Judd Apatow And Lena Dunham On Writing, Real Life, And Comedy

Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow are the masterminds behind the HBO show “Girls,” which just scooped up the Golden Globe for Best TV Series in time for the start of its second season. Dunham and Apatow tweet a lot, work a lot, and talk endlessly with each other and a recurring set of actors. So how the heck do they get anything done?

Judd Apatow And Lena Dunham On Writing, Real Life, And Comedy
Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow, shot for “Fast Company” by Art Streiber on November 14, 2012 | Photo by Art Streiber

Judd Apatow most recently directed This Is 40. He is also executive producer of Girls, the HBO series created by Lena Dunham, which just scooped up the Golden Globe for Best TV Series in time for the start of its second season. Dunham and Apatow tweet a lot, work a lot, and talk endlessly with each other and a recurring set of actors. We asked them to discuss, via Skype, how the heck they manage to get anything done.


Judd Apatow: I hate looking at people when I chat. I never Skype. I never feel the need to be seen on the phone, and I don’t want to see anybody.

Lena Dunham: But you look so nice since you rested for your birthday.

Apatow: Well, I got a haircut for my run of publicity. How is your hair going, Lena?

Dunham: You gave me my plan for my hair, and I’m sticking to it: You said I should grow it out and then we can noodle with it.

Apatow: Well, you know, there’s a long history of people cutting their hair and ruining the show.

Dunham: Like Felicity?


Apatow: Felicity… people lost their minds. It’s a big deal. If your haircut is too fashionable, it ruins the affect of your character [Hannah, on Girls] being lost. Someone who knows how to get a good haircut can get a job.

Anyway, Skype doesn’t really work because the camera is above the image. If I’m looking into the camera, which makes me look kind of normal, I can’t see you. But if I look at you, I look like I’m not looking at you. It’s just a mind-fuck. We need the technology of a camera in the center of the screen, but invisible. That’s what Steve Jobs would be doing if he were alive–working on an invisible, middle-of-screen camera.

Photo by Art Streiber

Dunham: So, the two of us do most of our work on the phone.

Apatow: Most of the time you’re in New York and I’m at home after my family goes to bed. So we talk late at night and…

Dunham: You and my dad are the only people who have my home number.

Apatow: Even the boyfriend doesn’t have access. We don’t know why.


Dunham: Nope, never given it to him. You and I also do a lot of email. You’re the king of email notes. You write something that looks like an epic poem and it’s actually notes on a cut.

Apatow: I like to watch cuts on a computer with the Microsoft Word file open and take notes as I’m watching. When we write episodes together, we stay up late talking. And then your pass [at the script] is so good that I can just go, “Wow, that was really easy.”

Dunham: I hope we’ll write more together. In the first season, we wrote episode 6, and in the second season, we wrote the season finale together. You inundate me with so many ideas that I can just be like a scribbling secretary. I think we each think the other one is doing the bulk of the work.

Apatow: Sometimes I’ll say something profound like, “Maybe we should show Peter Scolari’s penis.”

Dunham: Mmhm.

Apatow: And you will email back, “Yes, that seems like a good idea. Do you think he’ll do it?” And then I say, “Yes, I think he will do it.” And then he does do it.


Dunham: Bigger and better than we had even imagined.

Apatow: You know, the show is run differently from other shows because we’re trying to really filter everything through you. My goal is to have you do as much work as possible without getting killed. So part of what I’m trying to do is pace you so you don’t collapse. For me, a lot of the work is just having a very fresh brain and set of eyes to read things and look for where there are holes or trouble and then trying to help fix that.

Dunham: I feel like you’re constantly monitoring my brainpower and body power, even when I’m not able to tell what I’m feeling.

Apatow: I try to think months in advance, When will you collapse?

Dunham: And you’ve been a pretty good judge so far.

Apatow: This type of show is an auteur’s vision. It isn’t collaborative in the same way as other shows. We are probably closer to Curb Your Enthusiasm than we are to something like Friends. So it’s similar to The Larry Sanders Show, where other people could write good episodes. But it can’t just be good, it has to be good in a way that makes sense and feels right for you.


Dunham: Well, there have been times where someone has written a script and I’ve gone, “This is structured beautifully, has tons of great jokes, and in many ways has more integrity as a script than something I would write–but it just doesn’t feel like the thing that we’re doing.” At first I didn’t understand that that was allowed. But you’re constantly letting me know what’s allowed, because you spent so much time learning the boundaries and then defying them.

Another way you help me is in blocking out the massive amounts of Internet noise. You’re so involved with gauging public reaction, but you’re also really good at putting yourself on media fasts. You’ve emailed me a few times when I’ve been on vacation, and you’ve been like, “Stop tweeting or you’re not gonna get anything out of this vacation.”

I have a question: On This Is 40, there were so many people whom you’d worked with before and so many people who had played versions of those characters before. Did you give them real script input?

Photo by Art Streiber

Apatow: The script process starts with Leslie [Mann, his wife and a star of This Is 40], because I have to first get her to like the idea of the idea. And then I need her sign-off to allow the kids in the movie. And then we start having what is a very intimate conversation over several years about how we feel about our lives, pitching scenes for our characters. What we’re really doing is having a conversation with each other, one that’s easier to have than if we, say, were talking about the characters.

I’ll say, “Why do you think Debbie does that? Maybe that’s her issue, right? She’s controlling.” And she’ll say, “Yeah, but maybe you should have a scene where Pete admits that he knows he’s acting like a dick.”

We do allow everyone else in the process once we get to rehearsals. I call Paul Rudd on day one and say, “How are you doing in your marriage? Are you getting along? What’s annoying each of you about each other?” Then we have dinner with him and his wife, Julie, and he pitches scenes. We do that for every character.


Dunham: To my own detriment, everything that happens to me becomes fodder. Sometimes I wonder if I would be a bit happier if I were more in the moment, and less trying to translate the moment into a piece of writing or a piece of film. I have never known another way to express myself, whether it was writing weird confessional poetry in fourth grade or my first play, which was closely based on what I thought the relationship between my mom and her two sisters was. It’s just the way that I think.

Apatow: Watching you create the first season of Girls had a big impact on me. In some unconscious way, it got me in the right groove to do This Is 40. It’s weird, but I do feel like Girls and This Is 40 are cousins.

Dunham: I do too. If we were to train this same kind of eye on the Girls characters in 15 years, we might experience something like This Is 40.

Styling: Alicia Lombardini For Walter Schupfer; Hair: Rheanne White For See Management; Makeup: Matin For Artists By Timothy Priano; Prop Styling: Michelle Flood