Q&A with Fran Lebowitz, Starring in ‘A State of the Union Conversation’ at the Harris Theater

“I know Los Angeles and San Francisco are supposed to be ‘cities,’ but they’re not. I always felt like Chicago is the only other city in America. I always say that a city is a place where you can put your hand in the air and hail a taxi.”

Fran Liebowitz

Fran Lebowitz has built a career on being an unrelenting crank. She first found fame in 1978 (at age 27) when her book Metropolitan Life, a collection of comic, cantankerous essays, was published. The book showed Lebowitz to be an astute observer of the drug-addled, ironic, downtown disco age. Over the years Lebowitz remained in the public eye as a regular on David Letterman, an essayist, and as the subject of Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking (and as a crabby judge on Law & Order). On October 2 she takes the stage with Steppenwolf’s Martha Lavey in her touring show, A State of the Union Conversation. Tickets are available at harristheaterchicago.org.

As a famous New Yorker, do you still feel dedicated to the city?
Well, globalization has really erased differences between places. Globalization has helped places where there was no distinct culture, but places that had culture have been diluted. New York, which used to be urban, has become more suburban. The city, which always had the world’s cultures, is now awash in chain stores and baby strollers.

What about other American cities?
I know Los Angeles and San Francisco are supposed to be “cities,” but they’re not. I always felt like Chicago is the only other city in America. I always say that a city is a place where you can put your hand in the air and hail a taxi.

Is there anything about Chicago that you’re particularly drawn to?
Chicago is a beautiful American city; it’s the only place that allowed the great architects to build. But, I have to say, I was shocked by the wind there. The first time I was in Chicago I walked out of the hotel and the wind spliced through my body. I thought I was having a heart attack.

We do live up to our name (even though “Windy City” originally referred to our politicians, not our weather).
Although, I’m sure Chicago is not as cold as it used to be. I think it’s so unfair that Fran, who’s hated hot weather since birth, has to live through global warming. Plus I have this large investment in wool and cashmere.

I find global warming fashion trends strange. Why is fur having a come back when our planet is warming?
I find that very interesting. I think it came back because rich people will do what they want to do.

You didn’t mention deep-dish pizza as a favorite…
Well, you know, the truth is, all pizza is good. Even bad pizza is good. Deep dish is not what I grew up with, it’s not what I prefer, but it’s also very good.

You’re coming to Chicago for A State of the Union Conversation. Can you talk about your role as a performer and public speaker?
Well, I am interviewed on stage for about a half an hour and then I answer questions from the audience. It’s a spontaneous thing, which is to my benefit, because I enjoy that. As for being a public speaker, the fact is, all this stuff is on the Internet. In a way, the Internet has made things more like the 19th century [when public speaking was a main mode of communication].

The Internet also makes for quick celebrity. Are there any writers or artists in the public eye whose work you like?
I’m certain that there are good artists and writers. But there are very few goods artists in a generation. Period. You have to be born with talent. Writing school to me is as if there was a tall school. You can’t learn to be a good writer; you can’t learn to be tall.

So there’s no undiscovered artist whose talents you’ll share with the world?
There are no longer such things as undiscovered artists. There are over-discovered artists. Every season there’s a new genius. Genius is just a brand, it’s just good old American advertising. To wait around for geniuses is just a waste of all human time.

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