Review: Rage Against the Cell Phone Machine With Fran Lebowitz

In the midst of war and plague, a good dose of literate snark is required. Noted curmudgeon and raconteur Fran Lebowitz visited the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, one of only two places she considers a city (watch her take on the other one, the Big Apple, in Netflix’s Scorsese-directed, 2021 limited series Pretend It’s a City). 

Wearing her signature cowboy boots, deeply cuffed jeans and bespoke blazer, Lebowitz peppered the boisterous crowd with wry observations, bon mots and occasional admonitions for silly questions (the body count was fairly high, and audience questioners should have had microphones to expedite the format). 

She eschews the term Luddite in the same breath she admits she doesn’t own a microwave, a computer or typewriter—she writes everything longhand. She doesn’t have Wi-Fi in her NYC apartment, basically a home for her tens of thousands of books but not for her, as she’s constantly touring (schedule here). 

She does have a landline phone, where she received calls from all over the world, like from Dubai and Saigon, congratulating her on the vibrant Netflix series, which she can’t watch because she doesn’t have the service. But the show has given her global exposure, and her books have now been translated into more languages. (She met her French translator, and when she asked him how he interpreted some of her quirks, he admitted “I made most of it up.”)

She has become
an anthropologist
of cell phones,
the bane of her existence.

She certainly does not have a cell phone, the bane of her existence, so she has become an anthropologist of sorts, clear-headed with eyes up to observe the habits of the now-ubiquitous phone-hunchers slouching around her city. She confesses that humans are not a great species.

“I’m such a slow writer that I can write with my own blood and not hurt myself,” she says, confirming that she prefers an old-school, slower-paced way of living. Having conversations is her best form of entertainment, and she’s a master, riposting a variety of shouted queries.

Lebowitz’s misanthropy extends to several recent social movements. She was astonished by the depth and speed of the #MeToo movement. “I know a lot of those guys,” she said. “Harvey Weinstein completely controlled the movie business for 20 years, and now he’s in jail.”

She wondered about Charlie Rose, too. “Nobody missed him. He doesn’t need replacing,” she said (don’t tell her that the disgraced talk show host is back).

Gay liberation was another issue she thought would never advance. And when it did, the major milestones were gays in the military and gay marriage, “the two most confining institutions.” She added that, when she’s asked about people who are excited to get married, “have you ever met anyone who’s married?”

Chicago is one of
only two places
she considers
a city ….

She continued her praise of Chicago as the “most important architectural city,” while simultaneously dissing other recent Midwestern tour stops, including Cleveland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, which “makes Minneapolis look like Paris.” While driving to the Indiana capital, she saw a severe billboard that proclaimed “Hell is Real,” which she didn’t quite understand until she got to Indy. 

Early in the Q&A, she was asked “what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve experienced?” She replied, “I’m too old to have favorites.” But later she amended, saying “I figured it out. The most beautiful thing was when I realized I could read.” She grew frustrated with more “what’s your favorite”-type questions, recalling that she was once asked “who’s your favorite American hostage in Iran” in 1978.

Lebowitz also disagreed with the Oprah book club-mentality, saying “a book is not a mirror, it’s a window.” She liked the Heidi book as a kid in New Jersey, even though “I’m not a Swiss girl.” 

An immigrant audience member asked about how to fit in, to which she replied “move to a big city where it doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant. Being an immigrant is American, that’s what America is. Immigrants make a culture, and tourists destroy it.”

“Immigrants are like cigarettes,” said the enthusiastic lifelong smoker. “They’re all good.”

She observed that most audience members probably weren’t Jewish, since they were at her show on the first night of Passover. “That’s the upside of being an orphan,” she said. “No Seder.” She added that she wished that Jews weren’t so nostalgic: “it’s poisonous in a culture.” Nostalgia is the same reason she hates Broadway musicals too. 

Politics popped up a bit. She lamented Biden’s age. “I took care of my parents, and I know if he was my father, I’d be plotting to take away his car keys.” She thinks presidents should have age restrictions, and the best age range would be in their 50s. She added that people should only drive between ages 30 and 50, because those younger than that are too reckless, and older than that can’t see.

“Anger is a character
trait. That’s how I
know I’m awake.”

She said the Supreme Court should not be called supreme, and that the entity itself is dangerous. “Kentanji Brown Jackson listened to an endless stream of garbage and never killed anyone.”

Rage seems to be Lebowitz’s happy place, and she marries it with acerbic wit. The high school dropout advised a student questioner from a small liberal arts college, who was frustrated by fellow students who didn’t read or prepare for class. “Expect to get more enraged,” she said, adding that student loans are a “horrible, generation-eating scam.” 

She talked about her friend Chris Rock and worried about the Will Smith Oscars-slap, wondering “Now we can hit someone we don’t like? I’d be dead.” 

She summarized the evening, her persona, and likely her raison d’etre: “Anger is a character trait. That’s how I know I’m awake.” 

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.