A lot of people have been binge-watching the new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, which is set in a minimum security women's prison.
The show's premise comes directly from a memoir of the same name: A white, middle-class woman named Piper, who graduated from a prestigious women's college, became involved romantically with a woman who was working for a drug ring. They traveled together on out-of-town business, and Piper agreed to carry a suitcase of drug money. She wasn't caught, but years later she was named in a drug conspiracy, convicted and sent to prison.
Beyond that basic premise, Orange's writers have created a fictionalized version of Piper's story, as well as fictional backstories for the inmates Piper is serving time with.
The memoir was adapted for Netflix by Jenji Kohan, who is also the showrunner, overseeing production of the series. Kohan also created the Showtime series Weeds. She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the show's close-knit cast, why she chose Netflix, and what draws her to stories about privileged white women and criminality.
On what drew her to Orange when she read it
"I'm always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other. There are very few crossroads anymore. We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it's a mosaic. There's all these pieces, they're next to each other, they're not necessarily mixing. And I'm looking for those spaces where people actually do mix — and prison just happens to be a terrific one."
On stories about privileged white women and criminality
"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 Latina 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 of 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 networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful."
On using flashbacks as narrative device
"When you're writing a show, [it] 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 and wear some actual clothes, as opposed to uniforms. The bonus of that was that 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 what they're displaying in this extreme situation."
On her close-knit cast
"The wealth of talent in this pool has been remarkable. The women that Jen Euston, our casting director, has brought in are so talented, and the bench goes so deep. Like Crazy Eyes, who is one of the real breakout characters on the show — I think [actress Uzo Aduba was] No. 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. It's kind of been a love-fest on the set."
On why she chose Netflix as a distribution channel
"I took it to HBO and Showtime and Netflix. And the greatest thing about going to Netflix was that I pitched it in the room, and they ordered 13 episodes without a pilot. That's miraculous. That is every showrunner's dream, to just 'go to series' and have that 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."
On how she started writing
"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 my entire career is, 'Well, screw you.' And we broke up. And then I started writing. ... I quit all of my crappy odd jobs, and I moved in with [a friend who] was living in Santa Cruz. And every day we would 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. ... 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. And it took off from there, and I never stopped working."
On Orange's Ira Glass-like character
"I'm a huge Ira Glass fan; I'm a huge fan of radio in general. I don't have a whole lot of time to watch TV, but I'm a big podcast listener, a big radio listener and a fangirl to a certain extent. ... [But] in terms of storytelling, we wanted a way for all of the prisoners to be able to experience [Piper's fiance's] betrayal. He's sort of co-opting her experience to make himself feel useful and special, and radio was a great way to do that. ... I find This American Life so compelling, and I engage on a very deep level with these stories, so I wanted that in our show — where everyone is quiet and listening."
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A lot of people have been binge-watching the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," which is set in a minimum security women's prison. Yesterday we spoke with Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir it's based on. Today our guest is the creator of the Netflix adaptation, Jenji Kohan, who is also the showrunner overseeing the production of the series. Kohan previously created the Showtime series "Weeds."
The premise of the Netflix adaptation of "Orange is the New Black" comes directly from the memoir. A white middle-class woman named Piper, who graduated from a prestigious women's college, became involved romantically with a woman who was working for a drug ring. They traveled together internationally, and Piper agreed to carry a suitcase of drug money. She wasn't caught, but years later she was named in a drug conspiracy, convicted, and sent to prison.
But beyond the basic premise, the writers have created a fictionalized version of Piper's story, as well as fictional backstories for the inmates Piper is serving time with. Here's a scene from the first episode. Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, has just been taken into the prison and given her first bunk assignment. One her bunkmates, De Marco, played by Lin Tucci, introduces her to their other bunkmates and gives her the lay of the land.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
LIN TUCCI: (As Anita De Marco) Tell me your name again.
TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Piper. Chapman.
TUCCI: (As De Marco) That's Miss Rosa, and that's Nichols, uust go out of the shoe a week ago. Told the CO to kiss her ass. Dumb. Why make trouble for yourself, you know?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Shoe, that's solitary?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) Yup, and you don't want it, honey, trust me. Here's some toilet paper. You've got to take it with you.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Thanks. What's that thing?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) Oh, that's my machine. I need it at night. When I first got here, I had a massive heart attack. Do you know about the cot?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Wait, can you go back to the heart attack?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) I don't like to dwell.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) How do I make a phone call?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) You need a PAC number. Fill out a form, whole rigmarole. But maybe Caputo will let you make a call later. It helps if you cry. Don't make your bed.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) What?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) We'll make it for you.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Oh no, that's OK, you don't need to do that.
TUCCI: (As De Marco) Honey, we'll make the bed. We know how.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) I know how to make a bed.
TUCCI: (As De Marco) We know how to do it so we'll pass inspection. You can help clean. We clean everything with maxipads.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Seriously?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) Yup, that's a head-scratcher, but that's what we got.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) So we make our beds in the morning before they...
TUCCI: (As De Marco) No, you sleep on top of the bed with a blanket over you.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) What if I want to sleep in the bed?
TUCCI: (As De Marco) Look, you can do what you want, but you will be the only one in this entire prison that does. Do you want that? Be my guest.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Orange is the New Black." Jenji Kohan, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you first hear about the memoir that your series is adapted from?
JENJI KOHAN: My friend Sara(ph) sent me the book. She lives in Brooklyn and she actually knows Piper, and she sent me the book to take on vacation and said you're really going to like this, this is good for you. And she was absolutely right. I'm always looking for those places where you can slam really disparate people up against one another, and they have to deal with each other.
There are very few crossroads anymore. You know, we talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it's a mosaic. There's all these pieces that are next to each other. They're not necessarily mixing. And I'm looking for those spaces where people actually do mix, and prison just happens to be a terrific one.
GROSS: 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.
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: 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: 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: Again, I never go in thinking I want to cast black and Latina actresses. When I go into casting, it's just about, oh, who's going to inhabit this part and become this character? That said, the wealth of talent in this pool has been remarkable. The women that Jen Euston, our casting director, has brought in are so talented, and the bench goes so deep.
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.
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 mention 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 is - 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 TELEVISION PROGRAM, "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 (unintelligible) - 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. And I bumped into her at a party a few weeks later because she'd been in "Godspell" with Hunter Parrish, who was in "Weeds."
And I said oh, you're coming, you're going to be in the show. And she looked at me and she said, Really? I said, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, you're in, you're in. And we sort of built Crazy Eyes around her because I loved her face, and I loved her acting and I just, I found her truly compelling, and we kind of built this role around her.
GROSS: My guest is Jenji Kohan, the creator of the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jenji Kohan; she's the creator of the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," which is set in a women's prison. She also is the creator of the Showtime series "Weeds."
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 TELEVISION PROGRAM, "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: Another character I want to ask you about, and there's a character who is a very heavy and very butch lesbian who is played by Lea DeLaria, who is a very butch lesbian, who is known as a comic and also a singer; she's, you know, recorded albums of her singing, and she's done some acting work. I think she briefly even had her own series, but she hasn't been in a lot of stuff. So how did you cast her?
KOHAN: You know, we - again, we put out a call for Big Boo, you know, heavyset lesbian. I think it was very reductionist. And Lea came in...
GROSS: I love these casting call things. It's like here's the stereotype, come on in.
KOHAN: Right, right, and see what you bring, make it interesting. And she - there's such a charm and a confidence to Lea, and she's funny and she game, and you know, Boo was a very small part, and she's growing because it's so much fun to play with Lea.
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. And she brings so much to it, and she can play physical comedy, and she can fall apart, and she can land a joke, and she can change attitude, and it was such a relief and an exciting moment.
I feel like she's kind of unicorn, and we found her.
GROSS: Jenji Kohan will be back in the second half of the show. She created the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." Here's the show's theme song, written and performed by Regina Spektor. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jenji Kohan, the creator of the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," which is set in a women's prison.
All 13 episodes were simultaneously made available on Netflix. Kohan is currently shooting the second season. She also created the Showtime series "Weeds." Earlier in her career, she won an Emmy for her work on the Tracey Ullman series, "Tracey Takes On." As we'll hear, she's from a TV family.
"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.
GROSS: So, you know, I've been watching some stuff on Netflix and here's my reaction. There's part of me that loves you're done with one episode, the next episode automatically starts. You have to tell it to stop...
GROSS: ...otherwise like, you're into the next episode.
GROSS: And it's fun to have your curiosity about what happens next immediately satisfied. And when you're into a series, it's fun to be able to keep watching it. At the same time, there's something I really lack about having like my favorite Sunday night show.
GROSS: And I look forward to like, nine o'clock or 10 o'clock on Sunday because I'm going to find out what happens next and it's my hour to just sit in front of the TV and relax and enjoy it. And it's preordained, you know, it's arranged for me.
KOHAN: Right. Well, it's - yeah.
GROSS: This is going to be your hour. And so those are my trade offs. Tell me what yours are...
KOHAN: I mean it really - yeah.
GROSS: ...as a show runner?
KOHAN: It really is a double-edged sword. Part of me misses that sense of anticipation and I really miss the sense of community that you can build when everyone's watching at the same pace...
KOHAN: ...and you can just discuss what happened last week and anticipate together. On the other hand, how often in life do you get just what you want when you want it? There's something very satisfying. And then flipping back again, there's this gluttony aspect to it and I spent a year of my life making the show and if someone watches it in the night and says, where's more? I want more.
KOHAN: And you want to pull your hair out.
KOHAN: So there are trade-offs. But I think Pandora's Box is open and we're not necessarily going back, so, you know, onward.
GROSS: So there are certain conventions of television that still seem to apply to Netflix, even though Netflix isn't television. For instance, each episode starts with like the theme song and the credits - which is really important on television when you are coming right after another show or maybe you're new to the show and you need the theme and it kind of reorients - it puts you back into that mental space, which you don't necessarily need if you're watching episodes in a row. So had you thought about when you were shooting "Orange is the New Black" - had you thought about whether there were certain like TV conventions that you didn't necessarily need on Netflix, or maybe you're thinking that "Orange" will eventually end up on television so you better have those conventions?
KOHAN: Well, financially certainly, I hope it...
GROSS: You hope it ends up on television.
KOHAN: I hope it gets resold a million times.
GROSS: Right. OK.
KOHAN: When we started making it, I set out to just do a show like I know how to do a show and that I've been doing for a very long time. I wasn't thinking as much about this new format, I was just trying to craft really solid episodes. What was nice was flexibility in length. We could be anywhere from 54 minutes to an hour, depending on the episode. I love an opening title sequence. I love the song that Regina wrote for us. I love...
GROSS: It's really good.
KOHAN: I love the faces.
KOHAN: Yeah. I love the faces of those women. So I enjoy it. And it kind of marks the beginning of a new piece of the story. You know, now that I have a little time to think about it, maybe there are some things we could do knowing how people will consume it in a chunk. Maybe we plant certain story, seeds earlier or think about how our ending relates to the beginning of the next episode more because people will be watching it right away. But making this first season, I was just trying to make good shows and I wasn't thinking about the form as much.
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 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, I, 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: My guest is Jenji Kohan, the creator of the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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.
KOHAN: It's his birthday today.
GROSS: Oh. Great. OK.
GROSS: And we're reporting this on Friday, August 9th.
KOHAN: Friday. That's right.
GROSS: 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 been 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: So right before I came into the studio to record this interview, I got midway through episode nine of "Orange is the New Black" and...
GROSS: ...I had just watched the scene where a character who seems clearly based on Ira Glass...
GROSS: ...who hosts a show that's clearly based on "This American Life," has entered and is at a little Thanksgiving dinner that Piper's fiance is at. And Piper is the main character. She's the one who's in prison and her boyfriend is trying to - she's just been put in - well, I shouldn't give away too much.
GROSS: But anyway, so, you know, I haven't seen what happens with this Ira Glass character yet, but what did you want to accomplish by - and I should mention that in the story, as you tell it, as in real life, when Piper's in prison, her boyfriend writes a piece for the New York Times about having a fiance in prison.
GROSS: And so he's already told part of her story.
GROSS: And, apparently, he'd like to tell more, and he'd like to tell it to this Ira Glass character. So what did you - I know you don't do a lot of advanced thinking, but really, what did you want to do by introducing this character into your story?
KOHAN: Well, a few things. First of all, I'm a huge Ira Glass fan. I'm a huge fan of radio in general. I don't have a whole lot of time to watch TV, but I am a big podcast listener, and radio listener and a fangirl, to a certain extent. And I actually asked Ira Glass if he would do it, and he politely declined.
GROSS: Oh, you're kidding. Really?
KOHAN: Yeah. But in terms of storytelling, we wanted a way for all the prisoners to be able to experience his betrayal, if you will. He's sort of co-opting her experience and - to make himself feel useful and special, and radio was a great way to do that. And you could just have this voice telling a story.
I find "This American Life" so compelling, and I engage on a very deep level with these stories. So I wanted that in our show, a sense of that, where everyone's quiet and listening. And he's saying things that he really shouldn't be saying.
GROSS: Not Ira, but the fiance.
KOHAN: Yeah, yeah. Larry.
GROSS: "Ira" in quotes. Right.
KOHAN: Yeah. And, you know, Ira's created an incredible model that I think has been interpreted and imitated in a lot of ways. And I guess it's our homage.
GROSS: Have you spoken to him since the shows have been released? Do you know what he thinks of it?
KOHAN: I have not. I hope he's not - I have not spoken to him. I hope he's not mad at me.
KOHAN: But, no, I haven't. I'd love to hear what he thinks.
GROSS: And casting him? Casting the actor who you have portraying the Ira Glass-inspired person?
KOHAN: Truthfully, we cast the guy who was best at it, but we did give him the glasses.
GROSS: They're not exactly Ira's glasses.
KOHAN: They're not exactly, but, you know, there's a flavor.
GROSS: So, as we speak, you are shooting season two of "Orange is the New Black." Is the structure going to be basically the same in season two, of prison scenes with flashbacks for different characters in each episode?
KOHAN: I think we're going to stick with that device, but we - we're trying to not have any rules. Given this freedom, we don't want to fall into a routine or fall into a pattern, because we don't have to. And if you're given this opportunity, you've got to take advantage of it. So there are certain elements that are consistent, but I want to try to play with the formula a little more in season two. We'll see how we do.
GROSS: Do you know when season two will be released?
KOHAN: You know, all they'll tell us is probably spring of 2014.
GROSS: Oh, that's not very far away, considering on television, you have to wait nearly at least a year, sometimes more, nowadays.
KOHAN: Oh, tell me about it.
KOHAN: Yeah. It's such a rush job right now. I haven't had time off between seasons.
GROSS: Jenji Kohan, thank you so much for talking with us. It's very generous of you to take some time out to talk with us while you're in the middle of shooting.
KOHAN: Oh, it's a treat.
GROSS: Glad to hear season two is already underway. And, you know, congratulations on the success of the series, and thank you so much.
KOHAN: My pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Jenji Kohan created the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." It's based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, who was our guest yesterday. You'll find a link to the Kerman interview on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by singer-songwriter Valerie June, which was coproduced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.