Sophia DeSchiffart

It’s your first time in New York City. Perhaps you’ve come here by plane or train, saving up for the trip and making a list of places to visit. You’ve seen the photographs, but now you are finally strolling through the Capital of the World. Around Midtown, you pause in the street to gawk at the glassy towers and the bright shops beneath them. People fly in and out of mustard taxi cabs, shifty-eyed and deliberate as they ignore you.

Except one.

“Move along!” Fran Lebowitz yells at you. “Pretend it’s a city!”

***

Cultural critic Fran Lebowitz made her streaming show debut last month with Netflix’s “Pretend It’s a City.” The seven-episode documentary series is directed by her longtime friend Martin Scorsese. It is a show about New York, but even more than that, it’s about Fran Lebowitz. She is the true subject in a three-and-a-half-hour interview grouped around topics such as the city, art, transport, money, sports and books.

I didn’t know much about Lebowitz before watching the docuseries. But for days after watching the show, I felt as though she lived inside my mind. Lebowitz is a unique character, but she certainly falls into the type of the esoteric New York grouch. She is a humorist with a no-nonsense attitude, which makes her a delightful curmudgeon as she delivers each witty, stinging criticism of society. She isn’t a comedian; she isn’t searching to set up some punchline. She is Larry David-esque in her grievances, but less playful and with a little more snark. There’s a frustration and political edge to her opinions. “I cannot stand my fellow man,” Lebowitz declares.

She is a writer, although her last published work was a children’s book in 1994. Before that, her two books of comedic essays on culture and her life — “Metropolitan Life” (1978) and “Social Studies” (1981) — were bestsellers. In the ’70s, she wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine with a column titled “I Cover the Waterfront.” She has been the subject of a Scorsese documentary once before in “Public Speaking” (2010), and “Pretend It’s a City” seems like an excuse to hear more from Lebowitz, whose content nowadays is scarce.

***

“Pretend It’s a City” is a niche show and a hard sell. I didn’t quite know how to pin down the docuseries. It is about Lebowitz, but at moments, it is more interested in her stories than her life.

I could describe the show in several ways. Here is a sampling:

  • Sardonic writer delivers a scathing takedown of the modern world in an interview with a Hollywood director.
  • Two artists gallivant around Manhattan and look at landmarks such as: Grand Central Terminal, the Wall Street Bull, the Chrysler Building, Times Square (“the worst neighborhood in the world”), etc.
  • A wistful reminiscence of a bygone bohemian era of New York from two icons who lived through it.
  • Humorist observes the actions of people and passes judgement.

***

There is no real arc to the show but somehow, Scorsese connects it all. Archived footage and visual aides help move from one anecdote, one quip, to the next as though it were a natural conversation. The images recall a cultural and artistic New York of the ’60s and ’70s. Scorsese’s interest in this era is a trait of his documentary work — passion projects that run concurrently with his films — particularly his music documentaries. Like tour footage of George Harrison, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, Scorsese arranges Lebowitz’s dialogue in the way he arranges a concert.

And this is a concert — a Fran Lebowitz concert. Like a musician riffing, she receives audience and interview questions without missing a beat, and can talk about any subject at length.

Her opinions are the music of the show. For many minutes, we hear about the problems of Times Square and the $40 million spent on repaving the islands so that tourists can lie down in lawn chairs. Lebowitz questions the closing of subway stations to install mosaics of Weimaraner dogs in clothing. She cannot tolerate the obsession with “wellness” and wants to smoke on planes. She is outraged by the state of things.

In the 2000s, Lebowitz played a judge in a few sporadic episodes of “Law and Order.” She had a similar cameo in Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). It’s a fitting role for Lebowitz, up on the bench with her dark gown and gavel, looking disapprovingly at her fellow citizens and setting bails.

To some, Lebowitz’s opinions might be overbearing and snobbish. She is uncompromising. David Letterman interviewed Lebowitz in 1980, asking if she could form a group of others with similar disturbances. Her response was: “Unfortunately, there are no people with similar disturbances.”

Lebowitz herself cannot understand viewers irritated by her opinions as she has no real power to enforce them. “If I could change it, I wouldn’t be so angry,” Lebowitz explains in the series. “The anger is, I have no power, but I’m filled with opinions.”

***

So what is the point of this show?

You might not agree with all of Lebowitz’s opinions. I certainly didn’t. But I am a fan of grouchiness and had a ridiculous amount of fun listening to Lebowitz. Apart from being searingly witty, she is the ultimate flaneur. She has been the eyewitness to New York for decades. The series has a fanciful nostalgia for an older New York — one where Lebowitz roamed the streets barefoot, eating breakfast in diners with jazz legends and visiting clubs that no longer exist.

While commenting on all aspects of life that have changed, Lebowitz herself is the antithesis of change. She is a luddite without a computer or a cellphone, which gives her the time to watch the world. For years, she has adopted a constant uniform. A navy men’s suit jacket, Levi’s, cowboy boots and dark circular sunglasses make her instantly recognizable on the streets of New York. She dons an oversized coat in “Pretend It’s a City” and becomes a hulking rectangle. She has been a smoker since a young age.

In a city where nothing is permanent, there is something comforting about an icon who doesn’t change. As long as there are people who get annoyed and complain about trivial things, there is a sanity to the world. It’s a little indulgent, for both Scorsese and the viewer, but there is a joy to watching Lebowitz and Scorsese shuffle around New York and chuckle together. As Lebowitz urges, “Any fun you can have, friend, go ahead.”

You may as well have fun with it, since Lebowitz can’t. She doesn’t have Netflix.

Margot Lee | margot.lee@yale.edu

MARGOT LEE