Netflix's women-in-prison series, based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, returns Friday. Fresh Air listens back to interviews with Kerman and series creator Jenji Kohan.
Hear The Original Interviews:
- Behind 'The New Black': The Real Piper's Prison Story
- 'Orange' Creator Jenji Kohan: 'Piper Was My Trojan Horse'
- Behind 'The New Black': The Real Piper's Prison Story
- 'Orange' Creator Jenji Kohan: 'Piper Was My Trojan Horse'
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, Netflix is unveiling the entire second season of its most popular original production the women in prison series called "Orange Is The New Black." It stars Taylor Schilling as Piper an upper-middle-class woman in prison for a drug-trafficking crime she committed a decade earlier. On today's show we feature interviews with Piper Kerman, who wrote the memoir the series is based on, and series creator Jenji Kohan, who also created the Showtime series "Weeds." First though, we check in with our TV critic David Bianculli who reminds us where the show left off and tells us the new season begins with a strong but very unsettling start.
DAVID BIANCULLI: Last summer, "Orange Is The New Black" premiered the same way it's returning for season two this summer. Beginning today, Netflix is making all 13 episodes of the season available for instant consumption. Six of those episodes were made available for critics to preview, but even the first episode of season two is plenty to remind viewers why "Orange Is The New Black" has gotten so much attention and acclaim.
Last season ended with a holiday episode. The female prisoners put on a Christmas pageant at their prison, but the festivities didn't stay festive. Piper was threatened with death by unhinged fellow inmate Pennsatucky and responded by exposing both mentally and physically. As the new season begins, about a month after that brutal beat down, we don't know whether Pennsatucky is dead or alive, and neither does Piper. In fact, when Piper is roused in the middle of the night and transported out of the prison after a month in isolation, she does not even know where she is going next. But on the way, with a chance to talk to the prisoner seated next to her, she finally uncorks all her pent-up emotions. Taylor Schilling plays Piper.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK)
TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper) I did something kind of bad, and I was doing my time for it. And then I did this - I did this other thing, and I think maybe I'm going away for it for a long time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) What - did you kill somebody?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) I don't know. I don't know. I mean, this girl - this girl she was coming after me, and she was not going to stop. And she is - or was - she was relentless. I mean, just crazy - so, so crazy. And I completely lost it. I just - I just went there and I didn't really know that there was (unintelligible) there. But I don't know if it just grew there recently, or if it's always been there but that really - that dark place - that place that let me just keep on hitting her and hitting her and hitting her. I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop.
BIANCULLI: It's a great scene - powerful, gripping and totally out of the blue. Taylor Schilling carries this opening hour as Piper goes on her unexpected detour with character-illuminating flashbacks to match. But we all know Piper will be returning to the familiar cell block and all her fellow prisoners sooner or later. And thanks to Netflix, later can be as soon as you want because you can start episode two seconds after you finish episode one.
"Orange Is The New Black" is being entered in the comedy category at the Emmy's this year, which is kind of outrageous. Some scenes are as intense as there is in any drama series. Even so, its large ensemble cast is equally adept at scenes to make you laugh out loud and scenes that make you lean forward in anticipation. As a TV-viewing experience, however quickly or slowly you devour it, "Orange Is The New Black" is captivating.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. In a few minutes, we'll hear an interview Terry Gross recorded with Piper Kerman whose memoir "Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Woman's Prison" is the basis of the Netflix series.
First, let's hear an excerpt of the interview Terry recorded with series creator Jenji Kohan. They spoke last year after the first season of "Orange Is The New Black" was released. Here's a clip from the very first episode. Newly arrived inmate Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is eating one of her first prison meals with several other inmates. An inmate named Red, played by Kate Mulgrew, walks over and gives each women, except Piper, a container of yogurt. Red speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK)
KATE MULGREW: (As Galina 'Red' Reznikov) Who's this?
NATASHA LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) This is Chapman. She's new; self-surrender; thinks she's fancy.
MULGREW: (As Red) Here, Fancy, have a yogurt.
SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) What do I have to do for it?
MULGREW: (As Red) You're new. You're one of us. Consider it a gift.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Thank you, thank you so much. The food here is disgusting. What?
LYONNE: (As Nicky) Did I mention that Red runs the kitchen?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) (BLEEP) I'm sorry.
MULGREW: (As Red) Honey, I know you just got here, so you don't know what's what, but I'm going to tell you. You don't like the food? It's no problem.
LYONNE: (As Nicky) Holy (BLEEP) that was an epic (BLEEP).
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
So this is your second series about a middle-class woman who ends up doing something criminal. In "Weeds" she's dealing marijuana, and in this the main character has carried drug money, a suitcase of drug money, and years later is busted for it, and that's why she's in prison. So what interests you about the middle-class woman who has an element of criminality in her life? It's not violent criminality, but it is breaking the law.
JENJI KOHAN: I think...
GROSS: And they're both connected with drugs.
KOHAN: Yeah, particularly for this project, in a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan horse. You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latino women and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially.
The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of, you know, networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful.
GROSS: One of the things I like about "Orange Is The New Black" is the casting, the actresses. The series is an opportunity to showcase the talents of a lot of black and Latino actresses who don't seem to get a lot of roles, at least not prominent ones. Was that one of the reasons why you wanted to do the series in the first place?
KOHAN: The wealth of talent in this pool has been remarkable. Like Crazy Eyes, who's one of the real breakout characters on the show, I think it might be number 50 on the call sheet, and she's a star. They're all stars and they're dazzling and they're enthusiastic and they adore one another. And when their scenes are done, they stick around and watch other people do their scenes, and they hang out on the weekends, and it's kind of been a love-fest on set, which I'm so grateful for.
And part of that I attribute to one of our producers, Lisa Vinnecour, who moved to New York to do the show for me. And she's kind of den mother and works with all these women and plans activities. You know, they all walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and go for pizza, or they all go salsa dancing, and she's really created an environment where these actresses are supporting one another and doing such a high level of work.
GROSS: You mentioned the character Crazy Eyes, who's played by the actress Uzo Aduba.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the character, for people who haven't seen the series.
KOHAN: So Crazy Eyes has a lot of mental issues, and prison has become a dumping ground in a lot of ways for the mentally ill, as the safety net kind of melts away. And we wanted to talk about that. But we also just love this woman who finds herself attracted to Piper and loves her so deeply and acts out so inappropriately and can't really process her feelings and her behavior very well. And yet there's something so vulnerable and poetic about her.
GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene with her and Piper. So this is Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes, and Piper is played by Taylor Schilling.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
UZO ADUBA: (As Crazy Eyes) Hello, baby. Look at you getting your sweat on. You look all shiny. How did you - you don't even smell funky. I really would - you're a real woman, Chapman, a real grown woman, not like all these other girls around here. I can't waste my time with these silly bitches. I need a real woman.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) I'm sure that you'll find one.
ADUBA: (As Crazy Eyes) I wrote a poem. You wanna hear it?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) You know, that's fine...
ADUBA: (As Crazy Eyes) Before I met you, the sun was like a yellow grape, but now it look like fire in the sky. Why? Because you light a fire inside me. I wrote it for you.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) You know, my fiance is a writer.
ADUBA: (As Crazy Eyes) I'm gonna call you Dandelion because they're pretty and yellow just like you.
GROSS: So that's a scene from "Orange Is The New Black" with the series star Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman and Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes. How did you find her, Uzo Aduba?
KOHAN: Uzo tried out for another part. I think it might have been Taystee, I'm not sure. But I fell in love with her through this audition. I didn't think she was right for the part she'd auditioned for. And I told Jen, you know, I'm going to use this actress. Tell her she has a job, I don't know what it is yet, but she's in.
DAVIES: Jenji Kohan speaking with Terry Gross. We’ll hear more of their conversation later in the show. Coming up after a short break, Piper Kerman, who’s 13 months in jail and subsequent memoir are the bases for the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black.” This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Netflix has released the second season of its acclaimed original series “Orange Is The New Black,” based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, about the year she spent at a minimum security women’s prison. Kerman was a 24-year-old graduate of Smith College in 1993 when she flew to Belgium with a suitcase of money intended for a West African drug lord. That misguided adventure caught up with her five years later when she was named part of a drug conspiracy ring. In 2004, she reported to the federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut. Kerman is now a communications consultant working with foundations and nonprofits and serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association. She told Terry that when she entered prison, it was easy to mess up. There was a lot to learn.
PIPER KERMAN: First of all, you have to learn and understand all of the rules of the institution, all the rules that are enforced by the guards and by the wardens. And those include things like, you know, the daily counts when every single person within a unit is counted and there's a host of rules both reasonable and unreasonable.
And what's confusing about that is that they are selectively enforced, and frequently broken by the prison staff themselves. The other set of rules that you have to learn very, very quickly are the unofficial rules. And so that could be anything from not taking someone's habitual seat at the movie night - you don't want to sit in the wrong place because, you know, you will be pretty quickly corrected on that - to, you know, not asking someone directly what their offense is because that's considered very, very rude.
You have to figure all those things out, and what you really have to figure out is where you fit in in the social ecology of the prison, and...
GROSS: Where did you fit in? Because you - I don't know what the racial makeup of your unit was, but you're a white, middle-class - maybe upper-middle-class, you know - woman who went to like, Smith College. You're very educated. So I don't know if you were totally atypical within the prison population or not.
KERMAN: Trying to figure out where you fit in isn't necessarily all about your class and your race. It's very much about you as an individual, and what do you have actually to contribute to this community. Where will you fit in? Where will you put your energy and your time?
GROSS: What did you figure out you had to contribute?
KERMAN: Well, you know, I immediately was assigned to work as an electrician. I had hoped to be a teacher in...
GROSS: Like your character in the Netflix series.
KERMAN: Yes, that is...
GROSS: Isn't that really up her alley, in terms of her particular skills?
KERMAN: I had requested and hoped to be assigned to the GED program and to teach, but I was not. I was assigned to the electric shop, and so...
GROSS: You know, that makes no sense. I mean, you're obviously so educated. I'm guessing here that you were probably an English major. You probably could have really helped in the GED program. Why would they assign you, who probably has no electrical aptitude, to that program?
KERMAN: The description is always institutional need. The prison system is very arbitrary, and not necessarily always very sensible. So I can't necessarily offer a lot of insight on the assignment other than that they needed somebody - they needed a warm body in the electrical shop.
But here's the thing. Because I worked in construction and maintenance services, I was able to fix things. And so one of the ways that I tried to find my way within that community was by being handy. And I didn't necessarily think of myself as a particularly handy person before I went to prison, but that is one of the ways that I found my footing.
I fixed things for folks. I put up hooks. I fixed people's beds. You know, when I insulted the woman who ran the kitchen, I really did need to make amends to her in some ways. She was not starving me out, in the way that the character on the TV show is punished. But, you know, she was not feeling a lot of love for me.
But it turns out that her bed was really, really giving her pain, and I managed to rig her bed up so it was less painful for her to sleep at night. And for that, she sort of allowed me back into her good graces.
GROSS: In your book, before you go into prison, your lawyer tells you, don't make any friends inside. And in the Netflix series, one of the prison officials gives that same advice to the character who’s based on you. He says, don't make any friends inside. Did you think you should take that advice seriously, and did you?
KERMAN: I probably thought that I should take that advice seriously, but I certainly did not. And frankly, I don't know how you would survive prison without forming friendships. It seems - it seems impossibly lonely, isolating, dangerous even, to try to survive prison without friendships.
GROSS: So what do you think the warning was about? Was it a warning, really, about like, there's lesbians there; be careful? Or was the warning like, if you make friends you will be deceived; it will just be a way of using you?
KERMAN: I think that the warning for me was, you will meet people in prison who are from completely different walks of life from you; and if you leave prison with those friendships in place, those friendships will be problematic for you. And I don't agree with that. But I intuit that that is what that advice was about.
GROSS: In the Netflix series, the woman who had been your lover back in your college and post-college days, who got you into the trouble that you got into - she's the one who asked you to carry the briefcase of drug money - in the Netflix series, she's in the same prison you are, in the same unit. It wasn't that way in real life, was it?
KERMAN: It happens in a very different way in real life, and in the book, than it does in the show. But, you know, in truth, I ended up sharing a cell with my ex-lover.
GROSS: Sharing a cell with her?
KERMAN: Yes. And her sister - you know, her sister was also there. Her sister was also involved, and spent a lot of time in prison. So...
GROSS: Well, that seems so impossible to me. Like, if that was written into fiction, I'd say, oh, come on.
KERMAN: Yeah. Truth is much stranger than fiction, when it comes to the criminal justice system.
GROSS: What kind of terms were you on with each other then? Were you blaming her for the fact that you had been implicated in this, you know, quote, "drug conspiracy," you know, for telling on you? Did you...
KERMAN: Actually, I am - one of the things that I am most grateful for is the fact that this strange, you know, happenstance of the universe brought me face-to-face with her during that time because I was really holding onto a lot of blame, actually, in terms of saying, oh, you know, I'm here because of her. And actually being able to confront her brought me to the point of recognition that my situation was my own responsibility and my own fault.
She offered me a, quote-unquote, "opportunity," but I chose to take it. You know, she didn't hold a gun to my head. She didn't make me do anything. She asked me, and I said yes. And so I think that if I had not been brought face-to-face with her, I would never have gotten quite to that point of taking full responsibility for my own actions.
GROSS: Did you become close again?
KERMAN: One of the things which is really astonishing, and humbling, to me is the fact that ultimately, the things that you have in common with somebody are much more important than the things that are potentially dividing you. And so we were brought face-to-face in very, very difficult circumstances, towards the end of my experience in prison. And because we were able to confront each other in terms of, you know, hey, what am I doing here? What are you doing here? And sort of move beyond that, you know, I was able to get to a place where we were able to be friendly again, and I'm grateful for that.
DAVIES: Piper Kerman spoke last year with Terry Gross. Her memoir, “Orange Is The New Black,” is the basis of the Netflix series. Its second season was released today. We’ll hear more from series creator Jenji Kohan in the second half of today’s show. I’m Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. The second season of the acclaimed Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black” is now available for streaming. We’re going to hear more of Terry’s interview with Jenji Kohan, the creator of the series, which is set in a women’s prison. The series is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, a Smith College graduate who did federal time at a prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Jenji Kohan also created the Showtime series “Weeds.” Terry spoke to her last year when the first season of “Orange Is The New Black” was released.
GROSS: Now, I have to ask you, of course, about the main character, Taylor Schilling, who plays Piper. She's obviously got the most prominent role. Casting her was key.
KOHAN: Yes, it was huge.
GROSS: What was the casting process like?
KOHAN: It was arduous and big and long, and it was difficult because, you know, I had a picture in my mind, certainly based on the real Piper and also just as I was writing, of this waspy, cold shiksa who ends up in this situation. And you know, you - it can get shallow because, oh, she looks like that, but...
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. I'm going to stop you here. Would you say that to Piper Kerman, whose book this is based on, whose story this is based on, saying...
KOHAN: That Piper's a waspy cool shiksa?
GROSS: Yeah, casting you, yeah, I wanted to cast a waspy shiksa, thank you for writing your book.
KOHAN: Yes, exactly. I think at this point Piper and I are close enough that we can joke around like that. But there's another thing I talk about Piper herself a lot, is that Piper Chapman isn't Piper Kerman.
KOHAN: Piper Chapman is her own character with her own journey. It started with Piper Kerman, and it became its own animal, it really did, I think to all our relief, because I can't imagine how horrible it would be to sit and watch a weird version of your life coming back at you week after week.
And when I was writing this, you know, as I said, I was talking about the Trojan horse aspect of this character, and you need to go in with the girl next door, that every girl, that unlikely Seven Sisters grad who ends up in women's prison. And I had a physical type in mind because I'm shallow, and...
KOHAN: You know, a lot of different women came in, and what was really special about Taylor, what is really special about Taylor, is she's a hot girl who's also funny, which is not a common occurrence. And she's got depth. And there's so much more to her than the surface, and she's just - there's just a richness there.
GROSS: There's a really big cast. There's - I didn't count, but there's like, I don't know, some like 12, 15 regulars on the show. And you want us to know all of their backstories, which is a really tricky thing to do. So, you know, basically every episode has one or two backstories in it.
GROSS: And so we slowly get to find out why each of the women in prison is there, what their lives outside were like, what's the crime that they committed, and it usually puts that character in a different light. So how did you come up with that as a structure, to tell the stories of multiple people?
KOHAN: Right, well, in terms of the flashback device, you know, when you're writing a show, this is your life, and I did not want to spend all my days in prison. It seemed really oppressive and potentially depressing. And I wanted to build in a structure where I could get out, and these people could get out, and we could have some blue skies, wear some actual clothes as opposed to uniforms.
And the bonus of that was you get to see a fuller picture of who these people are, because everyone wears a mask, to a certain extent, in prison. You take on a persona to survive. And there's more to these people than just what they're displaying in this extreme situation.
So what started out as, gee, I really just don't want to write scenes in the same set all the time, became a way to flesh out these people a lot more.
GROSS: Let me talk about another character who's in it, and this is the character of Sophia. And Sophia is a transsexual, male to female, and when Sophia in her earlier life was a male, she was a firefighter. And tell us about the person who you've cast in the role.
KOHAN: So Laverne Cox is a transgender woman, and, you know, came in and took it. But the greatest - one of the greatest miracles of “Orange” is we seem to bring in the people we need at the time, and there are little miracles that occur all the time. And our Christmas miracle with Laverne was we wanted to do a flashback episode in which she was still a man, and Laverne's a woman, and she has breasts and she doesn't have body hair, and she - you know, it would have been very, very difficult to show her as a man.
And it just so happens that she's an identical twin.
KOHAN: How does that happen? I don't know. Things like that seem to happen on this show, and her brother came in and did a great job. And we have this one scene where he goes down to rinse his face in the sink, and then she comes up in prison, and it's the same face, but it's the male and the female. And it was extraordinarily lucky.
GROSS: Did you have any idea when you cast her that you'd be able to do that?
KOHAN: No, and in fact it was a joke because we'd already been talking about stories we wanted to do, and we knew we wanted to do a Sophia flashback episode. And we were joking, God, OK, we need a transgender who's a really good actress and is also an identical twin, ha, ha, ha. And we found it. It was remarkable.
GROSS: Well, let's hear one of her early scenes, and in this scene, the main character, Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, has gone into the bathroom and there's no stall - I mean there's no door on the stall, so that's making her really uncomfortable. And Sophia, played by Laverne Cox, who we've just been talking about, is in the bathroom too and she's trying to put Piper at ease and trying to show her the ropes.
So they talk about the fact that Piper is still wearing the shower shoes that she was given because she hasn't gotten her commissary money yet. And so here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
LAVERNE COX: (As Sophia Burset) Your commissary didn't come in yet?
KOHAN: (As Piper) Oh, I think so. My ID number doesn't (unintelligible) till tomorrow.
COX: (As Sophia) You better hope they got what you need. Ain't had powder foundation in dark for three months. Can't walk around here with whiteface on - with those sad pair of shower shoes, are not going to save you. You need some of these. I made my own, couture. Commissary don't carry a Size 13.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Is that duct tape?
COX: (As Sophia) Metallics are very in this season. Don't hold your big bathroom too long. Prison food stops you right up. You got to get it out while you can. If you want to skip that shower line, do the 5 a.m. or the 5 p.m., that's my secret.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Why are you telling me all this?
COX: (As Sophia) Because I (bleep) your hair. That (bleep) looks broke. When your commissary comes in, swing by the salon, I'll fix it right up for you.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Thank you.
COX: (As Sophia) There's no point in playing shy, baby. You're home.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Orange Is The New Black," and my guest, Jenji Kohan, is the creator of the series. How did you put out the casting call? Like, when you're looking for, you know, so many different main characters, do you just call the agents or what?
KOHAN: Yeah. No, a breakdown goes out, and we're looking for, you know, Latina woman, early 20s; black woman, ghetto; middle-aged Russian; you know, whatever it is. And you get a whole bunch of people. When Jen goes through casting and sends all the auditions, there's a range and there are different interpretations of the role.
And you - and sometimes it's exactly what it was in your head, and sometimes someone comes in and brings a whole other color to it that you hadn't thought of, and you suddenly realize, oh, my God, that's it, that was the right way to go.
GROSS: If you put out a casting call that says black woman, ghetto, isn't that just the kind of casting call that really annoys a lot of African-American actresses?
KOHAN: I'm sure, I'm sure, but, you know, you're not going to write a novel on a breakdown. You have to just use a few words and see who comes in, and hopefully they have enough faith in us to - or they don't, but they want the work, and you figure it out.
GROSS: “Orange Is The New Black” is on Netflix. Did you want to go to Netflix? Who approached who? Did you approach Netflix? Did they approach you to do something?
KOHAN: No. You know, I made the rounds. You always want to pitch...
GROSS: You made the rounds with "Orange?"
KOHAN: I did. I took it to HBO and Showtime and Netflix. And the greatest thing about going to Netflix was I pitched it in the room and they ordered for 13 episodes without a pilot. And that's miraculous. That is every show runner's dream to just go to series and have that sort of faith put in your work. They paid full freight. They were new. They were streamlined. They were lovely. They were enthusiastic about it. And I love being on the new frontier. I love being first out of the gate. It's really, really fun, because I think it is the future in a lot of ways, of how people consume media, and it's great to be in there early.
DAVIES: Jenji Kohan created the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black.” It’s second season is now available for streaming. We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We’re listening to Terry’s interview recorded last year with Jenji Kohan, who created the series “Orange Is The New Black.” All 13 episodes of the second season are now available on Netflix.
GROSS: You are the show runner of "Orange Is The New Black."
KOHAN: I am.
GROSS: Explain what that is.
KOHAN: Wow. OK.
KOHAN: You know, I run the writer's room. I have final cut in the editing room. I approve all the casting, wardrobe, sets. I'm the big tease, I guess, on this show. This is my baby. But I'd like to think I'm a benevolent dictator and that one of my great skills is hiring people who are really good at their jobs and for the most part, letting them do them.
GROSS: Yes. And you have said in previous interviews that writing for “The Tracy Ullman Show” taught you how to run a healthy show where people were good at what they do and were kind to each other.
GROSS: And I read that and I thought, as opposed to, what did you experience that wasn't that way?
KOHAN: Yeah. You know, there is the cycle of abuse in a lot of writer's rooms and productions and it doesn't have to be that way. And when you're spending upwards of, you know, up to 15 hours a day with people you - , think it's really important to have a no ass (bleep) policy and surround yourself with people who really good at what they do but are also pleasant to be around. Particularly in the writer's room, if there's a predatory person in there or someone who's going to attack everyone else when they open their mouths, you're not going to get the best out of people. You have to create a safe space. Not to say that all writers aren't smart asses and if you throw the ball they're going to hit it. But, you know, these are the people I spend my time with and I don't want to be with nasty unpleasant people.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jenji Kohan and she is the creator and show runner of "Orange Is The New Black" on Netflix.
Your father, Buz Kohan...
GROSS: ...Was is or is in television
KOHAN: Mm-hmm. Is.
GROSS: Is? It is? OK. So he - I went on IMDb and he wrote for a lot of Oscar broadcasts and other specialists.
GROSS: So did he write like the quips or the straightforward, you know...
KOHAN: Oh, he wrote...
GROSS: ...And now for the best movie, a compelling drama?
KOHAN: Now he wrote - yeah.
KOHAN: He wrote musical numbers. He wrote jokes. He was - he was a machine. He is a machine. He's a very funny man. He was the king of variety television in his day. You know, every Christmas special, holiday special, "Motown 25," the Oscars, all those things, you know, he...
GROSS: "Motown 25," that's the one where Michael Jackson did "Billie Jean."
KOHAN: Yeah. He used to write the tours for the Jackson Five - the patter on the tours.
GROSS: No. Really?
KOHAN: He had an amazing career. Yes. He's a remarkable guy and set a very high bar. Yeah, but we were very separate from that. We were not, you know, he went to his office and he sat in his underwear and typed with two fingers and came home late and said hello.
GROSS: Oh, his office at home.
KOHAN: No. Separate. He had a little apartment that he wrote out of.
GROSS: Oh, but he wasn't in like some office high-rise with, in his underwear.
KOHAN: You know, if he'd been a high-rise, he might have been in his underwear there too. Oh, he, comfort first. But, yeah, you know, and he's had this remarkable career and he's won - like 13 Emmys and very prolific, very funny very gifted, and a craftsman as well. And my mother is a writer as well. She's a novelist. And I think a lot of my ear for dialogue actually comes from her. But we were very sheltered from it and we were not supposed to go into the business at all. We were supposed to be doctors and lawyers or I was supposed to marry well. And...
KOHAN: But I think when you see that this career is possible, it doesn't become this amorphous, you know, goal. It's like, oh, I could always go into show biz because that's a real career 'cause that's what was modeled for me and my brothers.
GROSS: Why did you want to go into the business knowing that your parents preferred that you not?
KOHAN: I didn't necessarily. You know, I got out of school and I was working a lot of odd jobs. And I was dating someone whose friend was having success in television. And he kept talking about his friend, Dave. And I had written a lot of short - when I was broke in college, I'd enter fiction contests and I'd often win and get a little cash. And I thought, oh, I can write. I want to try this. So my ex-boyfriend said, you have a better chance of getting elected to Congress than getting on the staff of a television show, which was the perfect thing for him to say because, you know, my entire career is, you know, well, screw you. And we broke up. And then I started writing.
My, one of my close friends was studying for her medical boards. And I quit all of my crappy odd jobs, and I moved in with her. She was living in Santa Cruz. And every day we'd go to these little cafes in Santa Cruz, and I would work on spec scripts and study these videotapes I had recorded off television of "Roseanne" and "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons." And I'd write my specs and she'd study for her boards. And when I was done, I came back to Los Angeles and my parents said, you know, we're not going to help you. This is not our thing. And what ended up happening was, my sister-in-law's father worked in a building with an agent and gave him my scripts in an elevator. And he read them, and I was on a show by spring. So - and it took off from there, and I never stopped working.
GROSS: Was that "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?"
KOHAN: That was "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
GROSS: Was that a fun show to write for?
KOHAN: No. It was a really...
KOHAN: It was a really fun set. The cast was lovely. The writer's room was wildly dysfunctional and I was the only girl. And it was a time in LA, you know, around the riots. In Farrakhan rallies, I got my nickname, you know, white, devil, Jew, bitch, which, you know, I hold dear.
KOHAN: And it was a rough entrance to the business, but, you know, I was in.
GROSS: Has being a woman made your rise in television any more challenging - do you think - than it would have been?
KOHAN: It's hard to say. You know, I've always worked and I think I have a talent for it. And whenever things didn't work out, I wrote something new and I wrote something new and I kept plugging. I was often the only girl in the room - which is hard. You know, they talk about how few women there are in the business, whatever. But, you know, it's because we don't have a farm team. There's not a lot of women being developed. You're one in this sea of men. But I've also been really blessed. You know, I've worked pretty steadily for 20 years or more - 23 years. But I think a lot of that is just I'm not very good at taking no for an answer and if you don't like this how about that or that or that? I keep, you know, buying lottery tickets.
GROSS: In the days when you were in the writer's room and you were the only woman in it, did you have to ever say, no, that's like really incredibly sexist or stereotype - you just can't, you can't say that, you can't give that dialogue or that plot twist?
KOHAN: No. It was never about gender, particularly. It was just you can't say that because that's lame or untrue or, but in terms of being offensive, that's a line I cross often, so I never pull that punch. I'm not there to be cop, to be gender police. And what offends me more than something sexist is something poorly written or unfunny or cliched.
GROSS: Jenji Kohan, congratulations on the success of the series and thank you so much.
KOHAN: My pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Jenji Kohan speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Kohan created the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black.” Its second season is now available for streaming. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews “The Fault In Our Stars.” This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.