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Cultural Capital

Somebody Explain Fran Lebowitz to Me

Some in the crowd at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn last Saturday got to talk to the woman they felt like they knew.

Kings Theatre in Brooklyn (Kings Theatre)

The chimes went off in Brooklyn's Kings Theatre, indicating that the Fran Lebowitz talk was about to start, and I'm waiting anxiously for my friend to get inside. "This line is crazy," he texted me. It curled two whole blocks around Flatbush Avenue, mostly because the Q train was inexplicably out of commission. I asked a security guard if there was anyone who could hold my friend's ticket so I could go find my seat. "It's an old lady talking," he said with a smile on his face. "What are you afraid to miss?"

That's the question. But hundreds of people, mostly millennials sprinkled with some Gen Xers and boomers, many in very nice sweaters, have turned out on a Saturday night to do precisely that—watch Lebowitz talk. Younger fans barked grumpily at their aging parents to get in their seats and flooded the venue's mahogany bars to load up on canned wine. An attendant urged that the show needed to get on the road, saying into an earpiece, "You know how she gets." 

This was the first stop on Lebowitz's world tour, composed of "conversations," typically with other authors. But Lebowitz doesn't really write books anymore. (The last one she published was the 1994's children's book "Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas," about pandas who want to go to museums.) On sale in the lobby is "The Fran Lebowitz Reader," a compilation of two books of essays she wrote almost half a century ago, "Social Studies" and "Metropolitan Life," the latter of which I have read. Its contents are humor writing whose charm has mostly been lost to time. (On Rome: "Rome is unquestionably the lunch capital of the world.") Instead of writing these days, Lebowitz instead talks and cavorts about the city, opining about old-school New York values: museums, how to eat at fancy restaurants that love you so much they save you a table, reading other peoples' books. Recently, some of this was captured by her friend Martin Scorsese in the Netflix show about her called "Pretend It's a City." She is the beneficiary of a phenomenon that's almost entirely unique to her—maintaining a lucrative and glamorous position as an oracle of New York City, through sheer strength of character. And now she sells that old New York sensibility as a commodity in consumable packages.

Frankly, I think I envy the idea of writing two short books and then never having to do anything that even vaguely resembles work ever again, procrastinating so long on projects that their moments vaporize, but still being thought of as interesting enough to comment on whatever you feel like commenting on. It takes—and I mean this seriously—a singular talent to pull that off. 

On Saturday, Lebowitz's conversational partner was the Jamaican author Marlon James, a pairing that felt strange to me even before they began talking and whose failings became even more apparent as the night went on. He made attempts to relate to her, but their humor was not meshing. One example: When he cracked plainly, "I'm a Black guy, they don't sit next to me on the bus," she sidestepped around an idea that's seemingly too heavy for her to address. "Well, I don't want to take the bus," she replied, adding, "It’s faster to hop." She then immediately segued to a story about choosing to sit next to a dead guy on a plane the '70s. "My favorite guy is a dead guy," she quipped. 

James then pivoted to safer territory: who Lebowitz thinks is going to be speaker of the House. And from there, the evening settled into its most comfortable state: an MSNBC comedy hour, one where her cranky, opinionated sensibility shined. It was bland, your-aunt-at-Thanksgiving subject matter if your aunt were an unashamed coastal elite. 

Lebowitz fired off opinions on command. 

On Citi Bikes: "A bicycle used to be a toy."

On Roger Ailes: "He used to call me and ask me to be on Fox News. I told him, 'I don't care that you call it 'Fox', I care that you call it 'news.'"

On Donald Trump: "The only place in New York that voted for Trump was Staten Island, so he’s not a New Yorker." 

On pronouns: "If people are talking about you when you’re not there, the pronouns are the least of your problems!"

On rats: "I believe they're calling rats all over the country, saying, 'You can't believe what's going on here. They bring you the food!'"

The audience was rapt, cocooned in a blanket of Lebowitz's elegant sensibility; in their questions, they palpably yearned for affirmation of the connection they felt with her. ("Fran! FRAN!" they screamed, trying to get her attention.)

At one point, the conversation turned to Eric Adams: Lebowitz didn't vote for him. "I didn't want to be one billionth responsible" for his mayoralty, she said, adding, "He's a crook!" "I mean, doesn't it strike you that we can't find people to be the mayor?" she mused, before riffing, in a trademark seemingly improvised digression, "I don't know why people don't run, it's a great job. I would love to be mayor of New York." 

There's actually no great mystery to what Fran Lebowitz "does," I realized—she's not, at her essence, a writer, she's a decent stand-up comedian, specializing in crowdwork. And like any comedian, she repeats her sets. If you watched her on Bill Maher's podcast, you can hear her thoughts on Eric Adams, as she delivered them on Saturday, word for word. There's nothing radical about the politics she's expressing, but the unfiltered snobbery is the most refreshing part of this arch-liberal political comedy, because it at least feels honest.

With Lebowitz's rock-solid comedic intuition, I really think she could put up a fight against Fox's Greg Gutfeld. She at least knows how to tell a joke. Unlike Gutfeld, she dodged anything remotely approaching a hot-button issue, keeping to safe topics. But the slightest whiff of a sharp-edged idea, or a fresh opinion, isn't really what most of her fans want from Lebowitz, and nor is it what she wants to give them. 

During the Q&A portion, someone got up and asked, "What do you think about what's going on in Israel?" She stiffened. "No Middle Eastern politics," she said. The crowd whooped and applauded.

Updated (10/27/23, 4:20 p.m.): This article has been updated to reword a description of Lebowitz and to reflect that one of Lebowitz's jokes was about choosing to sit next to a guy who was already dead, rather than a guy dying next to her.

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