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Fran Lebowitz and the trouble with comedy

‘Pretend It’s a City’, the recent Netflix series featuring the iconic American wit, writer and actor, makes us rethink being 'funny' in 2021

Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz in 'Pretend it's a City'

Two years ago, when I discovered Fran Lebowitz from a slim anthology of her writings—there are two published volumes of her essays so far, one children’s book, and two works in progress for two decades now—I instantly knew I had struck gold. Her pithy aphorisms, delivered with cutting directness, may seem singularly uncool to our delicately calibrated 21st-century sensitivities—but are also refreshingly novel for that reason.

A case in point, for example, is Lebowitz's trenchant advice to aspiring writers. “Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort,” she wrote. “If you have a burning desire, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass. Your life story would not make a good book. Do not even try.”

Tickled by the sentiment, I took a snapshot of the passage and pinned it to my Twitter profile. While it caused some giggles, it didn’t take long for the outrage to pour in. Predictably, Lebowitz’s target group was infuriated that its striving for artistic success should be thus belittled. The age of Instagram poetry breeds nothing else if not unbounded hope, congealing into brazen arrogance. If your book isn’t seeing the light of day, soaring up the bestseller lists, or shortlisted for prizes, something must be wrong with the world, not your writing. But then comes cantankerous Fran, with her prickly plain-speak.

It is in such tones of breezy insouciance that the episodes of Pretend It’s A City, a limited documentary series based on Lebowitz’s life and times in New York City, unfolds on Netflix. This is the second time since Public Speaking (2010) that Lebowitz has appeared in a show exclusively focused on her produced by Martin Scorsese. She has also played cameos in his films—the judge in The Wolf of Wall Street, for example. That Scorsese adores Lebowitz is quite obvious from his habit of bursting into uproarious laughter at her jokes, sometimes before she's delivered the punchline. His loud guffaws punctuate Pretend It’s A City, surpassing every canned audience laughter you have ever heard. His feelings, sadly, don't seem to resonate with many in 2021.

Born in 1950, Lebowitz is of an era when comics didn’t abide by our acceptable standards of political correctness. This is not to suggest that our current crop of comedians are prissily risk-averse (See, for instance, Lounge's latest stories on Muslim comedians in India and the price comedians are paying for their satire against the state ). However, as Jewish and lesbian, Lebowitz has got away with far more than many of her contemporaries. Her trademark, as an interviewer noted, is the “sneer”—and, indeed, she is quite liberal about dishing it out.

After being kicked out of school from her Morristown in New Jersey on account of her constant “surliness”, she moved to New York City and worked many jobs—from driving cabs to writing commercial pornography to being a columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. She never worked as a waitress, Lebowitz says, because that would have entailed, back in her days at least, sleeping with (male) restaurant managers.

In her television appearances with Olivia Wilde, Spike Lee and Alec Baldwin over the years, excerpts from which punctuate Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz is always at her sardonic best. Even at 70, she holds forth with verve during her tetes-à-tetes with Scorcese. At one point, she pooh-poohs “wellness” as woo-woo California stuff—the whole fad, in her words, is as absurd as demanding “extra health”. Lebowitz also espouses a complete lack of interest in young people, except for small children who amuse her for their disarming lack of inhibitions to get to the truth. And so on. The catalogue of her misanthropy runs formidably long.

Lebowitz is also famously averse to technology. She has never owned a mobile phone, typewriter and, least of all, a computer. She prefers to spend her days in her Manhattan apartment, in the company of the 10,000-plus books she owns rather than that of other people. Some of her other distinctive features include her attire, especially her finely cut blazers and trousers, short hair, and habit of chain-smoking. Among her many hilarious sets on smoking, there is one about Leonardo DiCaprio offering Lebowitz an e-cigarette on the sets of The Wolf of Wall Street. Smoking, in fact, comes up so frequently that you almost expect to see a statutory warning pop up, even when no one really lights up on screen.

Pretend It's A City is mostly Lebowitz’s extended (monologic) diatribe against New York—its crumbling subway system, annoying tourists on Times Square, citizens with their eccentric habits, stuff that is likely to irk people much less fortunate that her, who are struggling to make a life in a hideously expensive and exacting city. Lebowitz, however, doesn't make any bones about the fact that she is a relic from another era. Her acerbic wit, at a time when every well-meaning person is obsessed with checking their privilege and cancelling those who fail to do so, feels, depending on the way you swing, either dreadful or like “guilty pleasure” (a term that Lebowitz has no truck with, because whatever is truly pleasurable, according to her, can never induce guilt).

If Lebowitz has never spared one person of her barbs, it is certainly herself. Few people have made as much fun of their own failure at a creative career as she has. However, the irritating bit for her critics is that being the patron saint of unproductivity hasn’t stopped Lebowitz from having influential friends, wealth enough to buy an apartment in Manhattan, and indulgence her posh sartorial tastes. She seems to have had the proverbial cake and eaten it too—a prospect too troubling in a world where comedy now is called upon to fix the balance of social justice.

And it's this quality of elegiac datedness that ironically lends a freshness to Pretend It's A City—if only to drive home the point that the time for a certain culture of being funny has now vanished forever.

Pretend It's A City is streaming on Netflix.

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