If Fran Lebowitz Doesn’t Remember You, Then “You’re Not Memorable”

Fran Lebowitz can't help but comment on everything the cultural light touches.
Fran Lebowitz can't help but comment on everything the cultural light touches. Photo by Cybele Malinowski

Time to roll out the red carpet, Houston is getting a visit from an icon. New York cultural critic, satirist and A+ gabber Fran Lebowitz is visiting the Society for the Performing Arts at Jones Hall for a sit-down with host Ernie Manouse on Tuesday, February 15.

The event will be followed by an hour long audience Q&A moderated by the opinionated writer - and she promises no topic is off-limits. “It’s completely open,” Lebowitz vows. “I go to a lectern, and I answer questions from the audience for one hour.  I do not allow [microphones] in the audience, I don’t allow questions on cards or anything like that. People raise their hands, and I answer their questions. For me, this is the most fun. I don’t want to know what they’re going to ask! I don’t wanna know. I like to be surprised, its much more fun for me.”

The 71-year-old public speaker is not shy about sharing her zeal to be back in front of audiences - either face-to-face, or face-to-mask. “I love the live audience,” she says in earnest. “I did several Zoom-virtual dates – and they’re not even related in my opinion. When I first started doing these live dates again, after one, I said to my agent, ‘you know, the audience seemed a little subdued. I didn’t get that great feeling from the audience.’ She said, ‘Fran, they were all wearing masks.’ I hadn’t thought of that! So a masked audience, even if they are having a wonderful time and are laughing hilariously, is very subdued. So now I’m a little more used to it, I just did six nights in a row and it is definitely more subdued.”

Lebowitz is quick on the draw to offer a pointed barb about our state’s flummoxing masking policies. “Now I know that in Texas you can not require a mask from the audience... it is illegal! Because I asked. I knew I was doing a few dates in Texas and asked my agent about the audience being masked, and she said it's against the law. It’s not against the law to wear a mask, but it's against the law to require the audience to wear a mask.  It’s against the law to require the audience to show a vaccination card. It is wholly legal for everyone in the audience to be carrying an assault rifle. So I’m a little apprehensive. I do not want to be shot. I hope people who feel like shooting me do not come to the show. You don’t like me? Fine. Don’t come.”

For those on the outside looking in, it might seem like the famously tech-averse Lebowitz might have had a harder time during the pandemic than others since so much of our culture was driven online for the past two years – it appeared to require an invitation from Jimmy Fallon himself to get Lebowitz on Zoom. But perhaps as expected, Lebowitz dryly disagrees with this assessment.

“Well, I have a phone. People say that you don’t have a phone, but I do, I just say you have to call the landline. It’s in my apartment. And the reason you can tell it’s a land line is that it works! No one ever says to me ‘I can’t hear you.’ I don’t have internet connection in my apartment, so it is true that all the things people did during the lockdown, which as far as I can tell was watch Netflix, I didn’t do. I did have to do at times a number of Zoom events and Zoom interviews, but that meant that I had to be taken some place where they had a studio with people who knew how to do the technology, because I didn’t know how to.”

“So I didn’t miss the technology, if that’s what you’re asking – I missed humans. Now it is my understanding from talking to people, that even the people who had the technology, which is everyone but me, they also missed people! So the main difference is I didn’t watch Netflix 24 hours a day. But I did notice that several of my friends, many of whom for the last ten years announce that they hate talking on the phone and I don’t do it anymore, I just text... these are the people I could not get off the phone during the lockdown. These are the people who want to talk on the phone non-stop, because it is more like seeing a person than texting is.”

While Lebowitz may have left space to keep in contact with her circle of compatriots, some of what was missed most during lockdown couldn’t be so easily replicated. “I miss New York, you know? I missed city life. There’s specific things, of course – the museums were closed, the galleries were closed, the movies were closed, everything was closed.

"But at a certain point, I don’t remember when, maybe it was a few months into the beginning of COVID, I realized that there are dozens and dozens of people that I think of as seeing all the time, that I did see all the time, but never by design. These are people that I would see because they also go the same parties, or they go to the same openings or galleries or museums. These are not people I ever arranged to see, I just saw them. And of course those people really disappeared from my life, because I didn’t arrange to see them or speak to them, and that was a big lack. Not specific individual people, but that whole thing. That is one of the important things about city life, those people you see all the time.

"That was really surprising to me because these are people I would have previously described to you as ‘peripheral’  - and individually, they may have been. But as a whole they were a significant part of my life. That was something I have never thought about. The main thing about COVID is it presented to me such a large number of things I have never previously thought about. So now I’ve thought about them, and I’m finished thinking about them. Yeah, I’m done.”

Having been a public intellectual for decades, the Pretend It's A City star appears to have had the pleasure of breaking bread with so many of the great conversationalists – her friendship with filmmaker Martin Scorsese was even parodied on Saturday Night Live last year. Simply put: the well-spoken wit has an ear for what makes for rat-a-tat chat.

“The number one thing I can say that is most desirable in an interview is a lack of hostility,” she says, half deadpan. “I know there are people who don’t like me, but they shouldn’t be interviewing me on stage, okay? I always say in general that journalists are the best at interviewing people, because despite what people think: it’s a skill. So even though everyone thinks they can interview people, they are wrong. I love when someone says something I’ve never thought of, that is always delightful. Even if that thing I’ve never thought of is horrible. Usually, I’ve already thought of all the terrible things – that’s the general bent of my thinking. If someone tells me something I didn’t know, but of course, the older you get, the less frequently that occurs.”

“I’ve known in my life great talkers. When I first moved to New York, I met a whole group of them who were quite a bit older than me. They’re all dead for many years now because they were A. quite a bit older than me and most of them were gay men who died in the first AIDS onslaught. But that particular group of people, which I can say with the exception of one specific person are all dead, they were also very hostile, I must say. And I was a young kid. I think that after that type of baptism, everything seems sweet after that. Some people are fast, you know? They’re funny, there’s this certain type of funniness like these guys, you know, they were nasty.”

With an eye toward the frequent headlines about free speech woes and self-censorship, it might be fair to wonder: is the current generation even able to have real frank conversations any longer? After some probing, the speaker comes out swinging.

“I don’t think that necessarily that older people are better conversationalists than young people, but some people are just better than others. One difference is, people who are younger have been encouraged their whole lives to talk about themselves all the time. Where people my age were not only discouraged from talking about ourselves, but it was considered to be incredibly bad manners to talk about yourself. This would be true no matter who the person is... and the reason they believe that is because their parents are so interested in them. But I have numerous times told people: ‘I’m not your mother, I don’t care.’ People my age, our parents were not that interested in us. They didn’t pretend to be, they were not, they told us in numerous ways that we’re not that interested in you. So maybe these people have a happier childhood, but are more irritating conversationally. Can’t have everything!”

Lebowitz continues, taking umbrage with the notion of the so-called ‘short attention span.’ “I don’t believe there is such a thing as an attention span. I don’t think it’s a real thing. I think it’s a made up thing, like mental health! No one has mental health, not just you, you know? I believe that people maybe get bored more easily? Or they engage at such a superficial level that it becomes more boring. But I don’t believe in attention spans, I just don’t.

"Here’s what I say about myself: if I’m reading something in a magazine, say in the New Yorker, the second I look to see how much longer it is, I stop reading it. Because I know if I’m really engaged with it, it doesn’t matter how long it is. I wouldn’t notice, alright? If I notice that means, Fran, you are not interested enough. You are not sentenced to read this piece. You can stop reading it. But I wouldn’t take that as a [sign of] a short attention span. Its like sometimes people will say to me, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ And I always think, if I don’t remember you, that’s YOUR fault. You’re not memorable.”

In every way, Fran Lebowitz is unforgettable the way so many of us want to be.

Fran Lebowitz will appear at Jones Hall at 615 Louisiana on Tuesday, February 15 at 7:30 p.m. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit $35-$187.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee