At some point in life, everyone is asked the question, “If you could invite any six people in history to a dinner party, who would they be”? For me, Friday night firmly established Fran Lebowitz as one of my six guests.
Known primarily as an author of two classic books (“Metropolitan Life” and “Social Studies”), Lebowitz is also a speaker and social commentator. Frequent appearances on late night television as well as the 2010 Martin Scorsese-directed documentary “Public Speaking,” have contributed to her fame and her permanent standing as a New York icon, but her resume will never seem to be enough to equal her influence. Asking why people care about her is a valid question, and there is no obvious answer other than her wit and her embodiment of the most romantic aspects of New York City.
Friday at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Lebowitz was interviewed by television journalist John Bathke before taking questions from the audience. Throughout the night, she was fully engaging talking about any subject at all. She could be asked about her thoughts on shoelaces, and I guarantee her answer would keep you interested.
A self-described lazy person, she is essentially a much smarter Larry David, without the vulgarity or ambition. I think Larry David is a genius, but when Lebowitz speaks, you feel as though you are privileged to even be in the same room with someone so sharp.
The night was, however, mostly focused on her humor and not her intellect. She had the audience laughing within a minute of walking onstage, and routinely delivered lines that were as funny as they were insightful. She touched on the Republican debates and Scott Walker (“He wouldn’t be capable of being a doorman in New York, let alone President”), children (“The biggest change in parenting from when I was a child is that today people actually like their kids”) and entertaining (“I’m not much of an entertainer … I’m more of a guest”). Bathke proved to be a great interviewer, largely by remaining silent after asking a question, allowing Lebowitz to go on as long as she wished. She is something of a runaway train when she talks, and Bathke seemed to know that the way to get the most out of her was just to sit back and let her go.
Most impressively, Lebowitz said many things she had to know would not be popular with the audience, and the audience remained fully on her side. Speaking of growing up in Morristown, she said “Morristown seemed like a great place for kids, but not for adults.” This is not a thing a theater full of adults in the suburbs want to hear. Even more dramatically, she repeatedly discussed children, parenting and education, while she herself does not have children. Getting a roomful of many parents to actively listen to someone without kids telling them “how it really is” has to go down in history as one of the greatest feats in live performance.
Still, as funny as she is, I kept wondering why I was there, and why I am so drawn to her. I’m not sure I have ever gone to see an author be interviewed before, and I certainly haven’t ever paid to go like I did Friday night. Her books aren’t my absolute favorites, and she hasn’t been in movies I love. Instead, her life’s work — and the work of hers that I’m most interested in — is herself. Somehow she has made herself more interesting than anything she may write.
Ultimately, listening to Fran Lebowitz speak makes you feel like you are in a conversation with someone who can help you make sense (and make fun) of a complicated world. I would love to know her personally. I want my life to be filled with people this funny and insightful. I want to invite her to that fantasy dinner party.