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Netflix: Pretend It's a City - Harry Mount

Arts | By Harry Mount

Fran Lebowitz might have suffered 25 years of writer's block but it doesn't stop her from being funny

For any misguided soul who thinks Americans can’t be funny, clever or self-deprecating, meet Fran Lebowitz.

She’s the 70-year-old New York writer whose mordant wit, colossal intelligence and ruthless self-deprecation reduce her friend – and the programme’s director – Martin Scorsese to helpless laughter.

This, her second collaboration with the director, is partly an extended interview with Lebowitz; partly a love letter to old New York.

Lebowitz is essentially a serial complainer to comic effect – like The Oldie’s rant column delivered at a million miles an hour.

She’s like Oscar Wilde on speed – literally quick-witted. When David Letterman asks, ‘Do you mind people who…’, she says, ‘Yes,’ before he can finish the question.

She’s a lesbian, Jewish atheist but her concerns are neither religious or sexual. Instead, her anecdotes rise out of mock outrage at the little things in life that drive you nuts – like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In a riff about the male obsession with sport, she says that, if women ran the world and were so obsessed, there’d be hopscotch championships on TV.

The title of the series comes from another irritation: the time she yelled at tourists standing in the middle of the pavement, ‘Move! Pretend it’s a city!’

Lebowitz has been compared to Dorothy Parker. She shares Parker’s bittersweet, whip-smart humour and was once a prolific writer.

A high-school dropout, she was expelled from one school for ‘non-specific surliness’. Still she became the gifted child of 1970s Manhattan, wowing America in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and her caustically funny books, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981).

But then, after completing a 1994 children’s book, she suffered 25 years of writer’s block. She’s a perfectionist who hates writing. ‘Most people who love to write are horrible writers,’ she says.

Since then, she’s essentially become a professional talk-show guest. That doesn’t bother her – she has none of the arrogance of writers who feel the world needs to read them.

Lebowitz really just likes lying around at home reading – but no one pays anyone for doing that, she says.

She’s dismissive of money but loves books. Thus the famous Franism, in an article giving advice to teenagers: ‘Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself – a wise move at any age, but most especially at 17, when you are in danger of coming to annoying conclusions.’

Scorsese films her in her New York haunts – including the Players Club, founded by actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. This produces a delightful riff: if you think your siblings are embarrassing, thank God you aren’t Edwin Booth.

Watching the programme is like being in the company of the wittiest person you know, uninterrupted by a dumbing-down scriptwriter or network.

Pretend It’s a City is the sort of the thing the BBC did brilliantly in the sixties: stick a camera in the face of a brilliant person and ask them questions.

It makes for great, cheap telly – but try telling that to the makers of Bargain Hunt.

This story was from March 2021 issue. Subscribe Now