I haven’t been a regular Saturday Night Live viewer since some time in the late 17th century, so I missed Bowen Yang’s impression of Fran Lebowitz on an episode that aired in January. Recently, however, I caught up with it online, and I have to say that, although SNL has been off its game for a long time now, Yang’s bit was a home run, capturing Lebowitz to a fare-thee-well. Equally excellent was Kyle Mooney as Martin Scorsese, director of the 2010 Lebowitz documentary Public Speaking and of this year’s seven-part – yes, seven-part – Netflix series about Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City. The series, like the documentary, consists largely of close-ups of Lebowitz talking – often with Scorsese, who reacts to almost every sentence out of her mouth with gales of hysterical laughter. This is the premise of the SNL skit: Yang, aping Lebowitz’s deadpan delivery, keeps making mildly amusing or not-at-all-amusing remarks, in response to which Mooney guffaws like a hyena.
Reportedly, Lebowitz wasn’t amused by the sketch.
Of course she wasn’t amused. Coming after a roughly half-century-long career as a so-called humorist, that sketch was her emperor-has-no-clothes moment. For years, people tasked with introducing Lebowitz have compared her to Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde and quoted decades-old reviews calling her “the funniest woman in America” and “the natural successor to Dorothy Parker.” Reporting in January on her purchase of a $3.1 million Chelsea flat, StreetEasy.com, a real-estate website, called her the country’s “most sardonically astute social commentator.” QX, a Swedish gay magazine, declared in a February review of Pretend It’s a City: “Fran Lebowitz is New York.”
Although she’s purportedly a humorist, and is her own only subject, she has — as her reaction to the SNL sketch showed — absolutely no sense of humor about herself.
But there’s one problem with all these glowing encomia: Fran Lebowitz is really not terribly funny.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 1978, Dutton published Lebowitz’s debut book, Metropolitan Life, a collection of short comic essays. It became a bestseller. In 1981, Dutton published a second collection, Social Studies. In 1994, Dutton bundled them together as The Fran Lebowitz Reader. I bought both books when they came out and found them reasonably enjoyable. Nowhere near as rib-tickling as Woody Allen’s Getting Even and Side Effects or the works of Max Shulman or Robert Benchley or S. J. Perelman, but diverting enough.
The main limitation was in subject matter: Lebowitz seemed not to be interested in anything other than herself. Hence such pieces as “The Fran Lebowitz High Stress Diet and Exercise Program,” the premise of which is that her way of life is exceedingly unhealthy (for breakfast she prescribes orange juice, pancakes, bacon, sausage, coffee, and “11 Cigarettes”), and “The Frances Ann Lebowitz Collection,” a selection from an imaginary auction catalogue, in which the gag is that her apartment is crammed with junk (broken alarm clocks, a drawing by a friend’s child).
It wasn’t exactly the richest of veins, and she’d apparently exhausted it by 1994, for she hasn’t published a new book since. Instead she’s worked as a professional raconteur, recycling essentially the same old material (I’m slothful! I smoke!) for decades on TV and in lecture halls. This activity began with a series of spots on Late Night with David Letterman, the old 12:30 a.m. show where the guest lineup was largely a gallery of oddballs and misfits: Dr. Ruth, Brother Theodore, Pee-Wee Herman, Andy Kaufman. Revisiting her Letterman appearances now on YouTube, one is surprised at their brevity and unfunniness. When the audience chuckled, it was rarely because she’d cracked a good joke but rather because they were amused by her frumpy look, deadpan delivery, and grumpy-curmudgeon persona, which set her apart from all the gushy, glamorous starlets they were used to seeing on talk shows in those days.
On Dave’s show, Lebowitz’s gimmick was complaining ad nauseam about the many, many things that irked her in life, among them animals (for which she professed an “innate distaste”), America outside of New York City (“Could you live in San Francisco?” “Not unless there was a soldier behind me with a gun”), the New York “croissant craze” (since someone opened a shop called Bonjour Croissant on 57th Street, she proposed opening a place in Paris called Hello Toast), airlines (is VIP luggage such as hers, she snarled, “the luggage they lose first?”), and tourists (who, not knowing how to navigate a crowded Manhattan sidewalk, occasionally block her path, causing her to yell at them, “Move! Pretend it’s a city!”).
Hearing Lebowitz carp, one kept waiting for a punchline. She could yak for minutes about hating nature but never served up anything remotely like Woody Allen’s classic line “I am at two with nature.” Her jab at LA, circa 1995, was that people there don’t “hold” meetings, but “take” meetings — a beef that was already old at the time, and in any case less risible than any number of LA cracks in Annie Hall (Annie: “God, it’s so clean out here.” Alvy: “It’s that they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.”) Consistently, Letterman, in his exchanges with Lebowitz, was the funnier of the two. Introducing her as “one of most observant writers around today,” he went off-card and said to the audience, “Boy, is she ever observant! Just watch her eyes when she comes out here! Like a border collie!”
In all her Letterman gigs, only one Lebowitz quip made me chortle: “I don’t need a computer. I write so slowly that I could write with my own blood without hurting myself.” Later, watching her on other shows, I heard her reuse that line — along with many others. In two conversations years apart, she was asked what job she’d like other than writer; both times she said “pope,” and both times followed up with the same rehearsed patter (which, as it happens, had its roots in an essay in Metropolitan Life). For years, one of her go-to jests was that her writer’s block was so bad that it deserved to be called writer’s blockade.
In time, Lebowitz’s gripes became harder for ordinary mortals to identify with. She bashed waiters in high-end eateries who wasted her time by listing lots of specials. (She also jeered at waitresses, all of whom, she claims, got their jobs by having sex with their managers.) She blasted the downside of flying first class. (“Stewardesses,” she told Letterman on two different shows, “don’t like seeing a woman in first class, because she’s taking up a seat that might otherwise be occupied by a prospective husband.”) Chatting a couple of years ago with fellow exemplary progressive Adam Baldwin, Lebowitz bonded with him over the joys of flying in the old days, when it was just for rich people. Apropos of some of the rabble who fly nowadays, Lebowitz commented, “I can’t believe they let all these people on!” Long before Hillary Clinton scoffed at “deplorables,” Lebowitz was deploring “hicks.”
A successor to Oscar Wilde? Try Oscar Levant, who six decades ago got howls on the Jack Paar Show by playing up his own hypochondria and neurosis. One difference between Levant and Lebowitz is that his drolleries were almost invariably at his own expense, whereas she’s perennially chiding the world for failing to meet her lofty expectations. Another difference is that Levant was a gifted classical pianist, songwriter, and film actor, while Lebowitz is a personality, period. And what’s curious is that although she’s purportedly a humorist, and is her own only subject, she has — as her reaction to the SNL sketch showed — absolutely no sense of humor about herself.
Why, then, is this (at best) moderately and intermittently whimsical woman hired to speak at corporate events, universities, places like the 92nd Street Y and Whitney Museum, and other elite venues? A big part of the answer, I think, is that she gives off the vibe of being edgy — plucky, cheeky, outrageous, anti-establishment — when in fact she can be relied on never to challenge the establishment consensus on any matter of real importance. “Sardonically astute social commentator”? All she does, 99 percent of the time, is ape the Democratic party line with a sneer.
“You’re pretty scathing about conformism,” an Australian interviewer said to her last year. He went on to call her “politically incorrect.” Well, she’s a nonconformist in superficial things — her rumpled, mannish clothes, her car (Scorsese finds it adorable that she drives an old Checker cab), her refusal to use a computer or cell phone — but in her politics? No way. Like all her pals in SoHo and Greenwich Village and on the Upper West Side, she hated George W. Bush and loved Obama. In 2020, she touted Elizabeth Warren as “by far the smartest” of the Democratic candidates. She’s such a partisan robot that she thinks David Dinkins was the city’s only good mayor in her lifetime and that Rudy Giuliani’s entire mayoral program was racist. Astute? Try delusional.
Reporting a friend’s disgust at seeing a copy of the New Criterion at Lebowitz’s apartment, she explained that she reads it to find out what “the other side” thinks. “What they think, by the way,” she added, “is worse than you can imagine.” Now, if Lebowitz can regularly read the New Criterion (a publication in which every article is far more serious and learned than anything she’s ever written) without having any of her political and cultural assumptions challenged in the slightest, she deserves some kind of award for being the quintessential knee-jerk Manhattan leftist — the New York Times editorial page in human form.
She especially despises Trump — no surprise, given her revulsion at ordinary Americans, her virulent contempt for whom she’s been more open about since the 2016 election. “Expressing their bigotry,” she told an Australian audience in 2018, “is more important to [Trump supporters] than their own lives.” And Trump himself? He’s not a businessman but “a cheap hustler” whom other New York corporate titans look down on. (She didn’t explain that they do so because in their class-obsessed eyes — as in hers — he’s a vulgarian from Queens.) She’s admitted that after Trump announced for president, she traveled the country saying he had a “zero chance” of victory; after he won, she parroted the media’s Russian-collusion charge. And discrediting of this lie hasn’t shaken her smug certitude one iota. Earlier this year, when she charged that Trump’s voters were stupid and a BBC interviewer protested that they couldn’t all be stupid, Lebowitz spat back, “Why not?” But at least you’re both New York icons, the reporter ventured. No, insisted Lebowitz: “I’m the real New York. He’s a tourist’s idea of New York.”
Yes, Lebowitz has a few scattered politically incorrect opinions. She opposes hate-crime laws. She opposes smoking laws. She’s angry about crime. In one talk, she bellyached about a New York subway station being closed for five months so that an “art installation” could be put in place. One sometimes has the impression that if she did a little self-reflection she’d find out that she’s not a lockstep liberal after all. But Lebowitz has no apparent capacity for self-reflection. If Scorsese is fascinated by her because (my theory) she reminds him of the gritty 1970s Big Apple that he captured in Taxi Driver, I suspect that the honchos at Netflix love her because she’s a reliable preacher of the Democratic Party gospel. Give her this: she had a good run as network TV’s idea of a wit, and this Netflix renaissance has been a career-saver. Yet in a time when podcasts are bringing substantial, wide-ranging conversations with real intellectuals into our homes, is there still a market for Lebowitz’s shallow schtick?