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Meet Jenni Konner, The Off-Screen 'Grown-Up' Who Helped Make 'Girls'

Mar 24, 2017
Originally published on March 24, 2017 2:32 pm

Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham are creative partners and best friends. From their cozy office in Los Angeles, they oversee their hit show Girls, work on their online feminist newsletter Lenny Letter and develop other film and TV projects. (Currently in the works: an HBO animated series about Planned Parenthood.) Their office is adorned with photos of the BFF posing together for magazine covers, and provocative artworks.

"This one is about perky boobies," Konner says, pointing to a framed needlepoint sampler.

It's the kind of brazen humor Konner and Dunham brandish on Girls, now in its sixth and final season on HBO. The comedy/drama follows a group of self-involved young women living in Brooklyn. They're all friends of aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, who describes herself has "witty and narcissistic."

Dunham created, wrote and produced the series with Konner, and they've also launched a production company together. You can hear from the way they talk that they're smitten with one another.

"Jenni and I have a very, very symbiotic working relationship," Dunham says. "It's very hard to know where one of us stops and one of us ends at this point. I'm always at her house. I mean, she's my family."

And here's Konner on Dunham: "She's the bravest person I've ever met. She's also just a lovely friend. She makes sure I'm alive every single morning, which is maybe part her anxiety. But she's my valentine."

Konner, 45, has two children and has worked as a showrunner, a writer and a director. For the past few years, she's also been a sort of den mother to Dunham and the show's three other millennial actresses. "I was definitely hired to be the grown-up on set," she says. "The hardest part was trying to get them not get tattoos and haircuts during the off season."

Working in television is in Konner's DNA. Her mom was a writer on Hart to Hart and Cagney & Lacey, and her dad wrote for everything from Little House on the Prairie to The Sopranos. Growing up in Los Angeles, Konner attended Crossroads, a progressive prep school that counts several celebrities among its alumni. "I was there during the Jack Black/Maya Rudolph era, so that was very fun," Konner says. "Jack was my improv coach."

In the mid-1990s, after attending Sarah Lawrence College, Konner moved to New York. While everyone she knew was working at dot-coms, she was selling cigars in Midtown and doing temp work — basically riding through her 20s like a character in Girls would.

"I was living in the very edge of Carroll Gardens, almost Red Hook, in a parlor floor apartment with my friend who turned out to be a secret junkie," Konner recalls. "I remember we got robbed by crack heads because I left all the windows open all night and they climbed in and took my Kate Spade bag I had saved up so much for."

Eventually, Konner found work punching up Hollywood scripts, composing lines for the female characters in Transformers 3. She also wrote an episode of Judd Apatow's Undeclared, a short-lived TV series about college life. He remembers being impressed with Konner's work. "She writes very deep characters," he says. "At the same time, she's really funny — funny in both a light way and darkly comic way."

Konner was working for Apatow when she first saw Dunham's 2010 indie film, Tiny Furniture, about a recent college graduate who returns home to try to figure out what to do with her life. She became a huge fan.

"I felt so connected to that entitled girl who didn't know what she should be doing, was kind of lost," Konner says. "I just couldn't believe what an amazing voice Lena had. I mean, just to see a girl spend 45 seconds putting on Spanx. It just felt so real and hilarious."

When HBO gave Dunham her own show (based on a premise similar to Tiny Furniture) Apatow, the show's executive producer, brought Konner on board. He says, "Part of Jenni's job is to be paying attention to Lena: what she needs, how she can write with her, how she can know when she needs a break."

"She started out basically having to babysit me," Dunham admits, adding that Konner helps her curb her workaholic tendencies. "Acting, getting naked in front of people, the public criticism that comes with it has been really emotionally draining, and unfortunately Jenni's been put in the position of having to care-take. But it's something she does with so much grace you would never think it was hard for her."

Konner and Dunham's partnership isn't just limited to film and TV. Their online feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter, which also has its own imprint at Random House, explores issues like abortion and gender parity in Hollywood. Actress Jennifer Lawrence contributed a column entitled "Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?," and singer Alicia Keys wrote about why she no longer wears makeup.

The newsletter has allowed Konner and Dunham to give voice to their politics in a way they could never do on Girls. It just wouldn't fit the show's characters, Konner says. "Our girls, honestly, [are] too narcissistic to be political."

Editor Nina Gregory and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The HBO series "Girls" is now in its sixth and final season. It's a comedy-drama about four self-involved young women in Brooklyn, centering on aspiring writer Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")

LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) It's, like - my persona's very, like, witty and narcissistic as you can probably tell from my, like, triumphant moth monologue and resultant modern love column.

CORNISH: As NPR arts correspondent Mandalit del Barco reports, Dunham created, wrote and produced the series with her creative partner and best friend Jenni Konner.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The BFFs named their production company A Casual Romance. Clearly they are smitten with each other. Here's Lena Dunham on Jenni Konner.

DUNHAM: Jenni and I have a very, very symbiotic working relationship. It's very hard for me to know where one of us stops and one of us ends at this point. I'm always at her house. I mean she's my family.

DEL BARCO: And here's Jenni Konner on Lena Dunham.

JENNI KONNER: She's the bravest person I've ever met. She's also just a lovely friend. She makes sure I'm alive every single morning (laughter), which is maybe part her anxiety, but she's my valentine.

DEL BARCO: From their cozy Los Angeles office, they oversee "Girls" and develop other TV and film projects. It's also where they work on their online feminist newsletter "Lenny Letter." On display are photos of the duo posing together for magazine cover shoots and provocative needlepoint artworks.

KONNER: This one is about perky boobies.

DEL BARCO: This is the kind of brazen humor brandished on their hit show "Girls." Konner, a 45-year-old with two children, has been a showrunner, writer and director, also a sort of den mother to Dunham and the show's three other millennial actresses.

KONNER: I was definitely hired to be the grown-up on the set. The hardest part of my job was trying to get them not to get tattoos and haircuts during the offseason.

DEL BARCO: Working in television is in Konner's DNA. Her mom was a writer on "Hart To Hart" and "Cagney & Lacey," and her dad wrote for everything from "Little House On The Prairie" to "The Sopranos." Growing up in Los Angeles, Konner attended the progressive prep school Crossroads.

KONNER: Yeah, I was there in the Jack Black, Maya Rudolph era, so that was very fun. Jack was my improv coach.

DEL BARCO: In the mid-'90s after attending Sarah Lawrence College, Konner moved to New York. While everyone else she knew worked at dot-coms, she was selling cigars in Midtown, doing temp work, basically riding through her 20s like a character in "Girls."

KONNER: I was living in the very edge of Carroll Gardens, like, almost Red Hook, in a parlor floor apartment with my friend who turned out to be a secret junkie (laughter). And I remember we got robbed one night by crackheads because I left the windows all open. And they climbed in and took my Kate Spade bag which I had saved up so much for.

DEL BARCO: Konner eventually was hired to punch up Hollywood scripts, composing lines for the female character in "Transformers 3." She also wrote an episode of "Undeclared," a TV series about college life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDECLARED")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) How did you get so smart?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I read. I read, like, eight or nine books a week.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, told you - also do a lot of speed.

DEL BARCO: Judd Apatow created the short-lived show. He says he was impressed with Konner.

JUDD APATOW: She writes very deep characters. At the same time, she's really funny, funny in both a light way and a darkly comic way.

DEL BARCO: While writing for Apatow, Konner became a huge fan of Lena Dunham's indie film "Tiny Furniture" about a recent college grad who returns home while trying to figure out what to do with her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TINY FURNITURE")

DUNHAM: (As Aura) I'm a young, young person who is trying very hard.

KONNER: I felt so connected to that entitled girl who didn't know what she should be doing and was kind of lost. And I just, like, couldn't believe what an amazing voice Lena had. And I mean just to see a girl, like, spend 45 seconds putting on Spanx or getting into a fight with her mom, it just felt so real and hilarious.

DEL BARCO: HBO gave Dunham her own show based on a premise similar to "Tiny Furniture," and executive producer Apatow hired Konner to work on "Girls."

APATOW: Part of Jenni's job is to be paying attention to Lena, what she needs, how she can write with her, how she can know when she needs a break.

DUNHAM: She started out basically having to babysit me.

DEL BARCO: Dunham says Konner helped her curb her workaholic tendencies.

DUNHAM: Acting, getting naked in front of people. The public criticism that comes with it has been really emotionally draining. And unfortunately Jenni's been put in the position of having to caretake, but it's something that she does with so much grace that you would never think it was hard for her.

DEL BARCO: Sisterhood is a theme of their online newsletter "Lenny Letter." Its writers explore issues like abortion and gender parity in Hollywood. "Lenny Letter" now has an imprint with Random House, and they recently made an animated short in honor of Planned Parenthood's centennial. Konner says the girls in "Girls" are not as outspoken as she and Dunham but provocative in their own way.

KONNER: We were never overtly political. I don't think we would have ever taken on Trump or what this administration is or anything like that mainly because the girls are so, like, self-centered.

DEL BARCO: The finale of "Girls" is set for mid-April. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED SHEERAN SONG, "I SEE FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.