Fran Lebowitz on 'Pretend It's a City,' President Trump's Post-White House Career and Making Martin Scorsese Laugh

Pretend It's a City - Fran Lebowitz
Courtesy of Netflix

Fran Lebowitz has a new show on Netflix, Pretend It's a City, even if she does not, herself, have a Netflix account. Or an internet connection, computer, or what she calls "one of your modern devices," a cellphone. What the iconic New York raconteur does have in her corner is a biting sense of humor, decades of rich life experiences and a longtime friend named Martin Scorsese. The legendary filmmaker directed and appears in the seven episodes, now streaming, and together, they navigate topics ranging from cultural affairs and transportation to libraries and sports. Meaning, Lebowitz says something about a particular subject and Scorsese doubles over with laughter, time and again. The 70-year-old Lebowitz got on the telephone — a landline, naturally — to discuss how she consistently amuses Mr. Scorsese, avoiding death by taxicab and what she really thinks about Los Angeles.

The events in Washington, D.C., are on everyone's mind. What do you make of what you saw?

What any sane person would make of it. Now, of course, unfortunately, half the country is not sane. Also, they're stupid. I know you're not allowed to say that, but I'm not running for anything. I know that a lot of people have said this since, but I was talking to friend of mine on the phone and I said, "If these people were Black …" and she said, "Yes, they'd all be arrested." I said, "No, they'd all be shot." It really struck me right away the way that the cops almost welcomed them in. I'm not saying every cop, obviously not, you know, but that just would never have happened, not in a million years. I don't know how many people were there — people are saying thousands — so they better get every single one of those people. I don't know why they can't find them because their pictures are all over the place.

Their photos are everywhere.

The guy who was sitting at Nancy Pelosi's desk, the guy with his feet on her desk — I was talking to someone who's younger than me, which is pretty much everyone now, let's face it, about SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], the leftist student organization at Columbia in the ‘60s. They took over the campus and there was a famous photograph — I'm sure you could find it on your modern device — of Mark Rudd, who was head of SDS at Columbia, sitting in the president's office with his feet on his desk, smoking a cigar. This is instantly what I thought of when I saw this picture. Of course, I felt Mark Rudd was an idiot then — and I was younger than he was — but at least he was, like, a kid. He was a college student. This guy [sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk] looked older than me. They're like the world's worst teenage boys. The women that were involved, those women are also like the world's worst teenage boys, not the world's worst girls. That's another group, but like the world's worst teenage boys — every single one of the people there.

How do you hope this ends for President Trump, both in terms of his presidency and his post-White House career?

It is my belief that he will only have any kind of post-White House career if the media gives it to him. They can decide not to do this. People can decide that. When I say the media, I mean the real media. I'm not talking about these crazy websites or whatever, you know, who, who cares about these people? I don’t. But if the real media, real newspapers, real magazines, real websites, real television networks, they can just stop covering him. I mean, how often do they cover Bill Clinton? You know, he’s an ex-president. Everyone should stop covering him because that's the thing he cares about. And we could stop hearing about him because I would be delighted to stop hearing about him. I do not believe he's going to run again in 2024. If I had any money left, which I don't because I have not worked during the pandemic, I would bet money that there's zero chance he’ll run again. Zero. So, you know, they could stop covering him and he can just be another loudmouth moron like he was before he was the president.

Those resignations from his cabinet, from [Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos and [Secretary of Transportation] Elaine Chao, not for one second did I think they did that for any reason other than to not have to deal with the possibility of kicking him out of office with the 25th Amendment, which of course, I had hardly heard of before now. Suddenly they had an attack of conscience after four years of being totally morally implicated in every possible way? So now, what? Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao — the couple of the year, the couple of the decade! — now they're doing the right thing?

Congratulations on the debut Pretend It's a City. With traditional premieres and parties out of the question, how did you celebrate?

Well (laughs), the way I celebrated New Year's Eve and every other holiday that we've had — I [did not] celebrate. As you can see, it was shot long before the virus, so all plans around it were pre-COVID plans, which did include a big party and opening screening and all that kind of stuff. It also included a big publicity tour with me and Marty. Instead of now being in L.A., which we certainly would have been at some point, I am in my apartment in New York talking to you on the phone and Marty is in his house in New York.

Without modern devices of your own, how has it been to do a junket because you're not jumping on a Zoom call or things like that?

I've had to go to Netflix. Netflix has big offices here, which, actually, I didn't even know. There they have many people who have all this equipment, whatever it is, and many people who know how to set it up. They’re not even in the room with me, it's all done by remote control.

You mentioned that you would have come to L.A. for a big event. How do you feel about LA?

You mean now at this moment? I feel sorry for L.A. because the stuff I see about L.A. in regards to the virus is just horrible. In general, you know what I've been saying for the last couple of years is that I used to hate L.A. when I was young. I came to like it more. I used to say, and I would say now excluding the ravages of the virus on both cities, L.A. got better. By which I mean, it got less suburban. I, obviously, am a city lover. L.A. never seems like a city to me. Part of it is, you know, the fact that you spend 90 percent of the time sitting in a car or driving a car. It’s also so spread out. These are the most banal kinds of observations about L.A., but they happen to be true, which is why they're cliches.

Also, the food got a lot better. I would say a lot better. And also, when New York got so psychotically expensive a lot of people I knew from New York moved to L.A., even kids. I realize if you live in L.A., you think it's too expensive — and it is, I know that — but compared to New York, not on the same planet. When I would go to L.A. and I would go to these kids' houses, I would know how they would live because they would always tell me, “Guess how much this cost?” I would know that in New York it would be a quarter of a room somewhere. So you profited by that, by getting all those kids there because cities need people like that. We did not. New York suffered from becoming so expensive and for excluding those kids, and also, other people who lived here their whole lives and could not afford to any longer, and for the tremendous influx of bankers and finance people, which is never good for a city. No one ever went to a party and said, “There aren't enough bankers here.”

You talk a lot about your love of parties. I’m curious, is there one party that you can single out as being the best of your life?

No. It’s like when people ask me, “What's your favorite book?” There are so many, I absolutely could not do that. I'm not so good at favorites in general. I'm too old to have a favorite. You know, like little kids have favorites. What's your favorite color? I'm the past the favorite age — by decades.

As a contributor to Vanity Fair and close friend of Graydon Carter, you attended Vanity Fair’s Oscar party many times. What’s your take on that party?

Well, I haven't been since whenever Graydon left. … I felt, really, about that party that it became less fun. Partially that's because, you know, repeating things tends to make them less fun no matter what they are. Also, the party used to be smaller. When I first started going, it was at Mortons. The dinner part of it was relatively small, and then they would build a big tent, you know, in a parking lot. I thought that it decreased in value, in my opinion, over the years. Nothing lasts forever.

Also, there used to be like two parties that weekend and then there came to be like 25 parties. Basically, you could spend four days seeing the same movie stars 400 times during the weekend and everyone felt compelled to change clothes constantly. I would arrive in L.A. with the clothes as if I was, you know, Elizabeth Taylor or something. I was very close to Sue Mengers. Sue — one of the most fun people unless she hated you, in which case she was one of the most scary people — would always have a lunch and a dinner. So, I really always looked forward to going to Sue’s. She died before I stopped going to the Oscar party. I missed that very much.

One of the joys in watching Pretend It's a City is hearing Marty laugh at nearly everything you say — it’s so infectious and genuine. How does it feel when you hear him laugh?

You know, I don't even think about it. I know people have noted that, but I'm friends with Marty and I just strike Marty funny. There's no question. I could say Marty, “Please pass this salt,” and he’d start laughing. It’s a chemical thing. It’s a shared sense of humor. I have aspects of my humor that I did not share with Marty but there certainly is an aspect that I do. A shared sense of humor to me is central to any close friendship I've ever had. To me, I don't even know why people would call it a sense of humor, I would just call it sense. Anyone that I find funny is someone I appreciate very much.

Marty can be quite funny, by the way. I realize I don't let people talk that much — I'm well aware of that. (Laughs.) When I remember to let other people talk, Marty can be very funny. It’s essentially important to me that people be funny and that people, not that they just find me funny, but that they understand that almost anything can be funny. Now, that is not true publicly. There are many things that you do not say publicly that you could say to a friend. You don’t have to be funny to have a sense of humor. Not at all. But people who don't value that, I have no interest in them.

With Public Speaking, Pretend It's a City and Wolf of Wall Street, you’re giving Leonardo DiCaprio a run for his money as a Scorsese regular …

I wish we made the same money.

And that you could smoke on set …

There are many perks to being a movie star that I did not have.

What have you learned though about watching Marty work up close?

I have to say that I learned a lot about movie-making — not in the sense that I could make a movie. It's really something that is very rich to me. It adds a lot of richness to my relationship with Marty because I always want to know things — not that I want to do them. Let me assure you. I may be the only person on planet Earth who has zero desire to direct a movie. Even not being on Marty’s sets, you know, just watching a movie with Marty, you learn about movies. His mind is so densely furnished with every scene of every movie ever made in the history of the world.

It is an incredibly rich experience to be around Marty and to have watched him make a movie. After Public Speaking, I understood that even though some of Marty’s shoots can go on a great deal, you know, a long period of time, ours don’t. It could take him forever to edit. Marty has said to me numerous times things like, “You know what ruined Taxi Driver? The color red. It's so wrong and the studio wouldn't give me money. I could never correct it and that's what ruined Taxi Driver.” He’ll be practically in tears. It bothers him. I'll say, “Marty, you know what ruined Taxi Driver? Nothing. It’s a great movie, Marty.” He’ll say, “You know what ruined Casino? The scene where Bob De Niro leans forward in the parking lot, you can hear his shirt against the microphone. It’s unbearable. No one can watch it.”

I’m sure everyone asks, but is it annoying that people want to know when your next book is coming?

It's so past annoyance that I can't even begin to tell you. Believe me, you will know.

Are you actively writing?

I could only say yes if I were a Republican. The true answer is no.

I love the story about going to see bears in Alaska. You say that you did not want your death to be hilarious like it would be if you were killed by a bear. Have you thought about how you do want to go?

I can tell you right out that I hope it's not something that requires a lot of horrendous medical treatment. I've known a lot of people, unfortunately, who have had horrible illnesses, and they went through such crazy and really horrible stuff. It would probably not surprise you to know that I am not a gladiator. I do not have the courage for that kind of thing. So, I am hoping that it will be relatively quick and relatively painless and not involving a lot of American medical experimentation.

I always thought I might die in a cab accident. I always thought there would be a high chance of that. I have to tell you that since outdoor dining in New York started, I’ve had numerous occasions when I’ve thought that I might die in a car accident eating dinner. I could be sitting in the middle of 7th Avenue at a table at a restaurant outside, eating dinner and die in a cab accident. That's how close to the tables the cars were coming. So far that hasn’t happened, but that is a possibility.

When you can be safe and sit inside a restaurant in New York, where is the first place you are going?

I would never tell you. No. Restaurants are crowded enough. I mean, during the normal times these restaurants are crowded enough.

Fair enough. Pretend It's a City is dedicated to your longtime friend Toni Morrison. What do you think she’d say if she could see it?

I have no idea, honestly. I wish she was here to see it, I can tell you that. She knew about it. We talked about it because she's in it. If Toni criticized anything of mine, it was in the most couched, tender terms. She was the opposite of me. My whole childhood, my mother was always saying to me, “Can't you be the bigger person?” At a fairly young age, I realized, no, I can't because I am naturally the smaller person just by nature. I'm a small person. I was never sure exactly what my mother meant until I knew Toni because Toni was not just the bigger person, she was the biggest person. So, I do know that even if she didn't like something in the show or she didn't like the whole thing, she would tell me in a way that I would think she liked it.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.