Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: Lesley Arfin
While most of us hope to escape our awkward teenage years, Lesley Arfin has made a career in revisiting and retelling the mistakes and misdemeanors of her youth. The writer responsible for the now defunct VICE column “Dear Diary” and subsequent 2007 book of the same name continues to relive her most formative moments in her role as staff writer for not one but two of last year’s most-talked-about series, HBO’s wry 20something comedy Girls and MTV’s heartfelt teen dramedy Awkward. Whether on the page or on the screen, Arfin’s words balance humor with the pin-sharp ability to make audiences squirm and cringe at everything she (and quite likely, they) experienced as a teen and young adult.
We caught up with Arfin to discuss Tiny Furniture, Riot Grrrls, John Hughes movies, the screen adaptation of “Dear Diary” (“It is currently being written,” she says), and Dax Shepard.
FRANKIE MATHIESON: You’ve always been a writer, but screenwriting is a relatively new role for you. How do you approach writing for the screen versus the internet and print?
LESLEY ARFIN: Begrudgingly on most days, with fear of failure on other days, and a super-huge ego on all the days in between.
MATHIESON: I read that you submitted a draft pilot episode of Girls to land the job of screenwriter after seeing Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture. Did anything from that script make it into the final cut?
ARFIN: That’s not actually true. I wrote an original pilot that was mediocre. Lena really liked “Dear Diary” and “Ask Barf,” an old advice column I used to do, and I think it was more likely that stuff got me the job. Lena believed in me and took a chance, and somehow convinced Judd and Jenni to do the same!
MATHIESON: Was there a specific moment in Tiny Furniture when you thought, “I have to work with/befriend this girl”?
ARFIN: Yes! I love Tiny Furns. There is this one moment, after Aura and Nadine have had the huge blowout fight, where Aura goes into her mom’s room to sleep, but there’s no room for her. To a sleeping Nadine, she leans over and says “I love you,” and I thought that was so funny and perfect. It is very Lena.
MATHIESON: Given the immense success of the first series of Girls, is the pressure on for season two? I often find that the second series of my favorite shows disappoint: Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development, even—I hate to say it—Awkward to some extent. Was there ever a temptation with Girls to end on a high note?
ARFIN: [laughs] I totally agree with you, and I think most people would as well. Season three is usually the hardest season, because it’s sort of like your last chance to win back your audience [after season two]. Girls is very much Lena’s show, so personally, no, I felt no pressure. I mean, of course I want it to do well, and I think it will. I’m not like, stricken with anxiety about it. I don’t want to lose my job, but this is TV, so I’m pretty much guaranteed unemployment most of the time. And by the way, I promise that season three of Awkward is going to be awesome.
MATHIESON: I never doubted it would be. It’s not that season two sucked, it’s just that season one was such a hard act to follow! Who is your favorite character to write for on both shows? Which character do you identify with most?
ARFIN: On Girls, it’s not so much a character, but I am drawn to certain storylines, and they usually involve Jessa or Hannah or Adam. For Awkward, I think it’s easiest to write for Jenna—never underestimate the power of a good voiceover! My favorite character on Awkward is Ali, Jenna’s mom’s best friend.
MATHIESON: My favorite is Sadie—”You’re welcome.” She reminds me of Kim Kelly in Freaks and Geeks. I definitely feel like Awkward is the closest thing we’ve had in years to that ilk of teen show, even though they are (obviously) inherently different.
ARFIN: Actually, I think of Awkward as an homage to ’80s teen movies. We have the Sixteen Candles episode, there’s some Pretty In Pink in there. In season three I feel like there’s a little Can’t Buy Me Love and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. I love Sadie, too, obviously. Molly Tarlov owns that shit.
MATHIESON: What were you like as a teenager?
ARFIN: I was very insecure and really just very interested in everything. I couldn’t consume enough information and I spent so much time discovering music, books, zines, movies, etc.—I remember I would look at the liner notes in an album and see who the band thanked, and then go and try to find information about those people. I went to punk shows every weekend and I did tons of drugs.
MATHIESON: You were a first-generation Riot Grrrl, and the influence is palpable in “Dear Diary” and even Girls. What are your current views on that brand of feminism? Is it still alive or did it disappear with the movement?
ARFIN: Riot Grrrl has just evolved. When I was into it, I was a white upper-middle class suburban kid who just wanted the right to not feel stupid. I didn’t know anything about feminism before Riot Grrrl happened. I thought feminism meant burning your bra. The punk feminist bands from the ’90s gave me something to identify with, before that there was nothing. In 1993, I wasn’t interested in Betty Friedan, but I was interested in writing down the lyrics to my favourite Heavens To Betsy song. Riot Grrrl made feminism accessible to teenagers, and I think it still does.
MATHIESON: Do you still keep a diary post-“Dear Diary”?
ARFIN: Of course. But I call it a journal now, because time has destroyed my innocence.
MATHIESON: I read this on your Twitter feed: “Little known secret: @daxshepard1 started the Dear Diary jump off.” Explain.
ARFIN: I met Dax when I worked at The Maritime Hotel. It’s a long story, but Dax is a former punk kid, too, who is extremely affable, and we just clicked when we met. I gave him a copy of Dear Diary, and he was working on Baby Mama at the time and was like, “Amy Poehler is gonna love this book, I have to give it to her.” Now Amy and I are trying to work on something together, and of course when I finish the Dear Diary feature script she will definitely be a part of it. And hopefully Dax will, too! He has been my supporter from the very beginning.
MATHIESON: Who would play little Lesley Arfin on the big screen?
ARFIN: I want Lizzy Caplan to play me. We’ll get her to look 13, I promise.
MATHIESON: You used to be a stylist, and you often tweet, “My look today is…”—who or what are you channeling today? And have you ever considered documenting these photographically?
ARFIN: I would love to show everyone my “looks” and explain why they are what they are, and maybe this is just me, but I find it very difficult to take a photo of myself. I always look super awkward or blurry. My look today is Japanese manicurist going to get Strawberry Pocky on her break.
THE SECOND SEASON OF GIRLS PREMIERES THIS SUNDAY, JANUARY 13, ON HBO. THE THIRD SEASON OF AWKWARD WILL PREMIERE THIS SUMMER ON MTV.