If you ask Larry Smith how he would describe his relationship with his now-wife, Piper Kerman, while she was serving a 15-month sentence in a federal correctional facility in Connecticut, his answer will be a succinct six words: “Our prison visitations were surprisingly romantic.”
The pioneer of the Six-Word Memoir project, which collects highly abbreviated biographies from people across the world, Smith is an expert at coaxing stories out of others. Now, his own story — or at least a version of it — is being told on television. Smith is the inspiration for Larry Bloom, the hapless, underemployed fiancé of inmate Piper Chapman, on the Netflix series ”Orange Is the New Black,” based on his wife’s memoir of her time in the clink.
Smith recalled awaiting the casting decisions on the show with curiosity.
“I just was thinking, ‘I don’t want to be Ben Stiller,’” Smith remembered. “My dad and I both wanted to be cast as George Clooney.” Instead, just before the news became official, a friend of Smith’s texted him a photo of “American Pie” actor Jason Biggs, who had been cast to play Smith’s alter-ego. “My reaction was: ‘That s—t is funny,’” Smith said. “I find it to be inspired.”
In fact, Smith and Biggs had crossed paths before. For his book, “Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life,” published long before casting for “Orange Is the New Black” began, Smith solicited a submission from Biggs. (Though Biggs isn’t Jewish, he often plays Jewish characters.) It read: “This is a Roman nose, okay?”
The Netflix series follows the quotidian prison dramas of Piper, played by actress Taylor Schilling. Like Smith’s wife, Kerman, Piper served in a minimum-security facility for her involvement in a drug-smuggling ring during her post-college relationship with a lesbian drug dealer. But the show, developed by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, diverges fairly quickly from Kerman’s memoir, and thus from Smith and Kerman’s real-life experience of her incarceration.
Yes, Smith really did propose to Kerman on a beach after he learned that she was going to jail. And he did indeed produce a ring from a Ziploc bag, like Larry does when he asks Piper to marry him. (“I would have it on YouTube, but it didn’t exist at the time,” Smith joked.)
But on the television show, Larry is a struggling writer, forced to ask his affluent Manhattanite parents for help with his rent money. At one point, Larry gets a big break, penning a Modern Love column for The New York Times and going on a “This American Life”-style show to talk about visiting his fiancé in prison, stirring up difficulties for Piper in the cell block. (Larry’s radio broadcast manages to gravely insult Piper’s bunkmate, Claudette, as well as destroy a fragile allegiance Piper had formed with an inmate nicknamed “Crazy Eyes.”)
Actually, at the time of his fiancé’s incarceration, Smith was already an established journalist, with gigs at AlterNet and Yahoo! under his belt, as well as a stint editing a magazine alongside Dave Eggers in the 1990s. While Kerman was serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., Smith started working as an articles editor at Men’s Journal, the kind of job that Larry doesn’t seem likely to snatch up anytime soon. While Smith did write a Modern Love story about his visits to Kerman, it wasn’t until 2010, just before the publication of her memoir.