The Austin Chronicle

Fran Lebowitz in Town Tonight

By Kimberley Jones, November 14, 2012, 9:25am, Under the Covers

In Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese's 2010 portrait of the social commentator Fran Lebowitz, Nino Rota's 8 1/2 score is sprinkled throughout. You can't help but wonder if it's an affectionate goosing: The movie, after all, is about a crippling creative block, and Lebowitz famously shut down somewhere in the early Eighties.

Lebowitz hasn't published a book of essays since 1981's Social Studies. But she never stopped talking, or delighting audiences with her terrifically sharp tongue. (If the nation had some sort of Wit Laureate position, she'd be a shoo-in.)

Lebowitz and old pal/former New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich have been appearing in towns around the country for something they bill as a "state of the union" talk. (They'll appear tonight, 8pm, at the Bass Concert Hall; tickets available here.) When I spoke with Lebowitz, the day after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, we were still a week out from knowing which direction the state of that union would be headed.

Austin Chronicle: Let’s talk about the State of the Union talk you’re doing. Of course, that state is in flux right now, and your talk in Austin is after the election. Do you prepare for both scenarios, depending on who’s elected?

Fran Lebowitz: Oh no. Neither one of us is a prophet. Austin is the only [city] we’re doing after the election and that’s specifically because the people in Austin specifically asked that we do it after the election. Of course it will be different, because we will then not be speculating – or at least I hope that’s the case – I hope by the time we get to Austin they’ll have decided who won. So far what we’ve done – Frank and I kind of have a conversation about the election and then we answer questions from the audience. What we’ll do in Austin, I don’t know – we’ll discuss what happens after the election.

Austin Chronicle: So less prep time then. Do you thrive on that?

Fran Lebowitz: Well, I don’t prepare at all.

Austin Chronicle: You don’t.

Fran Lebowitz: No. This is for two reasons. One, I’m slothful. And two, I never prepare for these things. The reason I go around talking is because I don’t have to prepare. Frank is an actual journalist, which I am not. And Frank is full of preparation – he’s a very industrious guy. Frank is the one who knows every single poll. Whatever happened one second ago – Frank knows it. That is not true of Fran. But that’s okay, because Fran will just make up her answers. I do not believe that people come to these things for factual information. If they do, they’re ridiculous. …

I actually enjoy doing this, but I would not enjoy doing it if I had to prepare.

Austin Chronicle: Because it involves work.

Fran Lebowitz: And also because [then] it’s not fun for me. I really like doing this. It’s one of the few activities other than reading that I enjoy. And the thing I enjoy about it is not knowing the questions.

Austin Chronicle: That’s so interesting, because I would venture that for the vast majority of people, that kind of situation is their biggest fear.

Fran Lebowitz: Well apparently – I’ve seen of course many of these polls or whatever you want to call them – among Americans, their number one fear is public speaking. And the number two fear is dying. So I live in a country where my fellow citizens would prefer to die than speak in public. I however am at my most relaxed and happy either on a stage or in front of a television camera. I find it very, very relaxing, because when I’m doing it, I’m really not thinking, which is another relaxing activity. Answers to questions just come unbidden to my tongue.

Austin Chronicle: Do you ever regret anything that comes out of your mouth in these kind of situations?

Fran Lebowitz: Not that I can recall. I’ve been doing it since I was 27. …

I won’t talk about people. I’ll talk about politicians, but if someone asks me a question about someone who’s well-known who I know, I would never talk about that in public, and I never have. Those are usually the things people regret. Or they regret swearing. But I believe I have a large vocabulary and I don’t have to rely on that type of language. …

The time I remember being most wrong was, I was a John Edwards supporter. What this proves is that I am a very bad judge of husbands – something I never had to put to the test. I still support his policies and I still don’t see a Democrat who is as much a Democrat as he was. But that was something where I was really, really wrong. I can’t think of anything else.

Austin Chronicle: I was reading some of your work last night – I think it was in Metropolitan Life – where you said that your only two needs and desires are smoking cigarettes and plotting revenge. Are you still plotting? And is it always just the planning stage, or do you ever have the opportunity to exact revenge as well?

Fran Lebowitz: Because I wrote that probably 30 years ago, I now know something I didn’t know then, which is, very frequently, opportunities for revenge just present themselves. But for this to occur, you have to be very patient, and pretty old. Unfortunately my experience has been that by the time it has come up, you don’t care that much. … You don’t have to plan for revenge, and you really can’t.

Austin Chronicle: As I was reading last night and listening to you now, it occurred to me – these are ideas and opinions that you set down on paper 30 years ago. In the absence of another book, these are the ideas and opinions people like me are still asking you about. Does that ever frustrate you, that you’re still being asked to account for ideas you had so long ago?

Fran Lebowitz: That doesn’t really frustrate me, because that’s my fault. I’m the person who didn’t write [more] books. So if these are the only books people have, that would be, I would say, Fran’s fault. The only upside of this is 2 things: I believe myself to have been remarkably prophetic because some of these things are still unresolved or some of these things were so in the future, by the time you ask me about them now, they’re just coming up. And also, pretty much: I’ve never changed my mind.

Austin Chronicle: Is that something you knew about yourself from an early age?

Fran Lebowitz: No. That’s something you couldn’t possibly know. The truth is, people cannot imagine what it’s like to not be the age you are – even when you try. So people always say to me, especially kids, by which I mean, people in their 20s – they always come up to me, asking me “oh New York was great when you were young, did you do this, did you do that. What if you were young right now – what would you do?” And truthfully, I cannot imagine being young now. No one can. If they tell you can, they’re wrong. Life isn’t just an age – it’s context. Obviously the world in 1970 when I was 20 years old was as different as if we now lived on Pluto. So I don’t know what it would be like to be young now, I only know what it was like to be young then.

Austin Chronicle: You did write back then, “There is no such thing as inner peace.” Have you shifted at all on that?

Fran Lebowitz: No. [laughs] No. It’s amazing to me is that I knew that at that age. See, the reason I’m familiar with these books is because I recorded the audiobooks, which had never been done. So that was my first reading of them for many many years. And among the many shocks to the system that occur when you do something like that – I was pretty surprised at how, considering how young I was, I really sound old. Truthfully, I believe I’ve always been old at heart.

Austin Chronicle: I don’t want to say I think you got out at the right time, exactly, but everything moves at such a frantic clip that I think we’re expected to consume and produce copy in a way that is exhausting. There’s so much more of everything, but I don’t think there’s a commensurate uptick in intelligent thought.

Fran Lebowitz: Of course not.

Austin Chronicle: So you don’t have a computer. Have you managed to avoid the digital revolution completely?

Fran Lebowitz: No. You can’t avoid anything completely, especially something that is so remarked upon. One thing that I’ve noticed is that even these machines, some of them have been around for 20 years – not all of them, some of them 20 minutes: People never stop talking about them.

Austin Chronicle: I know.

Fran Lebowitz: Which proves how new they are. They’re still a novelty. The only people I guess who don’t talk about them are 7 years old. And those are the people – people that age – who will really define the use of these machines. Not even the people who are 20 years old now, because they remember when there weren’t these machines. If your memory starts before these machines, they present themselves as a novelty. That will not be true for little tiny kids. So a lot of the things that are being done with these machines now are digital versions of old stuff. But that will not be true with little kids.

Luckily for me, I will be dead by then. It’s not that I’m looking forward to this, I’m just pointing this out.

Austin Chronicle: So you’re not interested in seeing the direction we’re going in.

Fran Lebowitz: One thing I really believe is we’re not going in a direction. Technologically, obviously, we’re going forward very quickly. But other than that, what we’re experiencing right n ow is a revolution. Not just of machines. We’re in the midst of a global revolution of every sort. I find this era riveting. I think it is a very lucky thing for someone of my age to be in an era that is so interesting. Because otherwise I’d be pretty bored by now. It’s riveting to me. There is not a square foot of the planet Earth that is not undergoing a cataclysmic change. We’re not going in a direction. And it’s very interesting to me that just at the moment where not a single person could predict what will happen, we suddenly have thousands of people in the prediction business. And everyone will be wrong. That is something I truly believe. Every one will be wrong. …

No one really knows what’s going to happen. But I don’t think you could call this an era an era simply of progress, because we see a tremendous – a tremendous – amount of regress. And what I basically see – if I had to sum it up in one sentence – I see these very, very modern machines used to make the world go backwards.

Austin Chronicle: Backwards in what sense? Where do you see this regression?

Fran Lebowitz: I see this regression in the treatment of women in this country. I’m not even talking about Saudi Arabia. I’m talking about the positions that Republicans take officially about women. … I think the progress that women have made – and there’s been huge progress for women in my own lifetime – huge – whenever people say, ‘Don’t you think things used to be better?,. I say, ‘Not for girls.’ For girls, they are much, much better now than when I was young. I think that’s something very upsetting to many men. And I think there’s a tremendous drive to push that back.

Austin Chronicle: Are you chilled by how ground that was achieved by women is being ceded? That you thought, ‘OK, we have this much,’ and that’s being chipped away?

Fran Lebowitz: I don’t think it’s being just chipped away – I think there’s a tremendous effort to roll it back. All social progress is vulnerable to these people. The hatred of Barack Obama, and I mean hatred – Look, Barack Obama was not my first choice. He is way to the right of me. … I thought he kind of was a yuppie, quite frankly. He doesn’t represent my ideas. … But the hatred of Obama coming from the right – the hatred of this man who is so moderate politically, who is so moderate in his personality … this is racism, pure and simple. That’s what this is. No one says this. You hardly ever hear anyone say this.

And, by the way, this is the job of journalists. And they’re not doing their job. I really believe, it seems to me that we now live in a world where it's [considered] worse to call someone a racist than to be one.

An Evening With Frank Rich and Fran Lebowitz takes place Wednesday, Nov. 14, 8pm, at the Bass Concert Hall. For ticket info, go here.

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