The creator of “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds” wants her shows to break viewers out of their bubbles.
Jenji Kohan’s Hot Provocations
She rolls her eyes at feminist talk of “the male gaze.” Although she and Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” have a long history, their artistic philosophies split at the root: it’s notable that Soloway’s company is called Topple, for “topple the patriarchy,” and Kohan’s is called Tilted. Three years ago, when Soloway was launching a “transaffirmative-action program” for her writers’ room, they sparred on a panel that I moderated; Kohan said that trans people had been interviewed by her staff, but insisted that a great writer can channel any identity. Years later, although Kohan’s values hadn’t budged, she had to admit that Soloway’s diversity effort had paid off, launching the trans writer Our Lady J, who was behind last year’s best episode of “Transparent.” Both showrunners are feminist provocateurs, but Kohan relishes being a mischief-maker and, sometimes, a smutty ringmaster. She gleefully lobbies performers for more nudity. Once, she told me, she wanted a shy actor to do a full-frontal scene; her producer, who was reluctant to ask the man, convinced Kohan that the guy had a forked penis.
Devon Shepard met Jenji Kohan, the creator of “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds,” twenty-four years ago, when they were writers for the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Shepard, a former standup comedian, got into the business serendipitously, after he clowned on a square producer at a black barbershop in Los Angeles. Kohan, who had recently graduated from Columbia, was a rung down from Shepard—a “baby writer,” in Hollywood lingo. But “she was fun, a whole lot of energy, a sponge,” he said. Kohan wanted to learn dominoes—the “loud and outrageous” street version—and they began playing bones in an office they shared, trading stories about growing up black in South Central and Jewish in Beverly Hills. “I made the room cool,” Shepard said. “People were, like, ‘What’s going on in there?’ ”
This was in 1993, a year after the L.A. riots, and at “Fresh Prince,” which starred Will Smith as a Philly street kid sent to live with rich relatives, the writers’ room was a toxic mess. The staff—which included Smith’s bodyguard and his cousin—kept crazy hours and fought non-stop. There were cruel pranks: someone peed in a colleague’s bottle of tequila. Kohan was one of two female writers, and the only white woman. Her nickname was White Devil Jew Bitch. Shepard was one of her few allies.
Kohan, who is forty-eight, grew up five miles from the Los Feliz house, on a street just inside the zoning boundary for Beverly Hills schools. Her father is Buz Kohan, who was known (at least inside their family) as the King of Variety. A TV writer from the Bronx, he moved to L.A. to write for “The Carol Burnett Show,” and came to occupy a Hollywood niche, working on such specials as “Gene Kelly: An American in Pasadena” and “Night of 100 Stars.” Her mother, Rhea, published two dark comic novels around 1980. Jenji’s twin brothers, Jono and David, are five years older. Although Jenji entered the industry first, David had the first hit: in 1998, he created “Will & Grace,” with his writing partner Max Mutchnick. According to Kohan, whenever she has a speaking event her mother always asks the same question: “How much of your success do you attribute to genetics?”
When I visited Kohan, she had bright-pink hair that was fluffed out like a dandelion. She wore cat-eye glasses coated in glitter; her dress was navy blue and covered with tiny white swans. She’s a warm conversationalist but also a moody one, suspicious of cant, with an almost self-destructive refusal to defer to the diplomatically empty idioms of the media-trained television executive—she’d rather tell a story that makes her look bad, if it’s true or funny. She’s somehow cocky and humble at once. When people praise her neon-funky style, her reflex is to quote her mother, who told her, “If you can’t fix it, decorate it.” With little rancor, Kohan explained that her mother was sexist: she liked boys better, told Kohan that women were inherently less funny, and delivered lines like “I’ll buy you those expensive jeans when you’re thinner.” When Kohan was a teen-ager, Rhea dragged her to several plastic surgeons, but Kohan refused to undergo any procedures. Rhea once offered her uppers from a shoebox. When Kohan asked her how old they were, she snapped, “They’re pills, not cheese!” (Rhea denies this.)
“Orange” shared with “Weeds” a volatile blend of comedy and drama—a dilemma for the Emmys, which, from year to year, gave “Orange” nominations in different categories. A series that released entire seasons at once, it was included in Netflix’s début launch of original content, back when streaming was an experimental model. Because the show was comedic, female, and sex-centered, critics found it easy to patronize: the Times snootily compared it to “Gossip Girl.” But, like “The Wire,” “Orange” was a game changer, courting empathy and discomfort, titillation and sobs, often in the same scene. It was a soapbox for policy debates—about prison privatization, solitary confinement, mental illness—but it was allergic to pedantry. The emphasis was on the individual; extended flashbacks, in the manner of “Lost,” provided psychological context for both inmates and guards. The theme, in Kohan’s words, was: “You are not your crime.”
At the fire pit, Kohan said that she was thinking of quitting TV. She might let her hair go gray; she wanted to travel; working on such painful material was depressing. (“Why didn’t I write this Hawaii show?” she moaned the next day, in her office. “I’ve not been smart personally about taking this shit on.”) She’d recently had a setback: HBO had rejected a pilot that she’d co-written about witches, directed by Gus Van Sant, called “The Devil You Know,” which she had imagined as a kind of “Inglourious Basterds of Salem”—the coven would win. Worse, her kids were leaving home. Even Oscar, whom she called “my surprise ‘Weeds’ baby,” was turning twelve. “Showrunning is like a pie-eating contest, where the prize is more pie,” she told me, quoting a friend, and added that she and Shonda Rhimes have scheduled a lunch to discuss such feelings. (This was a month before Rhimes ordered a fresh batch of pies, cutting a major deal with Netflix.) Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men” and a friend of Kohan’s, had recently texted her photos of Paris, where he was filming a new show, and it made her ache. “He has written himself into Paris, and I have written myself into prison,” she said. She emphasized that her suffering wasn’t remotely comparable to that of someone who is incarcerated. Nevertheless, she said, “my daily thoughts are of injustice and of horror, and I do have certain regrets about it.”
It’s a perverse irony that “Orange,” which was initially hailed as a progressive breakthrough—a show that celebrated the stories of poor inmates, many of color—got caught up in a tense conversation about racial representation behind the camera. Ryan Murphy, the creator of such shows as “American Horror Story,” now promises viewers that women will direct half of a season’s episodes. There’s a swell of criticism directed at shows about black people that were created by white people—most recently, “Confederate,” an if-the-South-had-won-the-Civil-War fantasy that HBO is developing. Kohan bristles at such debates. Speaking of TV hiring, she acknowledged that “there is a close circle in terms of getting access, if you’re outside of the clique.” She continued, “There should be an effort made. But, in the end, I just want talent.” She told me a Hollywood legend about Redd Foxx firing the white writers for “Sanford and Son,” and then, upon reading a new script, yelling, “Bring me my Jews! Bring me my Jews!”
“If there’s one thing I believe, it’s against fundamentalism,” she told me. She doesn’t care if her characters are likable; she believes that the friction of offensiveness can push a debate forward. Kohan herself has a variety of impolite opinions. We debated whether the situation of Rachel Dolezal—the white activist who presented herself as black—might be analogous to transgender politics. At another point, Kohan argued that, if we are not our crimes, this is true for sex offenders, too, including Donuts, a guard on “Orange.” “Is he a rapist and that’s all he is?” she said. When asked about the notorious 2004 lawsuit that exposed crass behavior by the writers of “Friends,” Kohan said that there’s no point in suing a writers’ room: “You just have to quit the job.” (Her argument was mainly pragmatic, she added. In Hollywood, writing a new pilot reinvents you.) Over lunch one day, the writers discussed Bill Cosby’s trial; Kohan was largely quiet, but eventually chimed in, “I wonder if people are having trouble now enjoying”—infinitesimal pause—“Jell-O pudding products.”
Before the screening, Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive gave a speech thanking “Mama Jenji.” Mensch was postpartum, just as Kohan had been for the “Weeds” première. Afterward, Charlie was sweet to his mom, knowing that it had been hard for her to cede control, to be the one giving notes that got ignored. “I could see your touch on it,” he said.
The “GLOW” party was decorated like a neon locker room from the eighties. “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” played on the loudspeakers. As Kohan mingled, I chatted with two of her O.G. “Orange” crew, the filmmaker Sian Heder and the playwright Nick Jones. They marvelled at their early, disorienting days under Kohan: she had everyone build ornate Lego models of prisons and go on extended hikes. Even after they broke the story for Season 1, they struggled. “One script would be like ‘30 Rock,’ another like ‘The Shield,’ ” Heder said. Heder felt especially anxious about writing a script that centered on Sophia Burset, the trans inmate. Every activist she called told her that it was a huge mistake to portray a trans character as a prisoner—at the very least, she should be innocent. Kohan encouraged Heder to stop soliciting outside opinions: she needed to write.
I visited the set of “Orange” in early August. Kohan had finally finished her script, and filming was under way. She had other good news: Lifetime had green-lighted “American Princess,” the Renaissance Faire show. The previous weekend, Kohan and Noxon and two of their kids had visited upstate New York with Jamie Denbo, the show’s creator, to scout for stories at a Renaissance Festival.
“Did you see the ring that Chris bought me in Oswego?” Kohan said, holding out her hand. I peered: it resembled a melted bronze dragon. “It’s a couple giving each other oral sex. See? She’s leaning over his cock, he’s on her pussy.” Romantic, I told Kohan. “He knows me,” she said.
This article appears in other versions of the September 4, 2017, issue, with the headline “Riot Girl.”