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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Meanwhile, Tracey Ullman, the protean performer and writer, had gotten her hands on one of Kohan’s scripts. Ullman hired Kohan to work on the staff of HBO’s Tracey Takes On ... Kohan was part of the producing team that won the 1997 Emmy for outstanding variety, music, or comedy series.

“Tracey Ullman was a huge turning point for me,” Kohan says. “It was so healing, because she ran a sane and wonderful room. She gave everything a shot and set an incredible example. She packed the room with old-school heavy hitters, and then we would go off and come back for one serious day of work per week. She had a wonderful family life and did everything right, and she’s just a stellar example and talent. My time with her was invaluable. I was the baby in the room, and they were lovely to me. I’ll always be grateful to Tracey.”

Kohan spent three years with Ullman and would later heed the lessons, implementing a “no-assholes” policy in her own writers’ room and prioritizing her family. She and her husband, Christopher Noxon, a journalist and author, have three children, ages ten, fourteen, and sixteen. Kohan is a hands-on mother (“I didn’t have kids for other people to raise”) and exerts a similar influence at work. “I’m definitely a mother hen,” she says. “Tough love, and a need to do a million things at once. I’ve worked a lot and really learned over time what I wanted my work life to be like. So we have fairly sane hours. I’m usually home for dinner. I think it can all be accomplished if you’re organized.”



A long table in a sunny room. Jars of colored markers on the table. The front wall is covered with photos of characters from Orange Is the New Black. There’s the fish out of water PIPER (played by Taylor Schilling); the Shakespeare-quoting savant Suzanne “CRAZY EYES” Warren (Uzo Aduba, who has won two Emmys for the role); the hard-bitten prison-kitchen empress “RED” (Kate Mulgrew); the transgender hairdresser SOPHIA BURSET (Laverne Cox); the burly, tank-top-clad BIG BOO (Lea DeLaria); the young, dreamy pen-and-pad artist DAYA DIAZ (Dascha Polanco); and dozens more, including a new inmate, JUDY KING, a tax-evading TV cooking-show host played by Molly Dodd star Blair Brown. (The season-three cast won the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble in a comedy.)

ANOTHER ANGLE: We see the Orange creative team, many of them women. The team is seated around the table, tossing out ideas.

KOHAN (v.o.)

We have a lot of women on the show and on our crew, and behind the scenes at our company. And they’re all talented. It’s always about talent. Talent overrides gender for me. It’s hard enough to find a good writer, so I don’t care what’s dangling. If you can find talent with tits, terrific.

“Revenge,” wrote the philosopher Robert Nozick ’59CC, “involves a particular emotional tone — pleasure in the suffering of another.” Nozick argued that vengeance (he used the word “retribution”), by contrast, “need involve no emotional tone, or involves another one, namely, pleasure at justice being done.” But Nozick admitted that the two concepts often overlap. “I do not deny that there can be mixed cases, or that people can be moved by mixed motives.”

Such are the gray areas where Kohan likes to live.

Then there’s the wisdom of the philosopher Frank Sinatra. “The best revenge,” said the great showman, “is massive success.”

Kohan seems to be an adherent of the Sinatra school. And like Ol’ Blue Eyes, she can certainly be said to have done it Her Way.

It hasn’t been easy. She’d written seventeen pilots before she scored with Weeds. She knows, too, what it’s like to be a minority in the room. “There’s a way that men network that women don’t, and it’s been very good for them,” she says. The result, she suggests, is that women, vying for limited spots, have tended to view each other as competition, and been reluctant to offer help. “I love to help, and I call for help,” Kohan says. “Communication among women is changing, and as that happens I think there will be an explosion.”

But Kohan isn’t a finger-pointer. She looks at a system the way she looks at a joke: either it works or it doesn’t.

“I just think the business has been incredibly stupid and shortsighted in not acknowledging that the majority of the audience is female,” she says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional — I don’t think there’s a cabal of men saying, ‘Let’s keep women out.’ I deeply understand tribalism and wanting to be surrounded by what’s comfortable. But sometimes you have to force yourself out of that bubble and realize that there’s stuff to talk about with people who aren’t like you. You have to get over your bias. Once you do that, you’ll find that comfort with others.”

She could easily be talking about the women in Orange, for whom tribalism is a fundamental matter of self-preservation. Much of the drama concerns people’s struggles to break away, to cross boundaries, to seek acceptance, at the hazard of physical or emotional violence. Where are they going? Where will they end up?

Kohan is tightlipped about the new season (release date: June 17), for obvious reasons. “I’m very proud of it, and very excited,” she says. “It’s going to be big.”

Coming from Kohan, that’s a potent promise. Her baseline is high. But whatever she’s got in store, it will be sure to amuse and offend, inspire and enrage, stroke and poke. When it comes to her work, Kohan, as the phrase goes, takes no prisoners.

“This is my fun and my entertainment, too,” she says. “I’ve been given this opportunity, and I’m not going to pull my punches. I’ve worked too hard to get here, and this is where I want to be, and I’m not afraid.”

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