Lebowitz On Wit, Humor And 'Public Speaking'

Fran Lebowitz has led a storied New York City literary life. While enduring some famous writers' block on her next book, she's spent years smoking in cafes, writing biting social commentaries and sharing her sardonic humor. Her wit has been captured in the new HBO documentary, Public Speaking.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Fran Lebowitz moved to New York City as a young woman, drove a cab, wrote for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and arrived as a writer with her books "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies." Adjectives of her opinions include transient, mordant, caustic, acerbic and hilarious. Now, filmmaker Martin Scorsese focuses on Fran Lebowitz in an HBO documentary called "Public Speaking." In this excerpt, Toni Morrison asks her the difference between wit and humor.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Public Speaking")

Ms. FRAN LEBOWITZ (Writer): Niceness.

Ms. TONI MORRISON (Writer): Niceness?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I mean, or what people call, like, you know, warmth.

Ms. MORRISON: Wit.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: No, comedy.

Ms. MORRISON: Ah - oh, I see, I see, I see.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Like, we have a lot of comedians...

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: ...because people like comedians. People like comedians because comedians usually make fun of someone other than the person they're talking to, you know? Or if they directly make fun of that person, it's in a very insulting, vulgar way. But in writing, wit is something - it's cold - it has to be cold, you know?

Ms. MORRISON: (Unintelligible)

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Wit is judgment.

CONAN: If you've seen Fran Lebowitz talk, what's the most interesting thing you've heard her say? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

"Public Speaking" premieres on HBO this coming Monday on November 22nd. Fran Lebowitz joins us now from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Thank you.

CONAN: And do you find that people prefer to hear you being funny or witty?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Luckily, most people don't know the difference.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You make a lot of travels around the country to talk to audiences. I heard you describe in the film that, at the end of each of one these, you ask for questions from audience, yet you say you don't actually get a lot of questions.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, I mean, that's, you know, because the audience has not been taught to give answers like you just said. Would you like to tell us what you think? And so that wasn't always the case, you know, that people ask the audience what they thought.

To me the audience - there are people who come to see someone and there are people - and then there's a person you came to see. There's some distinction to be made between these two things, perhaps.

CONAN: There might be, but indeed, people like to participate these days. It's an era where, well, all kinds of citizen participation seems to be the rage.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes, except an actual citizenry. I mean, to me, there is way too much democracy in the culture and not enough in the society. A good way, for instance, to participate as citizens would be to vote, you know, not necessarily to tell your opinion of a singer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You also say that - talking about democracy - that there is a place for - we've heard a lot of criticism, these past several months in particular, of elites, yet you defend elites to the death.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, I defend certain kind of elitism. In other words, when -oh, I don't know, Republicans, for instance, you know, disparage elites, they don't mean rich people. They love rich people. You know, they mean smart people. They don't mind elite athletes. They use that phrase all the time. They love elite soldiers, you know? So we know what they mean when they say elite. And so, you know, it's not true.

CONAN: Isn't it another way of continuing the culture war that we've read about, again, for - well, nigh unto to four decades?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yeah. I mean, it's - of course, if you hold the positions these people hold, you naturally would be weary of the person of intelligence, because a person of intelligence can see that these positions are grotesque.

CONAN: And persons of intelligence, that's defined by what, meritocracy?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: It's defined by me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I make my own judgments.

CONAN: And do you stick by them?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes, I stick by them.

CONAN: Do you find yourself to be consistent?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes, I find myself to be - well, I feel I rarely change my mind. I would like to change my mind, by which I mean, I would point out to me some other way of looking at it, I will listen, you know? But I would say that I rarely have to change my mind.

CONAN: And you say you, in fact, get to make decisions very quickly. You...

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I make snap judgments, which is why I desperately, every time a little position opens on the Supreme Court, I really wish they would choose me.

CONAN: All of the boroughs of New York seem to be represented at this point, except for maybe Staten Island.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes, I know. But I'm available because I, many years ago, discovered that you do not have to be a lawyer to be on the Supreme Court. And since I am already not a lawyer, I thought I'm available.

CONAN: And your snap judgment decision, you would think, would add to the deliberations of...

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I do. I don't know why they deliberate, because almost everything in front of the Supreme Court is very easy to figure out. It's not complicated.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes. It is not complicated. We have, oh, I don't know, a Constitution, you know, which is incredibly clear. You know, it's a wonderful piece of prose on top of everything else. So I never understand what are they thinking about.

CONAN: Well, you're not a judge, but you do play one on TV or did from time to time.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I did, yes. But, of course, unfortunately, "Law & Order" was cancelled. I played an arraignment judge. I was a recurring arraignment judge. And when I did that, a lot of people said to me, Fran, are you doing that little part because you're hoping to get a bigger part? And I said no, no. I'm doing - I'm playing a judge because I'm hoping to become an actual judge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEBOWITZ: But it didn't work out.

CONAN: It didn't. How did they approach you for that? I mean, how did you get the part?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I begged. I begged for the part. I mean, I would say that - I mean, I have a friend, Epatha Merkerson, who's on the show. And I kept asking her, you know, can I be a judge? Can I be a judge? And they actually gave me an audition to be a judge. And I actually failed the audition because the initial part was a real judge, by which I mean the trial judge...

CONAN: Wow.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: ...and that's too much acting. So as I was failing the audition, I said at the end of it, look, I know I did a horrible job. I failed the audition. It's just too much for me. Can I just be an arraignment judge? And the producer said, Fran, actors don't say I know I failed the audition so can I have a smaller part. I said, yes, I know, but I'm not an actor. So that's how I got the part.

CONAN: That's how you got the part.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: And recurring, what, two, three times a year?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yeah, a couple of times a year.

CONAN: Yeah. And they always give you very good lines.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes. Well, I think that, you know, the writers, of whom, of course, there are many, many, I think they enjoyed, you know, that little part.

CONAN: And you've also not only played the judge on - you say - one of the things you talked about in the film was the movie options that were thrown your way after "Metropolitan Life" came out, what, back in 1978?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: In '78, yeah. Yes, there was a tremendous amount of interest to buy the book, which was a book of essays. I wouldn't sell it because it was, oh, I don't know, a book of essays. And I knew that they would do, you know, horrible things with it, as they tend to do. And unlike many of my fellow writers, I know the difference between, you know, sell, you know, and rent.

So I never had any compassion for writers to complained about what they did to their work because that's what buy means. But I don't want them to do it to mine. And the truth is, even during periods of tremendous personal poverty, I've never regretted that decision.

CONAN: Yet, as I'm sure many other writers have told you, one of the best ways to guarantee a movie is not being made of your work is to sell the rights to a studio.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I understand that, but I don't have that kind of good luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Like if they would promise to say we're going to pay you all this money, we're not going to make the movie, we promise - okay.

CONAN: In fact, there's another point in the film, and this goes back there's some old tape of you from years ago, where you talked about the difference between writing for a living and not writing for a living.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Because that's a piece that was in my second book, "Social Studies."

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: That was from my experience of having had the first book come out. Yeah. So I noted that I was being offered - when I say a great deal more, I mean like by, you know, tens of thousands of dollars - hundreds of thousand dollars more for books or movies or whatever that I had not written than for all the things I had actually written previous to that.

CONAN: We're talking with Fran Lebowitz, the author and speaker, about the HBO film made by Martin Scorsese about her. It's called "Public Speaking," and it debuts next week. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Charlie(ph) is on the line, calling from Wyoming in Michigan.

CHARLIE (Caller): Yeah. Thank you for taking my call. I would like to say I love it when you laugh and talk. That just gets me laughing as well.

CONAN: So...

CHARLIE: I just think you do a great job with that, and I love your show.

CONAN: Oh, well, thanks very much. Charlie, were you talking about me laughing and talking or Fran Lebowitz laughing and talking?

CHARLIE: I was talking about (unintelligible) or - how - I don't know how you pronounce her name.

CONAN: Lebowitz.

CHARLIE: Lebowitz. I was actually talking about her...

CONAN: Okay.

CHARLIE: ...about how she laughs and talks and just that makes me laugh. And I can't stop laughing when I hear her laugh.

CONAN: Fran Lebowitz, have you ever been complimented on your laugh before?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I can't say I have. Not that I can recall, you know. But perhaps I have suddenly developed an infectious laugh.

CONAN: It can come late in life and, well, transform everything.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, that's something to look forward to.

CONAN: I suppose so. How did you find out that Martin Scorsese wanted to make a film about you?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: He told me. He was very direct. I've known Marty for a long time. And this idea of doing this movie was originally was Graydon Carter's idea, that he wanted to make a documentary about me. I said no because I didn't want anyone to follow me around. I do seem to be the only person in the country of whom that is true. And then he said Marty and, you know, you can't say no. I mean - or I could not say no to Marty. And I knew that Marty wouldn't do something that, you know, conventional and that I wouldn't have to worry about it.

CONAN: Some of the cuts in this film - I'm assuming you've seen it.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I have seen this movie seven times, and I've seen seven different movies. But the one that you saw is the last one. That's the final one.

CONAN: And some of the cuts are extraordinarily seamless, cuts from a conversation with you, recorded in a booth. Is that at Elaine's?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: No, no. It's in Waverly Inn.

CONAN: The Waverly Inn, okay. And then they cut to performances that you do on stage, or interviews, including one by Toni Morrison we played a clip from earlier, that are just extraordinary, the way they moved right from one to the other.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, you know, Marty is really coming along, isn't he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEBOWITZ: And he has a - and there's, you know, two editors a(ph) movie, and they're fantastically talented. Yes. I had no compunction at all about working with these people.

CONAN: Fran Lebowitz, the author and essayist, the subject of the new documentary "Public Speaking," premieres on HBO on November 22. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Rona(ph), Rona with us from Marble Canyon in Arizona.

RONA (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Rona. Go ahead, please.

RONA: Fran, did you write an article for Vogue or somebody that said if I were king?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes. A long time ago.

RONA: I loved it.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Thank you. But you see, I'm still not the king.

RONA: Yeah. But it doesn't matter. I'm not either.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: It matters to me.

RONA: But I - well, you know, I can be king in my own place, right, in my own head.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes. But that's insufficient.

RONA: And I use that all the time.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, for me that's insufficient because I'm greedy for power.

RONA: Ah, well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: How do you...

RONA: If I needed that, I wouldn't be living in Marble Canyon. Well, you make me laugh. You make me smile. You make me feel good about what's in my head.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well...

RONA: Thank you very much.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: My pleasure.

CONAN: And how is your campaign for king going?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Very poorly.

CONAN: No subjects yet?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: No. Well, you know, not enough that you can call them subjects.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The...

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Perhaps objects.

CONAN: Objects.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes.

CONAN: There were plenty of objects in your life, I suspect. Though - you live in New York City. Your apartment can't probably hold that many objects.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, mostly, obviously (unintelligible) are books, and I just moved a few months ago. And in this move I discovered that I had 8,500 books, and so that's really enough objects for anyone.

CONAN: Did you, in the process of moving, did you wean some of them and get rid of them?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes. That's why I ended up with only 8,500.

CONAN: I see. So the others had gone to the Strand or some other worthy...

Ms. LEBOWITZ: And to the Strand, yes.

CONAN: The famous bookstore in downtown Manhattan. And I assume you still live in Manhattan.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I do.

CONAN: Even though, as you point out, Manhattan has become, well, rather Disneyfied, I think is the expression we use today.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, it's become very suburban, you know. I mean, I know that's hard for people to believe who live in, I guess, Wyoming, the last person who called, so I'm not saying - it's not Wyoming. It's become more suburban because we have a suburban mayor.

CONAN: Mayor Bloomberg, who's...

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yes, Mayor Bloomberg, who is a king.

CONAN: Yes, he is. But he got there another way. He just made billions.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: No. He got there another way. He overturned an election.

CONAN: Let's go to Carrie, Carrie with us from Tucson, which is also not suburbs.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi, Ms. Lebowitz. I want to say thank you. I read "Metropolitan Life" when I was only 12 years old and on my first train ride from my divorcing mother's house to my divorcing father's house in the city of Chicago. And I remember laughing out loud at the child food critic who says, mommy, the carrot sticks were delicious. And I remember thinking, wow, this is great, this is a possibility - this is a possibility for me.

And years later I grew up to become an artist. But as a diversion, I started a comic essay group with my now ex-husband here in Tucson. So I just want to say thank you. I was thrilled to be able to talk to you somewhat directly. And thank you so much.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: You're welcome.

CARRIE: You really inspired me.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I wrote that book when I was 12.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But did you ever consider the effect you would have on children?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: No. It never crossed my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARRIE: Well, I didn't - I suspected that you knew that you had some 12-year-old fans. But now at 49 I can finally say thank you. So thank you.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: You're welcome.

CONAN: Carrie, thanks very much.

I did want to ask you about one point, I think a serious point you make in the film, and that is the result of the AIDS epidemic which, as you point out correctly, cost us many wonderful artists. But you also point out it cost us an audience.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Yeah, well, I mean, what I say in the movie is that it's just not the artists who died of AIDS of AIDS - at the time when everyone died all at once. But it was also the audience for those artists, which was an extremely discerning audience, which is essential, in fact, to an artist.

The audience that an artist has, whether there's readers or whatever, if they're really discerning, it makes that artist better. And if they are people who leap up into standing ovations to every single person who walks on the stage, you know, the culture is worse. You know, the audience is just as important to the culture as the artist is just the way that the citizen is just as important as the president is.

CONAN: And can you tell us - obviously, this film appears next week. What are you working on?

Ms. LEBOWITZ: I'm working on getting people to watch this film.

CONAN: Well, we knew that. But we thank you very much for your time today. Good luck with that, and we hope it goes well and you find something else to do next week.

Ms. LEBOWITZ: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Fran Lebowitz joined us from our bureau in New York. The film that is made about her, called "Public Speaking," appears on HBO next week, on November 22nd, and she was with us from our bureau in New York.

Before we go, Patti Smith, the musician, is now Patti Smith the award-winning author. She received the National Book Award for non-fiction last night in New York - the book, "Just Kids," her memoir about life in New York in the 1960s. We talked with Patti Smith late last year about her career and her life. You can find that online at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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