HBO made its reputation by giving talented artists the space and support to remake television however they saw fit. But no one bats a thousand. In the lobby on the 10th floor of HBO’s New York building, there’s a box filled with free, and feel free to take, copies of the series In Treatment as well as a few discs of some of their lesser-loved documentaries. After a few minutes rummaging through, I wait outside a conference room containing Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow, the latest creative minds HBO is trusting with their airtime and imprimatur.
I find myself staring at the poster for Girls, the half-hour sitcom that writer/director/producer/star Dunham is multitasking the crap out of and that comedy overlord Apatow (Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, 75 percent of all worthwhile funny movies in the last decade) is executive producing. It’s about four post-collegiate women finding, and often failing, to find their way in life, love and New York. The plot follows Dunham’s character Hannah after her parents cut her off financially and the publishing company she’s been interning at declines to hire her. Bad work and relationship decisions follow, as do hilarity and discomfort.
“Have you seen the show?” asks Tobe, a chatty and amiable public relations flack that has been with HBO about a hair longer than Dunham has been in existence.
“Yeah, it’s very funny,” I understate. Sweet, witty, transgressive, insightful, honest and often shockingly raunchy would also have sufficed. I am a somewhat blasé person, but I was quite literally slackjawed at the filth that opens the second episode. That’s more or less a compliment.
“Do you think guys will like it?” Tobe adds, sounding only a touch concerned.
“I think so. I mean, I think if the storytelling is good and it’s funny, most guys will watch anything,” I reply, perhaps naively. I then waited a second, and made a back and forth “grrrr” gesture with my arms. “But if you’re asking if, like, macho guys will like it, I don’t think I can speak for them.”
I do think I can pretty authoritatively state that pantywaist pseudo-intellectuals that tend to fall in love with college radio DJs or bookstore employees will totally eat Girls up. I suspect women of many different stripes will love this series, but it’s really not for me to say. Girls is hilarious, but it is easy to picture executives fretting that a series with little interest in making its character looks glamorous and that fetishizes bad lays will alienate a certain type of dude, to say nothing of audience members that just want to see quirky ladies wear cool clothes while hanging out in Brooklyn.
Dunham and Apatow have been in this conference room doing interviews all morning, and will be in it for the rest of the day. As she’s leaving Tobe tells Apatow he has a phoner with GQ when we’re done. While very few people are inclined to feel sorry for anyone lucky enough to work in the entertainment industry, junkets can be an unforgiving slog. But these two were in great spirits when I met with them, because they seem to be using all of this “tell me about your new show” time to crack each other up.
“I laugh at all of Judd’s jokes, even the ones he doesn’t think are funny,” Dunham says, “to the point that I think I laugh at the joke and [turns to him] you’re just like ‘why did you even laugh at that?’”
Mindy Kaling recently paid her friend and fellow writer/actress Dunham the Twitter compliment of having “no bad qualities.” That’s almost certainly not true of anyone, but it’s worth pointing out that Dunham has a combination of ambition, motivation and genuine modesty rare for any artist. She’s also extremely nice and self-deprecating (during a scene in which the characters had an impromptu dance party to Robyn, she says she could only last 10 minutes before she had to lie on the floor), which she probably realizes she would have to be; otherwise nearly everyone would hate her for making them feel like slackers.
Dunham made a series of web shorts and an hour-length feature film while studying creative writing at Oberlin, but it still takes a certain level of confidence to decide that means you’re ready to make a film when you’re barely out of academia. “A certain amount of it was ignorance. Just being ‘sure I can make a feature! I’ve made one 59-minute movie and so many shorts they might as well be a movie,’” she says, doing her best to downplay an admirable level of follow-through. “I really tried to write a script that I knew I could make—a script that was maybe ambitious narratively but not at all in terms of physical production. I felt like if it worked, it would be really exciting and if it didn’t, then all I’ve done was inconvenience my parents for six weeks.”
Tiny Furniture, the movie that Dunham wrote, directed and stared in, followed the adventures of a Dunham stand-in navigating the post-graduate world of bad jobs, worse sex and free-floating confusion. (Girls is in many ways the series version of Furniture, with sharper jokes, more characters and a slightly different adrift-in-the-adult-world plot points.) She shot it on digital video, mostly in her parent’s Tribeca loft, and cast her mom, sister and various friends in key roles. It’s the type of film that could have easily been a navel-gazing mess, but it turned out to be funny and warm and brutally honest about the heartaches the young and unmoored can find themselves in. But don’t think the Independent Spirit Award and glowing critical notices went to her head.
“I just wanted to make things so my hope was that I’d just be able to keep doing that in some capacity. I was thinking, like, maybe I’ll keep babysitting and then saving money or maybe I can be a video teacher at my old high school,” she says. “I had all different plans because I didn’t understand how you supported a life doing this. It occurred to me, ‘Oh, I know a lot of writers make money writing for TV,’ [but] I wasn’t really like, ‘Oh, maybe I should write a spec episode of How I Met Your Mother.’ I didn’t know what being a staff writer meant, but that sounded like something that maybe I would be able to do.”
But Tiny Furniture struck a chord. Chris Eigeman, who guest stars as Dunham’s boss in the Girls pilot, was shown a copy by film professor friend and stunned. “If you don’t want to just cry for an hour after, you don’t have a heart,” he says. “I mean, that’s the saddest sex scene I’ve ever seen in my life! Fearless. Absolutely fearless.”
He wasn’t alone in this opinion. “Somebody slipped me the DVD,” says Apatow.
“I like how you said ‘slipped,’ Lena interjects, “like it’s drugs.”
“Like it’s illicit. That’s as edgy as I get: slipped DVDs. I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know what Lena did on it, I didn’t know her name,” he says. “No one said, ‘Oh, you need to see what this woman made.’ They just said, ‘Oh, you should see this. You would like it.’ I’m always a fan of people who write from a personal place and … cast their family.”
Apatow is one of the most notorious television burn victims the medium has ever seen, with his beloved coming-of-age high school drama Freaks And Geeks and college-sitcom Undeclared getting cancelled in one season despite rapturous reviews. (Girls co-producer and writer Jenni Konner also worked on Undeclared.) He says that networks eventually quit trying to lure him back to TV after his film career took off, but not all of his memories in the industry were sour ones.
“I remember when we worked with The Larry Sanders Show, it was so fun writing sex and Rip Torn cursing and not having to hold back at all,” he says. “It’s wonderful to tell stories where at the end of the episode, nothing good has to happen and nothing has to get resolved. It’s more like life.”
That freedom gets taken advantage of on Girls. Yes, there’s very shocking, often absurdly unflattering sex scenes; let what appears to be complete lack of ego be counted as another of Dunham’s many qualities. But there’s also an honesty at play that feels even rawer. These characters make frustrating, often willfully foolish choices. They can be endearing, but they can also be frustrating, deluded and self-centered in a way that feels aggravating but accurate.
“After I first showed Tiny Furniture, one of my best friends from childhood—she called me on the phone and she was crying and I didn’t know if either she was crying because I had stolen dialogue from her mouth or because… I didn’t know what reaction she was having,” Dunham says. “And she said [Dunham starts faux-sobbing] ‘I just feel like we’re all just doing the best that we ca-aaan!’
“Like, that was the nicest thing in the world,” she continues, “and that sort of how I feel about the show: that we’re all just doing the best we can. And if you keep feeling that, then you’re gonna keep feeling for these characters. That was always my goal: if they think they’re trying their hardest, there’s something redeeming about that, even if we know that … they could reassess and possibly do better.”
Dunham’s willingness to show her characters unlikable traits as much as what she calls their “core goodness” feels remarkable, especially considering that her character is similar enough to the creator that it would be easy to assume she’s a surrogate. “It’s sort of taking two disastrous months I had,” she says. “Like, what if this is how I felt forever? There are moments where I am 100% her and there are moments where…it’s funny. I’ve had the experience of going through things and then having them happen to Hannah; I’ve also had the experience of having things happen to Hannah and then going through them later. It’s such a strange, like, I hate to say, ‘Life meets art,’ but I have my weird Adaptation moments with the whole thing.”
Close to the end of our allotted time, Tobe enters the room and tells me I have five minutes left. There are plenty of things I want to talk about, but GQ is waiting. So I tell Dunham that I received and watched my screener copy of Girls the same weekend that Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University student and birth control advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut.” Dunham has gone on record as saying she does not consider herself a political artist, which is certainly her prerogative. I put forth the idea that Limbaugh’s comments and various responses, have made clear once again the level of free-floating hostility that still exists towards women in modern culture, and asked her if in light of that, if making art that truthfully explored women’s inner lives ever felt like a political act by context alone.
“I’m not a victim of it on a daily basis, but I think the girls who kind of think like, ‘Our moms handled the whole feminism thing and now we can just sit back and relax’ are mistaken,’ Dunham says. “But I think there’s also…I did an interview with, like, a women-in-film website and it was so amazing to me because they basically kept trying to get me to say, like, ‘as a feminist, wasn’t it complicated for you to work with Judd Apatow?’
“What I felt like they didn’t understand,” she adds turning to Apatow, “was that you made personal work, and you are a man, and you wrote about your experiences living in a comedy shack with a million men, and I make personal work, and I’m a woman. I think the audacity to think your own story is worth telling is something that kind of has always got people in trouble in a certain way, unless you’re like ‘from homeless to Harvard’ or have some extraordinary story. It’s like ‘where do you get off thinking your reality deserves this type of attention?’”
“People think that anything you show is a statement,” added Apatow. “So if somebody debates getting an abortion—if they get an abortion they’re certain people who think, ‘That’s great because we have to show people that it’s okay to get abortions’ and if you’re against abortion you think, ‘That’s the worst thing ever—they’re promoting the murdering of fetuses.’ But you might just be trying to tell a story and the idea of the abortion is meant to illuminate something completely different. You’re not trying to make the issue. Or if there are sex scenes in this show, are you saying that everyone should be having sex like this? No! It’s a certain type of behavior meant to be a conversation piece and to be entertainment and it’s not for or against it. It’s just saying that this exists also. And, y’know, a lot of the time we don’t even know what it means until it’s done. We didn’t think consciously about the point of Freaks & Geeks while we were making it, we were just telling our stories. Someone else could take it apart.”
Dunham nodded and turned back to me. “People ask me a lot, ‘This show depicts a realistic version of women having sex that … sort of runs counter to what we see on TV. ‘Did you go into it trying to do that?’ And when I say I’m not a political artist, it’s like I never go in thinking, ‘I’m going to bust up the establishment from the inside’ or anything. What I will say is that I was raised by a really conscientious feminist and don’t know any other way to be a woman than to be a feminist because what that means to be is just feeling like stories about women are just as worth telling as stories about men and everyone should make the same amount of money…and people should be respectful to each other.”
And then Tobe came in to tell me my time was up.