Emmys: ‘Better Things’ Creator/Star Pamela Adlon on Being the Boss and Representing Her Daughters

Carrie Bell
Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in FX’s Better Things. (Photo: FX)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to June 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

Pamela Adlon is no stranger to the awards season rigmarole. After all, she’s been in showbiz since before she could drive, won an Emmy in 2002 for her King of the Hill voice-over, and was nominated in multiple categories in multiple years for Louie. But she’s the first to admit that just because this isn’t her first rodeo doesn’t mean she’s used to it.

“Oh God, no, it is always weird to feel like you are in competition with friends or people whose work you love and admire and to feel like your hard work is also being judged,” she tells Yahoo TV in a phone interview from Vancouver, where she has been filming Season 2 of FX’s Better Things. “That gives me massive amounts of anxiety. And if I think about putting on a dress, it gives me a heart attack. Forget it.”

This year is also extra anxiety-ridden because Better Things, which already scored a Peabody Award, is her baby. She’s the creator, executive producer, writer, director, and star. It’s also heavily based on her life as a sarcastic, exasperated, and bracingly honest single mom of three daughters trying to navigate the hustle of Hollywood, the trials of parenting, and the up-and-down adventure of dating and living in Los Angeles. “Every step of bringing this show to the screen has been personal,” she says, half-laughing and half-sighing. “No pressure, right?”

You’ve been making television since the ’80s. Did you ever expect to be the boss of your own series?
Oh God, no. I never thought I’d be here. I never thought I’d be running my own show and calling all the shots. It’s a huge, huge gift and also a massive responsibility. I’m just a working guy. I love the fact that I can work and create jobs for people and for myself and provide for my family. And to top it all off, we’re making good art. Hopefully.

Was it hard to be the one in charge?
It was a surprisingly natural transition for me because I’m a mom [who has] to make decisions for my kids and my family constantly. The one thing I learned is people would say, “We want to work with people who know what they want and have a vision.” There’s a reason they say it. That’s the biggest thing [because] if you’re indecisive, then the train comes to a complete full stop. If you know what you want and you can make decisions, then you keep moving forward and you can get over any obstacles and contingencies that come along the way.

So much has been said in the last couple of years about how woman lead, and questioning our abilities, especially at the top with the presidency, and it always seems like women are undervalued. But to me, being a parent, especially one who survived teenagers without murdering anyone, is perfect prep.
Yeah, that’s what I keep telling people. Being a single mom of three girls is the best boot camp you can have for doing this kind of work. It is like being a submarine captain. You have to make all these massive decisions when you’re 30 fathoms below the surface of the ocean. It’s probably easier at work because all of these people work for me and have to listen to me. My kids [laughs] not so much.

Women producers, directors, and showrunners are still somewhat rare, although that has changed a lot lately, especially in television. Do you still feel like the women-are-lesser vibe is present?
Oh, definitely. Definitely. Even me — I’m the boss of everybody — and I feel that man thing sometimes. It’s just a weird thing that there is in life. Not all the time, but some of the time for sure. We have to get through many more generations for it to be gone — that it’s not just, “Oh, she’s a woman” or whatever. You feel that weird misogynistic‑y thing, which is just really something that should be obsolete by now. And it’s not. We have to just keep doing it, keep telling our stories, and keep gaining ground until it is. We have to do that for all women, for our daughters.

Looking back at Season 1, and given hindsight is 20/20, is there anything from a line to a story arc to the dog you cast that you wish you could change? Why or why not?
I wouldn’t change a thing. And most of it was agony, adaptation, and agita. It led me to this moment where I am now. No matter how f**king sucky things could get. Except some things. Ha! Before it aired, I felt so good and confident. I thought, “Well, if five people watch this, then five people are going to love it.” I knew that we made something very special. To be able to do it again [for Season 2] and to be running the whole thing again is something I never thought would happen and something I am really proud of. Actually there were certainly things I would have changed, but in the end the journey is the reward and I have to say I am very happy with the end result.b

Between writing, directing, and acting, is any one of those jobs more challenging than the others for you?
All of it is challenging. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth it. I hate to be this busy. And I live to be this busy. I would say acting is the most challenging when you are trying to find the balance with managing all the other areas and rising up to the other actors around you. Writing is incredibly time consuming and painful, but the most rewarding considering I have the best writing partner in the world, Louis C.K. Directing is the easiest.

Was there a specific scene, arc, or guest star even that you believe represents peak Better Things?
Oh, yeah. Many. I pinch myself and I spin three times because there’s just been amazing triumphs — and huge challenges, like, always — but massive triumphs, visually. Some days, I’ll get acting chills from wonderful actors that I bring in, and other days, I get cinematic boners. Things [like] we scored so hard because the actor we put there, or the lights we threw up in the room, or an idea you get on the day. Other things are more mapped out and planned for months, and to see them come off and be executed well is humbling and amazing.

I feel like Louis [C.K.] and I had to do a massive rewrite on the episode called “Future Fever.” And now I’m in love with that episode. For me, the most perfect episode of the season was my finale, “Only Women Bleed.” It came off better than I could have ever anticipated. It’s just like a ballet with all these layers and levels. And another one called “Alarms,” which is the only one I got notes on, script-wise, from the network. I was able to stand by what was written, and it came out so well, and my network [was] happy. It’s just big scores all around.

Why do you and Louis C.K. work so well together?
We’ve been collaborating since Lucky Louie, which was like 11 years ago. One of the reasons he wanted to cast me in the show is because I was a mother of three girls. That was a bonus for him and for me as an actor. We started collaborating on stories and writing when I was doing that show. And then we wrote a pilot together that didn’t get picked up. When he got the deal at FX to make Louie, he said, “I’m going to make you a producer on the show.” And we started working and writing together on that. We have a similar psyche and sense of humor and way of looking at life and the world. It just works.

What does the actual process look like? Do you write together in a room, or work separately and then run stuff past each other?
Both of those things happen. Sometimes, we get to sit in a room together, which is the best [because] it is when we can do the most work. Sometimes we just write and send each other pieces and scripts and scenes. Then we get on the phone and read them out loud. It’s a collaboration like any other. We wait for each other. We don’t say no to each other’s ideas. We listen to them and we ruminate with them. We throw things out even if we think the other person is going to like it. And when something sticks, we run with it.

Just how true-to-life is the show?
There was a lot that was autobiographical in the show. Just little stories and details that I’ve been collecting for a long time, which enhanced all the storylines. There’s a lot that’s fictional as well. But it doesn’t matter because, at the end of the day, people are watching it and assuming, “Oh, she did that. Oh, that happened to her. She did that to her kids or whatever.” [Some dialogue] is taken verbatim from my life and some is made up. It doesn’t matter. It all goes into the pot, and it becomes the piece that I’m giving.

I have to know about the scene where you nicely sit the boyfriend down in the closet to talk sense about sex with your oldest. True story?
Well, it wasn’t a closet. It was like an office in my house. But kind of, yes, that exact thing happened.

When we chatted last year before the show premiered, you said that your daughters were trying to always figure out which character they were. How did they like the final product?
My youngest daughter was in the editing room with me most of the summer, so she was seeing how everything played out. My two older daughters like to watch the show roll out in real time on television. They’re all incredibly proud of me and they’re proud that my show gives them a voice. It gives their friends a voice, because all of my daughters’ friends are like my children. They love it. They feel like they’re being represented. I don’t feel there are any negative things. It’s just telling stories.

Does the show ever make you reconsider how something played out in real life?
You always think you can do something different. That’s the great gift of doing a show like this, because I can redo something in my show. I can say what I should have said. Everyone says, “Oh, if I’d only done that. Or what if I did do that?” I get to play it out.

Do the Emmys ever cross your mind when making or watching the show? Or when good reviews start rolling in?
For me, personally, I don’t think about any of that. I can’t. I just want to keep working and make the best show that I can make. And that’s not my lookout at all. That would give me massive amounts of anxiety.

Is there a show or a person that you love, that you see as your biggest competition?
There are so many shows that are great and that I admire. I can’t believe that we’re in the same category with certain shows, like the year Louie won the Writers Guild Award when we were up against my friends at Silicon Valley and Jill Soloway’s show [Transparent]. It’s too grand of a thought that you’re all competing with each other. I’d rather think we’re all adding to great television, hopefully. That’s all it is.

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