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.
Smith launched his online storytelling site, SMITH Magazine, as well as the Six-Word Memoir project, in 2006. The six-word conceit was inspired by a micro-story supposedly penned by Hemingway: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The concept has since expanded to fill several compilations of life stories. (Smith has also partnered with the Forward.)
“I’m an immersive journalist, so everyone expected me to be writing things about that experience,” Smith said. “But it’s ultimately her story. “ Not that Smith objects to the shuffling of real-life chronology. “It’s an adaptation; it’s not real life,” Smith said. “It makes for good drama to have the Larry character struggling.” Placing the Modern Love piece in the middle of the action, Smith said, “was a little bit of brilliance.”
Larry Bloom is not that likable a guy. Though he begins as a supportive, if nervous, boyfriend, by the end of the series his character feels extraneous to the engrossing storylines playing out in the prison, literally locked out of the action.
“Larry is a weak point because this isn’t his story,” said Myles McNutt, a television critic who covered “Orange Is the New Black” extensively for The A.V. Club. “The whole narrative of the series is Piper discovering this world is more complicated than she imagines, which Larry can neither experience nor understand. I think we’re supposed to find Larry selfish.”
Critics have zeroed in on the portrayal of Larry and his parents as one of the weaker links on the show. “They fit every stereotype of Jewish parents that film and television and culture have exposed me to,” McNutt said. Nor are the Blooms of the Netflix series particularly enamored with, as Larry jokingly describes her, their son’s “felonious former lesbian WASP shiksa.”
In reality, Smith’s parents were hugely supportive of Smith and Kerman. “It’s a very Jewish thing,” Smith said. “We tend to be anxious and panicky about nothing — the soup’s too cold — but for the big milestones, they’re there.” Both Kerman and Smith’s parents encouraged the publication of her memoir.
Before the show premiered on Netflix, Smith and Kerman warned their parents of the discrepancy between their characters and real life. (For instance, on the show Piper gets reinvolved with her drug-dealing ex-girlfriend, who is in the same prison.) “There was a lot of pre-parental maintenance,” Smith said, recalling the time that he and Kerman broke the news of her upcoming incarceration to his folks in signature six-word style: “Bad news, but it’s not cancer.”
“Piper is really a very private person,” Smith said. “She wrote this story partially as a way into all these other stories.” Kerman’s memoir touches on the sheer diversity of prison inmates — from the stern Russian immigrant who runs the kitchen to a transsexual felon who styles hair in exchange for goodies from the commissary. And Smith’s background provided encouragement to his wife. “My whole life mission is to help other people tell their stories publicly,” Smith said. Still, “it’s hard to have this as a public thing. Some families might be embarrassed.”
Smith agrees that the Bloom family on the television show is “a little overbearing.” But he disagrees with critics who find their portrayal to be offensive or anti-Semitic. In an article for The Daily Beast titled “Does ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Have a Jewish Problem?” Sigal Samuel points to one particular scene in which Larry attempts to get Piper out of solitary confinement by threatening a lawsuit from his father. “What emerges from this scene… is a continuation of the stereotype of the modern American Jew, who is understood as a powerful and intimidating bully.”
For Smith, that doesn’t jibe. “If someone you love was in trouble, unfairly or not, wouldn’t you use everything you had in your arsenal?” he asked. “What Jew or Christian or Muslim wouldn’t? No one will accuse me of not being a little bit touchy. I’m the first person to complain. But I didn’t see how it’s a Jewish issue. “
And the success of the show — it was renewed for a second season before it even debuted — also sneakily illuminates problems with America’s prison system. “First and foremost, it’s good TV,” Smith said. “As a really nice benefit, it raises awareness of these issues.”
Smith has long distanced himself from his fictional counterpart. “It’s an out-of-body experience,” to watch Biggs and Schilling act out pieces of his life. “He becomes his own Larry.”
And of course, Smith has a six-word summary of the experience watching a version of his life play out on the screen: “With good hair, anything is possible.”
Margaret Eby is a staff reporter at The New York Daily News. She has written for Salon, Slate, The New York Times and other publications.