If bon mots were bonbons, Fran Lebowitz would be Willie Wonka.
She has been dispensing witty observations for decades now, in her book The Fran Lebowitz Reader, as a frequent and reliably funny guest on late-night TV, and most recently in the Netflix documentary series Pretend It’s a City.
Her friend Martin Scorsese directed the Emmy-contending series, the second documentary he’s made that focused on Lebowitz, after the 2010 film Public Speaking. Pretend It’s a City consists of conversations between the two, as well as public speaking engagements Lebowitz made before Covid hit, moderated by the likes of Spike Lee, Alec Baldwin, and Olivia Wilde.
The seven-part series includes an ample supply of pithy comments, most of them springing from Lebowitz’s curmudgeonly point of view—a longtime New York resident (though originally from New Jersey) who feels constantly irked by the foibles of people with whom she shares the city.
The name of the series is but one example.
“The title,” Lebowitz tells Deadline, “came from me yelling at people who are not moving, ‘Move! Pretend it’s a city.’”
Another example: “Your bad habits can kill you, but your good habits won’t save you.”
DEADLINE: How did this documentary series come about? Obviously, you’ve worked with Mr. Scorsese before.
FRAN LEBOWITZ: The thing I did with Marty prior to this was a documentary film called Public Speaking. And as soon as we finished, Marty goes, “Let’s make another one.” And I said, “No. Why?” And he said, “No, let’s do another one.” And I said, “No, let’s not do another one.”
He said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, because if there was any other person that there were two documentaries about, and that person wasn’t George Washington, I would be raising my eyebrow.” And he said, “No, no, let’s do it.”
And so, for 10 years, Marty kept saying, “Let’s do this again.” And then at a certain point, he said, “Let’s do it as a series.” And so, finally I said yes.
DEADLINE: Martin laughs a lot during the series, because you say a lot of very funny things. Did you feel like he was kind of your own personal Ed McMahon?
LEBOWITZ: Not at all. Until this came out and people started commenting on this, I didn’t even notice it. And that is because people’s relationships with each other are some sort of chemical thing. And I’ve always struck Marty funny. In other words, I don’t think anyone thinks I’m as funny as Marty does, but he’s always been like that.
Marty himself is hilariously funny. So if I made a film, if I suddenly turned into a great movie director, you would see me laughing at Marty. I mean, Marty is also incredibly funny.
DEADLINE: I know you made the series before Covid, but it seems to me the title takes on an interesting meaning as we look at it in the context of the pandemic, in the sense that Covid turned every city into a “pretend” city. Like, it’s a city, but there’s nobody there, or nobody going outside.
LEBOWITZ: It should have come out before Covid, of course. One of the central aspects of Marty as a filmmaker is how long he takes to edit. I don’t even remember how many days of shooting, but it was very few, relatively few, probably just a few weeks. And the editing took two years, or I don’t know how long. A long time. And then it was postponed, and Netflix postponed it for some reason. And then it came out in the middle of Covid. So it took on a different meaning, even for people watching it, I know that, but that was just happenstance.
DEADLINE: Do you still not have Netflix?
LEBOWITZ: I still don’t have Netflix. In order to have Netflix, you need to have a WiFi connection in your apartment. I do not have that. So I still haven’t seen Netflix, but I’ve heard a lot about it.
DEADLINE: I’m guessing, and maybe I’m wrong, but you must have a computer now. And I only say that because you’ve been obliged to do things on Zoom, like interviews, TV appearances and such.
LEBOWITZ: I don’t have a computer. No, the Zoom things that I’ve done for Netflix, I’ve done at Netflix. They have an office in New York, and then they have to send usually two people, who work all the computer stuff. So, no, I still don’t have one.
DEADLINE: You say at one point in the series, “Basically, making distinctions is my profession.” What do you suppose was the first opinion you ever expressed in your life?
LEBOWITZ: I have to tell you that I can’t imagine there’s a question I’ve never been asked, but that’s one. That is really interesting to me, but it would take me a second to see if I could… I can tell you this, as an adjacent answer: Every single report card I got as a grammar school student had in the comment section, “Francis asks too many questions.” And my parents would berate me for this.
Additionally, I’ve had insomnia since birth, as far as I can recall. And I used to blame my mother for this. I used to say, “The reason I can’t sleep is because you made me go to bed so early, when I was child.” Until I was like 10 years old, I had to go to bed at 7:30, and I was not tired. And so, I started to connect being in bed with not being sleepy. And I said, “Why did you make me go to bed so early?” And she said, “To tell you the truth, by 7:30, I just couldn’t listen to you anymore.”
So apparently, this has been a lifelong thing, of asking questions, but I don’t remember the first question I ever asked.
DEADLINE: One of the cool locations where you shot the series is the Queens Museum, which has this giant topographical map of the city of New York laid out on the floor. Why were you wearing booties during that?
LEBOWITZ: I’ll tell you why. You’re not, of course, allowed to walk on that. No one is. So I guess probably Emma Koskoff, the producer, probably had to talk them into it for weeks on end… I guess they finally convinced the museum to let me walk on it, and that’s what Marty wanted to do.
And the guy in charge of it, who was the most anxious person you could ever imagine… he said, “You take your boots off, you have to wear these.” And I said, “I don’t want to wear them. Can’t I just walk in my socks? I’ll take my boots off.”
So I took my boots off, and I put half of one foot on that [map]. And he had a nervous breakdown. He said, “You cannot do that. No. You have to put these on.” And that’s why I have them on.
DEADLINE: You come up with a novel idea in one of the episodes, of having two mayors of New York, which I think is an eminently sensible idea. And you volunteered to be the “night mayor.” But I’m curious whether you have a preferred candidate as we head into the mayoral primaries on June 22.
LEBOWITZ: The Democratic primary will be the election. There are 20 candidates. I’m not a person to say we should have more rules, but that is stupid. There’s too many candidates.
Out of these 20 candidates, is there a great candidate? Not as far as I’m concerned. There’s some ridiculous candidates, I will tell you that. Andrew Yang is an absurd candidate for mayor of New York. He couldn’t get on my condo board, okay? I mean, this is someone who knows nothing about anything and has accomplished absolutely nothing.
I mean, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, but I can tell you that he would have been the most annoying boy in my high school. And he is still, in my opinion, the most annoying guy in my high school. So, he’s a ridiculous candidate.
So we have a ridiculous candidate, and we have some bad candidates. We have some okay candidates. I haven’t really decided [who to support] exactly. There’s a couple that I think are okay… This is true of all politics—this is not confined to the mayoralty of New York—I don’t understand why we never have great candidates.
The idea that you’re going to have someone like Andrew Yang, who basically goes around going, “Yay. I’m a fun guy,” it’s really horrible. So it’s very important who is the mayor of New York, and I hope people take time to try to figure out who would be the best candidate.
DEADLINE: There was a little bit of a flap recently, because he was asked about his favorite subway stop. And he said, “Times Square.”
LEBOWITZ: He knows nothing. First of all, any real New Yorker will tell you, there’s no such thing as a favorite subway stop. What could that possibly mean? Your favorite subway stop is one that you actually get to.
DEADLINE: I’d love to ask you a few “speed round” type questions, if you will. You’re such a great reader, I wonder if you would share what you’re reading now.
Right now, I’m almost finished with Cynthia Ozick’s new novel. It’s called Antiquities. She’s one of my favorite writers. This is a very short novel, I have to say. Everyone keeps saying this is very odd. And I keep saying, “What does ‘odd’ mean, for her?” It’s unlike a lot of her other work, that’s true. That’s, to me, a good thing. That can also mean “new.”
DEADLINE: Speaking of writers, it was touching to see your late friend Toni Morrison in the series. What a loss it is that she’s no longer with us. You’ve known so many extraordinary people, many who have passed—Robert Mapplethorpe, Charles Mingus. Who would you say you miss most?
LEBOWITZ: Toni. I miss Toni every day, because Toni was one of my closest friends for more than 40 years. I miss Toni almost hourly, I would say. That’s my personal feeling, but the loss to the culture was immense… The last year [of her life] she was quite ill, but before that, she was working. I would love for there to be a new book by Toni, naturally.
I especially missed her at the beginning of Covid, when I was completely befuddled by what was happening. I said to a friend of mine, who was her editor and my editor, “Don’t you miss Toni, even more than usual? Because Toni would know how to think about this.”
DEADLINE: Is there anyone you’ve ever met that you felt it was a struggle to keep up with intellectually, they were so extraordinarily brilliant?
LEBOWITZ: You mean in conversation?
DEADLINE: Yeah. I guess in conversation.
LEBOWITZ: No. But there are many people I’ve met that I know were much smarter than me, because I happen to, by weird happenstance, have met an unusual number of physicists in my life. And I don’t even know what physics is. So I always assume all these people, even if they’re not in the top rank of physicists, are all a billion times smarter than me. But I wouldn’t say they’re the most hilarious conversationalists I’ve ever met.
DEADLINE: There is a mention in one of the episodes of your early work for Interview magazine, which was co-founded by Andy Warhol. And you say that you and Andy did not get along. May I ask why?
LEBOWITZ: I would say, because we didn’t like each other.
DEADLINE: Well, that’s a good reason.
LEBOWITZ: I would say that the main reason people don’t get along is because they don’t like each other.
DEADLINE: It wasn’t that he took your bagel out of the refrigerator one day and you never forgave him for that. It was deeper than that, it sounds like.
LEBOWITZ: Just the way that I had this instant chemistry with Marty, I had an instant un-chemistry with Andy. In Italian, there’s a word, “anti-simpatico.” It means you don’t get along with the other. I’m not suggesting in any way we had any kind of argument. We never did. Andy didn’t talk that much, first of all. We just didn’t like each other.
DEADLINE: In the series we learn a lot of the things that irritate you. But what brings you joy in life?
LEBOWITZ: I have to tell you there are many things that I enjoy. I know that “joy” is a word that used to be kind of reserved for churches, but now is so prevalent that people might mean, “What do you find mildly amusing, or mildly pleasurable?”
I cannot answer a question, which to me means, what makes you ecstatic? There are many things I enjoy, that I find pleasurable, but this heightened level of, I don’t know, “heavenly ecstasy,” I have yet to experience.