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Pamela Adlon on Better Things: “These are massive stories that I needed to tell”

Adlon (center) with Olivia Edward (right) in the Better Things pilot (Photo: Colleen Hayes/FX)
Adlon (center) with Olivia Edward (right) in the Better Things pilot (Photo: Colleen Hayes/FX)

In FX’s new half-hour series, Better Things, co-creator and star Pamela Adlon plays Sam, a working actor raising three daughters (played, in descending order of age, by Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward) in Los Angeles. It’s an autobiographical turn for the Emmy winner, brought to life in concert with the progenitor of the ongoing boom in comedic TV memoir: Louis CK, whose creative collaborations with Adlon stretch all the way back to HBO’s short-lived Lucky Louie. But the voice of the series is that of the performer who previously lent vocals to the likes of Bobby Hill (for which she took home the Emmy for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance in 2002) and Ashley Spinelli: a frank, gimlet-eyed perspective on parenting, relationships, aging, and working in a creative field, applied to a central setting (an all-female household, with grandma right around the block) that’s still a novelty even in the era of Peak TV. Following Better Things’ panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, The A.V. Club spoke with Adlon about the show’s inception and the allure of TV shows about families—with a brief interruption from her young co-stars.

The A.V. Club: What was the origin of Better Things?

Pamela Adlon: My life. It was easy for me to come up with ideas for Louie. I could pitch ideas to him all day long. Louie was the one who promoted me to [president of FX] John Landgraf when Landgraf said that he wanted to do a, you know, woman’s show. And Louie said, “Pamela,” and he told me, and I was like, “Are you fucking crazy? I can’t do that. I don’t have time to do that.” I was doing Californication at the time, I was doing Louie, and I was raising my daughters. So then we started talking about concepts for my show, and then finally it was time to start writing, and then we gave each other an assignment. A way that I like to do things is give an assignment but make it fun, or play a game and it gets me into the thing. So I said, “You write something, and I write something, and at the end of the day, we’ll call each other. We’ll read it to each other.” Which is how we get a lot of writing done. So Louie wrote a scene of me being at the park and coming home from a soccer game and there’s a kid in the car who nobody knows. And I wrote a scene with a girls’ night out with all my lady friends and then doing some stuff and that was totally the show. And he’s like, “This is the voice of your show.”

And so then I started writing scenes. I would be like, “Oh my God? Remember that time I went to the plastic surgeon for that consultation with my friend?”—writing a scene from a feeling that I had and being able to explore that feeling, and say “What if this actually happened?” And making myself sick, like, “I wish I would have done that, I wish I had done that,” and then being able to write that way—putting them together, making a pilot script, and then a full season eventually—it became linear somehow. I’m not really a person who loves things that are surreal or not grounded in real life or reality. I like that—I want to find something that I can relate to and then maybe do a little bit more and embellish. So I don’t even know if that’s what you asked me.

AVC: It is. It’s how the show started from, “This is a show about your life,” and becomes “This is a show about Sam and her family,” this fictionalized version of you and your life.

PA: That’s right. I kind of loosened up my feeling like, “I have to protect this,” and then I realized these are massive stories that I needed to tell. My youngest daughter would say, “Mom! You have to write this! Do you know the thing that happened, you remember that thing? You have to do that.” And the kids would start pitching their own things to me. And it really is a place for their voices to be heard and to talk about this kind of life that they really don’t see represented. Not since Bonnie Franklin in One Day At A Time.

AVC: That was actually one of the reference points I thought—

PA: Did I get there? Sorry. [Laughs.]

AVC: Well, the thought was, “This isn’t a family you usually see in a TV show.” Maybe you get a single mom with one school-age kid, like Gilmore Girls, but we still talk about One Day At A Time because it’s unique in that respect.

PA: Absolutely. Somebody else brought it up to me today, and I hadn’t thought about it, because that was a while ago, and I remember loving that show, but not really registering, “Whoa, this is a single mom.” It was just normal to me. I was a teenager. Now in retrospect, I’m like, she was a single mother raising two teenage girls and Schneider. Those are the things I remember. Did she shtup Schneider?

AVC: Schneider always wanted to shtup her, but it never happened. That was like basically his character.

PA: It’s true. But isn’t it funny—to me, I just thought it was cool or whatever. I loved that show as much as I loved watching Eight Is Enough. I was obsessed with Eight Is Enough and The Waltons. These white-bread families living these idyllic lives. That killed me. My family was a little unconventional. So I really feel like I’ve been raising my daughters in a very conventional way nobody would ever say is conventional. I believe in doing things together as a family, and that means the most. There are the most painful moments when you shove five people in a car together and say, “We’re going to see a drag show in Silver Lake,” which we did the other night, and everybody was freaking yelling at each other. Always worth it in the end. But painful.

AVC: Going back to the concept of families on TV: What do you think it is about family that makes a compelling subject for a TV show? One Day At A Time, Eight Is Enough, and The Waltons are different kinds of shows, but they’re each, at their core, about family.

PA: I think that I was drawn to family shows. I loved The Jeffersons—it was everything to me. Good Times, I was fascinated by, because they talked about things like abuse and poverty. I remember when Janet Jackson got her hand burned by the iron. And here’s a sitcom talking about something very, very dark. It was massive to me.

I feel like people need to be able to see themselves represented, see certain things happen, not feel like they’ve done something wrong. If you’re not being the best parent you can be, like when my kids were younger, and I used to compare myself to other moms, call them “robot moms.” They would just bake everything, and have everything done.

From L to R: Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward at the Better Things TCA panel (Photo: Frank Micelotta/FX)

[To her co-stars, who are passing by.] What?

Mikey Madison: I love you!

Hannah Alligood: I love you, Mom!

PA: Stop looking! [To Madison, Alligood, and Edward.] You guys: Find the English-y, Australian guy from You’re The Worst and bother him. Go up and say, all together at the same time, “Pamela from Better Things says, ‘Hi.’” Fun game!

[To The A.V. Club.] I’m sorry, what was I saying?

AVC: We were talking about dealing with real, honest human things on a show.

PA: Yeah, yeah. If you curse in front of your kids, is that the worst thing that happens? But I didn’t want that to be my show. I didn’t want to be a sensational, exploitive type of a show, where she’s a single mom, and she’s fucking all the time, and she’s smoking pot and whatever. To me, it’s more interesting that the kids curse at each other. I don’t think it’s interesting to hear adults cursing or whatever. Once in a while it happens, and you hope that they allow it. But my story isn’t about fucking a new guy every week, and she’s a hot single mom, and she’s divorced. It was important for me to talk about this woman, and these girls, and this woman being this age, and not the fact that she’s a divorcée. It’s not a part of it to me.

I have a dear friend who is one of the girl’s “guncles”—they have a lot of gay uncles, they come in and out—and he lived with us for a month last year or two years ago. He lives in New York. He said it’s amazing how you can feel [the girls’ father’s] presence and yet he is so not here. And that’s what it’s like to have an absentee parent. We touch on that a little bit in my show, but it’s not—just the through-line of the show is these women. But it’s not too vagina-y. That’s important for me.

AVC: Pivoting to your voice work real quick: What’s the one voice role you wish more people would ask you about? I would guess that you get asked about Bobby Hill all the time. Is there one role that’s very dear to you that you feel like you don’t get to talk about enough?

PA: God. I mean, there’s so many. I’m so lucky. I love all the Japanese overdubbing that I’ve done, like the Miyazaki movies. I love the Disney stuff that I did—Recess and Pepper Ann and Jungle Cubs, the stuff that I’m doing now. On Milo Murphy’s Law, Diedrich Bader and I play “Weird Al” Yankovic’s parents. It’s so fun. But everybody just kind of knows the whole scope of it.

That’s my bread and butter. I’m not getting paid for Better Things anymore. Are you fucking kidding me? My editor gets paid every week. I don’t.