The Dark Comedy of Jenji Kohan
By Wil Forbis
Years ago, I worked at a car wash in Seattle. It was my first full-time job and it was something of a hum-dinger*. Not because of the work itself, which was relatively mundane, but because of the people I encountered there. Employees of the wash were largely poor and came from a wide variety of races and cultures. Blacks, Hispanics, some Asians (Vietnamese and Cambodians) and plenty of what would be called poor white trash were all thrown together into a mix. This resulted in some tension, though not as much as you might think, and a lot of, well, laughs. These were disparate groups with disparate ways of talking and looking at the world and the resulting interactions could be quite funny. I remember thinking that, were I a TV producer, I would love to make a show about life at the wash.
*A detailed account of this experience can be found here.
Of course, I never made that show. Had I gone on to become a successful TV producer I certainly wouldn’t waste my time writing for a web site like this; I’d be too busy sexually harassing actresses.
There is someone who took the observation that cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions are funny and turned it into television gold. That person is television writer/producer Jenji Kohan, the instigator behind the now defunct Showtime show “Weeds” and the current Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black.” Each show is unique in its specific plot but driven by the same general premise: a relatively affluent white woman is thrown into close proximity with what we call the underclass: poor Blacks, Hispanics, whites and a variety of other types who often end up working at car washes.
In the hands of a television newbie this sociological exploration would have easily fallen flat on its face (and to be fair, it sometimes does on both shows). But Kohan, a native Los Angeleno who went to Beverly Hills High, cut her teeth in TV comedy for years before developing her own projects. While working her way up the ladder as a comedy writer she generated jokes for successful nineties sitcoms such as “Friends,” “Mad About You,” and “Sex in the City. (Her brother, David, co-created the show “Will & Grace.”) With that experience under her belt, she was free to explore her interest in the comedy and drama that result when people of different cultures come into contact with each other. As Kohan puts it, “I’m fascinated by people interacting with the Other—forced to interact with people they’d never have to deal with in their day-to-day lives.” ()
Weeds, which ran on the Showtime network from 2005 – 2012, was her first pass. The show follows the adventures of Nancy Botwin, an approaching-middle-aged MILF who is forced by circumstance to get into the marijuana trade. (This is back when the drug was still illegal in California.) At first she attempts to keep her vocation a secret but soon sucks in several family and acquaintances including her two sons, her brother-in-law, her accountant, and her neighbor and number one frenemy, Celia. The drug business lures these affluent white people deeper and deeper into an underworld populated with racial minorities and the underclass (Kohan’s “the Other”) and comedy—sometimes profound, sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes imperfect—results.
In many ways, “Weeds” was the prototype for a much more critically acclaimed show that came soon after it: Breaking Bad. In both shows, a “good” character is forced into the drug trade by personal tragedy. (In Breaking Bad, protagonist Walt gets cancer and begins to manufacture crystal meth; in “Weeds” Nancy’s husband dies of a heart attack leaving the family without a breadwinner.) Both shows also follow a character arc that reveals that the protagonist may not have been such a good person after all. (Or, perhaps more pessimistically, they reveal that any person faced with difficult circumstances has the potential to go bad.)
“Weeds” was much more of a comedy than Breaking Bad (though it probably deserves the categorization “dramedy”). As it zoomed in on Walt’s dark descent Breaking Bad only occasionally cracked a smile but “Weeds” was more than happy to spread the laughs while Nancy—ever sucking on a straw poking out of an iced cappuccino—got more and more “gangsta.” While travelling her path she too easily fell into the world of African-American drug hustlers (like season two’s U-Turn), Hispanic gangbangers (like season three and four’s Guillermo), biker gangs and more.
“Weeds” was also a show that was willing to “go there.” As television viewers we’ve all gotten used to a certain expected code of conduct on the part of our small screen protagonists. The occasional anti-hero may pop up, but for the most part, the characters we are rooting for are good guys. On Weeds, however, Nancy and her clan were seemingly celebrated as they engaged in more and more outrageous and immoral behavior. For the most part, horrifying events like deaths, mutilations, corruptions and humiliations (including toe sex and masturbating to images of one’s mother) were often played for laughs*. And, being that I’m a rather dark soul, laugh along I did.
*This is not to say the show never offered a stern look at such activities, but such moments were rare.
The most obvious fault of “Weeds” was that it was guilty of the standard, liberal contempt for the religious, conservatives and members of the military, the majority of whom were played as unrealistically naïve buffoons or hate-filled blowhards. Such stereotyping gave a feeling on unreality to the proceedings, as if these characters existed merely as punch lines. The show was produced during the Bush years, so maybe the writers felt like they were a plucky minority fighting the good fights, but as you watch it now you soon realize the show is exactly the sort of thing people who voted for Trump were rebuking.
For all its pleasures, “Weeds” was a show with some rough edges. But Kohan clearly learned from the experience and her next project, “Orange is the New Black” is more refined. The show, derived from a non-fiction memoir, centers on the character of Piper Chapman, a middle class, white New Yorker whose decades-in-the-past lesbian affair with a drug dealer catches up to her. Because of Piper’s small role in the drug enterprise, she is arrested and sentenced to a short stint in a women’s prison. Again we have the fish out of water element as Piper comes into contact with a wide range of female prisoners, drawn from a variety of races and backgrounds.
“Orange” is much more of an ensemble piece than “Weeds” and it often feels like Piper is the least interesting character. The sub-groups of characters within the show are largely divided by race, so we follow the dramas and pitfalls of life for a group of Hispanic women, Black women and various groups of poor white women. Into this mix are thrown the mostly male prison guards and administrators. While the racial divide contributes to some of the tension on the show, so does sexuality, and homosexual and trans characters are prominent.
“Orange” has more drama and less comedy than “Weeds” though it definitely has funny moments. It’s also a less cynical show. While the characters on “Weeds” were engaging, they also had a throaway quality. But you find yourself rooting for the women of Orange, and you can have your heart pierced when various tragedies, including death, befall them.
Both shows have various components to their comedy, but the one most interesting to me, as I’ve indicated, is race relations. For some reason, it’s just funny to see a privileged white women participate in a drive by. And for that matter it’s funny to see a straight up gangbanger uncomfortably try and act white. (Though there are some problems with this type of comedy that I’ll get to in a minute.)
So why are such scenes funny? In think it gets to the fact that much of humor is about breaking predictions or expectations. Take a classic joke like “Why do firemen wear red suspenders?” We ponder this, puzzling over the “red” part. When we hear the punchline, “to keep their pants up”, we realize we’ve been tricked; our expectations were incorrectly steering us to focus on color. That jolt—the rug getting pulled out from under us—is funny.
We also have expectations of characters. We presume they will act a certain way, and say and do certain things while not saying and doing other things. These expectations are based on a variety of factors in which race, class, gender and sexuality are prominent. In setting up situation where disparate groups are forced to interact with each other—the drug trade and prison—Kohan’s characters have to break these expectations. White characters have to “act Black” in certain circumstances, in order to lubricate social interaction. Or straight characters come face to face with gays in ways they never would in “the real word.” (Perhaps the most comical of Kohan’s scenarios involves a gay, East Indian man on “Weeds” who impregnates and has to raise a child with a street-smart Black prostitute.)
To some degree, both shows’ racial interactions have a Kumbaya quality; they try to highlight fact that we’re not really all that different from each other. But there is also an element of white wish fulfillment at work. I think lots of middle class, white folk (e.g. Kohan and the kinds of people who make or watch these shows, like me) would love to interact with Blacks, Hispanics and other “dangerous” minorities with no element of fear. Since it’s unlikely they(we) are going to walk into a Compton drug den or go to prison, they have to live vicariously through Nancy Botwin and Piper Chapman. Both shows ultimately exist to serve that audience and that purpose*.
* That’s not completely true or fair. I think both shows go out of their way to give non-white viewers relatable characters. But it’s mostly true.
But it’s unfair to ask television to be perfect when it comes to dealing with issues of race and class. What makes both “Weeds” and Orange stand out is that they even try. For much of my youth—the eighties and nineties—television comedies were loath to even go near such hot button topics. (While I was never a giant fan, “Rosanne” was an obvious exception). Kohan deserves kudos for attempting to merge these topics into a comedy setting and not in a “now we pause the laughs to deliver a finger wagging sermon” kind of way. We can laugh while we learn, so to speak.
What comes out of both shows is something that struck me back while working at the car wash” It’s not actually all that difficult for us to all get along. Maybe it is when viewed at the large scale of history, bit moment to moment… not so much. I don’t expect that observation to suddenly cure all of the world’s racial woes, but it’s a start.What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - email@example.com
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.