COVER STORY

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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Though Kohan considers herself an entertainer, and leaves activism to people “who are far more capable and organized,” she takes pride in the show’s influence on the discourse. “I think Orange has helped bring attention to prison reform, and we’ve opened discussions about the portrayal on TV of all sorts of bodies,” she says. “People are talking about things they weren’t talking about before. But I didn’t set out saying, ‘I’m going to change the face of television.’ It was just the natural extension of what I wanted to do: make a great show with people I wanted to watch.”

INT. WELFARE HOTEL – NEW YORK, 1990

A room inside a hotel on W. 110th Street. PAN to show: roaches crawling over a kitchen counter; dead roaches on a hot plate; half-empty containers of hot-and-sour soup; a stack of books, with titles by Anthony Trollope, Homer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Cheever.

THE CAMERA reaches the couch, where a YOUNG WOMAN is watching her favorite TV show — The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, a half-hour magical-realism-inflected comedy-drama about the personal and professional life of a thirty-something divorced woman in New York, played by Blair Brown.

We hear SIRENS and SHOUTS out the window. The young woman is too engrossed in the show to notice.


Kohan transferred to Columbia halfway through her sophomore year. Her academic tastes were eclectic: she took classes on shamanism, film editing, and physics for poets. (According to one former classmate, she used her musings on an Elvis-bust lamp to kick off a paper on Locke and Hume, and got an A.) She had a concentration in English but didn’t declare a major. She just wanted to do the Core and get a liberal-arts education and be in New York. She was young and broke in the big, wild city. She felt free.

In her senior year she didn’t get campus housing and moved into a welfare hotel. It was all part of the adventure. Off campus, she got a different education. “I had a Japanese sugar daddy,” she says with a laugh. “But it was mostly chaste.” On weekends, she’d take long walks downtown, ending at Franklin Furnace, a performance-art space in Tribeca. As the intern, Kohan helped set up shows (“I was told I had no visual sense; apparently, I made very ugly fliers”). She was a devotee of spoken-word performance, and caught shows around town by artists like Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and Laurie Anderson ’69BC, ’72SOA. She dreamed of sitting on a stool in an empty space, holding an audience rapt with her own tales. But in truth, she wasn’t comfortable onstage. She was too blinky, she felt. Too nasal.

She would have to write, then. After college, she returned to Los Angeles and picked up odd jobs. She worked in a juice bar in Venice and a video store on Sunset, and wrote restaurant reviews for the Los Angeles Reader (“they didn’t have a budget to send me to restaurants, so whoever was nice to me on the phone got a good review”). One day, her boyfriend told her about his best friend from camp, who was a writer. This friend, he said, was having success in television.

Success in television. The words raised Kohan’s competitive hairs. She’d written short fiction, but TV, too, was in her DNA. Maybe, then, she should give TV a shot.

That’s when the boyfriend uttered his fateful opinion.

“He told me I had a better chance of being elected to Congress than I did getting on the staff of a show,” Kohan says, winding up to her signature one-liner. “My whole career is ‘Fuck you, David Gershwin’ — er, Schmavid Schmershwin.”

“I always have an agenda, but my first job is to
entertain and make the audience care about those characters and stories.”

Kohan’s buttons were pushed. Missiles stirred in their silos. Schmershwin had unleashed Schmarmageddon. Kohan quit her jobs and moved to Santa Cruz to stay with a friend who was going to medical school. There, in the friend’s “shitty apartment,” she watched tapes of Roseanne and Seinfeld and wrote spec scripts.

She returned to LA with a stack of scripts and got her ex-sister-in-law’s father to pass them to an agent who worked in the same building (the handoff occurred, naturally, in the elevator). Kohan had always known that if she pursued television, she’d have to be resourceful. “My parents’ philosophy was, ‘You’ve got to make it on your own.’ We had support, we had education, but it was not like, ‘Give my kids this job.’ I was supposed to be a lawyer or a well-heeled housewife, and my brother David was supposed to be a doctor, even though he can’t stand the sight of blood.” (David Kohan went on to co-create the NBC show Will & Grace.)

The agent was receptive, and soon Kohan, at twenty-two, joined the staff of the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She remembers a dysfunctional, quarrelsome writers’ room — a “rough entrance” into show biz. Her next job was on Friends, where she argued with her older bosses for the inclusion of more authentic details about the lives of twenty-somethings. She was fired after thirteen episodes. Distraught, she escaped to the Himalayas to figure out her life. There, between hikes, she couldn’t help writing a spec script for Frasier. She took it as a sign that she wasn’t done with television.

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