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Fran Lebowitz on 'Public Speaking,' Twitter and Knowing Everything

by Gary Susman, posted Nov 19th 2010 2:40PM
Fran LebowitzThere aren't a whole lot of job openings these days for philosophers, public wits and raconteurs. Fran Lebowitz pretty much has the monopoly to herself.

As recorded by no less than director Martin Scorsese in his new HBO documentary 'Public Speaking' (which debuts Nov. 22), Lebowitz is the last of a breed that once included such sparkling conversationalists as Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Levant, Jack Paar, Truman Capote, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin and others who could dine out on their witticisms and pontifications.

Though Lebowitz, 60, hasn't published a book of new essays in decades (she famously suffers from a bout of writer's block so durable that she calls it "writer's blockade"), she still makes a living as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and, as the title of the documentary implies, on the lecture circuit. For her, "public speaking" really just means "talking back," the sort of opining she got punished for as a child, but which now pays for her cigarettes and tailored suits.

Lebowitz spoke to TV Squad and offered her witty (naturally) and authoritative (of course) opinions about some of the topics she addresses in 'Public Speaking': her longtime friendship with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, her recurring gig as a judge on 'Law & Order,' her boredom over nostalgia, her aversion to technology, and how it is that she came to know everything.





How did 'Public Speaking' come about?

Eight years ago, [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter had this idea that he wanted to make a documentary about me. I said no, and a brief eight years later, it was finished.

How did you get Martin Scorsese to direct it?
I've known Marty for a long time. And Graydon knew him. He said, "Marty Scorsese wants to do it," and I said, "OK." He's pretty good.

You're listed as a producer on the film. What were your job duties?

I did not raise the money. Graydon did that. I did not produce it second by second. Margaret Bodde, who's Marty's producer, did that. So I don't know. Maybe nothing.

Fran Lebowitz, 'Public Speaking'The movie portrays you as a New York fixture - sometimes literally, as in the scene where you pop your head out of the clock tower above Grand Central Station.
That was my idea. That's the only movie idea I've ever had. Several years ago, I went on a special tour of Grand Central Station, and that's when I found out that the number VI opens on the clock. I put my head out the window, and it's quite a thrilling thing, let me assure you, and I thought, "This should be in my movie."

So I told Marty about it. He didn't know that the clock opened. No one knew that that opened. And so I convinced Marty to use my idea. I said, "Marty, every single building in New York has been in a million movies and has been used in every possible way. We've seen a gorilla on top of the Empire State Building. This has never been done. That intrigued him, so he did it, though he didn't go up there in the tower because he's afraid of heights.

Toni MorrisonToni Morrison interviews you in the movie. How did you two become friends?

When my first book came out in 1978, I was doing a reading at the library across from the Museum of Modern Art. They said, "Do you know who Toni Morrison is?" I said yes. They said, "Would you like to read with her?" I said no. They said, "Why?" I said, "She's not funny." I thought funny people should read together. They said, "Well, you're reading with her." I thought it would be a bad combination. But we read together, and it worked out perfectly. And when we finished, Toni said, "This is a perfect combination. Let's go out on the road." So that is how I met her. We did not go out on the road.

There's a lot of archival footage in the film of old-school wits and raconteurs like Dorothy Parker, Oscar Levant, and William F. Buckley. Is there nobody, besides you, who fills that role today?

Let's go with nobody. I wish there were many more people because it's fun.

You talk in the film about how our culture is awash in cheap opinion. If that's so, what makes yours valuable?

Well, first of all, I know it's an opinion. Here's what I believe. Everyone is always always saying, "I think this. I think that." But what they really mean is, "I feel this. I feel that." They don't think anything. They don't know what think means. So we're not really getting what people think. We're getting what people feel. And really, what could be more deadly? The number of people whose feelings you care about? Very few. At least, I care about the feelings of very few people. You have to admit that the media is quite raucous now, and that's because it's emotion masquerading as thought. Thought is not actually that raucous. It's not that I don't have emotions. It's that I know the difference between my emotions and my thoughts.

Public SpeakingYou discuss your disdain for nostalgia, and yet you also talk about how New York City and the arts were better when you were younger.
We're always like, "Here come the '70s again. Here come the '80s again." And this is mostly popular culture you see coming back and coming back. There's a difference between that and a person saying what their life was like, here's what New York was like when I was 20, 30, whatever.

The people producing this old stuff are young. That's the surprising thing to me. It's not surprising to me that I remember my own life. It's surprising to be me that people who are 20 remember my life. It's the same stuff. It's been this way for 30 years, this constant merry-go-round.

The newest thing that I'm aware of in popular culture is rap, and that's 30 years old. Everything new in the world is technology. There's tremendous innovation in technology. It's almost as if we humans cannot do two things at once. We have these really new machines, but we're going to use them for really old stuff. We live in an era of collage, where people take a little bit of that, and a little bit of this. And that doesn't make something new. It's just that I feel it's the job of young people to do new things, and they're not doing their job. They should be irritating me more. A person my age should be saying, 'These kids, they're nuts," instead of saying, 'These kids, are you kidding me?"

It's too bad you're so averse to modern technology. Twitter would be ideal for someone as epigrammatic as you are.

I think people misunderstand. It's not modern technology that I have an aversion to. It's all machines. I never even had a typewriter. I just have an antipathy to machinery which, to me, comes under the category of algebra. I've seen all these machines, naturally. Everyone I know has them. If they ever get them so that they really work, maybe I'll get them. But I notice they're always breaking. Now, Twitter, could you give me some examples of people who are funny on Twitter?

Conan O'Brien
, Michael Ian Black, Justin Halpern [NSFW]...
Conan O'Brien was funny without Twitter. It's not the machines that make you funny.

No, but funny people can make good use of the medium in ways that most people don't.
Yes, well this is also true of the pen.

In the film, you say how pleasant it is to know everything. How does one come to know everything?

You just get old. That's it. It's not a trick. The reason you come to know everything -- and I don't mean nuclear physics -- is because there are only a certain number of kinds of people. This is unfortunate but true. At a certain point in life, you have met every possible kind of person.

Fran LebowitzWhen young people seek your advice, as they do sometimes, usually about romance, because that's what they're preoccupied with, which is all right, and they say, "You don't understand, Fran, she's like this." "I understand. Here's what she's going to do." "How do you know? You don't even know her." "I know her. Believe me, I know her." Because I have met every single kind of girl there is. And every single kind of boy. Because we're limited.

That's how I end up knowing everything. I'm surprised everyone doesn't realize they know everything at a certain age. If you don't, it's deliberate because you want to keep your life more exciting, I guess. Here's what doesn't surprise me: humans. People don't surprise me. Things, of course, can surprise me, occurrences. But people don't surprise me anymore.

What appealed to you about your recurring role on 'Law & Order'?

What appealed to me about it was that I got to wear a judge's robe and be a judge. That's what appealed to me -- the gavel, the fact that you're sitting above everyone else in the room, and the robe, which I would put on the second I got there. Sometimes, you had to work for 18 hours. They would say, "Fran, you don't have to be in costume yet. I'd say, "No, that's okay. I'm happy to wear this all day." The reason I did it was that I was hoping someone would see it and let me be a real judge. It had nothing to do with acting. I'm not a good actor. I can't act. That's why you just have that little part, which is really just two sentences. But as soon as I found out, which was maybe 30 years ago, that you could be on the Supreme Court without being a lawyer, that was my goal.

What do you hope viewers will take away from 'Public Speaking'?
I want them to do what I say. This has always been my goal. And I've never achieved it. Not even once. I would like even one person to do what I say.


• Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

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jennirellasexirella

I adore Fran Lebowitz.I just watched her documentary and I thought it was awesome.I would love the opportunity to hear her speak,meet her and have a drink with her.

May 08 2011 at 7:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Julie

Thanks for the interview. She has been my idol since "Metropolitan Life." I wouldn't have known this was going to be on without seeing this here...and we Fran fans have to wait a looooong time between fixes.

November 21 2010 at 4:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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