Fran Lebowitz Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Fran Lebowitz is coming to Chicago, which she considers to be one of two “real” American cities—the other, of course, is New York City, where she has lived since 1970 (a transplanted Jersey girl). 

She will be onstage April 15 at 7:30 PM at the Auditorium Theatre, where she will be engaged in conversation with Greta Johnsen, the producer and host of WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast, after which she will take questions from the audience. If the Netflix limited series, Pretend It’s A City is any indication, these questions will attempt to prompt from her an acerbic quip, cynical observation, or any number of endlessly quotable opinions about our fractured times. 

Beyond New York City, this is her natural habitat. 

Lebowitz spoke with the Reader by phone about how employers are failing American cities, the joy of banging a gavel as a judge on Law & Order and whether Fran Lebowitz ever finds herself at a loss for words. (spoiler alert: No).

Donald Liebenson: We may be the last two people in America with a landline. 

Fran Lebowitz: That means that eventually we’ll be the only two people whose phones work.

Do you have any Chicago connections?

I’ve been to Chicago numerous times. I have often said what I believe to be the truth, that there’s only two real cities in the United States, New York and Chicago. I really like Chicago, which is not true of every place I go.

You were recently overseas, so I can’t pass up an opportunity to quote a line from Citizen Kane when the reporter asks Charles Foster Kane, “How did you find business conditions in Europe?”

I went to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Venice, Paris, and Athens. These places are incredibly different from each other, but the one thing that seemed to be true of all these places is that the employers in these cities apparently did not ask the employees if they would like to go back to work. They just told them to. So, the cities are almost exactly like they were before: everything is open. 

There is an incredible sense of urban life and this is untrue in this country where employers apparently said, ‘If you don’t feel like coming back to work, don’t.’ American cities have been murdered by this. I have never been an employer, but I feel like I am not a nice enough person, or the sort of employer who asks people if they feel like coming to work. Because if people do not go back to work in their offices, which I would understand they would prefer not to, then I don’t know what the point of cities is.

Are you in full post-pandemic mode? 

I’m traveling all the time. I’m on planes almost every day. I will say that all the things that were horrible about air travel before COVID are worse now. Having to wear a mask on a plane is a drag, I agree, but just because people are tired of wearing masks doesn’t mean they don’t work. I personally get a COVID test almost every day because the venues require it.

Fran Lebowitz interviewed by Greta Johnsen
Fri 4/15, 7:30 PM, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr., $29.75-$142.50, 312-341-2310, auditoriumtheatre.org.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what happened at the Academy Awards. 

I did watch it. Apparently, a lot of people thought when Will Smith got up, that it was some sort of bit. But I knew instantly. I knew it because I could see the way he was walking. 

Chris Rock is a friend of mine. I’m not up to speed on Jada Pinkett Smith’s health. I saw her in the audience. I saw she had very short hair. A lot of people have that haircut. It is totally possible Chris Rock did not know she had a medical condition. It wasn’t a funny joke, but the idea that you can hit someone because a joke’s not funny, this is incredibly dangerous. Imagine what a bad precedent this sets. When I was a child, there were rules about fighting: bigger boys don’t hit smaller boys. And he’s much bigger than Chris Rock. 

The Academy Awards in general seems like something they should have stopped five years ago. It seems old fashioned to me, and I am old. I also felt Will Smith’s speech was incredibly aggravating. The way these people talk about themselves, you would think they were actually countries, not just actors. Clearly whoever was running that thing, had no idea what to do. 

YouTube video
Fran Lebowitz interviewed for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in New York in 1978.

After Pretend It’s A City, you’ve been trending, as they say. What are your audiences like these days?

For some unknown reason, the audiences for my speaking dates are hugely young. No matter what I say, I get these blank looks. The other night, I said, ‘So the Civil War, you’ve heard of it, right?’ Because maybe they haven’t. I spoke to a literature class at the University of California, Davis, and I mentioned John Cheever. No one had heard of him. And they were very smart kids, very studious. But they were certainly ill-informed. And afterwards the teacher of that class said, ‘Thank you for telling my students about John Cheever,’ and I said ‘Wouldn’t that be your job?’ He’s an important American writer. This isn’t some peripheral weird figure.

Has social media devalued expertise? A tweet makes you a critic these days.

There is certainly the idea that there is no value in expertise. This is for almost everything, including medicine. Someone asked me my opinion on some medical thing. What would my medical opinions be based on? My medical opinion is I ask my doctor. That’s my medical opinion. His medical opinions are of interest to me because he’s a doctor. I’m not interested in the opinions of other people that much as far as movies or books unless I know them. I also have actually complained to a certain magazine in New York that they don’t tell you who the writers are. They have the name, but they don’t give you any background. If I want to read an article in a magazine about Afghanistan, I want it to say underneath this writer spent two years in Afghanistan. If it says underneath this writer reviews desserts, I don’t care what they think about Afghanistan. 

Your Janice Goldberg was my favorite judge on the original Law & Order. Has anyone contacted you about appearing on the new reboot?

They have not. I really enjoyed doing that because I loved wearing the judge’s robe. More than even wearing the robe, I loved banging the gavel. I got numerous letters from real judges saying that judges don’t gavel and explanations why I shouldn’t bang the gavel. Truthfully, if you ever have the opportunity to sit on a judicial bench, it is irresistible. 

I loved Pretend It’s A City. I could have probably watched eight hours of you just walking around New York. But my wife noticed you don’t carry a purse. What’s in your pockets? 

I never thought I would say this, but no one’s ever asked me that, but I will tell you: cash, my Metro card, my vaccination card; my keys I leave with the doorman. Cigarettes and a lighter.

You’ve said that these stage appearances are where you are your most buoyant. You’ve talked about your writer’s block, but are you ever at a loss for words? I have to think there were nights at the Algonquin Round Table where George S. Kaufman couldn’t come up with a decent quip to save his life. Do you ever have an off-day?

No. Truthfully, I have no idea where it comes from. The secret to this is coffee. The world’s greatest drug. I just drink gallons of coffee. I have a rider in my contract and the rider is mostly about coffee: how much coffee has to be in the dressing room and my hotel room. There has to be coffee all around me. That coffee is my entire cognitive ability.

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“Fran Lebowitz knows what she likes—and what she doesn’t like. And she won’t wait for an invitation to tell you,” touts the promotional materials for Pretend It’s A City, the Martin Scorsese-directed homage to the Big Apple via Lebowitz’s signature wit. A seven-part series, the Netflix exclusive allows Lebowitz to address a range of subjects…