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It’s Different for 'Girls'

Dunham in the director's chair.  

But really, the show Girls most closely resembles doesn’t involve a girl at all. It’s FX’s Louie, the acclaimed DIY cable comedy now filming its third season, created by the middle-aged comedian Louis CK. The top stand-up in the country, Louie CK has become a bit of a secular saint to his followers, a model of the auteurist show­runner—the man who didn’t compromise his vision. Like Dunham, he writes, edits, directs, and stars as a character based on him. Of course, Louie is a recently divorced middle-aged comic with two kids; Hannah is a twentysomething memoirist hooking up in Brooklyn. Yet the two share many qualities: They’re Mr. ­Magoos of the dating world, stumbling into mortification, then exploiting it as material. Each exposes an imperfect body for slapstick and self-assertion. These characters are sensitive solipsists, artists struggling through a period of confused limbo, prone to fits of self-pity—although the fictional personae are far less driven, hardworking, and ambitious than their creators.

Dunham is interested enough in the parallels that she dressed as Louis CK for Halloween, in a bald cap and facial hair. She posted a picture to Louis himself on Twitter, apologizing for the poor resemblance. But that experiment clearly left her with mixed feelings. She tweeted, “Me dressing like a man for Halloween does not have a Melanie Laurent in Beginners-ish quality. No Jules & Jim vibe. I look like Pat. Ugh.” Then the next day: “Chances are if you dressed as a sexy cat this Halloween it feels different to live in our minds.”

The lone on-duty cab between 4 and 5pm is the great New York hope

(that last tweet could definitely be a line from a Carrie Bradshaw voice-over)

Dunham and I meet for the first time at the Salmagundi Art Club in the West Village, where Girls is filming a literary reading. Seated with Jenni Konner, Dunham and I talked about our shared obsession with confessional poetry, memoirs, and behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt: “It’s a part of me; it’s almost like I’m a gossip,” she tells me. Much of the dialogue in Tiny Furniture came verbatim from her life, including those push-pull dynamics with un-boyfriends, the ones who make remarks like, “She was extremely forthcoming with the blowies.” Those same guys were often maddeningly flattered by their portrayals. “It’s like, ‘I’m not trying to shame you, but this isn’t, like, a celebration of your aura.’”

It’s warm out, a bright breezy day, and Dunham wears a flowing orange blouse. At a tent on the sidewalk outside, her writers have been hanging in the shade, trading news of weddings, divorces, friends’ pilots picked up for the fall. Hip girls ogle the filming—I hear two bystanders say, “A new HBO show, so cool!”—and Dunham clutches a fake memoir an intern has created as a prop. While her character Hannah aspires to write essays about her life, Dunham tells me that Girls is her least overtly autobiographical production. It’s more collaborative, with a far greater focus on the ensemble, male as well as female. Dunham praises Apatow’s “add stakes” notes, which she says emphasized the characters’ emotional lives. “He gives the note you don’t expect—not ‘What’s the funniest hand-job scene in the world?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand what this has to do with love.’ ”

That said, says Konner, Dunham still uses herself as a source: “Something happens to Lena the night before, she literally comes in the next day and pitches it.” A TV writer and producer who worked with Apatow on Undeclared, Konner was already a Dunham devotee when she heard that HBO was looking for a producer for Girls. Konner had loved Tiny Furniture so much she was carrying copies of the DVD around Hollywood like a pusher, and she’d talked it up to Apatow, who saw in Dunham a kindred spirit, a funny ­weirdo who used humiliation as a muse. Together, the two producers have tried to protect Dunham “like a special orchid,” says Konner. Apatow tells me that his first impression of Dunham was “How could this be real? She’s so nice and smart and funny. You know, I’m used to a lot of very dark, competitive comedians. It never happens that you meet someone who is great and not a complete semi-violent basket case.” Apatow seems especially dumbfounded at the pleasure Dunham takes in the writing process itself. “Maybe because that’s what her parents do, she thinks that this is what life is: You make things.”

As grips sweep glasses away, Dunham and Konner talk about the job of a television showrunner, that strange modern profession that requires a sensitive-writer type to adopt the skills of a CEO. Much of the best modern television has been created by middle-aged male showrunners famous for their ­macho bluster—David Chase, David ­Simon, David Milch, Kurt Sutter—as well as those with prickly personae, like Dan Harmon and Matt Weiner. In contrast, Konner describes the way the two run their set as “inherently female.”