Look, I am not going to tell you how funny Fran Lebowitz is. I am not going to tell you how smart Fran Lebowitz is. But I am going to tell you that those two things are deeply tied together and there’s no separating them. There is simply no one else like her. Is there a greater compliment, a heartier recommendation?
Martin Scorsese’s seven-part Netflix series Pretend It’s a City is made up of nothing more than a series of interviews with Lebowitz (mostly new ones by Scorsese, but clips from older brain-pickings by Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, and David Letterman turn up as well). Interspersed is footage of her walking around Manhattan (both the real one and the famous scale model of it at The Queens Museum). It sounds like nothing much, but it covers such a wide swath of territory that it almost serves as a Guide to Life, and you could do worse than having Lebowitz light your way, even if it’s gonna be with only the tip of her lit cigarette.
I think it’s very unusual these days to run across a funny person whose funniness stems from their actual philosophy. In Lebowitz’s case, it goes even further: there is no difference between the two. Humor is her philosophy; her philosophy is humor. She’s not a comedian. Lebowitz doesn’t tell jokes, but she’s funny (and quite serious regarding that funniness) about everything. EVERYTHING. Sports, movies, taxes, Leo DiCaprio, smoking, health (“we didn’t use to have ‘wellness’”), government, the Dalai Lama, bears, books. There’s a moment in the seventh episode where she responds (disdainfully) to the idea of someone not liking a book because they “don’t see themselves in it” with such philosophical clarity that I almost fainted with joy.
I am not going to tell you that Fran Lebowitz might or might not be your thing. I am not going to try and be funny about Fran Lebowitz. I am deeply afraid of her and am sure I would suffer some sort of cosmic consequence if I even tried. She’s not Wilde, but she’s Wildean. She’s not Dorothy Parker, but she’s Parker-ian. We will not see the likes of her again. Do not miss this series.
Note: though it’s an almost perfect series for it, don’t be tempted to just listen; look up now and then if only to see the footage of New York City streets full of people. Such a thing seems so unlikely in the current moment that it’s almost like looking at an antique tintype.
Streaming on Netflix.