Fran Lebowitz talks with WOUB about smartphones, choosing friends, and mortality

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MARIETTA, Ohio (WOUB) – Writer and public intellectual Fran Lebowitz is known for her biting wit and sardonic social criticism.

In other words, the long-time New Yorker is both scary smart and terribly funny.   

Her intelligence and inability to keep her observations to herself hasn’t always been an asset – especially as a girl growing up in the ‘50s – but they became one after she moved from her hometown of Morristown, New JerseyJ to New York City in 1969, determined to be a writer.

It took a few years of driving taxis, cleaning apartments, and writing erotica; but by 1978 she was publishing her first book, “Metropolitan Life,” a collection of comedic essays such as “The Sound of Music: Enough Already” and “ “Why I Love Sleep.” 

She’d follow “Metropolitan Life” with another book of essays, 1981’s “Social Studies,” and become a favored guest on talk shows because of her snappy, droll banter.

WOUB Culture’s Emily Votaw interviewed the humorist before she speaks at the Peoples Bank Theater in Marietta March 5 as a part of Marietta College’s Esbenshade Series. Lebowitz has another Ohio appearance scheduled for March 6 at the Southern Theatre (21 E. Main St.) in Columbus.

Listen to WOUB’s interview with Lebowitz by clicking “play” in the Soundcloud widget above. Find a transcript of the interview below. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

A promotional image of Fran Lebowitz. She is pictured from the waist up, with her elbows on a surface in font of her. She has her right hand against her face, and her left hand on the table. She is wearing a suit.
Emily Votaw: So you’ve said before that your parents didn’t always appreciate your wit when you were growing up, and I was curious: when did you figure out that other people did, and that your wit could be a real asset?

Fran Lebowitz: Well, always my friends did. You know, even when I was a little kid. Even some other people’s parents – but not my parents, and not my grandparents, or my other relatives. I was a child in the ’50s – and it’s just as different to be a child now compared to how it was in the ’50s as to be a child now compared to how it was in the 1850s. So one of the things was children were supposed to just obey every adult all the time. And one of the things children weren’t supposed to do was “talk back” – which is simply meant talk. In other words, if a parent or any adult told you to do something and you said something back to them – nothing extreme, just even something funny – you were punished. So, you know, my parents didn’t like it because it was not obedient. I’m not sure they ever really changed their mind. I mean, obviously I grew up and at a certain point they were not able to punish me for this. But it was very common then. Especially with girls. Girls were really supposed to be quiet and obedient. So I was neither.

Emily Votaw: You have many friends, many of them very accomplished, very famous. I’m wondering what you do to create and maintain longtime friendships?

Fran Lebowitz: Well, to me, the most important relationships in my life have always been friendships. And part of the reason for that is that I believe, and have pretty much always believed, that friendships are the only relationships that we really choose. Obviously we don’t choose our families. People always say you choose your romantic partners, but you don’t — that’s a kind of chemical response to someone, you know, sexual desire. That’s not really a choice, you know? So your friends, you really choose. I think it’s more likely that you would choose friends that you would really get along with for a long period of time. Because you chose them. People use the word “choose” all the time in areas where it just is simply not true, you know? I mean, I’m not just an adult, I’m old – so I’ve had autonomy for most of my life. And still I don’t have that many choices. Because people don’t. Like no one says, “would you like to pay your taxes, Fran?” No, but I have to pay them. You have to do tons of things you don’t wanna do, but you don’t have to be friends with people you don’t wanna be friends with.

“I mean, I’m not just an adult, I’m old – so I’ve had autonomy for most of my life. And still I don’t have that many choices. Because people don’t. Like no one says, ‘would you like to pay your taxes, Fran?’ No, but I have to pay them. You have to do tons of things you don’t wanna do, but you don’t have to be friends with people you don’t wanna be friends with.” – Fran Lebowitz on the importance of friendships

Emily Votaw: You avoid all types of machines, and certainly smartphones. Does it ever surprise you that your generation can be as addicted to their smartphones as, say, my generation?

Fran Lebowitz: It doesn’t surprise me. My entire life, I’ve had an antipathy to machines of any kind. I never had typewriter. That’s a very old machine. In fact, it’s so old that lots of kids don’t even know what it was. So, I’m not surprised that people my age are addicted to these iPhones and stuff because they’re actually formulated to be addictive. So it’s not surprising to me, anyone can be addicted to anything. You know, all kinds of substances are addictive, and anyone could fall prey to that addiction no matter what age you are when you try it. So I’m not at all surprised. Of course it’s much different, you know, for someone who is old to be addicted to these — because, they do remember, if you remind them, a world before these devices.

I travel a huge amount, not just in this country, but around the world. And no matter where I go, I am surrounded by people on their phones. And lots of times I think, “what are you doing?” Sometimes I’ll look at what they’re doing – like on the subway, and I would say that surely 80 percent of the time, no matter where I am in the world; whether I’m on a subway, airplane or in the airport — or in the street, people are playing games on these phones, which I find to be kind of a silly preoccupation for an adult.

The people who know me very much resent I don’t have an iPhone. They’re always saying to me, “I can’t reach you.” And I always think, “so what? Who am I?” I’m not that important. Who needs to reach me all the time? I’m not the head of emergency neurosurgery at New York Hospital. I don’t have to be reached. There’s no emergency, unfortunately, that I’ve ever been able to fix. So if you have an emergency, you really should contact someone who can actually fix that emergency, which has never been made. So, it’s obviously for themselves that they want to be able to find me. And I don’t really care whether people can find me or not, but other people do seem to care that people can find them all the time. People keep track of people in a way that I find really awful.

“The people who know me very much resent I don’t have an iPhone. They’re always saying to me, ‘I can’t reach you.’ And I always think, ‘so what? Who am I?’ I’m not that important. Who needs to reach me all the time? I’m not the head of emergency neurosurgery at New York Hospital.” – Fran Lebowitz on not having a smartphone

For someone my age, it’s like “1984.” The surveillance of people by their own friends, by their own relatives, is never-ending. And I think, ‘why do you want people watching you all the time?’ Because I don’t. And it’s not ‘don’t watch me because I’m robbing a bank.’ It’s ‘don’t watch me because I want the freedom to just go where I go without there being a permanent record of it.’ Although that’s almost impossible. In New York, and in most cities that I’m aware of, there are cameras everywhere. Even if you can’t see them, there are cameras everywhere. I mean, here, every time there’s a crime, 10 minutes after the crime, they can show you a video of the crime. I always think, ‘do these criminals not know there are always cameras around them?’

I’m even surprised there still is crime. And that’s because of two reasons. One: for some reason, even though a seven-year-old can produce on their phone a movie with the production values of “Titanic,” the footage from those surveillance cameras look, really, like Charlie Chaplin movies. They look like old black and white silent movies. My thought is that basically we should get new cameras and then you could see who committed any crime, and they would catch all the criminals and people would stop jumping over counters in New York and stabbing people. You know, here in New York, I’ve noticed that the main thing people want to steal is lottery tickets. Which to me seems so hilarious. It doesn’t matter whether you steal them or you buy them, you’re not winning. Almost no one wins the lottery. Haven’t you found that out? So why would you steal lottery tickets? Steal something that’s worth something! Candy bars are worth something, everything else in that deli is worth something. Those lottery tickets are worth almost nothing.

Emily Votaw: Do you feel that social media has cheapened the human experience in any significant way?

Fran Lebowitz: You know, I don’t know. It’s really hard for me to say since I don’t really participate in it. You know, truthfully, the human experience is very often cheap, because human beings are not Earth’s greatest species. So it’s not like before iPhones, the average person was busily producing important things for the culture. It’s not like, “if only that guy didn’t have that iPhone, we’d have a cure for cancer.” You know that’s not true. It certainly is true that people who are young, their idea of relationships is completely different. They refer to people they’ve never met in person as “friends.” Can that really be a friend? To me, it wouldn’t be, but to them, it is. People have entire romances that are entirely imaginary on the Internet. That does strike me as very dangerous. And I don’t just mean dangerous as in the other person may turn out to be a serial killer — it’s dangerous because the whole thing is totally imaginary. If you don’t have to deal with another human being, you are not having the experience of being with that person. I don’t care how great you think the person is, the truth is that there are gonna be a lot of problems with every single person, and it’s better to find them out before, for instance, you hand over your bank account to them — which people apparently do. I do find this a little shocking. I mean, if it happened one time, I could understand it. But since even I, a person who doesn’t have any of these devices, knows it happens thousands of times, I think, ‘how could these people be so unaware of this?’

Emily Votaw: Do you think that the average person today is more or less aware of their mortality than they were in the early ’70s?

Fran Lebowitz: You know, I don’t know. I mean, people don’t really wanna think about dying, and this has always been true. Now, people used to be more compelled to think about it way before the ’70s because of religion. No matter what the religion is, religion is very preoccupied with death. And that’s one of the reasons that religion can demand certain things of people, because if you do these things that are asked of you by your religion, when you die, you will go to heaven or paradise or something. You’ll have a better afterlife.

People also used to die much younger. I don’t mean young people don’t die now, but I mean, not in the same numbers. The human life, especially in the West, is much longer than it used to be. People are very preoccupied with their health, you know? But I’m not certain that makes you live longer. I guess it does — but I mean, I know tons of people who are very occupied with their health, who have many very unhealthy habits. So, you know, I don’t really know whether people are more or less preoccupied with their mortality. When you’re young, you don’t think about it. Because generally, although you can die if you’re 20 — generally people don’t die at that age. So they don’t think about that much. When you get old, people do think about it. People now that I know that are around my age always ask when someone dies how old they were. And I always say, “you know, it doesn’t matter to you.” They think it does. Like, well, this guy died. He was 75, I’m 70. It’s meaningless. Also, that same day, a lot of other people died. Okay? You didn’t. It’s a kind of a meaningless thing. It’s just an aspect of human nature that people compare themselves to other people in ways that are really nonsensical.