TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During this final year of the year, we've selected a few interviews from 2021 that we think you'll enjoy. Today, my interview with writer and humorist Fran Lebowitz. We recorded this interview last January, when the Netflix series "Pretend It's A City" was released. It's a series of interviews with her, mostly conducted by her friend Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series. In 2010, he directed an HBO documentary about Lebowitz that also featured her in conversation called "Public Speaking." Fran Lebowitz, has turned talking into her art form and her profession. In a way, she's like a brilliant comic who's very funny but doesn't tell jokes. Her style comes from being a writer who can no longer write. After writing columns for Andy Warhol's magazine Interview and two very popular collections of humorous essays, "Metropolitan Life" in 1978 and "Social Studies" in 1981, she developed a now famous case of writer's block. That's a loss for readers, but a win for people who get to see her onstage in conversation.
In "Pretend It's A City," Lebowitz talks about many subjects, including growing up in New Jersey with parents who raised her to be a wife and mother, what's happened to New York City since she moved there after dropping out of high school in the late 1960s, working as a New York City cab driver when she was in her 20s, writing for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine in her 20s, why she owns over 10,000 books, and why she still doesn't own a cellphone or computer. As the series' editor David Tedeschi put it, the Netflix series "Pretend It's A City" is about what Fran has to say. But it's also about how she says it. It's about her timing, her cadence, her pace.
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GROSS: Fran Lebowitz, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to talk with you again.
FRAN LEBOWITZ: Thank you. Nice to speak to you.
GROSS: The series was shot before COVID, so you don't get to talk about the pandemic in the series. But I'm interested in hearing - how's your fear level about contagion? And how vigilant have you been about not getting COVID?
LEBOWITZ: I think I've been excellent at not getting COVID because I have not gotten it.
LEBOWITZ: So I think that's the proof that I've been vigilant. I've been, like, really careful. But I kind of was astonished that I didn't get it before we knew about it because up until, like, March - I think New York shut down on March 13. March 12, I did an event at the Strand with Ben Katchor. So nobody was in more swarms of people than I was before it happened - millions of people on the subway, in the street, in restaurants, in museums.
So - but since then, I've had to have a few tests to do certain things. And I have to say, I wasn't very worried that I had it. I don't know why. But, I mean, every time someone called to tell me I was negative - I mean, the first time, actually, the line producer of "Pretend It's A City" called. And he said, I got your test results. You're negative. I said, I knew that, Josh (ph). And he said, how did you know that? And I said, because my entire life, people have been saying to me, Fran, you're so negative.
LEBOWITZ: So I was aware that I would be negative. I am still negative.
GROSS: Are you predisposed to worrying about health and infection?
LEBOWITZ: You know, I've always been very - I don't know what the word is - very careful about touching things. For instance, I can and have thousands of times - I've never touched a single thing in the New York City subway system ever. And usually, I'm by myself on the subway. But a few times - I remember many years ago going in the subway with someone. And he said to me - when we got out, he said, you didn't touch anything. And I said, no. And the truth is, if I drop the Hope Diamond on the floor of a subway car...
LEBOWITZ: ...I'd leave it there. I'd say, well, you know, it's just the Hope Diamond. But I have seen - I mean, I, of course, seen people pick things up from this floor. I, at least once, was sitting across from a woman with a baby. And I forget what you call - the pacifier fell out of the baby's mouth. The woman picked it up, wiped it off on her shirt and put it back in the baby's mouth. I really thought one of two things are going to happen to that baby. Either he's going to drop dead right now, or he'll live to be a million years old because he's just been exposed to every...
LEBOWITZ: ...Germ and virus on the planet Earth.
GROSS: So, you know, the shortages of, like, toilet paper and paper towels early on and the continuing shortage of disinfecting wipes, the food lines, the unemployment, the people losing their homes because of the pandemic - it really has gotten me thinking, among other things, about my parents who came of age during the Depression and what they went through and how that imprinted itself on them. And I feel like there's things about them now that I understand that I didn't before, why they always thought that something like that could happen any second, do you know what I mean? Your parents are probably the same generation as my parents. Have you been thinking about that, too?
LEBOWITZ: Yes. Actually, my parents are not alive, are yours?
GROSS: No. No, they're not. So I can't talk to them about this.
LEBOWITZ: No. My parents were - grew up during the Depression. My father's family was extremely poor. And so I actually have - I have many habits of someone who grew up during the Depression, because someone once said to me, why do you shut the light out every time you walk out of the room?
GROSS: Yes (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: And I said, because my father made us do that...
LEBOWITZ: ...You know? And so I retained these habits. But my parents didn't grow up during a plague, so I don't have that to fall back on.
GROSS: You've always lived alone by choice. How is living alone feeling during the pandemic when everybody's feeling kind of isolated?
LEBOWITZ: Well, it's still, you know, seems to me to be by far the best choice. I mean, I cannot understand how people who do not live alone have stood this last 10 months, you know, because the only upside of, you know, being - you know, having to stay in my apartment is at least there was no one else there. I mean, I would find that unbearable, I mean, truly unbearable. So there are people that I know at the very beginning - this guy I know, this friend of mine, sent me, you know, like $1 million worth of orchids saying, these are to keep you company. And I thought, really? I mean, thank you. They're beautiful. But I keep myself company.
GROSS: Do you ever get lonely?
LEBOWITZ: You know, truthfully, I really never get lonely. I mean, I certainly can say that there are specific people that I've missed in my life numerous times, you know, some very grievously. But a kind of abstract loneliness? No.
GROSS: This new series is the second time Scorsese has documented you as a public speaker. You're friends. How did you become friends with Scorsese?
LEBOWITZ: You know, I don't - neither Marty nor I really know. I always say that, you know, I must have met Marty at a party because I can't think where else I would have met him, and also because I spent, you know, so much of my life going to parties. And Marty has gone to fewer parties, hence Marty has made more movies than Fran has written books. But...
LEBOWITZ: You know, I feel like I did notice at some point that whenever I saw Marty at a party, I would spend most of the evening talking to Marty. We both have such a strong connection to New York that, in fact, when I made my deal with Marty for "Public Speaking," we had the meeting. When the meeting was over, Marty said, OK, here's the deal. We don't leave Manhattan. And we shook hands. And that was the deal. We never had any kind of contract or anything. So in "Pretend It's A City," we did go to Queens, something Marty talked about as if we were going to Afghanistan.
LEBOWITZ: Remember, we have to go to Queens, Fran. Queens. You know where this place is? And even though, of course, Marty has made movies all over the world, you know, he doesn't take to that kindly, having to leave New York. And for instance, like, I happen not to have left New York for maybe a month before the shutdown, so I actually have not left New York for almost a year.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're listening to the interview I recorded last January with Fran Lebowitz. She's featured in conversation in the Netflix series "Pretend It's A City." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, who interviews her in the series. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fran Lebowitz. She first became famous as a writer, but now she's famous as a public speaker. In the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City," she's interviewed by her friend Martin Scorsese, who directed the series.
You strike me as someone who is resolutely yourself. You know who you are. You don't worry about changing yourself to be more popular or to please other people. You've been described as an iconoclast. Are you always comfortable within yourself?
LEBOWITZ: Yes. I'm always surprised that people - adults - you know, look to other people even for things like haircuts, you know. I mean, I just never thought about it. I don't know why. I mean, but that was true even when I was a little kid, you know. I just - I don't have a habit of comparing myself to other people, you know. So there is an upside to that, you know, which is that - I would say that the luckiest thing for me about being me is how relatively - and I stress the word relatively - free of envy I am because to envy someone, you have to compare yourself to them. And so I really don't do that. And so the few times in my life I felt, you know, deeply envious, the feeling was so repellent to me that I thought, God, this must be what it's like to be these people who are constantly envious of other people.
And whenever people express that to me - oh, I wish I, you know, had that thing that guy had, or I wish - I always say, if you are thinking - if you compare yourself to another person like that, like, I wish I had that house, you have to understand you have to be that person. You have to have everything else they have, you know, so that, you know - do you want to be that other person? So then I just never have felt that.
GROSS: You grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, and you say that you were raised by your parents to be a wife. That did not work out that way (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: It did not work out for them. It worked out great for me.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you looked around you and you looked at the adults in your neighborhood when you were growing up, and particularly when you looked at the women, what did you see?
LEBOWITZ: Well, you know, truthfully, I just felt in general - you know, I was born in 1950, so - I have to stress the end of 1950, so I'm younger than you think. So this was kind of the heyday of this kind of thing. I also had a mother who was pretty comfortable with that for herself, you know. I mean, so that - it wasn't - you know, some people that I know that are my age had mothers who were, like, visibly bristling at that. But that was not my mother.
So, you know, I - it isn't that I didn't believe my parents or believe the world I was in. I just, for some reason, managed to internally separate myself from it so that I was able to have, by the way, truly a pretty happy childhood. I really enjoyed my childhood. Partially, that's because I'm very suited to being a child, you know. I mean, I'm really suited to being a child, you know. I mean, a lot of the problems that I have in my life now, I wouldn't have if I was 8, I think. Eight-year-olds don't have to pay property taxes. Why do I?
So, you know, the being taught to cook and you have to do, I mean, this; you have to do that - my parents were both profoundly conventional people. So that - I remember once saying, you know, when - I have a sister, and that's the whole family - my mother, my father, me and my sister. So I remember once saying when I was about 10 years old or something, why doesn't daddy have to help with the dishes? And my father said, if I wanted to do dishes, I wouldn't have had two daughters.
GROSS: Whoa. He wasn't joking?
LEBOWITZ: No, not at all. And I remember that, and this is, you know, something like 60 years ago. But I don't remember feeling surprised to hear him say that or angry that he said that. That was just the way the world that I lived in was. You know, I was not, as a child, like, rebellious against that, you know, like, why can't I do that? I mean, a little girl in the 1950s like I was was told all the time that was the reason you couldn't do things. Why can't I do this? You're a girl. Oh. That was the answer.
GROSS: What did you want to do that your parents said you couldn't do because you were a girl?
LEBOWITZ: You know, I don't even remember. I just remember hearing it all the time, you know.
LEBOWITZ: I mean, it wasn't like a lot of girls - like, for instance, you know, a lot of girls - women my age, you know, remember not being able to play sports and stuff like that. Believe me; that was the upside for me. The upside was that I was not expected, you know, to play, you know, sports. So I never thought, like, why can't I join Little League, OK? Like, thank goodness I don't have to join Little League. So that - so in that way, I would say, like, well, I don't remember exactly what I couldn't do, but there were a lot of things I couldn't do, and that was the reason you couldn't do it.
And, for instance, when I was young, girls took home ec in school starting in, like, the fourth or fifth grade. Boys took shop. Now, I am not saying I wanted to take shop. I didn't, but I didn't want to take home ec, either. We had to sew. We had to cook. These are both things I still can't do, and I don't want to do them. So I got in trouble because we had to make - in home ec, we had to make an apron. There might be girls who don't even know what an apron is. And congratulations, my mother had an apron wardrobe.
LEBOWITZ: You know, my mother had dozens of aprons. So that - we had to make an apron, which was a garment we'd be wearing in the kitchen when we cooked for our husbands. And it's a pretty simple sewing job. But it was beyond me. So I taped mine together with Scotch tape and then got caught doing that, because, of course, when the teacher picked it up, the tape fell off. So that - you know, I didn't want to do these things. And I either didn't do them and got in trouble or did them poorly and got in trouble. But I didn't think, let me lead a movement against this. You know, I was never that kind of person. I'm still not.
You know, I've never been a political activist. I'm too lazy to be an activist. You know, I'm not the kind of person who did that. Very often, now, people who are young thank me for my former activism, which - you know, thank you for fighting for gay marriage. And I always say, I didn't fight for gay marriage. I never even thought about gay marriage. Gay marriage is not even a combination of words that came into my mind until people started talking about it. I didn't fight for it. Don't thank me. Thank someone else.
GROSS: So you were kind of different as a kid. When you were growing up, you wanted to go your own way. You had your own thoughts. You've always been yourself. And yourself is often oppositional (laughter) and unique. Did that bother you ever as a kid, that you didn't - I mean, you're such a paradox. Like, on the one hand, you always go your own way. You ended up being president of one of your high school classes. That struck me as so odd because I can't imagine you being interested in student government, even though I know you follow politics now. But that's different than student government. And so like, you're the president of your - of one of your classes. And then you're expelled from the school (laughter). It's like one paradox after another. Explain.
LEBOWITZ: Well, I mean, the difference is that the kids elected me president, and the headmaster threw me out.
GROSS: Got it. Yes. That's a good explanation (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: I mean, this class I was the president of had, literally, 12 people in it, OK. So I still - I believe I could be the president of the United States if there are only 12 people in the United States. So that - I wasn't interested in student government. I don't - this is a private girl school that I went to for, like, 15 minutes before they threw me out. So that's where I was elected president. And then the headmaster of that school threw me out. The official reason he threw me out was, he said, I was a terrible influence on the other girls. And I was usurping his power.
Whatever that meant, I have no idea. But - and I don't know what kind of power - I mean, it's kind of a sad thing that the headmaster of a girl's school thinks he has a lot of power. But - and that's what happened. So I always felt that I was punished for things unfairly. In other words, like, I didn't do - in other words, when I got thrown out of school, for years afterward, people say, what did you do? And I know I was expected to say, you know, I started a revolution, you know. I set fire to the gym. But I really didn't do anything. And I really think that what I got expelled for was what my mother used to call that look on your face.
GROSS: As in wipe that look off of your Face? (Laughter).
LEBOWITZ: Yes, wipe that look off your face. So I think - and, by the way, I was unaware of this look on my face. So that, you know, it's - like, people very often say to me, you never smile in photographs. Why don't you smile? And I always say, I think I am smiling. Why are you sneering? I think I'm smiling. So that - there is some kind of disconnect between, apparently, the way I look and the way I think I feel. So, you know, yes, there's this paradox. But, you know, I've never had the experience of being so in the control of other people once I got out of school.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last January with Fran Lebowitz. She's featured in conversation in this year's Netflix series, "Pretend It's A City." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, who interviews her in the series. After we take a short break, we'll hear more of the interview. And podcast critic Nick Quah will tell us about three of his favorite podcasts of the year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the interview I recorded last January with Fran Lebowitz. She became famous in the late '70s and early '80s for her collections of humorous essays, "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies." After developing a bad case of writer's block, which has lasted for decades with brief interruptions of writing, she became famous as a public speaker with interesting, funny opinions and observations on nearly everything. You can see her in action in the new Netflix series "Pretend It's A City."
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GROSS: When you came to New York when you were in your teens, you wanted to be a writer. And you became a writer. But before you had, like, a best-selling book, you had jobs like driving a taxi and cleaning houses - well, cleaning apartments, maybe (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: Yeah, apartments.
GROSS: Yeah. I want to hear about driving a taxi, 'cause you were how old - you were still in your teens?
LEBOWITZ: I would say - you know, I don't remember exactly. I could have been 20, 21, you know.
GROSS: And this is in the '70s, at a time when there were very few women driving a taxi. And there still are a few women driving a taxi, but it was fewer then. And you were very young. Were you ever, like, in physical danger?
LEBOWITZ: Well, I mean, New York was a very dangerous period then, you know. They say it was, like, 1970 or '71 - I don't remember - you know, it was dangerous to walk down the street. There was a tremendous amount of crime. So it was considered dangerous.
I drove a taxi because I don't have any skills. You know, I didn't know how to do anything else. I knew how to drive because I was from New Jersey, so I know how to drive. I knew how to clean a house because my mother trained me to clean houses. That was pretty much it skill-wise. So I also didn't want to do the job that most of my friends did, which was wait tables because, you know, I didn't want to have to be nice to men to get tips or to sleep with the manager of my shift, which was a common requirement then for being a waitress in New York. So I didn't want to have a boss, which you don't in either one of those jobs.
I - cab driving, as a profession, was completely different than it is now because there were these garages with big fleets. There would be, like - someone would own, like, you know, 40 cabs or maybe more. So you could pick up a cab any shift. You could always make money. So that if you woke up in your apartment with no money - a frequent occurrence in my life - I could go pick up a cab. At the end of eight hours, I had money. So that, to me, was a great thing.
It was dangerous. Nothing ever happened to me in the cab. I mean, I was - never had any type of, you know, attack on me or anything like that. I was pretty careful, you know, who I picked up. You know, I would never - I would pick up any man - he could be holding an assault weapon if he was with a woman. I would not pick up a bunch of guys together. The same way that I will cross the street my whole life to avoid a bunch of young guys walking around together. It's not a good job for a woman. It's not, by the way, a good job. So if you're a young person listening to this, think of something else.
GROSS: Is it true that you also wrote porn after you came to Manhattan?
LEBOWITZ: It is true. I'm talking about books, all right. You know, someone told me about this. And someone told me they were doing this. And I don't remember any more, but if you wrote a book for this company, you got, like, something like $500, which was probably, at that point, about a third of the amount of money I would make in a year. So this seemed like - what? - this is unbelievable.
And this guy who told me about it had a contract. And then he - I also remember seeing this - there was a piece of paper that he got from this company that told you what had to be in the book, what couldn't be in the book, what had to be in the book, how often it had to be in the book. And so this guy - like, what happened was that he just felt he couldn't do it. So he kind of farmed it out and ended up with, like, six of us writing this book together - and really wasn't writing. I mean, I didn't write. We just sat around, like - we thought it was hilarious, by the way.
GROSS: I can imagine. Yeah.
LEBOWITZ: One of the things you couldn't have was any kind of sex between men, but you had to have sex between women. These books were...
GROSS: To turn on men.
GROSS: Right. Yes. Right (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: These books were meant for straight men, OK. This whole company, I think, was meant for this. And so I just remember sitting around. Most of the people I was with were stoned. One person I remember typing on a typewriter. Not me, because I didn't know how to do that. And then we had to split up the money. I think I ended up getting, like, $40 or something like that.
And - but the thing that I did do - that I achieved - was everyone used a pseudonym. No one used their real names on these books. And I got them to use the name of the headmaster who threw me out of school.
LEBOWITZ: (Laughter) That is in fact, to this day...
GROSS: Oh, that's - talk about revenge (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: ...One of my greatest accomplishments.
GROSS: The scenes with sex between women must have been very authentic when you were writing them (laughter).
LEBOWITZ: Well, these - you know, these books were meant, you know, purely for straight men. So, you know...
GROSS: Right. Not for - not for lesbians. Yeah.
LEBOWITZ: Yes. Not for women. Not for anyone else. But, you know, almost all cultural production at the time was also produced for straight men.
If you're just joining us, we're listening to the interview I recorded last January with Fran Lebowitz. She's featured in conversation in the Netflix series "Pretend It's A City." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, who interviews her in the series. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Fran Lebowitz. She first became famous as a writer, but now she's famous as a public speaker. In the Netflix series "Pretend It's A City," she's interviewed by her friend, Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series.
You worked at Andy Warhol's magazine, Interview. I think you got that job when you were 21. Did Andy Warhol, like, interview you for the position?
LEBOWITZ: No. So the first time I went to interview - and I went up in the elevator. And when the elevator door opened, there was a metal door that was closed that had a piece of paper taped to it that said, knock loudly and announce yourself. This was after Andy had been shot. So I heard someone say, who is it? And I said, Valerie Solanas.
LEBOWITZ: And Andy opened the door.
GROSS: Oh, God.
LEBOWITZ: So in case you were thinking, Andy Warhol, he was a genius - all right, so first of all, I was shocked that he opened the door. I don't know. For some reason, I never actually expected him to be there even though it was called Andy Warhol's Interview. I just never - I didn't want to be there because of Andy. I wanted to be there because it was a magazine. So he opened the door. And he didn't comment on what I said. And I said, I had an appointment with the editor. And he said, what do you do? I said, I'm a writer. Now, nobody that I know my age wanted to be a writer. Nobody. And so this was very helpful to me, you know.
But almost everyone I knew wanted to be or was a musician or a filmmaker. Writing was, like, not, you know, the thing people are gravitating towards. So they were having trouble getting writers. So he said, you know, oh, great. And I went in. And I told - now, I told the editor, I don't - I want to write movie reviews. He said, OK. I said, but I want my own column. OK. I want the back page. OK. I only want to review bad movies. I only want to review bad movie because I just want to be funny. I don't - I'm not a film critic. OK. So I had a column called "The Best Of The Worst" where I just reviewed bad movies. And that's how I started in Interview.
GROSS: That's great. When you worked at Andy Warhol's magazine Interview, it sounds like you had some - like, a lot of disagreements with Andy Warhol. What would you disagree about?
LEBOWITZ: I didn't have a lot of disagreements with Andy because I didn't work at the Factory. In other words, I didn't go there, you know, every day. There were people who worked there, you know. I mean...
LEBOWITZ: ...The Interview was on one side. And the Factory, as we called it, was on the other side. But there were people who went to work there every day. At Interview, there were the editor. There was a receptionist. But I never had a job there. I never had a job. So I didn't go there every day. I wouldn't say that I had disagreements with Andy. I would say that Andy didn't like me and that I did not like Andy. I don't...
GROSS: Why didn't you like him?
LEBOWITZ: Well, I noticed right away how many people around him died. I know you're not supposed to say this, you know. But, I mean, kids, I mean, you know. There was a tremendous amount of, you know, encouragement of people already teetering on the brink of sanity. I mean, a lot of the people around Andy in those days were - I don't know what's the thing you're supposed to say now. I guess - I'm certain you're not supposed to say crazy. But let's say not the most stable people on the planet Earth. And Andy would feed these fantasies they had of themselves because it amused him. And it was also lucrative for him. And I just didn't want to be, really, around that. And, you know, I think that Andy realized that. Or maybe I just wasn't his cup of tea. But I didn't have arguments with Andy because I never had much conversation with Andy.
GROSS: So are you referring to, like, drug overdoses and suicides?
LEBOWITZ: Yeah, drug overdoses. Or there were a couple of actual suicides. You know, I mean, these people - no one was dying of old age. These people were really young (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
LEBOWITZ: So - and this was way before AIDs. So this was, yeah, mostly drugs.
GROSS: Being a part, even if it was on the periphery, of Andy Warhol's Factory, you probably knew a lot of people who were then known as drag queens. Do you wonder what life would have been like for them if they were alive now, with the LGBTQ movement and with people being very out as being trans?
LEBOWITZ: You know, it's impossible. You know, I mean, I was, I would say, friends with Candy and Jackie, less Holly. You can't take someone out of their era. It's impossible. So, you know, if Candy was alive now, she wouldn't be the person I knew at all, you know. You just - it's impossible to do that. I mean, it's impossible to do that and have it be accurate. So I mean, if you're asking me, would they prefer it? I don't know, perhaps not. But it was illegal - illegal, by which I mean there was laws against a man dressing like a woman. It was illegal. People were arrested for this. They went to jail for this. They were beaten up by the cops for this. So I would, lots of times, go places. And Candy would be there. And I would always say, how did you get here? How did you get here?
GROSS: Like, without being arrested.
LEBOWITZ: Yeah, without being arrested.
GROSS: You know so many people, including a lot of famous people. Did you know Donald Trump in the '80s through nightlife?
LEBOWITZ: Of course not. (Laughter) I mean, you would...
GROSS: Different circles? (Laughter).
LEBOWITZ: Yeah, I would say. I mean, of course, I heard of him, you know. I mean, Donald Trump was a joke in New York. I mean, Donald Trump was not even taken seriously as a real estate developer by real estate developers. In other words, there was no segment of the population of New York that did not look down on Donald Trump, OK. So that - I was just one of the many people who looked down on Donald Trump. And that was before he destroyed the Western world. So...
LEBOWITZ: No, I didn't know him.
GROSS: You were close friends with Toni Morrison. And you've written about that friendship and how much you miss her now. And I think you met at a reading that you were both doing. A lot of people think that you were an odd combination because her writing sometimes had this kind of magic realism, and you're this kind of cynical, skeptical, you know, opinionated humorist. But obviously, you had a lot of things in common. What were some of the things that you shared?
LEBOWITZ: Well, Toni loved parties, OK. So if you didn't know Toni personally, you would not know how much fun Toni was. Toni was really fun. Most of the time I spent with Toni, which was zillions of hours - I mean, I met Toni in 1978. So most of the time we were laughing, OK. I mean, she was really fun.
Yes, I - in fact, when I first knew Toni, she was still working at Random House as an editor. And they were - at that point, my publisher and my editor called me and said - now, I can't remember who was the president of Random House at the time, but he said, so-and-so called me. And you have to stop hanging around in Toni Morrison's office because the people - so-and-so, whatever his name was - was complaining because you're hanging around in there, and the two of you are laughing all the time. And she's not getting her work done. So I would say that's probably the thing we had in common - was liking to laugh.
GROSS: So, finally, I know that you've had insomnia for years. What do you do when you can't sleep?
LEBOWITZ: But I've never slept. So that - apparently, my mother used to say that she never read so much as when I was an infant because I was screaming all night, crying all night. And even when I was a little kid, I would say, well, I was crying because I didn't know how to read because I was up anyway. But if you're, like, two months old, you just cry, you know, because you can't read.
But I didn't sleep when I was a child. The only time my life I've ever really been able to sleep was when I was a teenager, and there was a period of a few years when I was a teenager where I couldn't stay awake. So I was constantly sleeping. But other than that, I just expect not to sleep, by which I mean, you know, I don't sleep more than maybe two hours consecutively, and that has almost always been true. So that - I don't think - I think it's just some sort of biological thing to me because there doesn't seem to be any difference.
GROSS: Do you get up and read a book in the middle of the night?
LEBOWITZ: I used to. And they always say, don't walk around. You know, play music. But that's for - you know, all those, like, tips for insomnia are if something is temporary, like, you know, you have insomnia because something happened and - you know? But, I mean, I have insomnia because I'm alive, so that - nothing really works.
GROSS: You don't have a cellphone. You don't have a computer. Do you think you will never have one?
LEBOWITZ: I don't know. I mean, I'm always worried that they might stop making regular phones or stop, like, fixing them or whatever. By regular phones, I mean landline.
LEBOWITZ: I mean, I worry about things like, are they going to stop making paper? So I - like, I hoard paper. Are they going to stop making pencils or pens? You know, because sometimes at a party, like, I'll want to write something down. I've had this happen to me more than once where I say to someone I'm talking to - a young person - do you have a pen? And they say, what do you mean? What do I mean? Like, when this first was asked of me, I thought, do they not know what a pen is? No, they know what it is, but they don't know why they would have one. To them, it's like I'm asking, you know, do you have a frying pan? Yes, but not on me because why would I need a frying pan at a party? So I worry about all the things that I never thought would disappear might disappear.
GROSS: Fran Lebowitz, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much for coming back on our show.
LEBOWITZ: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: My interview with Fran Lebowitz was recorded in January 2021 after the release of the Netflix series "Pretend It's A City," featuring her interviewed by Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. Scorsese also directed the series. After we take a short break, podcast critic Nick Quah will tell us about three of his favorite podcasts of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There were so many new podcasts this year, making it even more difficult to narrow down what to listen to, so it will be helpful to hear what podcast critic Nick Quah has to say about three of his favorite podcasts of the year. Here's Nick.
NICK QUAH: As I look back at the podcasts that most spoke to me in 2021, two qualities stood out - a sense of surprise and a keen interest in inner lives. Based on those two things, here are the three shows I'll remember from this year.
The most intriguing podcast from 2021 features an anonymous narrator and a title that can't be fully spoken on radio airwaves. I'll refer to it "S-hole Country," which, of course, takes its name from the infamous epithet once levied by former President Donald Trump against several nations. This nonfiction series follows a Ghanaian American woman living in California who calls herself Afia as she confronts a pivotal choice. She's been given the opportunity to start a new life in (unintelligible) Ghana, where her parents now live. And the chance prompts her to re-examine her place in the United States. The situation provokes some rich, thorny questions. What does the notion of a developing country actually mean? And what remains of the American promise anyway? The material makes for a potentially heavy memoir. But working together with the producer Mark Pagan, Afia moves the story along with a bounce, backed by shrewd observation and sparkling sound design.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "S***HOLE COUNTRY")
AFIA KAAKYIRE: What is there for you in America, Maame Afia? Hmm? She laughs. Her silver earrings and bracelets jangle merrily. Scratch that - menacingly.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
KAAKYIRE: I should have known. When I first graduated from college and moved out to Philly for a job, my parents happily offered to drive. And as they headed back, they happily handed me the receipts for their gas and tolls. She's just so good at this. A minute ago, we were celebrating.
QUAH: The anonymous narrator is an underused device in podcasting. And "S-hole Country" leans on it for a crucial reason. Afia's story involves a reveal late in the series that relates to her actual identity, one that reframes the entire story that came before it. I'll hold the details. But rest assured, like everything else in this production, it's done with purpose and with power.
Seth Rogen is far from anything resembling an anonymous narrator. But in many ways, his podcast, "Storytime With Seth Rogen" shares "S-hole Country's" capacity for surprise. Celebrity podcasts are as common as traffic lights these days. But "Storytime" stands out. Not only is it a good time, it can be transcendental. On paper, the premise seems familiar. In each episode, Rogen interviews a different guest - mostly celebrities, but not always - with the aim of drawing out an entertaining story from their lives. But it is in the execution that "Storytime" reaches for a higher level. Collaborating with Richard Parks III, a producer known for his eccentric sound and sensibility, Rogen builds on the idea that every story has the largest possible stakes for the person telling it, whether it's a tale about a bear attack or something as banal as a joke gone wrong. To convey this, the show blows its guests' stories up into the most elaborate terms possible, as they do in this clip featuring the comedian Quinta Brunson, recounting a fateful date at a screening of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STORYTIME WITH SETH ROGEN")
SETH ROGEN: The movie starts.
QUINTA BRUNSON: It starts with a scalping.
ROGEN: Quinta is spinning [expletive] out.
BRUNSON: 'Cause I hate blood, and I hate gore.
ROGEN: There's Octavius (ph), sitting beside her, not liking comedy, loving "Inglorious Basterds." There's Paul Rudd mere feet away from her. There's Quinta watching Christoph Waltz murdering Jewish people, something she does not want to be seeing right now.
BRUNSON: I'm having a crisis, an existential crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, SCREAMING)
ROGEN: She doesn't know what to do. Why is this happening to her? Why is this happening?
QUAH: It's a lovely storytelling philosophy, but doing it well requires balance. Push too far and the whole thing can easily collapse into indulgence. But "Storytime" pulls it off more often than not. It's a show that internalizes the idea of taking other people's inner lives seriously. And it's definitely a podcast I won't be forgetting anytime soon.
Speaking of blowing things up, let's talk about the best podcast of the year. Many of the shows that stood out to me in 2021 were projects that felt singular to their creators, instruments that made me see the world exactly as they see it. No podcast did this better than "Aack Cast" by the comedian and writer Jamie Loftus. Equal parts cultural analysis and reportage, "Aack Cast" offers listeners a re-examination of "Cathy," the world-famous comic strip by Cathy Guisewite.
These days, the Cathy character tends to be remembered as much for her punchline, aack, as being a punchline for a certain kind of anti-feminism. Loftus doesn't believe this, arguing that the comic should be interpreted against the context of its history. Put simply, Cathy was a character who changed repeatedly as its creator navigated the many feminisms of her lifetime. Loftus' arguments for "Cathy" are compelling, but the larger achievement in "Aack Cast" is the way in which she makes them. The podcast is an anarchic work - loud and messy and fun, the creation of someone who brings to the game a cheerful disregard for the rules.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "AACK CAST")
JAMIE LOFTUS: At her peak, the Cathy character was as loved by her fans for being terminally stressed out and overextended as she was hated by her detractors for being cringey. And I'm here to tell you that these haters, these detractors simply have not read enough "Cathy" comics. Are you going to believe Carrie Bradshaw - rich coming from her, by the way - she's a literal "Cathy" comic - over someone who spent the entire spring of 2021 reading thousands of aacks, two feminist movement worth of aacks, seven full presidencies worth of aacks? Listener, I ask you, because I have read every single "Cathy" comic, and I really like to talk to people about it.
QUAH: There are very few podcast-makers today who feel quite as creatively liberated as Loftus. For that reason alone, she sounds to me like the future of this medium, and that prospect is thoroughly exciting. Constantly teetering between chaos and order, what's specifically interesting about "Aack Cast" is that you get the sense there's a very thin line separating what you're hearing in the podcast and what it's actually like in her head. There are very few podcast-makers today who feel quite as creatively liberated as Loftus. For that reason alone, she sounds to me like the future of this medium, and that prospect is thoroughly exciting.
GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. He died Sunday at age 90. We'll hear a 1984 interview with him when he was fighting against apartheid, advocating nonviolence - that's the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize - and an interview post-apartheid in 1999 about chairing South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "YOU CAN'T STOP ME NOW")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "YOU CAN'T STOP ME NOW")
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