On one of the many dark days online in 2020, a good friend texted me, “When I’m feeling petty, I watch old clips of Fran Lebowitz complaining on YouTube.” This tip quelled my anxiety instantly, although not permanently. Now, on rough nights (read: almost every night) I’m up until three o’clock in the morning watching clips of Fran Lebowitz complaining on Late Night With David Letterman in the ’80s instead of doomscrolling on Twitter dot com.
Fran Lebowitz is a writer who hasn’t published a book in nearly 30 years. She became famous for her voracious commentary on American culture and life in New York City — a well-dressed Larry David before Larry David. Her brutal honesty is her most defining characteristic: She hates the things she hates and she isn’t afraid to say it. She is therefore an inspiration to many, especially writers who hate most people and doing things but passionately love the art they write about and consume. She personifies a pricklier era of New York City that many are nostalgic for, even though they never experienced it.
Netflix’s limited series Pretend It’s a City is a seven-episode collection of Fran Lebowitz complaining. Intertwined with interviews and shots of Lebowitz walking around Manhattan, the episodes revolve around scenes with longtime friend Martin Scorsese as he talks to her at a table at The Players in Manhattan. Scorsese talks to Lebowitz (or more accurately, Lebowitz talks at Scorsese) about the things she loves, but mostly about the things she hates. Ninety percent of the series is Fran eviscerating something, and the other ten percent is Martin Scorsese laughing uproariously at every word that comes out of her mouth.
Much like onetime Academy Award winner Scorsese, my experience watching Pretend It’s a City also involved laughing hysterically at every word that came out of her mouth. So here are (in no particular order) the most Fran Lebowitz moments in the Fran Lebowitz Netflix limited series, Pretend It’s a City, for the particularly dark days 2021 is bound to bring us. Relish them, and then watch the docuseries again.
12. When Fran Lebowitz gets hysterical about the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera.
In the first episode of Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz walks around the theater district. In front of the the Majestic Theater, which has housed The Phantom of the Opera since its debut in 1988, Lebowitz tells Scorsese about attending the opening of The Phantom of the Opera, and how, when the chandelier famously crashes down at the end of Act One, Lebowitz thought that the fixture was actually going to fall on top of her. “I was hysterical,” she says. After exclaiming, “Oh, Fran, no,” Scorsese laughs uncontrollably as Fran pops off about how bad The Phantom of the Opera is, then drifts off into another rant about Evita (she almost got kicked out of the theater for laughing at it). I must note here that when I was a child I had the opportunity to see The Phantom of the Opera but I backed out at the last minute because, although I knew the chandelier did not fall on the audience, I was worried that if I attended, it would fall on the audience.
11. When Fran Lebowitz complains about Times Square.
Scorsese manages to make Times Square look mildly appealing as Fran Lebowitz walks around it with the “I can’t believe I am in fucking Times Square right now” look that every New Yorker has when they are in Times Square. She calls Times Square the most horrible neighborhood in the world (correct), and outlines her strategy for attempting to navigate around it: “What if I walked up to 125th Street, then all the way down?” Times Square is on 42nd street.
10. When Fran Lebowitz admits she never worked on Wednesdays, because Wednesday was the day the Village Voice came out.
Lebowitz tells Scorsese about all the odd jobs she had in New York before her writing career took off: She drove a cab, cleaned houses, sold belts on the street. But she never worked on Wednesdays, because that was the day that the Village Voice came out and she needed to find a new job in the classifieds. There is, of course, a chance that she’s being hyperbolic here, but there is an even bigger chance that she is completely serious about this. This anecdote encapsulates the era of New York City that Lebowitz experienced and represents: a time when Manhattan was expensive but affordable enough for artists to work and create in it, a time when the local publication of a paper like the Village Voice was an event. Scorsese, once again, laughs and laughs and laughs while Lebowitz waxes nostalgic.
9. When Fran Lebowitz remembers yelling at a writer who blurbed a bad book.
Fran Lebowitz tells a laughing (I know it’s redundant at this point, but it’s important that you know he’s never not laughing) Scorsese that she bought a book because a writer she respects blurbed it. “It was a horrible book,” she says. She couldn’t even finish it. So Lebowitz contacted the writer who blurbed the bad book, yelled at him for blurbing the bad book, and demanded that the next time he blurbs a bad book, let her know so she doesn’t accidentally buy that bad book.
8. When Fran Lebowitz tells Spike Lee she hates sports.
Along with Scorsese’s own interviews with Lebowitz in Pretend It’s a City, there are excerpts from interviews Lebowitz did with famous people who are not Scorsese, including Hilaria Baldwin’s husband (Alec Baldwin), Olivia Wilde (who I assume binged this over the weekend with Harry Styles), and filmmaker Spike Lee (in a delicious pink sweater). Lee asks her about sports, knowing what her answer will be, but at the same time hopeful that he can somehow convince her otherwise. Lebowitz immediately states that she hates sports several times, though she admits that she knows who Kobe and LeBron are. When Lee asks her what she does on Super Bowl Sunday, she says that it’s a great day to go to a restaurant.
7. When Fran Lebowitz admits that she loves parties.
Fran Lebowitz hates most people, that we’ve established. But she likes fun, and parties are fun, so she loves parties even though there are usually people she hates at them. In fact, Lebowitz is surprised that so many people hate parties and that so many people are shocked to learn that she is one of the few humans on planet Earth who loves them. But it makes sense: Lebowitz abhors strangers and boring people as a concept (same), but she’s incredibly curious about the minds of artists, writers, and young people. The way she talks about it just makes me yearn for the day I can hate parties again.
6. When Fran Lebowitz asks an employee at the Strand kiosk in Times Square if anyone buys books there.
Fran Lebowitz loves books and misses the time when independent, niche bookstores were rampant in New York City. She tells an already howling Scorsese that she once went to a communist bookstore not because she is a communist, but because she was curious about what communist books were like. She misses the novelty bookstore, and bemoans that the Strand is essentially the only place to go in New York for books. As Lebowitz walks around Times Square, she goes up to the Strand’s kiosk there and asks the employee if anyone actually buys books there. After he says no, Fran says mostly to herself, “Do you think it’s fair to bring a book into Times Square? It’s not fair to the books.”
5. When Fran Lebowitz declares that writers who love writing are horrible writers.
She’s right. I hate writing so much that I cried in the middle of writing this blog, which obviously means that I am a good writer. I completely understand why Fran Lebowitz has not completed a book since the ’90s. Once I own a multimillion-dollar apartment in Chelsea, I won’t write anymore, either.
4. When Fran Lebowitz correctly rejects the concept of guilty pleasures.
Lebowitz hates the concept of guilty pleasures. She says that there are people who don’t feel bad for murdering people, so why should anyone feel bad about something that makes them happy? Essentially, what Fran Lebowitz is saying here is that even though the only thing I watch these days are episodes of The Real Housewives of New York City that I have already seen nine times, I am a human being with immense intelligence, talent, and value. Thank you.
3. When Fran Lebowitz recalls the time Leonardo DiCaprio gave her an electronic cigarette.
This isn’t the most Fran Lebowitz moment in Pretend It’s a City, but it is important that Fran Lebowitz has a Leonardo DiCaprio story, because it makes me feel like I could have a Leonardo DiCaprio story someday. On the set of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, in which she played a judge, DiCaprio gave a reluctant Lebowitz an electronic cigarette. When he told her she can’t smoke it on an airplane, she asked him how he would know what is or isn’t allowed on a commercial flight. He said that he flew commercial with one and was told it is not allowed. Lebowitz is just as shocked at the image of Leonardo DiCaprio flying commercial as you are.
2. When Fran Lebowitz discusses the Kardashians and the internet.
Fran Lebowitz does not use the internet, a smart phone, or a computer, and claims she’s never even used a typewriter. Although she is almost a century behind on technology, Lebowitz says that she is aware enough of the internet — and things like Twitter and Instagram — that she has an understanding of culture. For example, she knows who the Kardashians are, and that they are connected to the internet. And that’s the extent of that.
1. Just … look at this shot of Fran Lebowitz waiting to cross the street.
If this was art — not that it isn’t, but if it was a literal piece of art hanging in a gallery — it would be called “Impatient New Yorker Waits to Cross Street.” There is nothing more New York than this, nothing more Fran Lebowitz either.