them to. So, everyone’s going to work. So, that is why the city seems city-like. Because they’re filled with people.
Here, the cities—especially certain areas of cities—they’re really empty. And cities aren’t meant to be filled with tourists; cities don’t really run because of restaurants—although restaurants are important, especially to me, since I hate to cook. But cities really run on office workers, even though no one thinks that. And so, you see where all the offices are closed. I mean, they may not be actually closed any longer, but no one’s going to them. You see how empty the cities are. And to me, that’s really a sad thing. I mean, of course, I am not someone who would have had to go back to work, and so I have a different viewpoint. Also, I’ve never employed anyone. But I was pretty surprised by this. I don’t know whether that’s true in Minneapolis or not.
Yeah, our downtown has felt pretty empty. Have you been to Minneapolis before?
Several times [I’ve been to] Minneapolis. Before you called, I thought you might ask me to try and remember how many times—I really don’t know. But Minneapolis, just from the point of view of book publishing, was always considered one of the top markets. And I used to ask, ‘Why?’ Why is Minneapolis, which is not one of the five biggest cities in the country—why is it one of the five or six top book markets? And what publishers used to stay is, ‘We guess because it’s so cold. So, people stay inside and read.’ But it always was a place where you went on a book tour, even if you might have not gone to cities that were bigger. So, I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Minneapolis—four or five times, at least.
Minnesotans are conflicted about a perception of the state as ‘nice.’ What, to you, is the value of niceness?
I mean, of course, New Yorkers value it because we so rarely encounter it. But I always thought of Minnesota as the sensible state—until you elected that wrestler governor. And after that, I just said, ‘Well, it’s as crazy as any other place.’
What made you see it as sensible originally?
I would say that, before Clinton was president, before every single thing in the country got outsourced, it was such a productive state. You know, I’m old—I’m 71. So, when I was in grammar school in the 1950s, the way you learned about the country was, you would have maps, you would learn each state. And each state, you would learn chief products. And every state was dense, you know, with producing things. And Minnesota, in addition to having dairy farms and all the things that Minnesota had, you also, in Minneapolis, had all these big companies, as I’m sure you’re aware. I don’t know if you still have them—maybe they’ve all moved to China. And so, it seemed like this very productive, industrial American state. And so that made me think it was sensible, because that kind of hard work doesn’t allow for much dreaminess or craziness. But electing a wrestler governor? Is nuts.
There was Al Franken, also.
Yeah, but Al is around my age—he’s even a little older than me, I think. So, I didn’t form my impression of Minnesota that late in life. And by the way, I mean, Al—he’s sensible. You know, relatively sensible. He’s not a lunatic. His politics are very conventional. They’re very conventional, kind of liberal, New Deal politics.
I guess coming from, like, show business doesn’t have to mean you won’t make for a sensible politician.
Right. I mean, I actually have to tell you that I like Al much more as a senator than as a comedian. I was shocked by what a good a senator he was. Not just because I’m a Democrat and he’s a Democrat. There’s a lot of Democratic senators that I don’t think are very good at all. I just prefer them to Republicans. But I thought he was an exceptionally good senator.
I wanted to ask you about the phrase ‘Pretend it’s a city.’ In the Netflix series, this refers to people who are ‘in a world of one.’ They may be on their phones. They stand in the middle of sidewalks, making them inconvenient to navigate. I’m wondering, though, if that mindset has spilled into other interactions. Is there a greater loss here than convenience?
Well, convenience is important. I know it sounds peripheral, but it is. In New York, walking is a form of transportation. So, you can have sidewalk rage the way that people have road rage in cars—although, usually, of course, it’s less lethal than what people do in cars.
But it wasn’t just that it’s inconvenient that people stand in the middle of the sidewalk. It also infected New Yorkers. It wasn’t just tourists who did that. It wasn’t just people, you know, aimlessly wandering around looking at sights. Everyone became like this. So, to me, everyone unlearned how to be a New Yorker, including New Yorkers, which is that you walk on the right. It’s not a law, it’s not a rule—it’s just sensible. You walk on the right.
In ordinary times, the sidewalks are packed with people. If you’re walking around Manhattan—and there are certain streets that really are hills, that you don’t necessarily notice unless you’re walking on them—and if you look down one of these hills, you will see, usually, a sea of people. You can’t see anything but humans. So, obviously, these people are going to smash into each other if they don’t walk on the right and kind of shift when someone comes toward them.
This ended quite a while ago. And it is not solely the responsibility of tourists, nor phones. It started before phones, and it’s a kind of lack of understanding that there’s other people in the world.
I didn’t get into an argument, but I was with a friend of mine in L.A., we were at a hotel, we were walking through the lobby of the hotel, and someone just, like, walks right into us, because they’re not looking at all. And the guy was really annoyed, and I said to the guy, ‘Really? A hotel lobby. Other people. What a surprise.’
Everyone behaves as if they’re in their own house. And this extends to the way they walk, to the way they dress. Like, you have to admit, sometimes you see people in the street—or certainly in the airport—and you think, ‘How much more comfortably dressed could you be? You could not be more comfortably dressed. I don’t dress that comfortably alone in my apartment.’ To me, it has to do with a lack of realizing you’re not alone.
You’ve said before that if you’re on your phone, that’s where you are—you’re not really in your environment. I wonder if that has made people less distinctive based on where they live or where they’re from. Have we become more similar?
I think that’s part of it. I think part of is also, you know, for instance—every big city that I’ve been in has the same stores. OK? So, if you’re in expensive parts of the city, every city has Prada, Gucci, Cartier, Tiffany. Every city has the same stores.
I always think, ‘Who could possibly be patronizing these stores?’ Because they’re very expensive, and every city only has a certain number of rich people. And even though people go from city to city, why would you bother, if you live in London, to buy something at Gucci in New York when you could buy it in London? Why have to pack it?
And then, going further down the line, from the point of view of how expensive things are, of course, there’s tons of fashionable places—they’re all the same. There are tons of ‘middle’ kind of food places—they’re all the same. So, this kind of homogenization doesn’t really have to do with phones, I don’t think.
One thing I do know [about phones], because I’ve been in airports, like, non-stop—and, of course, if you thought air travel was bad before COVID, it was a dream compared to what it’s like now … because the planes are canceled, the planes aren’t leaving on time, the planes don’t have pilots. And I noticed that, almost invariably, I’m the most angry person. And this is true in general, I have to say. But even discounting my temperament, which tends toward anger, I realized they don’t care that much.
I mean, unless you have to get somewhere in time—which I did, every day; I was supposed to be in the theater at a certain time—it didn’t matter to them. If they’re sitting in the airport on their phone, or if they’re sitting in their house on the phone, or if they’re in a coffee shop on the phone, they don’t really care. They’re not aware of the environment, of the airport—which is horrible, of course. They’re not aware of their environment at all. Their environment is the phone.
And so, naturally, they’re less angry, because they get to take their environment with them all the time. To me, I would have to be carrying my sofa with me, so I could be in my same environment I have at home. Because the phone is the sofa. The phone is everything. And that’s why people are so hysterical if they lose it. I mean, here, we’ve had numerous examples of people accidentally dropping their phone on the subway tracks and going down to get it. To me, whenever that happens, and they say, miraculously, you know, someone pulled them up before the train came—I always think, ‘Don’t pull them up.’ Because it’d only be good for the gene pool. If someone’s stupid enough to jump into an incredibly dangerous environment to retrieve their phone, we don’t really need that person.
So, if those people are less angry, do they complain less, and are fewer improvements made?
Well, they complain less about reality, for sure. But also, I guess they know that there’s no point. I mean, what is the point in complaining that the plane’s not leaving? I do complain, because it’s just in my nature. But it doesn’t have any effect, obviously, my complaining, or my pointing out that perhaps they should hire more pilots, or pointing out the fact that they are a business.
They act like they’re some sort of philanthropy. They act as if they’re giving you a ride. ‘Oh, sure. Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.’ Instead of which, first, you have to pay for the ticket. And this has always angered me: airline departure times are so specific. It’s never, like, 10:30. It’s, like, 10:21. Which is absurd. They’re not NASA. Very few things are 10:31. If NASA says 10:31, you probably can count on it. If your airline says that, you’ll be lucky if you [take off] the day they’re supposed to leave.
So, obviously, I’m very angry at this. And I am in this environment of anger caused by them. And it drives me crazy, because the people on their phones—either they don’t have to be anywhere, which strikes me as, you know, why are you even there? … I really hate to go places, I really hate to travel. I love to be different places, but I do not like to get there. So, I’m always surprised that people are in airports when they don’t have to be somewhere, by which I mean, ‘You mean no one’s paying you?’ Not only is no one paying you, you’re paying to go on a vacation. To me, a vacation is, I’m home.
But I guess they complain about things on the internet. The internet seems to me—not that I have it, but from what I have been able to glean, which is quite easy to do—there’s constant crazy battles on the internet. People are fighting on the internet, like, 24 hours a day. And mostly fighting about things that they have as little control over as I have over when the plane leaves.
And this, I guess, consumes their anger. Because they can reply. Because they can participate on the internet is why, I guess, they feel they’re having some effect. They’re having zero effect, of course. It makes no difference if people are fighting on the internet over political things, which I know they fight about, but they also fight over all this totally irrelevant celebrity stuff. You know: ‘I love her haircut.’ ‘I hate her haircut.’ ‘His sneakers were great.’ ‘His sneakers were horrible.’ To me, these things are preoccupations of 12-year-olds. But if only 12-year-olds did this, I wouldn’t even notice it. But, in fact, as we know, people older than that do it.
Maybe people are getting out their aggression, no longer in real life, necessarily, but in a different place, online. Is that maybe good for civility in the real world?
If their other choice is they’re gonna shoot someone, yes. OK? But I don’t think these are the two things. I mean, I think people who are physically violent are physically violent. I don’t think it matters—they’re probably also verbally violent—but I don’t think that it keeps people from being physically violent. I don’t think they’re really connected. It is not my experience that people are more civil. They just ignore people more. I don’t think people are more polite than they used to be, for sure. On the one hand, it’s very clear that people don’t care what other people think about them so much. And on the other hand, they care incredibly about what other people think about them, which is really the way teenagers are. And so, it’s a whole society of teenagers. That is not good news.
This interview has been condensed and edited.