For a person who hasn’t released a book since 1981, Fran Lebowitz has found a way to gain new fans doing what she does most/best: talking, be it on talk shows, at colleges, at the 92Y, or whatever the 92Y equivalent is in other cities. Most recently, it was her six-part Martin Scorsese–directed Netflix series, Pretend It’s a City, in which Lebowitz waxes grumpy about how everyone and everything is annoying and, worse yet, it is annoying to her, Fran Lebowitz.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Lebowitz talks about Pretend It’s a City, comedy, and aliens. Below, you can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
After Bowen Yang did an impression of you on Saturday Night Live, you said you hadn’t seen it. Has anyone shown you since? Do you care to see it?
I don’t like it. I didn’t know it was going to be on. If I’d known it was going to be on, I wouldn’t have watched it. I never watch myself on TV. I can’t stand watching myself, and I never could. Even when I was young and looked different, I still couldn’t. I don’t like cartoons of myself or caricatures of me. No one does. I don’t care what they tell you; no one likes it. You know, people say, “Oh, I love it. It was so flattering. It was so funny.” I don’t like it. I have nothing against this guy — who I now know who he is, because someone showed me it is this guy. There’s nothing you can do about it. This is what people do. And some people I know say they like it, but I believe they’re lying.
I reached out to Bowen and asked him if there was anything about you that he was curious about for his impression, and he was wondering about your physicality when you talk. Like how in stand-up, the comedian might walk around the stage. Do you feel like you talk more physically, more with your hands than you would normally?
You know, I never knew I did that until I saw Public Speaking. And I thought, What is wrong with you? Apparently, it’s just something I’ve always done. No one ever said to me, “You realize that you talk with your hands?” I believe that I do it more in public because you can’t smoke anywhere. I think that if you saw me in a place where you could smoke — like my apartment, or people’s apartments, or places I go with my friends where you can smoke — I probably would do it less. That’s just a guess on my part. But you’re never going to see me on TV or anywhere smoking, because you’re not allowed to.
I feel like I once heard if smoking is part of your performance, you are allowed to do it onstage.
I saw Dave Chappelle smoke at Radio City Music Hall, where you’re not allowed to smoke, and he just does it. He just does it. You can’t do it. You can’t do it in New York. You can’t do it if you’re in a play. And this is incredibly stupid. In a play in New York, if a character smokes a cigarette, it can’t be a cigarette.
Keith Richards once told me, “Oh, you can smoke.” I was going to do the Jimmy Fallon show. I said, “You know, the horrible thing about the Jimmy Fallon show is how long it takes to get downstairs to smoke. And then you’re in Rockefeller Center.” This happened to be around Christmastime, and it’s a nightmare. There’s like a billion people going to the Christmas tree, and Keith said, “Well, why do you have to go downstairs? You could smoke there.” I said, “No, you can’t.” He said, “You can smoke right in there.” I said, “Well, who’s going to tell you to put it out, Keith? So you can smoke there.” He had no idea you weren’t allowed to smoke there, because if you never ask if you can smoke there and you happen to be Keith Richards, no one’s going to say anything to you.
What do you think of Dave Chappelle?
I think he’s just fantastic. I love him as a comedian. He’s really funny, and he’s really talented. And, you know, sometimes someone will say, “Did you know Dave Chappelle said this? Do you agree with this?” I don’t have to agree with a comedian. He says things I don’t agree with — that’s absolutely true. I’ve never met anyone I don’t disagree with. There’s no such thing as a person that I don’t disagree with. I think he’s a wonderful comedian. I think he is one of the best comedians there is.
Have you paid attention to how the status of comedians has changed over the last few decades? What do you make of it?
It’s definitely changing. That is exactly true. I noticed it. Certainly, everyone has noticed it. And I think partially it happened because of — well, I’m sure I’m going to get killed for this — because of the general lowering of standards. So obviously if there’s no such thing as great, and everything is great and everything is important, then comedians are great artists.
Now, the truth is that most comedians are not artists; they’re entertainers. There is a difference. I know you’re not allowed to say this. The truth is that most comedians are entertainers. Some are artists. To me, the difference between an entertainer and an artist is: Are you mostly interested in the audience’s response? One of the reasons people look down on television was not just because it was really basically an advertising medium but also because it lived or not based on how many people liked it. So the truth is — and this has always been true, and it’s never not going to be true — if something is liked by a zillion people, it’s not that good.
There’s a kind of comedian that I loathe, which is the kind of comedian who is very hostile to the audience, but they really want to be loved by the audience. This, to me, shows a complete misunderstanding of an audience. They do not love you. If you think that’s love, you have bigger problems than whether or not you’re a successful comedian.
The whole idea of what a comedian is has changed. People have an expectation that not all, but a very significant number of, comedians will also be, like, political-policy experts — that they will also have not just political opinions but political wisdom to impart. That would be so unlikely, since almost no one has this wisdom to impart. It shouldn’t certainly be a requirement for comedians.
I realized probably now, being a stand-up comedian must be incredibly fraught because of all the things you’re not allowed to say. Because truthfully, no matter what people think, humor is making fun of things. It is making fun of things in both senses — like making fun of, which is criticizing, and making fun, as in fun. You know, we’re going to have fun criticizing something. Now, you can barely say that you like someone’s T-shirt or dislike someone’s T-shirt without having half the country on top of you. So it must be very difficult, very fraught for comedians.
But isn’t making it more difficult better for comedy? You like to say there are too many people who call themselves writers. Arguably, there are too many comedians, because we don’t place any expectations on them. Can it be argued that we should be making it harder — that we should demand more of these people, especially now that we give them such status?
You should demand more that they be better comedians. But you can’t demand that they’re better people is my point. This very high bar for the character of entertainers — who have always been, like, not among your finest examples of the human being — it’s just not going to happen. It’s not going to turn out that this stand-up comic is the Dalai Lama. There’s going to be a lot of things wrong with this person.
Do you care about legacy?
Not at all. I don’t care. I do not at all. I do not care what happens after I die in any way, in other words. Why do people care about this? I don’t care about this. It’s like caring about what you’re going to have for dinner the day after you’re dead.
Do you believe in aliens?
Aliens? No. No. Why do people believe in this stuff? Isn’t life on Earth bad enough? Are things not bad enough for you? Do you have to imagine some other problem coming from outer space? Is that what you mean by “aliens”? You meant beings from outer space or whatever? No, I do not. I do not believe in anything you have to believe in.
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