Emmys 2012: Lena Dunham Says She Never Thought of Herself as a 'Funny Person' (Video)
During the first episode of Girls, HBO’s half-hour dramedy that premiered April 15 and has since blossomed into a pop-cultural phenomenon, Hannah, the show’s central character -- an aspiring writer played by Lena Dunham, who is also its creator, co-showrunner and head writer -- confides in her parents that she believes that she is "the voice of my generation … or at least a voice of a generation.” What makes the line hilarious is the presumptuousness of the thought and the seriousness with which it is delivered. What makes it prescient, however, is the fact that Dunham, through Girls, has, in fact, managed to articulate the private thoughts, frustrations and dreams of her twentysomething contemporaries more pointedly and poignantly than just about any show in television history.
You don’t have to take my word for it -- just ask the masses of young women who take to Facebook and Twitter every Sunday night, during and after the broadcast of the show, to commiserate about it, and who are, to Dunham’s delight, being joined in that discussion by their mothers, fathers, brothers and boyfriends in ever-increasing numbers.
Dunham has beaten a lot of odds to become such a popular and influential figure so quickly. For one thing, she’s still very young; she only turned 26 last month. For another, she’s not a great beauty, in the traditional sense of the world; she’s very open, on and off the show, about being a little chubby and frumpy (although she looked much more attractive in person than she has on the show). And, for yet another, she never worked on a television series, in any capacity, prior to this one. So what is the secret of her success? She won’t say it, but I will: She is startlingly brilliant -- in equal measures smart and funny -- and eagerly self-deprecating. (Think a female Woody Allen or Larry David.) This is something that I had suspected from watching her work, but that was confirmed to me, beyond any shadow of a doubt, by the hour that we spent together in Brooklyn a little over a week ago, during which we discussed a wide range of matters pertaining to her life and work.
Dunham suggested that we meet at a small but bustling coffee shop in Brooklyn, not far from the studio where Girls is now in production on season two, having been renewed just two weeks after it debuted. In fact, it looks like the kind of place that might pop up in the show, I realize as I arrive a few minutes ahead of our appointed time. A few minutes after it, Dunham texts me, profusely apologizing for running late, which is something that she says is among her worst traits. I tell her to take her time, as I’m happy to take in the scene. Not long after, she arrives, and we greet each other with a half-handshake/half-hug. We chat a bit about New Haven, where I live and she has enjoyed pizza, and about Camp Ramah, a Jewish camp that is referenced on Girls, before embarking on a search for as quiet a spot as one might hope to find in such a loud place. As we stroll between the tables, a woman working on her laptop at one looks up, smiles, and tells Dunham how much she and her friends have been enjoying the show. (Other than that moment, Dunham goes unrecognized -- or at least unbothered -- for the entirety of our time together.) We soon find our spot -- a bar-like structure in a corner of the place -- and, after I pick up a bottle of water for myself and a chamomile tea for Dunham, get down to business. (The video at the top of this post picks up the conversation at that point.)
Our conversation starts with Dunham’s relationship with her parents, which has been depicted, with varying degrees of adherence to reality, in not only Girls, but also Tiny Furniture, the independent film that first brought Dunham to the attention of a lot of people, including executives at HBO. “I’ve always been really close to my parents,” she says of Laurie Simmons, a photographer and designer, and Carroll Dunham, a painter. “I have two really lovely, creative parents who I felt like I really connected to in a way that was at times probably detrimental, because I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really need friends because I have such cool parents.’”
Dunham, who was raised in Manhattan, was a precocious kid. For instance, she loved the same television shows as her peers -- those on Nick at Nite and TGIF, Full House and eventually Saturday Night Live (“I remember crying because we [once] got back home from my grandma’s house so late that I missed the opening monologue”) -- but she also had interests and tastes beyond her years (among them The Mary Tyler Moore Show and A Fish Called Wanda). She notes, however, that she never really felt -- and always kind of yearned for -- “a clear connection to the characters.” She explains, “I never felt like it was mirroring my reality back at me.” (Not coincidentally, she went on to create, in her own work, flawed characters of the sort that she and people like her might recognize from their own lives.)
It became clear to Dunham fairly early on that her greatest passion -- and greatest strength -- was writing. She recalls, “I started writing little novels when I was, like, nine or 10, and writing was a big part of my life from that point forward -- writing fiction, writing poems. I started writing plays in high school, and I think that was a real turning point for me -- the opportunity to play around with dialogue. I went to a school called Saint Ann’s that was a very creative environment… and there was an amazing playwriting teacher there, Nancy Fales Garrett, who just really kind of nurtured that part of me. So I kept writing plays and stories.”
What was less obvious to Dunham was that she had a talent for making people laugh. “I never sort of thought of myself as a comedy writer, by nature,” she says. “I never thought of myself as like, a funny person.” But, she grants, “In some ways, I guess, I must’ve been, because I actually did stand-up comedy and stuff in high school -- like, I went to a stand-up comedy class, which is embarrassing to admit. So there clearly must’ve been a part of me that felt that that was an itch I needed to scratch. But I would write this, like, super earnest poetry and really intense short stories, and I’d say things that felt really emotional to me, and people would still laugh at them. So I was like, ‘Oh. Whether I’m trying to be funny or whether I’m trying to be serious, it still seems to be eliciting the same reaction from people.’”
When it came time for college, Dunham left New York and headed out to the Midwest. She enrolled at Ohio’s Oberlin College, became a creative writing major, and began penning scripts for all sorts of projects in her spare time. She soon grew disenchanted, though, with the transience of theatrical productions. She reflects, “I honestly think it was a little bit of my Woody Allen[-esque] obsession with death coming out, where I’m just like, ‘I don’t want to do something that going to disappear.’” She subsequently turned her attention to film, the permanency of which appealed to her, and wrote and starred in a several short films, as well as two comedic web series, Tight Shots and Delusional Downtown Divas. She eventually shot a 60-minute film called Creative Nonfiction, which was accepted at South by Southwest, the film and music festival in Austin, Texas. There, she received encouraging responses from the organizers and audience, and befriended a group of people -- two producers, a cinematographer, an editor, and an actor -- who would prove instrumental in her next venture.
The following year, at age 23, Dunham raised about $45,000 from investors and, over the course of 18 days, shot Tiny Furniture in her family’s apartment in Manhattan, with her real mother and sister playing her character’s mother and sister. As she now describes it, it’s a “super autobiographical” story of “a girl who’s recently come home from college and is sort of figuring out what her life is going to be like… ‘What am I going to do professionally?’ ‘What am I going to do personally?’ And she has this really powerful and mixed relationship with her mother and her sister.” She goes on, “For me, it was really a way to sort of turn this kind of challenging period -- my first year out of college -- into something that felt like art. … If I’m having a really shitty year, it’s almost like, if I can make something about it later, it existed for a reason.” She kept her expectations for the film in careful check. “I thought, ‘If this goes to one film festival, and 100 people see it, I’ll be happy and it’ll give me the impetus to make the next one.’” But, as it turned out, Tiny Furniture was also accepted into SXSW, where it made a huge splash -- the film won best narrative feature and Dunham received the Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award -- that resulted in a distribution deal with IFC Films and, ultimately, a blind script deal with HBO.
After the triumph of SXSW but before HBO came along, Dunham returned to a period of uncertainty about her future not unlike the one that had been depicted in the film. "I knew that TV was somewhere I wanted to be,” she recalls, “but I kind of didn’t dare to dream of something like [Girls] happening. I think that I thought that TV would sort of be like, 'Maybe I could get a job as a third staff writer on How I Met Your Mother.’” She continues, "Having two artist parents, I’m so aware of the constant ups and downs of the creative life that I was sort of like, 'Well, this happens, and then next week I’m back to being a babysitter,’ you know, 'and I’ll just have to deal with that.'"
Then HBO called, and, on the basis of Tiny Furniture, offered to option anything that she wrote, sight unseen. “I sort of went into the meeting and was like, ‘You know those girls who are, like, always on Facebook, and they’re really vocal on Facebook, much more than in their private lives, posting everything up, and they’ve got jobs they’re not that good at, and they’ve got boyfriends they don’t like that much?’ I basically described, like, the most anti-climactic, depressing universe. And HBO was like, ‘We’re in.’ I was just like, ‘Who are these people? This is amazing!’” Things only got better from there: Judd Apatow, the godfather of modern screen comedy, had stumbled upon Tiny Furniture and, according to other interviews, turned to his wife after 20 minutes and remarked upon how impressed he was with it. His sentiments increased exponentially when he learned that its young star had also written and directed it. Consequently, when Dunham came to HBO with the idea for Girls, he enthusiastically signed up to serve as one of the show's executive producers.
Whereas Tiny Furniture is about the moment in one girl’s life immediately after she comes home from college, Girls, Dunham says, is “about that moment after the moment when you first get out of college, where you’re like, ‘OK, like, I’m not going to be accepted back into the womb, so now what am I going to do with myself?’ And ‘Do I still love my friends from college? Or am I just friends with them because I’m too scared to meet anybody else? What does the world have for me, especially because I graduated during a recession?’ So it’s very much the next step for someone that age.”
Many media outlets initially reported that the series was going to be something of a reincarnation of Sex and the City (1998-2004), only with younger women, noting that both programs were HBO productions, with half-hour episodes (really 27 minutes), set in New York, revolved around four close female friends and chronicled, among other things, their sexual escapades. Dunham calls Sex and the City "incredible,” "a super important piece of programming” and acknowledges that it "changed lives and brought so many issues to the table for women that hadn’t existed before” -- but she also believes that Girls is entirely its own beast. Whereas Sex and the City was aspirational and escapist, Girls is much more realistic and gritty. Its characters live in Brooklyn, not Manhattan; are in their mid-twenties, not mid-thirties; are, to varying degrees, personally, financially and sexually insecure; and have bigger questions about their futures than merely finding a “Mr. Big.”
Girls follows Hannah (Dunham), a smart but hapless girl from Michigan who recently graduated from college and moved to Brooklyn, where her clique of friends includes Marnie (Alison Williams, daughter of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams), her classically beautiful, somewhat uptight roommate and best friend; Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright-screenwriter David Mamet), a naïve and innocent Jewish-American Princess; and Shoshannah’s cousin and roommate Jessa (Jemima Kirke, Dunham’s close friend since seventh grade and co-star in Tiny Furniture), a sardonic Brit with a vocabulary and libido to rival that of even the most philistine of males. The show amusingly examines many aspects of their lives -- their self-esteem, or lack thereof; their quests for gainful, or at least satisfying, employment; the emotional and sexual dynamics of their friendships and relationships; etc. -- and does so in a way that seems unusually authentic, and not always flattering.
Dunham says that the show has expanded her world in more ways than one. “It’s been sort of the first time in my life that I’ve really understood the beauty of collaboration,” she explains, describing her collaborators as “people that I connect to sort of as fully as I do with my family.” Of the four core cast members, she has known Kirke the longest, and only met Williams and Mamet when they came in to audition for their parts, but, she says, “I just adore all of them in equal measure,” and laughs, “I always wish we had some kind of rivalry to report, [but] I mean, we’re always, like, sending each other sweet text messages all the time.” Dunham calls her co-showrunner Jenni Konner -- who scored her first big gig when Apatow hired her as a writer and producer of the Fox show Undeclared (2001-02) -- “one of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever known,” and one of her best friends. And she describes Apatow as a trusted adviser who has offered invaluable input, including suggestions of such sensitivity that one might not guess they came from a male. (Among the changes that he encouraged: the development of Marnie from “a neurotic, stressed-out, like, tiny, high-achieving Jew” and of Shoshanna from “an in-out character who appeared every four episodes to sort of call out the fact that, like, there was this whole sort of Sex and the City-obsessed world crawling through New York” into the more fleshed-out characters that they have become.)
Dunham works on Girls with a writing staff of about six people who have great fun sharing stories from their own lives that often wind up in the show. Of season one’s 10 episodes, Dunham solely wrote six and co-wrote four. She says she enjoys writing as much as ever, but laments that it has become harder and harder to find the time to do it. “I write on set, I write in the van, I write in every weird place imaginable known to people … [most often, though,] with a laptop on my chest as I’m falling asleep, waking up to my laptop still there, finishing and then e-mailing it to somebody really quickly.” She takes great pride in crafting “a really clear script,” but is not opposed to following Apatow’s example of giving actors the opportunity to improvise changes. “I think that’s really important. Even if we end up using one percent of the improv that we’ve done, I think it gives everybody a sense of freedom and just increases the creativity level. And also, like, the best lines of every episode [inevitably] come from someone’s weird brain.”
In a twist that has surprised even Dunham, people in the real world have begun turning to her, with increasing frequency, to comment on the socio-cultural questions that Girls has risen on TV. Among them: Why do so many young girls who have so much going for them -- beauty and/or smarts and/or humor -- still have such low self-esteem? (See: Hannah.) Why do so many young -- including those who claim to be looking for a nice guy to date -- instead embrace guys who treat them poorly (as Hannah does with Adam) and reject guys who treat them well (as Marnie does with Charlie)? Why are so many young people today -- of both sexes -- unable and/or unwilling to engage in real face-to-face communication with each other unless they’re drunk or high, even when they’re sleeping together? (i.e. Hannah and Adam, at least early in their relationship) And why do so many girls (including Hannah) consent to sexual relationships in which the guy receives a disproportionate amount of gratification, despite the fact that they obviously have it within their power to demand more, not least of all by withholding certain services unless and until they get some, too?
Dunham finds these questions fascinating, but feels conflicted about being asked to answer them as some sort of an authority: “In a way it’s very comforting, because I always thought of myself as kind of a weirdo, so the idea of people, like, thinking that I have anything to offer, like, on a mass generational level is, like, shocking and kind of fulfilling to me. But, at the same time, I feel like people acting like one woman can speak for all women is just kind of, like, in some way, another version of sexism.”
When Dunham contemplates what words to put into the mouths of her characters, she says, “I just think of who I am … like, all the events that sort of shaped my consciousness.” She elaborates, “I was raised on the Internet. … I was in fifth grade when Monica Lewinsky happened. … I was in second grade when John Wayne Bobbitt’s wife cut off his penis. … Living in a post-9/11 world … I think graduating from college during a recession … [I think about how many kids have been] raised on Ritalin and in a world [in which people ask], ‘Does this teenager need some Xanax?’… We have yet to see what that’s going to do to people.”
What we have seen, quite clearly and in real-time through Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds on Sunday nights, is that Dunham is far from the only one who finds the plight of the Generation Y “Millennials” to be of great interest. Dunham is as amazed by it as anyone. “It’s crazy. It’s so addictive. It’s so weird. I wish that I wasn’t so addicted to reading the Tweets about the show. I sit at home thinking, like, ‘How did they feel about Adam this week? Are they liking him more?’ ‘Are they connecting to Marnie?’ I don’t really read reviews. … That’s not where my attention goes. But I love seeing the real-time reactions of people who aren’t critics, who are just experiencing the show at home. … I’m consistently surprised by my audience and also amazed by their sort of wit in the things that they pick out as sort of themes in the show that I didn’t even see.”
By this point, I had used up more of Dunham’s time than she had bargained for, and, with season two of Girls now in production a short distance away, she was needed back on set, so I thanked her for what was truly an awesome interview and prepared to go our separate ways. But, before she left, she told me to remain seated, whipped out her iPhone and snapped a picture of me behind sitting behind my iPhone (which I had been forced to use to record the latter part of the interview -- elevated by a box of forks that I borrowed from the owner of the establishment -- after my FlipCam abruptly conked out).
Looking at someone, through the safety and distance of a lens, who is looking back at you, through the safety and distance of a lens: We would have been a perfect metaphor for our generation, if only we hadn’t spent the past hour talking.