An ex-boyfriend once told Columbia alumna Jenji Kohan, CC ’91, that she had a better chance of being elected to Congress than working for a television show. In a talk on Thursday, Kohan said that she quickly learned bitterness and anger were very strong motivators, and that her whole career can be summed up by, “Fuck you, David Gershwin!”
At Thursday’s talk, Kohan—creator and executive producer of critically acclaimed dramas “Weeds” and “Orange Is the New Black”—spoke about her time at Columbia and her experiences working in television as part of Columbia Student Affairs’ CSA Talks series.
While in high school, Kohan applied to Columbia but was rejected.
“I was not happy about that,” Kohan said. “I kept writing letters [to Columbia] saying, ‘Are you sure you do not want to change your mind?’ And in the middle of sophomore year, they changed their mind.”
Although she said she never “fully integrated into the campus,” having missed out on the first-year bonding experience, Kohan still enjoyed her time on campus. She was particularly fond of her classes.
“I loved the Core. I felt like it gave me a foundation of sounding smart and being able to engage in intellectual discussion,” Kohan said.
Kohan said she approached school differently from most students. Her goal in school was to subvert expectations and to entertain herself.
“I loved writing fucked-up papers to see how people would react,” Kohan said. On one exam, she did not know the answers to two short-answer questions. Rather than leave the questions blank, Kohan wrote jokes.
“Why should you feel sorry for atheists? They have nothing to say when they’re getting a blowjob,” she wrote, and, “What does the dyslexic, insomniac priest do at night? He lies awake in bed contemplating the existence of Dog.”
Luckily, the professor gave her a point for each, which brought her grade up from an 89 to a 91. From this experience, she learned, “If you can make them laugh, you can go from a B+ to an A-.”
Working in television was not always part of the plan. While at Columbia, Kohan wanted to become a spoken word performance artist. She started working at the Franklin Furnace in TriBeCa, where she helped set up performance art shows. But she soon realized that being a performance artist was not for her.
“I’m too nasal. I’m twitchy onstage. It would never have really worked out. … And I’m not willing to stick yams up my vagina and things like that,” she said.
After graduating in 1991, she moved to Los Angeles and started writing spec scripts with the hopes of being hired onto a television show. Her first writing job was on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” because, as she jokingly said, “I’m the voice of black America apparently.”
After leaving “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” she continued to write pilot scripts while working on shows such as “Friends,” from which she was fired after about 13 weeks, “Gilmore Girls,” and “Tracey Takes On…” After a stint at a network television show, Kohan decided to pitch “Weeds”—her 15th pilot—to Showtime. “Weeds” ran for eight seasons on Showtime, ending in September 2012.
Near the end of “Weeds,” Kohan said she started looking for her next project, and a friend recommended that she take a look at Piper Kerman’s memoir “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” Although the story was relatively free of conflict, Kohan was attracted by the richness of the characters and the storytelling potential of a series set in a prison.
“There’s this whole notion that we live in a melting pot, but it’s bullshit,” she said. “We live in a mosaic, and it’s all these pieces next to each other, but they don’t blend that often. We tend to stay in our little circles, so I was always looking for these crossroads. And very often you find these crossroads in the gray areas … and prison was one of these perfect things … where you could just send all sorts of people through and force them to interact with one another, which was so appealing.”
“Orange Is the New Black” was given a full series order by Netflix after both HBO and Showtime passed on it, premiering July 11 last year. The series has been described by many as a dramedy because, as one audience member on Thursday night noted, Kohan manages to find humor in serious situations. While this mixing of genres may cause problems when it comes time to enter into a category at awards shows, Kohan prefers it.
“I love having a hybrid,” she said. “And I love being able to do a full balls-out comedy scene right next to something extremely dramatic or violent.”
She believes this blending of genres is a better reflection of real life.
“I hate a drama with no comic relief and I don’t like a comedy with no emotional spine,” Kohan said. “I think that it’s better work if you have this sort of reflection of how people survive. And people survive with humor, even in the most dramatic situations.”