The Revenge of Jenji Kohan

Smart. Funny. Obsessive. Subversive. How the creator of the hit TV shows Weeds and Orange Is the New Black smoked the doubters and got the last laugh.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2016
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Illustration by Conor Langton

Jenji Kohan ’91CC is a rare bird among television showrunners: blue-haired and female, a punkish Jewish earth mother with a darkly comic vision so basic to her nature that the goblin of political correctness shrinks in her presence. As a writer, she is fearless. She will go there, and keep going.

“I find the funny in everything, especially the inappropriate,” she says. “Maybe it’s my survival technique.”

Kohan’s company, Tilted Productions, is based in central Los Angeles, in a Spanish Colonial–style building of pink stucco, arched windows, and iron grillwork. Built in 1926 as the Masque Playhouse, it was later renamed the Hayworth Theatre (legend has it that Rita Hayworth’s father once ran a dance studio there). Kohan bought the place in 2013. Now, after a major renovation, it’s a clean, spare, sunny, feng shui triumph of orderly space and calming energy, with long hallways and private writing rooms, a large open kitchen and dining area, and even a children’s playroom filled with brightly colored educational toys. This is where Orange Is the New Black, Kohan’s award-winning women’s-prison dramedy series, is conceived, discussed, mapped out, written, edited, and birthed.

With the latest season of Orange in the can, the building is quiet today, and Kohan is relaxed. Her private office exudes warmth and comfort, as does Kohan herself. Her hair is the vivid indigo of blue velvet. Her cat-eye glasses could have been teleported from a 1962 mahjong game. Objects on her desk attest to a fondness for thrift-shop flotsam and novelty doodads: two Magic 8 Balls, a Weeds condom, and a beanbag emblazoned with an unprintable four-letter word starting with the letter C.

Life wasn’t always this good. “I spent the first part of my life very frustrated, feeling patronized, and fighting injustice, and it doesn’t work when you’re young,” Kohan says, seated in an armchair with her feet tucked under her. “But that frustration turned into this.” This being the whole schmear: the hit shows, the peaceful office. “Whenever anyone told me I couldn’t do something, it pushed my buttons. Basically, I’m driven by vengeance.”

From early on, Kohan clashed with naysayers. In fifth grade, as a “strange, depressed, and chubby kid,” she circulated an anti-censorship petition after her play was canceled when a teacher objected to a scene in which an Asian character gives someone egg foo young.

Another time, she was suspended for saying to an administrator, “I’m sick of this bureaucratic bullshit” — a line that could have easily come from one of her child characters. She was hot on the scent of hypocrisy and found battles everywhere. “I did a lot of tilting at windmills,” she says. “It’s really hard to be a kid, because you have no power. You are written off.”

Not surprisingly, Kohan’s child characters are often the moral center of the damaged adult universe they inhabit. Her first show, Weeds, was a half-hour Showtime comedy about a widowed suburban California mom (played by Mary-Louise Parker) who becomes a pot dealer to maintain a comfy lifestyle for herself and her young, hypocrisy-sniffing sons. Noted for its crack writing, its warped humor, and Parker’s nuanced performance, Weeds ran from 2005 to 2012.

“Whenever anyone told me I couldn’t do something, it pushed my buttons. Basically, I’m driven by vengeance.”

The show’s success led to a great leap in Kohan’s career, and for the television paradigm generally: Kohan was one of the first showrunners to sign with the streaming service Netflix, which, after hearing Kohan’s pitch for Orange Is the New Black, offered her the remarkable opportunity to make an entire thirteen-episode season up front. The season would be released all at once, and subscribers could stream it online. It was a new way not only to create television but also to consume it. Best of all, Netflix granted Kohan an unprecedented level of creative freedom.

Orange, now entering its fourth season, is loosely based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, a Smith College graduate from a patrician family who served thirteen months in the federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut, on drug-related charges. Critics regard Orange as one of the best and most important shows on television.

“The characters Jenji creates are dark, twisted, funny, and startlingly honest,” wrote Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, in Time magazine, which in 2014 named Kohan one of its hundred most influential people. “She’s turned criminals into women we know, women we care about, women we root for.” Rhimes, who is Black, also praised the “breathtaking riot of color and sexual orientation” of Orange, crediting Kohan with “creating characters of all backgrounds who are three-dimensional, flawed, and sometimes unpleasant, but always human.”

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