Lesley Arfin on Love, Selfishness, and the Art of Oversharing

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Arfin at her home in Los Angeles.
Arfin at her home in Los Angeles.Photo: Robert Maxwell

Sitting in the cluttered Los Feliz apartment that writer Lesley Arfin shares with her husband, comedian-writer Paul Rust, I feel as if I’ve stepped through a TV screen and into the living-room-interior set of Love, the new Netflix series the couple co-created, and found the show’s fictional universe rolling confessionally along.

Love, which premiered February 19, was co–executive produced by Judd Apatow and tells the fitful story of how L.A. 30-somethings Gus (Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) become a couple. It’s not all just meet-cute. The episodes are 30-minute deconstructions of modern courtship, with all the detours and dysfunction that occurs when two maladjusted people try to achieve some kind of intimacy.

“Mickey and Gus are based on Paul and me,” the 36-year-old Arfin explains, sitting on a green corduroy couch. “Well, versions of us.” The genesis of the show came from questions Arfin had been asking herself about her relationship: “I’d said to Paul, ‘I know I love you, and it’s like, why? It’s not just, You’re my soul mate.’ ”

Excavating that “why” is a preoccupation of both the show’s and Arfin’s, and the blurry line between where her fictional characters end and her personal life begins is even blurrier here at home. As Arfin is talking, Claudia O’Doherty, the Australian comic who plays Mickey’s roommate on the show, pops down the stairs, trying on dresses for her friend’s approval.

Arfin, a former writer on Girls, had been looking to tackle the subject of post-infatuation love. “What does it look like when there is no romance anymore and we’re on the couch in our sweats? Because I didn’t know. I was figuring out how people got together and stayed together.”

Armed with that idea, Arfin and Rust, who married last October, began outlining a film script, which they took to Apatow. He liked the idea but envisioned a TV show that followed a relationship from the outset rather than picking up in the middle. After some light coaxing, Arfin and Rust went along with the change. “I can be stubborn,” says Arfin, “but ultimately, Judd has to remind me all the time that I haven’t been doing this for a thousand years like him.”

Once the narrative parameters were in place, Arfin did what she always does and began mining her own life for material. “Even though Mickey is sort of modeled on me, she’s a type of me that I like to think doesn’t exist anymore,” says the chatty Long Island native. “She’s very selfish.” Indeed, Arfin has outgrown her selfishness enough that she’s okay with watching her real-life husband act in a relationship with her fictional proxy. “What a turn-on!” she says. “I want people to love Paul as much as I do. Doesn’t mean there’s less of him for me.”

Prior to Love, Arfin had made her name as a writer with her revealing Vice column “Dear Diary,” a clearinghouse for the squirmy formative moments from Arfin’s life — ex-boyfriends, awkward social encounters, her since-vanquished heroin addiction. She followed that with an online advice column, “Ask Barf,” which she wrote for the Vice competitor Street Carnage. Whatever the venue, Arfin’s tales of being young and semi-tortured in New York appealed to another oversharer, Lena Dunham, who invited Arfin to join the Girls writers’ room.

The thing that makes Love most different from the vehicles through which Arfin’s shared herself in the past is that now she’s got a room of co-writers. (She’d never seriously considered playing Mickey herself.) And all of them have been tasked with shaping the version of her that’s being presented. Which has its drawbacks. “I’m not crazy about being in a writers’ room,” admits Arfin, who, after leaving Girls, wrote for the Andy Samberg sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “I’ve had to say, ‘This is isn’t true to character,’ and when the writers don’t agree with me, I have to listen to them.” In this, her old boss’s efforts were instructive. “Girls is Lena’s show,” says Arfin. “She writes, directs, and stars. My voice in Love is a small percentage of it. There’s compromise.” Insight, too. Gillian Jacobs, for example, “tapped into a part of Mickey that I didn’t know existed — she’s smarter than she thinks. I never thought that about her.” She pauses. “I certainly never thought that about who I am before,” she says, then smiles, pleased at uncovering yet another part of herself.

*This article appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.