Smoking the stereotypes: Weeds creator delights in tipping over Judaisms sacred cows

Unlike most Hollywood writers, Jenji Kohan got her creative education at the family dinner table, where there was a subtle but largely predetermined, genetic imperative to write.

On any given night, those present included her Emmy-winning writer father, her acclaimed novelist mother and her quick-witted older twin brothers, each ready to one-up the last funny line spoken. In the Kohan household, peer pressure at school was a cinch; making the parents laugh was the more daunting challenge.

“Our dinner table was a really rough room,” said Kohan, the writer-creator of Showtime’s hit series “Weeds,” which began its fifth season on June 8.

 “I have a really distinct memory of my brother telling fart jokes at the table, and my parents turning to him and saying, ‘Honey, fart jokes are funny, but it’s an easy laugh, and you can do better.’ We had to be more complex in our language.”

Years later, after some time working in television, Kohan considered rabbinical school. But none of those whims proved as powerful as her (very Jewish) birthright, which led her to creating the darkly comic satire “Weeds.” And now, like her father, she is an Emmy-winning writer.

“Weeds” follows the widowed, single mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), who becomes her community’s dope dealer in order to support her bourgeois lifestyle.

Neither the show nor Kohan fit any classic stereotype. In Kohan’s suburbia, the seduction of drugs, political corruption, adultery and Oedipal issues far overshadow the grim realities of PTA meetings and carpools.

That “Weeds” also has some of the most original Jewish themes and characters on television today is a testament to Kohan’s dynamic approach to Judaism. If the most subversive mother ever imagined can be the show’s hero, then a Jewish character could be virtually anything.

Mary-Louise Parker stars as pot dealer Nancy Botwin in photo/showtime/sonja flemming“Weeds.”

“There are no boundaries,” Kohan said of her portrayal of Jewish characters. “I think it’s actually a little patronizing to lump all Jews or Jewish characters and have them represent everybody.”

Kohan could be the Jewish girl next door. But there is edginess to her — her hair perpetually tousled, and she always wears eyeglasses with art-deco glamour.

Kohan was born and raised in Beverly Hills. Her father, Buz Kohan, a frequent writer for the Academy Awards, among other gigs, is the recipient of 11 Emmys in a career that spans five decades. Her mother, Rhea Kohan, is a novelist, and her eldest brother, David, is a creator of the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace.”

Kohan worked for her brother on “Will & Grace” during her leaner years, but decided his humor was too tame. “David took the big, commercial, funny route; I was always a little darker personally,” she explained, “and not terrific within the system. I had to make my own way.”

It makes sense that an irreverent, unorthodox mind like Kohan’s could conjure the quirky palette of Jewish characters that populate “Weeds.”

They include Nancy’s deceased husband, Judah (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a hunky heartthrob who appears in dreams and home videos, as well as his brother, Andy (Justin Kirk), a slacker who cuts a fine figure (and posthumously competes with his dead brother’s sexual legacy) and has a ferocious wit. Andy’s shining Jewish moment came in season two, when he enrolled in rabbinical school in order to dodge military service in Iraq. At the yeshiva, he takes up with Yael, a pretty Israeli who works in admissions and with whom he engages in a sex act lewd enough for Showtime to intervene.

Season four introduced Nancy’s Jewish relatives. When the Botwins flee the smoldering burbs, they hide at “Bubbe’s house” where, upon arrival, they discover 95-year-old Bubbe Botwin, comatose and hooked up to a ventilator. The only person looking after Bubbe is her son, Lenny (Nancy’s former father-in-law, played by Albert Brooks). In addition to hating all non-Jews everywhere, Lenny is money obsessed and self-interested in all the worst ways — after he gives the green light to kill Bubbe, he plays the concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm in the lottery.

Kohan is married to freelance journalist Christopher Noxon, with whom she has three children. And although Noxon isn’t Jewish, and doesn’t plan to convert, the couple made the choice to raise their children Jewish.

Above all, Kohan is an entertainer. She hates the thought of using her work to impose her values on other people. And she’s equally irked at the notion that, as a Jew, she bears some special responsibility for dispensing polite and polished Jewish characters.

“Why should a Jew be portrayed in some special light, as opposed to anyone else?” she said. “I don’t look to improve the image. I look to creating complicated, complex, interesting characters with flaws, warts and all. I don’t necessarily concern myself so much with, ‘Is it good for women? Is it good for the Jews?’ — these big macro concepts. I’m much more interested in the humanness of the people I’m creating.”