Years before Jenji Kohan became a successful television writer and producer, her boyfriend at the time made the mistake of telling her she'd have a better chance of getting elected to Congress than landing a job in TV.
“That just incensed me,” Kohan recalls. “I was furious.”
The slight roused an already pronounced defiant streak: she dumped the boyfriend and launched herself into the television business.
A decade and a half later, that defiant streak is evident in her provocative hit series Weeds, which begins its third season on Showtime this week. The dark comedy about a suburban widow turned pot dealer has established Kohan, 38, as a creator of unconventional and uncompromising television.
When her boyfriend made that fateful remark, Kohan was an aimless Columbia graduate. She decided to quit “all her crappy little jobs” and immerse herself in the world of TV comedy.
Although her father, Buz Kohan, is an Emmy-winning comedy writer on musical and variety shows including The Carol Burnett Show and numerous Academy Awards telecasts, he refrained from helping his daughter so as to avoid the whiff of nepotism. So Kohan began by writing a couple spec scripts for the Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. A friend's father, who worked in the same building as an agent, pressed the scripts upon the unsuspecting agent in the elevator. Before long, she had landed her first job as a staff writer on the sitcom.
An “outlaw show”
After taking several months off to backpack through Nepal, Kohan wrote a spec script for Frasier. “I thought, Well, OK, this isn't out of my system,” she says.
She went on to writing jobs for Mad About You, Tracey Takes On (for which she won an Emmy in 1996), Boston Common and Gilmore Girls.
Hoping to avoid a career devoted to copying the voice of others, she embarked on the grueling pilot treadmill. My Wonderful Life, a romantic comedy starring Ally Walker, and The Stones, with Judith Light and Robert Klein as a divorced couple still living under the same roof, were quickly relegated to the TV scrap heap. Then Kohan decided to write her “outlaw show.”
When Weeds premiered on Showtime in August 2005, it quickly raised the premium channel's original-programming profile, generating buzz for both its illicit subject matter and the inspired performances of stars Mary Louise Parker, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Nealon and Tonye Patano. (The third season premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m. ET.)
In a business where few enjoy autonomy, Kohan has managed to maintain the integrity of her vision for Weeds, refusing to soften some of the shows' harder edges. That singular focus was immediately apparent to Kevin Beggs, president of programming and production at Lionsgate, which produces the show.
“Jenji has proven to be exactly what she was in our first meeting: unflinchingly uncompromising,” he says. “She is not a conformist. She is not interested in people liking her or giving her their approval.”
That sense of assuredness comes from growing up in a household of writers (her mother, Rhea, is a novelist), where dinner-table banter was a ruthless joke-off—only truly inspired one-liners were passable and Kohan's two older brothers were unsparing. “It was a tough room,” she laughs. “They were older and faster and funnier and really hard on me if I wasn't keeping up.”
Although she and her brother David Kohan, one of the creators of Will & Grace, decided to follow in their father's footsteps, her parents never encouraged it. “We were supposed to be professionals, lawyers, doctors, and have a stable career,” she says, “or I was supposed to marry well.”
But even Kohan's marriage has a TV connection. Her husband, Christopher Noxon, a former speechwriter and journalist, is the brother of Marti Noxon, who produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is now behind ABC's Brothers & Sisters and the upcoming Grey's Anatomy spin-off, Private Practice.
After the two met through their kickball league, Noxon proposed to her by putting the ring inside a kickball. They have three children, Charlie, 7, Eliza, 5 and Oscar, 2. (Noxon is also the music supervisor on Weeds.)
Predictably, the success of Weeds means Kohan often fields questions about her own experience with marijuana, which, as it turns out, is rather limited.
“It's not my drug,” she laughs. “I'm much too much of a control freak. Given the choice, I'd much rather have been an amphetamine girl.”
Although her brother John had a marijuana plant growing in the closet, her parents never sat their children down for the say-no-to-drugs talk.
“They knew the kind of kid I was,” she says. “I was a paranoid compulsive. [Drugs were] not going to be my problem. They would have much preferred that I lost weight.”
An uncompromising spirit
That's not to say that Kohan's mother is the model for Perkins' character on Weeds, the cruel, acid-tongued Celia Hodes.
“My mother is not horrible like Celia,” says Kohan, whose character mercilessly needles her plus-size daughter, Isabelle, calling her “Isa-belly” and replacing the girl's secret chocolate bar stash with laxatives. “My mother is deeply funny and very loving and not cold.”
Still, Kohan adds, her mother has betrayed a certain sympathy for the character: “There's a lot of, 'I feel bad for Celia. Why can't good things happen for Celia?'”
But it's safe to assume that Kohan isn't going to listen to her mother—or anyone else—about her characters' personal journeys. And largely thanks to the success of her uncompromising vision, Showtime has pursued an ambitious slate of new originals, including The Tudors and the forthcoming Californication, which premieres on the heels of the Weeds season opener.
“I think in many ways, and in the best sense, Jenji is a contrarian,” says Beggs. “I also think there's a little bit of the younger sister in her, who maybe wasn't getting all the focus or the attention and so she has more to prove.”