'Orange' Showrunner Jenji Kohan on Hollywood's Pay Inequality, 'F--- You' Money and Her 'Friends' Regrets
This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Editor's note: This week's THR has two cover stories. Click here to read the second, in which True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto talks season two, "stupid criticism" of his show's "woman problem" and on-set drama.
"I have this deep-rooted 'f— you' nature," says Jenji Kohan, and her hairstyle on this morning in mid-July backs it up: a punk-rock mess of curls dyed cotton-candy pink.
A grand total of 15 expletives fly out of Kohan's mouth during our hour-and-a-half interview. It is no mystery where the pot-dealing suburban mom on Weeds, her breakout series for Showtime, or the foulmouthed female cons who populate Litchfield prison on her current Netflix smash, Orange Is the New Black, come from. A crass, anti-establishment sensibility pervades everything the 45-year-old TV producer says and does.
It began at the family dinner table, where Kohan, the youngest of three, fought for attention among comedy giants -- her father, Buz, a king of variety shows; her brother David, a creator of Will & Grace. As she entered her teens, she was the quirky misfit in a privileged Beverly Hills community. And later, when she joined the family business and wrote more than a dozen pilot scripts that never aired, she fought for recognition in a network system where she lacked both the commercial sense and the capacity -- or desire -- to be politic.
But as she sits on this day in her spacious office in the heart of Hollywood, news of Orange's 12 Emmy nominations -- the biggest haul of any comedy contender -- still fresh, it's not hard to see that she finally has attained the respect and acclamation she has spent her lifetime chasing. And in the evolving landscape of premium television, where a Netflix dramedy can live as far out on the edge as her imagination does, Kohan has become the establishment.
The hourlong series, a loose adaptation of Piper Kerman's fish-out-of-water memoir about her time in a women's prison, captured the zeitgeist in its recently released second season, boosting Netflix subscription totals and, thanks in part to the attention surrounding transgender star Laverne Cox, driving the conversation around certain key social issues. Critics have lapped it up, too: "You may come for the culture-clash cringe-comedy," wrote James Poniewozik in Time magazine. "It's the real human stories that will have you captivated."
But when the married mother of three redirects a discussion about her recent success to one about the inequities in pay between her and her male counterparts in the business -- she says in no uncertain terms, "It sucks. … We all want our f— you money" -- you glimpse the essential truth about Kohan: No matter how much ground she's gained, she's still itching for a fight.
"Jenji doesn't give a f—," says Stephen Falk, who wrote for her on Weeds and Orange and, like many who have come out of Kohan's writers room, counts her as a mentor. "She has a severe distaste for authority."
Her older brother David suggests she comes by that iconoclasm genetically: "Our mother has always been the kind of person who if you were to say to her, 'No, that's not how it's done,' she would say, 'Who says?' " The Kohan men -- David, his twin brother, Jono, and their TV producer father, a 13-time Emmy winner who wrote for The Carol Burnett Show -- aren't quite like that. "The happiness gene in the Kohan family," he jokes, "resides on the Y chromosome."
Kohan doesn't dispute her brother's characterization. Instead, she recalls a childhood ballet class in which the teacher asked all of the little girls to be a cloud. As the others in class floated about, Kohan, by her own estimation "strange, depressive and chubby," decided she would be a storm cloud. "Everyone floated and I stomped," she says with a hearty laugh. "And it's been a whole lifetime of stomping while everyone else is floating."
A gift for writing emerged early on. She was often rewarded with strong grades and ample praise, though she admits that there were a handful of teachers along the way who didn't know what to make of her. "It was the beginning of my desire to subvert their paradigm," she says. "I'd see an assignment and say, 'How can I twist this, and make it fun for me?' " At a recent talk at Columbia, her alma mater, Kohan recounted an exam in which she wrote jokes in place of the answers she didn't know. One that stood out: "Why should you feel sorry for atheists? They have nothing to say when they're getting a blow job." (Her professor gave her an A-.)
After she graduated in 1991, her parents discouraged a career in Hollywood, denying her of their connections. But an ex-boyfriend who told her she'd have better luck getting elected to Congress than getting staffed on a TV show provided the kind of motivation Kohan thrives on. She packed her bags and headed back to Los Angeles, where a batch of spec scripts led her to her first writing gig on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The initial thrill quickly was replaced by frustration, and an early lesson in how not to run a writers room. "It was horribly dysfunctional. … We were there forever, and there was all this infighting," she says. Kohan wasn't invited back for a second season.
Then she landed and lost a job on Friends in 13 episodes. "I was so eager to share what I was experiencing because it was supposedly a show about people my age being run by people who weren't. I was like, 'But this is happening, and this is happening,' " she says. "I probably just talked too much." A devastated Kohan, still in her early 20s at that time, set off for Nepal, where she planned to clear her head and decide on a new career path. It didn't quite work out that way. While hiking in the Himalayas, she found herself writing a spec script for Frasier. Cutting ties, she realized, wouldn't be that easy. "Looking back," she says of the short-lived Friends chapter, "I just [think] I could have been so rich if I'd played ball a little more."
Kohan spent the decade or so that followed toiling in the network system, stuck in an endless loop of staffing jobs (Tracey Takes On…, Gilmore Girls) and pilot scripts that went nowhere. There was the comedy about a divorce lawyer still in love with his ex-wife; a superhero show for Busta Rhymes; a Second Wives Club; and a musical rom-com.
Her brother David, whose instincts are considerably more commercial, remembers the period being particularly frustrating for his sister. "She was able to do really interesting stuff that was morally complex, but there weren't a lot of buyers for that at the time," he says of the pre-cable era. At one point just before Weeds, the pair tried collaborating on a CBS comedy, The Stones, about a divorced couple that remained under the same roof. But that, too, proved a bust. "Her sensibility was not sitcom-y, and she kept coming up against people who didn't quite get it -- or get her."
Then along came Showtime, which had just hired Danielle Claman Gelber, a fellow Beverly Hills High alum, and later Bob Greenblatt, to push into original series with voices that were too distinct and edgy for broadcast. Having previously developed a project with Kohan for the since-shuttered UPN, she was one of the first producers Gelber called. "Jenji writes real, grounded, rooted-in-reality comedy," says the executive. "It's all believable, even when it's seemingly unbelievable."
Kohan came in and gave a head-swiveling pitch about a pot-dealing mom named Nancy Botwin. Gelber remembers it almost beat for beat a decade later. The network signed on, and then-nascent Lionsgate TV was brought aboard to produce. "I just thought it was totally relevant and the perfect blend of pop culture and subversion, which is one of the things that Jenji does so expertly," says Lionsgate TV chairman Kevin Beggs, whose studio just quietly inked a new Orange-specific deal with Kohan.
But like much else in Kohan's history, Weeds wasn't without friction, particularly in those early days before it had come on and established itself as a critical darling. There was considerable tension between Kohan, then a first-time showrunner, and star Mary-Louise Parker, who initially was concerned that the racy drama would ruin her career. The tension was made worse, says Kohan, by nervous network executives. "I had faith that Mary-Louise was going to scream and yell and do whatever, but when that camera rolls, she'll be awesome, so f-- off," she remembers telling execs. "If she has an issue, I'm a big girl, she's a big girl, we can deal, you have to stop getting in the middle of this."
It got so bad that Kohan says she was cc'd on an email from Showtime's then-chief Greenblatt saying he was going to have to let Kohan go. "I don't think he intended to add my name on that list, but I wrote back and I was just like, 'Good luck with that,' " she says of an issue that became moot once the series began generating strong reviews and swelling viewership. Over the course of eight seasons, Weeds became as defining for Showtime as it was for Kohan, whose office is lined with Weeds relics, including a Magic 8 Ball.
Still, a degree of resentment lingers. Though Kohan has very fond memories of the series' run, she's disappointed about the quiet way in which it went out, and the fact that Weeds never got its due. Several critics turned on the show in its later seasons, and it never won an Emmy in any of the major categories. "I feel like we did a lot of things first that other people did after, and we didn't get our credit," she says. "But you can only whine for so long, and then you go and you do something else."
Orange Is the New Black was Kohan's something else.
A friend had given her Kerman's prison memoir while she was still working on Weeds, and Kohan urged Lionsgate to option the rights. "I loved the characters, the diversity, and I loved that the setting was a crossroads where every type of person could travel through," she says, noting the vast potential for stories. She has said that Piper (played by Emmy-nominated Taylor Schilling) was her "Trojan horse," a network-accessible "cool blonde" entree into a world of characters -- black, Latina, lesbian, transgender -- rarely seen on television. Netflix offered what others wouldn't: a 13-episode straight-to-series commitment, a light touch with regard to creative notes and an opportunity to be part of television's next wave.
Among the appeals for Netflix original content vp Cindy Holland was the opportunity to explore a wholly original, if gritty and often bleak, world, with a typical Kohan twist. "Jenji's got this singular blend of laugh-out-loud, raucous humor combined with this sense of heartbreak and flawed humanity," says Holland. And having read Kerman's memoir, she was struck by Kohan's plan to expand the points of view to other inmates, and to layer in backstories that allowed the show to move outside the dreary prison setting with some welcome regularity. Together, Holland and Kohan enlisted Jennifer Euston, the New York-based casting director for Girls, to find fresh faces and figures one would legitimately see in a prison (click here). Without network censors to fight, Kohan was able -- and eager -- to push the boundaries on language, nudity and sex in ways that the book, along with much else on TV, had not. "There's such a Puritan prudery that still pervades everything, and it's silly," she says.
The popularity of the series -- the most watched in Netflix's history, the company says -- is at a level Kohan couldn't have anticipated. "I don't know if it's the subject, the characters, the way it's consumed or a combination of all those factors, but people's investment with these women is greater than anything I've seen before," she says, speaking anecdotally since she's as much in the dark about Netflix's viewership figures as everyone else. But if Kohan is being honest, the attention has made her uncomfortable, particularly when it has come to her own heightened profile. It's among the reasons she has remained off Twitter, and regularly refrains from spoiler chats with press. All she would say of season three is that it will be "about faith."
"By nature, I sit alone in a room and type. … My goal was never celebrity," she says, acknowledging that her hair choices make anonymity more challenging. Her brightly colored locks, she explains, were a way to have a little fun with the grays coming in. As her mother once advised: "If you can't fix it, decorate it." So every three to six weeks, she settles into a chair at a Hollywood Boulevard salon and lets her hairdresser L'Nor get creative.
One of the healthier decisions Kohan has made on Orange is to keep her writers room in Los Angeles while production takes place in New York. Though she typically flies in to be on set for the first and final episodes, the distance has enabled the self-described "control freak" to maintain a saner schedule, and some sense of normalcy: dinners at home with her writer husband, Christopher Noxon, whom she met in a kickball league, and their three children (a 14-year-old son, a 12-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, who was born the night Weeds premiered); a book club (next meeting's assignments are Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., neither of which she's started yet); and a steady pop-culture diet of podcasts, radio and TV (think Louie and cooking shows).
She has a tight group of longtime friends, too, which includes Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and his architect wife, whom she hired to remodel Los Angeles' historic Hayworth Theatre that Kohan and her husband bought for $4 million in November. "We still don't have tenants for the restaurant or the theater, which is terrifying because right now we're just bleeding money on it," Kohan says of her passion project. The plan is to put her production office on the second floor, where there should be enough room for the staff of two shows, beginning in 2015. If all goes as planned, the next one will be a provocative period drama about the Salem witch hunts for HBO, for which insiders say a pilot order is being negotiated.
She's developing other series, too, many with writers who have grown up in her writers rooms (among them a poker comedy at Amazon with former Weeds writer Matthew Salsberg). In fact, populating her staff with green talent that she can groom has been one of the more rewarding parts of the process for Kohan, who laments that she never had a proper mentor of her own. "It was a lot of climbing up, getting kicked down and climbing back up," she says, "like one of those inflatable punchy things."
So while Kohan may have a reputation in the industry for being a handful -- "I'm easy to work with, unless you piss me off" is the way she puts it -- her writing rooms are revered for their supportive, familial vibe. She keeps the hours manageable, provides good food and plans frequent themes, such as doughnut Fridays. "My being with her for 10 years is not abnormal," notes Orange writer-producer Tara Herrmann, a former makeup artist who was first hired on Weeds as Kohan's assistant. "It's a real mom-and-pop shop she's running, only with a multimillion-dollar budget."
Where Kohan will find the time for any additional work, she doesn't know, half-joking that she's heading for a nervous breakdown. Starting on Orange before Weeds had concluded has meant that she hasn't had a break in 11 years, though she suggests slowing down has never felt like a feasible option, financial or otherwise. And just like that, we're back on the topic that appears to irk her most. "I don't think I'm getting paid as much as the men in my position, still," she says, "and it's extremely frustrating."
Gender inequality has been a thorn in Kohan's side since she was a young girl and her novelist mother told her that men were "funnier" and "better at this." That Kohan's own studio, Lionsgate, is paying Weiner a reported $30 million for Mad Men's final three seasons adds another layer of complexity. "It's hard when one of your best friends is Matt," she says, then carefully adds: "I don't begrudge him for one second; it's more of just, 'Why am I not making that?' " (Lionsgate declined comment.)
Ask Kohan what she'd do with "f— you money," as she calls it, and she doesn't have a wish list of pricey items. Instead, she says: "I just [want] the security to never have to do anything I don't want to do, never take a job that I don't want to take. I've got three kids in private school; it's complicated."
But on this morning, her more immediate concern is the Emmys, where Orange has a real shot at making history for its distributor and earning Kohan the kind of hardware her brother and father took home for their creations years earlier. While she's leaning toward purple and blue hair at her husband's request, the dress choice -- and the Internet venom that could accompany it -- is inducing stress. "I'm not a public figure, I shouldn't have to be held to a certain standard of beauty," she says. "But it still hurts when you're pictured side by side with Dame Edna."
Click the image below to read this week's other THR cover story, featuring True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto.