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The Vulture Transcript: Fran Lebowitz on Sarah Palin, Keith Richards, Her Side Career As a Law & Order Judge, and Much More

Martin Scorsese has applied his director's eye to a wide variety of public figures in both documentaries and feature films, all of them male: the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan, Jake La Motta, Howard Hughes, Jesus Christ … But he took on his first female subject — non-writing humorist Fran Lebowitz — for his new HBO documentary, Public Speaking. (The doc debuted last night, but will re-air Wednesday at noon on HBO2, and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. on HBO.) The doc isn't a sweeping life story, but rather is dominated by her wittily pontificating on all manner of subjects while sitting in a booth at New York's Waverly Inn, which is owned by the film's producer, Graydon Carter. We seized the opportunity to have her pontificate to us, too, though we connected in a chartreuse banquette in the HBO commissary. “No matter what they do to cafeterias they still seem like school cafeterias," said Lebowitz as she sat down. "There’s just something about how they smell that makes it like all of a sudden you’re in school." And from there we were off, for a largely uncut Vulture Transcript in which she covered everything from her friendships with Scorsese and Keith Richards to her Law & Order cameo career to why she's given up on helping the younger generation.

You and Marty go way back?
Yeah, I’ve known Marty for a long time. It was Graydon Carter’s idea to do the movie, you know? He said, "I want to make a documentary about you." I said no because I didn’t want anyone to follow me around with a camera. I seem to be the only person left in America that this is true of. Everyone else seems to want to be followed around with a camera. So we talked about it for a while and I said no and he said, "Well, we can do it in a different way." Then when Marty came into it I told Graydon that Marty wouldn’t be interested in that either. But I didn’t really know what he was going to do. I knew what he wasn’t going to do. Marty wasn’t going to follow me around, he wasn’t going to interview my family members. The only thing I knew he was doing was what I saw him do, which was talking to me. The first time I saw the first cut of the movie there was a lot of archival footage, which I had no idea he was going to do. I had no idea he was going to do it. Nor did he ask my opinion.

No round of notes?
I mean a couple things I suggested, two of those things are my ideas, he didn’t use them as I suggested but, um, no. He’s Marty, he has final cut, it’s not a collaboration, you know? But I had a really good time with him. Let me put it this way: We’re still friends and that is a pretty stressful thing to do, because we shot starting at like eleven o’clock at night until five in the morning. All the stuff in the Waverly Inn is done at night and so the fact that we’re still friends, I think it speaks very well for Fran.

You’re a night owl by disposition?
I am and so’s Marty. You know the problem was that at that time my father was very sick and I was going every day back and forth to New Jersey. Every single day. We weren’t meant to do it then, we were meant to do it several months after that and then they postponed Shutter Island, the release of it, and so Marty called me up and said, "They postponed Shutter Island, let’s do your movie now." I said, "Marty, this is a terrible time, my father's very ill, I’m going back and forth ... " He just didn’t hear that part of it. And then everyone said to me, "It’ll be good, it’s a distraction." Consequently I actually remember none of it, you know? Even when I see it, I don’t remember any of it and I have a horribly perfect memory. But not of this moment in my life.

Do you have the same disconnect when you watch yourself as a judge on Law & Order?
Well sometimes I’m watching Law & Order at three o’clock in the morning and ah! there I am, you know? Sometimes I think, Wait, am I on this one? because I did like a dozen of them. And Law & Order I’m on for like one minute. Though I immensely enjoyed each one, sometimes I’m into it before I realize I’m on it. It’s always a pleasure to see myself judging. I’m always happy to see myself judging.

I’ve seen you on a couple of them, but I’ve never seen you stand up.
No. That is one of the reasons I asked for that part. Because that’s an arraignment judge. Initially they offered me a real judge part, a trial judge, and I knew I couldn’t do it because it’s too much acting. You know, sometimes you’ll have to get up, walk around …

Hit a mark ...
Yeah. It’s beyond me. I cannot multitask. So I said, "No, give me just a little part." You know, where I can just sit there and say one sentence. That’s why you don’t see me get up because an arraignment judge doesn’t get up. I suppose there have been some instances where the arraignment judge has to get up in real life, but it didn’t come up in Law & Order.

The necessary drama of "Counselors, in my chambers now!" and that kind of thing?
Right, the arraignment judge doesn’t do that. And that is why I thought that is the part for me.

How’d you get that gig?
I begged.

Did you really?
Yes.

They didn’t come to you?
No. I mean I was friendly with Epatha Merkerson who plays the police captain and I asked her to take me to the set just to see. I mean at that point Barry Diller owned it and he’s an old friend of mine and I kept asking, "Barry, can I go to Law & Order, can I go to Law & Order," and he kept saying, "Yes, yes" but he never arranged it. Then I went to a reading of a book by someone who had died in the interim, a wonderful writer named Toni Cade [Bambara]. So Toni Morrison, who was Toni Cade’s best friend, arranged this reading of her book on its publication and had a lot of actors mostly do the reading. I went to the reading and there was a dinner afterward and I was sitting across from Epatha. I never recognize actors. You know, if they’re not in their actual acting costume, I don’t recognize them. When I realized it was her I said, "Can I go to the set of Law & Order?" and then Toni said, “Can I go too?" and then Sonia Sanchez, who’s a poet said, "Can I go too?" So she arranged it and we all went. It was at Chelsea Piers. The day that we went the producer asked me, "Do you belong to AFTRA or SAG?" I said yes. He said, "Do you want to be a passerby?" There’s a word for it, you just walk past. So I said yes.

Background?
Yeah. So I did that and then I kept asking. Then I auditioned, actually. Epatha got me an audition for the trial judge and I did the audition. You do it in front of the producer, that casting director, the director — four or five people. But as I was doing it I realized I was failing because I’m really not good at acting. It was too much. So as soon as it was over I said, "I know I was horrible, I know I failed, it’s too big a part. Give me the little part, give me the arraignment-judge part." And the producer said, "Actors never say 'I know I was terrible at this big part, give me a little part.'" I said, "I know, but I’m not an actor." So that gave me the little part.

You’re a fan of the show, I take it?
Law & Order I discovered because I only ever watch TV at three o’clock in the morning. So when I discovered it I started saying to people, "There’s a great new show on called Law & Order" and everyone looked at me like ... Because it had been on the air for five years. Whatever is on at three or four in the morning, that’s what I see. If it’s on at other times, I’ve never seen it.

Do you watch any reality shows?
No. No. Uh, no, I have never watched one. That’s not true, now that I think about it. When The Real Housewives of New Jersey was on, everyone said you have to watch it, so I watched The Real Housewives of New Jersey. As a native of New Jersey, I take umbrage at this.

Too real? Not real enough?
Well, I suppose there are different New Jerseys, you know? So I have watched that but these contests I’ve never watched. American Idol or Dancing With the Stars, never.

No Top Chef?
No. First of all, I’m stunned to turn the television on and you see what I think of as people doing chores. You know what I mean? Cooking is something that I hate. I mean I hate doing any like domestic work which includes, in my opinion, cooking. To me it’s like watching someone sweep. Yes maybe you have to make a sandwich but who wants to watch you do that? But apparently the entire country is riveted by these cooking shows. No. And there’s a lot of things like that, right? People looking for houses, there’s a million of these shows.

Fixing houses, remodeling houses...
Chores. To me it’s like watching someone pay their bills. It’s exactly that fascinating. These are things that when I have to do them for myself I put them off until I absolutely cannot put them off any longer. I can’t imagine why people watch these shows. I know they do, but I do not.

It’s kind of the death of subtext, too, in a way. There are always these close-ups and voice-overs of people explaining their motivations and goals and things.
I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know these things about my closest friends, I certainly don’t want to know them from you.

Have you read the Keith Richards memoir?
I did. I did.

How’d it turn out?
You know, it’s good. It’s good. I mean first of all, James Fox is a good writer. It’s very unusual to choose a writer like that, I think, to do that kind of book. Keith is a friend of mine so he asked to interview me for the book and when he called me, which is a couple years ago, maybe three or four years ago, he said, "This is James Fox, Keith gave me your number." No one told me he was going to call me, so I said, "The actual James Fox?" See, there’s an actor named James Fox who’s much more famous than this guy because he’s an actor as opposed to a writer and apparently he’s used to being mistaken. So he said, "You mean the one from Performance?" I said, "No, the one who wrote White Mischief." He said, "Yes! That’s me!" He’s a very good writer and Keith is a very good talker and I think for that kind of book it’s a very interesting book.

Somebody told me that Keith’s book was going to be written by Nick Tosches at one point.
Is that right? He would’ve been a great choice. He’s a great writer. He would’ve also been a great choice, but he’s not English. You know Keith is very English. People forget that, and James Fox is English. Keith is really English in a way that people who are younger are not that strongly their own nationality, you know? Have you read the book?

No. Only excerpts.
When you read the book there’s this tremendous connection to being English, especially in that era.

The war era?
Right. Every English person that age, always the first thing they tell you is they talk about rationing and what they’re talking about is rationing of candy because they were children. This never leaves them. You would think they were survivors of Auschwitz, you know? "We only got this much candy ever!" I love Nick Tosches as a writer. I think he’s a fantastic writer and he would always be a great choice, I think, but he’s not English so maybe it’s better to have an English person.

Are you still playing drums?
You know, my drums Keith sent me, not only the drum kit but [he also sent his X-pensive Winos drummer] Steve Jordan to teach me how to play drums. I saw Steve last night. Then at a certain point I had a godson — I mean, he’s no longer my godson, but he’s alive. If you’re one of my godchildren you can be former — he became very involved with drugs. I thought drums, this would be a good thing to distract him, as if I’d never heard of the combination, so I don’t have them any longer but perhaps I will get new ones. It’s much harder than you think it is, drumming. It’s not as hard as writing, but it’s harder than you think it is. It’s fun, which writing is not.

How do you avoid writing now?
There’s no way that I cannot avoid writing. It just comes naturally to me. Mostly by reading. Most of the time that I should be spending writing, since I’m supposedly a writer, I spend that time reading.

So what are you reading?
At this moment? At this moment I am reading The Insufferable Gaucho by, I can’t pronounce it, I can’t pronounce any name that’s not in English, Roberto Bolaño. Very good. And I just finished reading a book called The Tiger, which is about a tiger. This is something that no one could believe I was reading. I read a review of it, I saw that it was a Knopf book, which is my publisher, so I asked for it. It’s about an actual tiger, a man-eating tiger in Siberia that was eating people in the late nineties. It’s a boy’s adventure book. It’s really good, though.

Sort of the nature equivalent of a true-crime book?
Yeah and it’s really good. It’s in no way the kind of book that I would ordinarily read. First of all, I don’t read that much nonfiction, and tigers? I didn’t know there were tigers in Siberia. Anyway, I just finished that book and I highly recommend it to any 7-year-old boy who might be reading this.

Your Checker Marathon cab gets a lot of screen time in Public Speaking.
Beautiful, right?

They’re great in snow.
Really my attachment to this car is aesthetic. I love the way it looks. I love cars but as objects. I don’t care about the engines or how fast they go or anything like that. If I had money, I’d have 40 cars. I just adore cars. I can only afford to maintain this car, especially at the very spiffy standard I have set for it. I bought it new in 1978 — it’s a 1979 — and as you saw in the movie, it’s beautiful.

It’s pristine.
Pristine, yes.

With Checker folding in the eighties, where do you get parts?
Well, it depends. The engine and all the interior parts — it’s a standard GM engine. So I used to say, it doesn’t matter, it’s a standard GM engine. What can ever happen to GM, you know? The body parts become increasingly hard to find. There was something wrong with the electrical system or the lights or something and the mechanic said to me, "You need a fuse." And I said, "Well, get a fuse." This particular fuse they don’t make anywhere anymore. I don’t know what a fuse is, by the way. I know it’s something small because you have them in your house. I said, "Just find one." No, they don’t make them anymore. I said, "Well, the light has to go on when I open the door." He said, "We can have one made." And you can. You can have anything made. Believe me, if you will pay, someone will make you a fuse. This was something I hadn’t saved up for. Also, when Checker went out of business in a leverage buyout in '81 or '82, they went in literally a second. In other words, there was no warning. And if I had known that I would have certainly ordered body parts to stockpile because it really becomes very expensive. But worth it. Basically almost all the money that I don’t spend on rent, which everyone in New York spends all their money on, I spend on the car.

If you lived somewhere other than New York you could have a yard to put a parts car up on blocks in.
If you live somewhere other than New York you would have money left over from where you live. My father died two years ago and he left this beautiful station wagon the size of this restaurant and he loved that car the way I love my car. I would’ve kept that car except who can afford two garage spaces in Manhattan? If you can afford two garage spaces in Manhattan, you also have a villa in Tuscany, you know? I actually gave it to a friend of mine who has many cars and a barn in Connecticut where he keeps his many cars. Like I said, I love my car and I think it shows.

Did you follow the election?
The midterms?

Yeah.
I followed them and I voted in them. I’m apparently the only Democrat that did, but ...

Did you watch the TV coverage of the election?
I watched a little bit of it. I think the coverage is kind of to blame, you know? Like when reporters say to you, "What do you think of Sarah Palin? Don’t you think it’s horrible that everyone’s paying attention to Sarah Palin?" Like, whose fault is that? If you stop asking questions about Sarah Palin, she goes away. I mean, she’s a total creation of the media. So I followed the coverage a little bit but it causes these things. This type of coverage, by which I mean this speculative coverage, coverage without facts, news without news, causes this. It’s also the fault of what used to be called the citizenry for not voting. I went to vote and I live in a neighborhood that seems to be, when you’re on the street, 85 percent people under the age of 20, yet in the polling place I was one of the youngest people there. So it’s their fault. You can’t just vote once and, if it doesn’t work out for you, give it up, okay? And the truth is that the people who will most suffer for these terrible elections will be them. We’ll be dead. When all the stuff finally shakes out, we’ll be dead. They’ll be stuck with it. You can’t just vote once because it makes you feel good about yourself … Except in cases where someone overturns an election, usually elections are the fault of voters. Democracy is not natural. What’s natural to people? A monarchy is. Go to any playground, okay? Democracy you have to teach people. It takes a lot of effort to have a real democracy and as soon as they stop teaching people that a democracy is something you have to do, that it’s not some dream you have to follow so that you can be a singer or whatever is the major dream of the country now …

Screenplays?
Yes, It’s divided between singers and screenplays — as soon as you stop teaching democracy, it becomes the fault of the citizenry. Except Fran. It’s the fault of the Democrats, or the sane people as I like to call them, that it got to this point. It’s Obama’s fault that he inquired of the Republicans what they wanted. Who cares what they want? He was a Democrat elected by Democrats. We elected a Democratic president, we elected a Democratic Congress. We had eight years of the other people. Did they ask the Democrats what they thought? They didn’t. For some reason the Republicans get to name everything, they get to set the dial way over here. I mean the tea party? This is not new. We’ve always had this in the country. Always. From the very beginning of the country, we’ve always had this. And this particular thing? This is racism pure and simple. It is not hard to figure this out, and we now live in an environment where it is worse to call someone a racist than it is to be one. You can’t call this for what it is. This is old stuff not new stuff. I mean this is real old stuff. This is stuff that I thought we had gotten over, you know? If not everybody, then at least officially. And I think it’s the fault of people who give them a hearing. You do not have to give everyone a hearing. There are people who think Elvis is alive. Do you have to put them on to show the other side? You know, here’s the people who think Elvis is dead and here’s the people who think Elvis is alive. Let’s give them both a hearing. No. He’s dead. We’re not giving them a hearing. There are facts, you know? We don’t have to have people on who think that Obama was born in, whatever, Indonesia or wherever they think he was born. No, we don’t have to do that because that’s a fact. That’s not a matter of opinion.

We're also living in an age where nobody's that invested in taking responsibility for their actions.
I feel like my whole life I’m always thinking, Is this the right thing to do, is this the wrong thing to do? and it’s not that I don’t have self-interest. I’m human. I have self-interest. But I’m aware of things outside. It’s like there’s a recent thing they’re saying that there will be no water in 2040. So the first thing I think is, Oh my God, no water! Then I think 2040? You’ll be dead. You know? It’s these people who didn’t vote this time, these 21-year-olds, they’re not going to have the water, not me. I will be dead. And yes it is our fault, the people my age, that there will be no water. That is true. That is our fault, by which I mean people my age. It has to be our fault. It can’t be their fault, they haven’t done anything. So it was our fault — we drank up all the water, we poisoned all the water, whatever we did, like the way we took all the good drugs, okay? There’s nothing for you. But you still have to fix it. You are the most unlucky generation. You were not as lucky as we were. We were just the luckiest. The luckiest. I mean our parents ? Very unlucky — you know, the Depression, WWII. Us, gravy basically. You? Nope. Sorry. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to fix it. Because you’re going to have no water apparently. I don’t know where the water went but you won’t have any of it. So I stopped worrying about the no water that they’re not going to have.

Do you have any Internet life at all?
I don’t have a computer.

Really?
No. I don’t have a computer, a BlackBerry, a cell phone, whatever these things are, not because I don’t like modern technology, but because I never had the old machines. I never had a typewriter. The car that I own? I would say less than one year ago, I finally learned to open the hood. I could never open the hood since '78 and I would always ask the guys at the gas station, "Could you open the hood?"

Takes a specialist.
It’s a hood that you really have to slam to keep down and someone checked the oil or whatever didn’t slam it and I was driving and it was very terrifying. So when I was parked I said to myself, "You’re going to have to do this, there’s no one else who can do this." So for the first time in whatever it is, 30 years, I looked in and said, "It’s a latch. Even you can figure out a latch, Fran." You don’t really have to be Einstein to figure it. And so I figured it out. So even low technology I find troublesome. Basically with computers it’s a typing thing. I don’t know how to type so if they ever get into the no-typing thing, maybe I’ll have a look.

A series of hand gestures or …
Yeah, or saying "hello" or whatever. When they invented the iPad a year ago or whatever it was, someone was showing it to me, a friend of mine, and he said, "Look at this, you could do this, Fran." I said, "What is this called?" "An iPad — and you can do this and that and use a pen like it’s a pad." I said, "It seems to be going in my direction. When it becomes an actual legal pad and a ballpoint pen, I’m good. I have plenty." So now the technology seems to be going in that direction. Maybe less complicated for someone like me, or for someone like anyone because even though everyone else knows how to use one, they break all the time. I mean people wanted these things so much that they bought them before they were done inventing them. Cell phones don’t work. Everyone knows they don’t work. If you’re young you never knew when phones worked. I mean to me these phones now, they’re like the phones in Italy in the sixties, you know, which didn’t work. Well then you said the Italians, their phones don’t work but they had the renaissance so we had to forgive them for that. But now every phone is like that, okay? No one cares. They so wanted a phone that you could walk around with all that time that they don’t care if it works or not. If people buy things before they work, they’re not going to finish inventing them. They never work.

What if Thomas Edison said like, "Well I have a lightbulb that works one second and then it doesn’t work ... "? He finished inventing the lightbulb and they work. I mean every single company has a whole department that fixes computers because they break all the time, not occasionally. They break. "Can they do this?" "No the computer’s down." … You can call it "down," but isn’t that the same as broken? I mean this isn’t true of old things. When they broke you said they broke. But it was not built into the thing to break. So, should they actually become simple enough to use, I’m sure I will use them, you know? I’m not saying that I have anything against them, it’s just that they’re machines. That’s it. I see that and I know that it’s changed everything, unfortunately it’s not changed the human being which is just as poor a species as it ever was.

I mean, if they would invent something that would make human beings better, I’d be very interested. It’s not surprising to me. People say to me, isn’t it amazing that they’ve made this amazing invention and people use it for pornography? Am I surprised? Nooooo. No, not at all. People use it for pornography or to talk to their friends or send jokes to their friends or sell stuff? No, I’m not surprised. What did you expect, that people would use this technology to help them paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling? No. What do you think "the average person" means? It means they’re going to be average. This is what average people do. No, I’m not surprised at all. I would be surprised if they found some other use for it. Now, should Leonardo come along again, here’s something new to use, okay? But it doesn’t make everyone Leonardo. I did not expect that to occur, so I’m not surprised at all. And they say that, oh, people waste time on it now? They wasted time before. They wasted time on other things before. It’s just how people use everything. My fellow man, I don’t have in high regard, okay? And it is not the machines that made people like that. People invent these things, so the people that invent them are obviously very smart and the people that use them? Obviously not.

You ghostwrote pornography in the sixties?
Yes, I did. It would’ve been 1969 or 70. These were books.

Paperbacks?
Yeah, paperbacks. But without pictures. Books. I could be wrong, but the company was called Midwood or something like that. They paid 500 dollars for a book during an era where the kind of apartment I lived in was a hundred dollars a month. So that was like, a lot. I don’t know, some guy I knew was doing them and he said, "Oh, I can bring you there." You sign a contract for this $500 and I started doing it and it was impossible. I mean really impossible. I mean 'cause they also had rules. They gave you — this I should have kept — they gave you know uh...

Like a bible?
Yeah, what can be in it, what can’t be in it. How often it has to be in it. And they had categories of course and these were different imprints. And straight-male pornography, which was and certainly probably still is the bulk of pornography, could not have any male homosexuality in it but had to have female homosexuality in it. This was not a modern thing even then. How often, what could be in it, what couldn’t be in it. You couldn’t do it. It was too hilarious. So you then enlisted like a million friends and when you finally get paid, I think I made like 40 dollars because of how many people I brought in. Everyone was stoned trying to throw things in, one person was typing, one person was ... So I supposedly completed this one book, but I didn’t do it myself I have to say. But I did use the name of the headmaster who threw me out of prep school as the author’s name, though I doubt that he saw it. Or maybe he did, I don’t know. I also regret that I didn’t keep a copy of the book. More, I regret not keeping this thing they give you telling you what to do. That I wish I’d kept. Yeah, it was like the thing from the Times saying, "You must use a colon here" like that except ... different. That’s the only time I did that.

A friend edited a documentary on swingers in California and there’s that same proviso in that community — anything goes except male-male sex.
The thing that men can’t stand. Yes. They wait until they’re in jail for that. Jail is apparently only about that. Men’s prisons, that’s what they’re about. But not if you’re out.

Photo: Patrick McMullan