Urban Urbanity: Fran Lebowitz

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

When it comes to a sense of humor, most of us are humor whores. Oh, I know that sounds harsh, but think about it for a moment. Few of us are born naturally hilarious, and even if we were, most of us wouldn’t know what to do with it once we discovered it. Most professional stand-ups are comedy concubines, trying out every new John with a good 15 minutes before stumbling upon the combination of old, new, borrowed, and blue to make a name for themselves. Those of us outside the realm of professional funny business are even more blatant in our satirical sluttiness. We’ll cruise and canoodle with anyone and everyone to hit upon that right combination of biting and brash that makes us the life of the party, the clown of the classroom, or the king of the watercooler.

I confess that my comedic sense is drawn from a few distinct areas, totally cribbed and filtered through my own perverse sense of taste and talent. As a matter of fact, I can trace a kind of Darwinian evolutionary chart for the growth of my mirth, from the protozoa of Looney Tunes (and more specifically, Daffy Duck), to the Homo Sapien serenity of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In between we see all manner of mutations, as cartoon fowl-based hilarity was merged into a growing appreciation of classic MAD Magazine — and more specifically, its “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”. As a wee one, I was relentless, using any and all opportunities to try out my new sarcasm skills. Luckily my friends were tolerant…well, most of them were.

Referenced book:

The Fran Lebowitz Reader
by Fran Lebowitz
November 1994, 352 pages, $14.95

From there, a tenuous link was made between the out and out lampoon of William Gaines and the gang, and that ripe risible source for the raping, Monty Python. The British blokes were a true humor epiphany for me, a kind of laugh litmus test that my friends and I obsessed over. If you got it, you were cool. If you didn’t, you were destined to be in the audience for every future Kip Addotta performance. While I have long since stopped saying “Ni”, or “Ekky-ekky-ekky-ekky-z’Bang, zoom-Boing, z’nourrrwringmm” for that matter, I will always rely on reactions to rat tart (“appalling”) and later, Mr. Creosote’s classic greeting (“Better…better get a bucket before I throw up”) to liven up any casual conversation.

Standing now at the present and looking backward, I can see associations to South Park, that previously mentioned supreme space-age puppet show, a certain clan from Springfield, and before them, a manic manchild named Pee Wee Herman (who produced one of the sole examples of comedy perfection, the 1981 HBO Special The Pee Wee Herman Show). In between Python and Paul Reubens, my “urban metro cosmopolitan cool” phase was the most important in the fruition of my funny bone. It was the necessary maturation process, a learning of the real rules in order to then bravely break them. And if there is someone who could or should sue me for blatant plagiarism — if not of actual words, then a complete metaphysical pilfering — it would be Woody Allen.

Without Feathers was a bible to me, a book that had more potent quotables than any other tome I had ever read. So smitten with the Woodman was I that I used a particular biting bit of his — a snarky little send-up of religion called “The Scrolls” — as my performance piece for a boarding school oratory presentation. I practiced until it was sublime, and took the stage to a thunderous ovation (based partly on my previous turn in the Spring Review as Pyramis’s lover Thisbie in a drag send-up of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The deafening silence that met my speech, however, was unnerving. They actually dared dis Woody! Heathens! Simpletons! The lack of Allen’s acceptance was only worsened by the overwhelming laughs my best friend David received when he borrowed both material — and delivery — from George Carlin and his “Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo” bit.

In truth, the reaction reconfirmed my wit wandering. Allen had indeed opened up the doors of intellectualized comedy that Python has merely pried apart. It was he who got me interested in The New Yorker. It was he who had me shuffling past paperback compilations of B.C. and The Wizard of Id (damn you Johnny Hart!) and seeking out more cerebral entertainment. Unfortunately, I was still too green to recognize the efforts of Calvin Trillin, but I knew better than soiling my senses with the likes of Dave Barry, or that diva of the dumpster, Erma Bombeck (who still owes Jean Kerr a big fat welcome basket for swiping her shtick). No, someone had to come along to connect Woody to the world, to make his esoteric takes on philosophical falderal seem based in something other than his own clever conceits.

For me, that missing apex, that definitive point where all my merriment finds its core and its craft comes from one single, significant author. This writer introduced me to concepts of camp and kitsch, explained the glee in gay culture, and offered such inspirational insights into the life of the mind that it would make Barton Fink balk. She celebrated sleeping all day and talking on the phone all night. For her, procrastination was a necessary part of the artistic process, and the precepts of the real world were to be sneered at in favor of parties and premieres. She had worked with some of the legends in the early ’70s underground scene — Andy Warhol, John Waters — and her cranky, curmudgeonly style spoke to a displaced teen awash in punk rock rebellion and an unsettled sense of self.

Her name was Fran Lebowitz, and her (only) two books were Metropolitan Life (1979) and Social Security (1981). To me, Fran will always be the heir apparent to Allen, a gifted comic mind whom, unlike her male counterpart, never gave into the temptation to translate her muse onto movie screens. No, Fran was bound to the printed word, the wonderful way language could encapsulate and emasculate any subject or situation. Hers was a prose based in the pissed-off, an angry essayist unafraid to tell it like it is — or at least, how she thought it should be, according to her own inner aesthetic. She was the snide remark while the prom queen was passing by, the necessary deflation of a nonplused national ego run amuck. At the height of the Me Decade, Fran proved perfectly just what said label really meant. If we really weren’t going to celebrate group wants and desires, she wanted to make sure her individual list was published for the whole world to gawk — and guffaw — over.

Fran Lebowitz taught me that an anti-social attitude could be clever. She convinced me that the evilest thoughts could produce the heartiest laughs. Whether it was roasting children, lambasting teens, or deriding adults (come to think of it, was there anyone she liked other than herself?), Lebowitz elevated the art of complaining to a masterpiece of meanness. Oh sure, some may scoff and argue that she was just being “cynical” or “jaded”, a highly intelligent woman of wit trapped in a Studio 54 disco inferno world. The truth is, Lebowitz was less a killjoy and more of a prophet. She did strive to be Pope after all (she thought it was the best of all possible careers). Some could even go so far to say that she is the Messiah of Misery, a glowing god to all that is acerbic, droll, and caustic. And she gave us two Gospels upon which to live and laugh by.

The “old” testament, the first collection of her Interview/Mademoiselle/Vogue essays, was called Metropolitan Life, and centered on the four main elements of civilization that Fran felt defined the very foundation of humanity: “Manners”, “Science”, “Art”, and “Letters”. Within each category, she would introduce a thesis (for example, the appropriateness of manners is open to interpretation based on social standards and the amount of liberty/freedom to be found) and then arrange her individual insights and brazen bile into well-aimed attacks at everything she felt was hypocritical, hopeless, or horseshit. For example, in Lebowitz’s world, children are valuable because they can get into hard-to-reach places, and are relatively easy Scrabble opponents. But they are also horrific because of their limited fashion sense, minor appreciation at best for sardonic humor and/or veiled threats, and irritating inability to loan people large sums of money.

Under “Science”, she takes potshots at the (then) modern technology behind digital clocks and pocket calculators (which she imagines are the true cause of juvenile delinquency and youth crime) and the inherent evil in the average houseplant. While she champions the curative (and cultural) powers of slumber, she is far less enthusiastic about heterosexuality — more specifically, the scientifically proven fact that straightness in men is caused by an overcrowding in artists colonies. Lebowitz is the most non-PC of past writers, using the freedom of words and thoughts to knock down sacred cows and the most taboo tenets of reality.

Yet she is not without her arcane side. After all, can you name another writer who takes colors to task for the hue of their pigment, or believes that music does not have charms to soothe the savage breast, but rather does a pretty decent job of annoying the snot out of folks? From the horror of deadlines to the hokum of the CB radio (yes, some of the material here is a skoosh dated), Metropolitan Life rings with grand and glorious denouncements of everything the civilized world stands on.

It only gets worse in Social Studies. Published two years after her first collection, Lebowitz’s “new” testament was a more ethereal exercise. Breaking down the discussion again into four groups, the author was now more intent on scribbling all over the big picture, believing she was all tapped out of mockery based on Soho and rent-controlled living. Within the collection, “People” is her first foray into fingerpointing, and in what will be a pattern throughout her work (which isn’t hard to decipher with only two published works) she is after teens, adults, and the surrounding materialism of modern life. But Lebowitz is not necessarily anti-money. She celebrated greed, years before a certain Mr. Gekko would call it out into the pop culture lexicon, and argues that, if you can’t be fabulously wealthy, it may be to your social status liking to marry down the ladder, to become a misfortune hunter, so to speak.

“Ideas” are also a hot topic in Social Studies, as Lebowitz wants to make it very clear that there’s a difference between true innovations (the light bulb, breakfast) and notions (light beer, brunch). Along with accolades for English and blueberry pie, our never-ending fountain of suggestions gives us some sound reasons for taking up smoking, and a health regiment based almost exclusively on worry, sloth, caffeine, and nicotine, which she calls the Fran Lebowtiz High Stress Diet and Exercise Program (I tried it in college for a semester, except I substituted alcohol for “worry” and pot for…well, let’s just say it didn’t work). In “Places”, she provides us with 29 very effective do’s and don’ts for travel (#4 — Stewardesses are not crazy about girls; #5 — Neither are Stewards) as well as an overview of Los Angeles’ contributions to civilization (which include the novelization, salad, and muscle tone).

Perhaps the best section in the entire book can be found in the rather generic “Things” chapter. Lebowitz is more than happy to show off her collection of crappy, cramped NYC apartment furnishings, or her general disdain for these entities called “animals” (pointless to her unless they are in the form of crispy spareribs of Bass Weejuns). But it’s her distinctions between Nature and Art that really solidify her feelings on life. For Lebowitz, nature is capable of some stellar things, like ice and wheat. But it takes man, and his ability to think and be creative, to turn it into art — namely cubes for a cocktail, and linguini with clam sauce.

As an urban transplant to a rather rural — nay, ass-backward — setting, I was enthralled by these tomes. I couldn’t get enough of them. They reminded me of my days as a teen living in downtown Chicago, the entire loopy Loop and the many maddening people and places ensconced in it. The books smacked of the city, of a life spent in pursuit of a moment’s mental peace as the pumping pace of humanity percolated all around you. To listen to Lebowitz, the best way to find solace was to dissect and deconstruct the world around you, to find the inherent stupidity in even the most cosmopolitan concept, the better to block it out of your bombarded brain.

Written at a time when New York was literally fighting for survival, mired in debt and caked with crime, Lebowitz was viewed as elitist and snobbish. But to me, she was truly enlightened and incredibly fair. Most of the targets she took on deserved much worse than her clever verbal dressing down, and she tried not to make it sound like the brows she was beating had no value at all. They were just worthless to her. Ever the individualist, Lebowitz made it clear — hate all you want, just make sure it’s your own anger you’re working through…oh, yeah, and keep a smile (or just a smirk) on your face as you do it.

It was Lebowitz who lead me to my other great literary love of the time period — Spy Magazine. Locating a copy in Bumfuck, Florida (don’t be confused, every city in the Sunshine State shares that miserable middle name) was never easy. Once I learned the concept of subscriptions (and the adjoining concept of checking the “bill me later” box), I could indulge my deepest metropolitan muses. Allen and Python had taught me that obscure references and insular in-jokes could easily be enjoyed, but to be savored, you had to be well-read and even better versed.

Metropolitan Life and Social Studies were the start of that erudite education, a literary step away from the sci-fi and horror volumes I fixated on like the outlines of a secret conspiracy. Lebowitz taught me that to be informed and well-rounded, one had to accept the bad with the good, the necessary with the unnecessary. She also confirmed that such analysis could be done with stellar wit, biting satire, and unforced irony. While she may seem like the post-modern model of current self-effacing comic affront, Lebowitz was more observational and off-kilter than the obvious outlaws of today trying to be outrageous on purpose. She believed in what she belittled. This wasn’t a lark, or a pitch for publicity. Lebowitz lived her ideals — which may explain why, once she got them down on paper, she never revisited them again (she did write a children’s book about pandas a few years back).

It makes sense, then, that when I look back on how my humor was honed, Fran Lebowitz and her crackerjack collection of entertaining essays tops the list. While I also got the same smarmy fun from John Waters’s wonderful books (Shock Value and Crackpot) and stayed with Spy until it finally gave up the publishing ghost in 1998, it’s those amazingly simple screeds, some no more than a few hundred words, that taught me what it meant to actually think for yourself. Inside Metropolitan Life and Social Studies were the keys to unlock one’s own inner wit, to use what you thought about life, the universe, and everything as the foundation for your funny.

Yes, as time passed by, I continued my vice-like ways, plucking parts of Paul Reubens, Matt Groening, Joel Hodgson, and Trey Parker to fill out my catalog of comedy. But Fran Lebowitz proved to me that being a humor whore was an ultimately pointless endeavor. Unless you’re true to yourself, you’ll regret it the morning after. Either that, or you’ll end up with some manner of comedy STD… and nothing is more painful than an infected sense of irony.

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