Pretend It’s a City eulogises a bygone New York through one of the city’s most sardonic wits

Fran Lebowitz brings chat-show style and a very insular wit to Martin Scorsese’s docu-series, which now seems a museum piece from another world.

Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz in Pretend It’s a City (2020)

▶︎ Pretend It’s a City is streaming on Netflix.

“Hey Fran,” says a young audience member at a Fran Lebowitz public appearance, “I actually never heard of you before.” For older generations, the writer and humourist is not so much famous for being famous, as famous for having been Fran Lebowitz before strategically turning herself into ‘Fran Lebowitz’ – the distinctively stylised comic persona seen in Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix series Pretend It’s a City.

Spread over seven half-hour episodes, Pretend… is a leisurely vehicle for the quintessentially metropolitan figure previously featured in Scorsese’s 2010 documentary Public Speaking. Lebowitz made her reputation in the 70s writing in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, becoming a fixture in New York’s beau monde (she loves parties but never throws them: “The Dalai Lama gives more parties than me”).

She later became famous for her longstanding “writer’s blockade”, as she calls it (along with Truman Capote and Harold Brodkey, she belongs to that select band of American scribes legendary for not writing) and these days makes her living as a public speaker; she has also played judges in TV’s Law and Order and in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Fran Lebowitz in Pretend It's a City

Speaking, a lot of it, is what Lebowitz does in Pretend… She’s glimpsed on Letterman, chatting with the late Toni Morrison, quizzed by Alec Baldwin, Olivia Wilde and Spike Lee (who’s clearly shocked by her total lack of interest in sport). And she’s filmed in discussion with Scorsese, both in front of an audience and in the cosy enclave of the Players Club.

Scorsese is in stitches at Lebowitz’s every other utterance, but she’s not always that funny, or that trenchant. There’s a great deal of mundane kvetching about New York life: the difficulty of finding a dry cleaner, cab drivers who’ve never heard of Grand Central Station, the day they shut down the El train because of a ‘foul odour’ (“Let me tell you what smells horrible – the passengers”).

Lebowitz’s thing is a wryly contemptuous, almost patrician stance towards anyone who’s not her: she’s the only person in New York who isn’t lost in her cellphone (she doesn’t have one), the only one who looks where she’s going. She’s dismissive of the lawn chairs installed in Times Square, incredulous at artist William Wegman’s dog mosaics on the subway.

Her loftily impatient “are-you-insane?” humour – somewhere between Larry David and a cantankerous dowager in an Edith Wharton novel – harks from a bygone, more brittle age. Least likely to play sympathetically to an audience beyond the five boroughs is her self-congratulatory pride in being a New Yorker, and perhaps not just any New Yorker but the paradigmatic one: “I really can’t imagine they’d let me live anywhere else.”

Pretend It’s a City (2021)

This is all droll enough, although it rarely hints at the incisive, morally serious wit behind her 1980s commentaries on the ravages of AIDS. But what makes Lebowitz entertaining in Scorsese’s series is separate from what she says – it’s also the persona that she has trademarked.

She always wears a uniform of chunky blazers, shirt, jeans and boots, while the combination of tortoiseshell glasses and dandyishly floppy haircut oddly suggests a gene-spliced composite of George Burns and Oscar Wilde. Add her emphatic staccato delivery and her hand movements, jabbing spidery fingers for emphasis, and you can see what makes her ideal chat show material.

Beyond the routine observational stuff, there are some inspired moments: a hugely improbable anecdote about a bear-spotting hike, and an altogether brilliant digression showing how the architectural relationship between New York and the Gulf States is like that between Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers in clothing. Lebowitz is also someone who has known eminences: she recalls being chased down the street by Charles Mingus and can casually say of Warhol, “I never got on with Andy and he never got on with me.”

The eccentricities – the technophobia, the crabby self-mocking, the committed, even excessive bibliophilia – add up to this being an enjoyable, if lightweight watch, which Scorsese has gussied up with clips, some on the clichéd side (the ‘Duck and Cover’ nuclear safety campaign), others real finds (Leonard Bernstein, the city’s mid-70s mayor Abe Beame, a soft-spoken Marvin Gaye).

But what gives the series its appeal now is not so much Lebowitz herself as the glimpse it offers of a lost New York. I don’t mean just the 70s/80s Manhattan that made her a celebrity, with its now vanished bookshops and its vital bohemia. I mean the frenzy that was everyday normality before Covid plunged the place into something approaching the silence of the Queens Museum’s miniature replica of the city, which Lebovitz is seen striding around like a bemused goliath. Seen in early 2021, the series is not just a showcase for a gabby wit, but a map of Atlantis.