Fran Lebowitz: I Am Not a Hostess. I Am a Prosecutor.

The humorist and quintessential New Yorker dishes out wisdom in Jack Morton Auditorium.

Fran Lebowitz
Fran Lebowitz was the final vistor in the Department of English's Jewish Lit Live spring 2014 season.
April 20, 2014

By Lauren Ingeno

Fran Lebowitz has never been the bigger person.

“When I was a child, my mother would constantly say to me, ‘Can’t you be the bigger person?’ And I can’t, OK? I am the smaller person,” the humorist told an audience at George Washington University on Thursday night.

Novelist Toni Morrison once suggested that Ms. Lebowitz use the word “we” instead of “you” in her writing—in order to “let the reader in.” But Ms. Lebowitz has no interest in that.  

“I am not a hostess. I’m a prosecutor,” Ms. Lebowitz said. “Toni has a lot of sympathy for her fellow man. And I don’t.”

Ms. Lebowitz’s sharp tongue and sardonic nature were on display in the Jack Morton Auditorium as the acclaimed social critic fielded questions from Associate Professor of English Margaret Soltan and audience members. She was the final visitor in the Jewish Lit Live spring 2014 season, presented by the Department of English in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Best known for her satirical social commentary on the absurdity of American life, Ms. Lebowitz is the bestselling author of “Metropolitan Life" and “Social Studies.” She recently starred in the HBO documentary film, “Public Speaking,” directed by Martin Scorsese.

“I don’t think I have a negative assessment of human beings. I think I have a realistic assessment of human beings."

Fran Lebowitz

On Thursday, she offered her opinion on topics from politics and democracy to technology and the wealthy. Here are some words of wisdom from Ms. Lebowitz:

She considers herself a realist—not a cynic.

“I don’t think I have a negative assessment of human beings. I think I have a realistic assessment of human beings. I think people like to think that people are better than they are. It is true that I don’t live in a cloud of hope, which I have a certain contempt for. If people really thought about it, which they don’t, I think that they would agree with me.”

She thinks democracy is unnatural. 

“There is a tremendous confusion between democracy and capitalism. Capitalism does kind of come naturally to people and democracy doesn’t. That’s why Russia had capitalism and not democracy. And that’s why we have much more capitalism in this country than we do democracy, because you have to teach people democracy. So that means you have to teach it to every generation. Every new baby is someone you have to teach to be a citizen. And it involves lots of things—not just voting.”

She finds writing exhausting but is obsessed with reading.

“This is the great misfortune of my life, that they feel different to me. I have 10,000 books at my house. I mean, literally, I have 10,000 books, because I moved three years ago—I know how many books I have. And each week I have 10, 12 books come to the house. I ran out of books the other night at 3 in the morning, and I am like a drunk looking for the half inch of whiskey. And I’m turning the house upside down until I’m finding something I want to read, because that is the function that reading has always performed in my life, which is, ‘Get me out of here, out of me,’ which is why I object to the way many people read now—it’s all about looking for themselves. I’m here now. I know what it’s like… Bring me someplace else.”

She does not own a computer or a cell phone.

“I do not own any kind of computer or cell phone or whatever, iPhone, iPad, microwave oven. If you told me you could text on the microwave oven, I might believe you. I’m pretty sure that writing on computers is different. It definitely is different. Even at the very beginning, it was different. I could see that right away, because when they first invented these, they were called word processors, and a friend of mine got one. She said, ‘Come to my house, and I’ll show you this thing.’ It just seemed like a very fast kind of typewriter. I never had a typewriter. It’s not just new machines I don’t like. I don’t like any machines. So I never had any machines. I always wrote with a pen.”

She does not think satire can make a difference in the world (though she doesn’t really consider herself a satirist).

“It can’t. Not a real difference. It can destroy, but it cannot produce. That’s the problem. You can destroy someone—it’s possible to that, if you’re very good. People have been politically destroyed by humor. But the problem is, you cannot create with it. It’s totally static in that way. It’s an act of demolition. Some things are just stronger than a laugh.”

She had a cameo appearance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” playing a judge.

“We shot the courtroom scene in an actual courtroom in Queens. I got there at the crack of dawn, and everyone is talking to me, as if I’m an actor. There is a language of movie making, but I don’t know this language. They give you a trailer, and they leave you alone for hours on end and I don’t know what they’re talking about. And they had sent me the script, and I had memorized it—even though they had said I didn’t have to memorize it, because it was going to be right there in front of me on the bench. And then we’re in the courtroom, and I had never met Leo then, and there are 100,000 people in there. It’s costing like 80 zillion dollars a second. And I’m looking and waiting. And I had not seen Marty. With modern movie making you don’t see the director. He’s somewhere else. But there is another director, and that person goes, ‘action,’ and I’m waiting with my lines. Leo comes into the courtroom, and in my script, Leo has the first line. He doesn’t say anything. He’s right near me because I am arraigning him. I think, ‘What is wrong with Leonardo DiCaprio? Doesn’t he know how to be in a movie?’ So finally I do my line. Then Leo’s line—he doesn’t say the line. This goes on and on, over and over again. Finally, I actually look at this thing, and it says: ‘Leo: Voice Over.’ Leo’s not supposed to talk.”