FOR 25 YEARS, Fran Lebowitz has lived with the title "the funniest woman in America." ("Not a rough field," she says, in her patented, languorously nasal wheeze.) Over the years, the life-long New Yorker has produced two books of mercilessly dry humor for grownups (1974's Metropolitan Life and 1981's Social Studies), co-authored one book for kids (Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas), and penned a number of articles for periodicals like Interview and Mademoiselle. But it is her unfailingly witty social observations and sardonic commentary that have cemented her place in the American humor pantheon. In preparation for her appearance at next week's Foolproof Comedy Arts Festival, I chatted with Lebowitz about the state of comedy, the power of drugs, and the stupidity of the American people.

I want to start by asking you about the gulf that so often exists between what identifies itself as comedy and what's actually funny.

Well, we live in a world that misuses language.

You blame it on semantics?

No, I blame it on illiteracy. I blame almost everything on illiteracy.

Are there self-identified comedians that you admire?

By far, my favorite is Chris Rock. He doesn't really have any competitors, even though there are lots of good stand-up comics. But he's beyond being a good stand-up comic. He's very brave.

Do you think there are topics beyond the reach of humor?

Myself. I can't take a joke. But the misfortunes of others are always funny.

Why is that?

It's the essential bad nature of human beings. The essential nature of humor is the misfortune of others, from a man slipping on a banana peel, which is the lowest form of humor, to The Importance of Being Earnest, which is the highest. Comedy is the result of the tragedy of life. That's why only certain kinds of people are funny. Optimistic people are never funny -- they're rich. Where you live, there are tons of these new rich people, and I bet you they're not funny. I bet if I went up to Microsoft and took a walk around, I would not be falling down laughing. I bet I'd be bored to tears.

Yeah, you'd be really annoyed.

Well, I'm annoyed from here, so I can just imagine if I were there, how annoyed I would be.

I'd like to read you a short list of things and have you tell me whether they are funny or not. First: Saturday Night Live.

I see it occasionally, and occasionally it's funny, and that was always true. I'm more than old enough to remember the original show. If you're not old enough to remember, you imagine it to be Oscar Wilde. It wasn't. I'm sure that the early years were better than some other years, because the form was new, and newness, in the sense of surprise, is essential to comedy. So of course now it would be less funny, even with the same people writing it, which of course they're not. What's worse now is the audience for Saturday Night Live -- worse than the people who make it. The American audience is terrible. If SNL is bad, and people are watching it, you can blame the people who are watching it. I blame the audience, like I blame the electorate for bad presidents. The audience for comedy has been very debased, because we've become less literate. The audience is dumber, so what they like is dumber. It's their fault.

Next: "I just flew in from L.A., and boy are my arms tired."

That might have been funny the first time it was said, but I'm not that old. I'm so happy you found something I'm too young to know.

Last one: Al Gore vs. George W. Bush for President of the United States of America.

That's the opposite of funny. That's tragic. And it's not even much grist for funniness, it's so banal.

What remark or bit of writing of yours has gotten you in the most trouble?

Anything I say or write that isn't received with absolute delight is taken improperly. I get a lot of hate mail. Well, some [of it] is hate mail; some is just dislike mail. I can remember getting the most furious mail about something I wrote for Newsweek a long time ago -- something I wrote about teenagers. I got a huge amount of hate mail for that piece, and as I went through it -- because you have to read your hate mail -- I noticed that I got maybe 30 letters from the same small town. I learned that this piece had been assigned to a high school English class, and I guess the assignment was to "read and then annoy Fran Lebowitz." I was very annoyed, because when I was in high school we had to read Silas Marner. Other than that, probably the most criticism I get is for smoking cigarettes.

You'll be happy to know this newspaper is funded almost entirely by cigarette ads. How do you feel about the continuing vilification of smokers in America?

It's absurd. It's founded on a lie, which is very angering to me. I know that smoking is bad for my health, but I also believe that my smoking is not bad for your health. If you think that my little stream of cigarette smoke, which is basically made up of carbon monoxide, is killing you, stop driving your car. Think how much smoke comes from a cigarette; think how much comes out of the back of your Range Rover, in which you will not let me smoke.

Obviously you're a huge fan of nicotine. Are there any other drugs you particularly enjoy?

The only other drug that I indulge in is coffee, which is such a fabulous drug. There's no doubt in my mind that if they discovered it today, they would not let us have it. It's too good. That's what's strange about Seattle -- all that coffee and no cigarettes. I mean, they're a natural combo. In Seattle I feel that I should teach people how to smoke. It would cheer their lives up immensely. Coffee and cigarettes are natural companions. They're as God meant it to be.

What dead person do you most wish were still alive?

I suppose Oscar Wilde, because he's a writer that I admire so much, and he would certainly be a welcome voice, wouldn't he? Although I wouldn't wish it on Oscar Wilde to be alive in this era. He doesn't deserve it; he was already in prison.

What living person do you most wish were dead?

Oh, it's just too crowded a field. I'm so filled with murderous thoughts. On most days, I would probably say Rudolph Giuliani. But many other people would crowd into my mind.

You're coming to town to appear at the Foolproof Comedy Arts Festival. How do you feel about being presented under the rubric "comedy"?

It's better than being presented under the rubric "tragedy," don't you think?

Fran Lebowitz appears at Foolproof on Mon April 24 at the Moore Theater. David Schmader appears at Foolproof on Wed April 26 at ACT's Bullitt Cabaret. For tickets and info call 628-0888.