Pamela Adlon says 'Better Things' has been an exaggerated version of her life
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Today, Pamela Adlon, the co-creator, director, co-writer and star of the FX comedy series "Better Things." After five seasons, the series ended last month with an emotional and satisfying finale that left all its main characters in better circumstances. It also ended with a charming and eccentric farewell to viewers by having all cast members sing along to Monty Python's "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life." In "Better Things," Adlon played Sam Fox, who, like Adlon, is raising three girls as a single mother while trying to keep her acting career alive and also helping her aging mother who lives next door. Young actresses portray her character Sam's daughters on TV, but in real life, Pamela Adlon's daughters are now 19, 22 and 25 years old.
Adlon herself has been acting since she was 9. She won an Emmy for her voice work as Bobby Hill, the son in the animated series "King Of The Hill," and appeared on seven seasons of the TV series "Californication." She had a long, collaborative relationship with Louis C.K. on his show "Louie" and his earlier show "Lucky Louie." He and Adlon co-created her series "Better Things," but she severed ties after he was accused of sexual misconduct by several women, and he admitted it was true. Terry spoke with Pamela Adlon in 2019.
Let's start with a clip from "Better Things." Adlon's character, Sam, is being examined by her doctor when she starts telling him how stressed out she is by all the mom stuff she has to take care of. And he says, oh, like errands - just let go of it. Everyone's got errands. Here is her response.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER THINGS")
PAMELA ADLON: (As Sam Fox) No, no. Errands are, like, groceries and going to the post office, the real mom stuff.
USMAN ALLY: (As Dr. Babu) Yeah.
ADLON: (As Sam Fox) Soccer club sign-ups and dance classes and tutors and tuition payments and parent-teacher conferences and schools and camps that I have to get them into and mean girl issues with my youngest at school and birth control with my oldest and cruelty from my middle daughter. And then there's my own mom, who is driving me nuts. And I'm pretty sure she has a mental something disorder. And my middle daughter is hitting puberty hard. And I am definitely going through menopause, yet I still get my period. And I have a beard and two mortgages. So, yeah, Dr. Babu, it's, like - it's a lot. And some mornings, I just...
ALLY: (As Dr. Babu) Oh, my God.
ADLON: (As Sam Fox) ...You know, lay in bed in my room and I stare at the ceiling and I just say, I just can't do it anymore. I just can't. I just can't. I just can't. I can't. I can't. So anyway, could you please just give me some Xanax or Ativans or Ambiens or something - anything you think that'll help me get a full night's sleep? - because that's what I really need, Birju. I need a full night of sleep.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Pamela Adlon, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on Season 3 of "Better Things."
ADLON: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: So this season, everyone is going through a change. Like you say, you know, your oldest is going to college. The middle's in puberty. Your youngest is being bullied at school. Your character's mother seems to be in the early stages of dementia. Your character's going through menopause. Are these the personal issues you've been dealing with?
ADLON: You know, I say this about my show - that it's an exaggerated version of my life. So it's like Sam Fox is me in a cape. You know, certainly I'm in a multi-generational situation with all women in my life. My three daughters live at home. My mother lives next door. I'm what I think they call the sandwich generation. And so these issues are all happening to me to a certain extent right now. My own mother isn't going through dementia, but it's an interesting place to go. And I like people to have their own interpretation. And I think that's why people take this show so personally because everybody's going through some version of these different things.
GROSS: I think women over the years have been very uncomfortable talking about getting older, maybe because - I think a lot of women feel devalued with age, and they're no longer considered sexual. So how did you feel about putting it out there, about crossing the threshold of 50?
ADLON: I - you know, it's so exciting to me because I was - I didn't say my real age for years, you know? And...
GROSS: Why not?
ADLON: Because of the taboo of it. And, you know, when people find out, especially being an actor in the industry, it hurts. It hurts you. For a woman, you hit that 40 - you know, it affects you because it is such an agist, sexist industry, which I think is now shifting and changing. It's still not 100% yet, but it's - the irony is not lost on me that my father at - he hit 50, and basically - you know, he was a writer and producer. And the jobs kind of started drying up for him because people wanted younger people. They want young blood, and they valued youth over, you know, ability, even.
And so then I turn 50, and I have my own show. And all of a sudden, it's a whole new world for me professionally, you know, with all the different jobs that I do. And my show is a wonderful - I love my show. It's beautiful. I can tell these stories in an artful, cinematic way. It has great music, great actors. But also, my show is the story about me and how - I know that people are excited. You know, this lady's been kicking around in this business since I'm 9 years old, and she hits it big at 50.
GROSS: So what are some of the things that bother you most and some of the things you find most liberating about having turned 50 a few years ago?
ADLON: You know, only two.
GROSS: Two years ago. OK.
ADLON: See; it's still sensitive.
GROSS: Two years ago. Yes, I see.
ADLON: You know, it's just - I - you kind of - when you get comfortable with yourself, it's a way of feeling confident and not having to hurry up and catch up and measure up to other people. When you let go of that, the power is incredible. If you look for things that are - you know, that - if somebody's giving you a side-eye and you think they don't like you or anything like that, you look in the mirror and you're like, oh, I guess this is my neck now. OK.
ADLON: Well, let's keep going with that. Or are these jowls? Is this what you would call jowls? That's so interesting. Oh, arm cellulite - that's fun. That's fun. You know, so it's like - you know, you have the physical things, but those things don't matter because your mind is richer. Your experiences are richer. Your life is deeper. Your connections with your friends are deeper. My kids are older now, and our relationships are so much deeper than they used to be. You know, I used to try to get as far away from my kids as I could when they were younger. And now I want them around me all the time, and they want that, too.
GROSS: So in the opening of the first episode, your character's trying on clothes, and none of them fit because your character has put on a few pounds. So it seems like you've put on a few pounds - I think, in that opening scene, there's maybe a few extra pounds than they really were.
ADLON: No, that's all me, Terry.
GROSS: OK. All right.
GROSS: So was that stress eating because this has been such a difficult time with you doing so much to get the show done?
ADLON: You know what? It's very interesting because I wrapped Season 2 of my show, and I went into the editing room and, you know, just a few months went by. My body changed. My body changed. You know, I got thicker. And it's not - I don't feel bad about my body or anything. But it was shocking. And I remember being in my closet and trying on pants. I'm like, I just wore these three months ago. And things were just tighter. And it was a moment that I thought, oh, boy, I'm going to have to do this in my show.
ADLON: I'm going to - because it's - you know, you get into your 50s, your metabolism does funky things. And, you know, I just - I decided that it would be a very generous thing for me to do - kind of illustrate in in my show so everybody doesn't feel so alone because, you know, that happened to me. And you sit there, and you're by yourself. And, you know - and for people - women in particular - when our bodies don't measure up to what our idea is of what we're supposed to look like with our clothes off in the mirror, that's a shocking thing. You know, it's not our fault. And it's not up to us to maintain some kind of a physical image for anybody but ourselves.
GROSS: I like the fact that when your character realizes her clothes no longer fit her 'cause she's put on a few pounds, she doesn't go, like, so I'm going on a diet now. And I will lose that weight. My goal will be to fit back in these clothes. I mean, she goes about her life...
GROSS: ...You know?
GROSS: There's not - and also, you, as the star of the show and also the director of the show - you don't have somebody else telling you, Pamela Adlon, if you're going to continue playing this role, you have to lose some weight. No one's telling you that. It's your show.
ADLON: Yeah. Isn't that interesting? Isn't that amazing?
GROSS: That's good, right?
ADLON: Also, I mean, I didn't gain that much weight, but...
GROSS: No, I know. I know. But...
ADLON: I - no, I'm kidding. But listen. I remember being a teenage actor and being on a show. I'm not going to say the name. But I remember some girls on the show being pressured to lose weight. And it was extremely inappropriate. And it was extremely damaging, you know, to the psyche of a young girl. I mean, that was - you know, being in the '80s in '80s television, that would be the ultimate era of toxic trying to control the way women are portrayed.
GROSS: So one of the things about your character is that she doesn't hold back when something bothers her, whether it's about her children or about somebody at her children's school or a stranger in a restaurant or - you know, she doesn't have much of a filter. So...
GROSS: ...She says what's on her mind. And, you know, there's a fine line between honesty and cruelty. And the girls, though - the girls are always so embarrassed by her - the daughters. Like - this isn't really a spoiler - there's a scene where the girls want to go go-karting in, like, an amusement park. And so you take them even though you don't really want to go. And the the young man who's supposed to be giving the safety talk (whispering) is talking like this, and, like...
ADLON: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: ...No one can hear him. And you finally say, like, you're supposed to be protecting us and telling us what to do, and we can't hear you. And your daughters are, like, so horribly embarrassed by the whole thing. Does that happen to you, where, like, you're trying to speak out...
GROSS: ...To speak up for reasons of, like, you have a right to have something or to expect something, and you're speaking out not just for yourself, but for other people, but your daughters are just kind of withering with embarrassment?
ADLON: Exactly. Yes. This happens quite a bit. But it's like - I mean, come on. So, you know, you're giving me the rules, and, you know, this is a life-or-death situation, and nobody can hear you. And they're not admitting it because they're zoned out anyway. And, you know, it's, like, when Frankie says it's just, like, legal disclaimers that would never hold up in court, and it would - it doesn't matter. And I'm like, it does matter. You know, Sam's saying everything matters, but, you know, it's - I think that this may be more of a single-parent kind of situation because there's no backup. She has no backup. There's nobody there saying, hey; you know, don't give your mother a hard time or something like that. It's just her. So she has no henchmen, no zone defense, nothing. She's got to be the one to make everybody squirm.
BIANCULLI: Pamela Adlon speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, “CAN'T BRING ME DOWN”)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2019 interview with Pamela Adlon. She's the star and co-creator of the FX series "Better Things," which concluded its five-season run last month. Adlon herself directed the series finale.
GROSS: Louis C.K. co-created the show with you and was a co-writer with you on the first two seasons. And you parted ways with him after several women went public saying he'd masturbated in front of them, and then he admitted it was true. After those women went public and Louis C.K. confessed to it, you thought of stopping the show because he'd been such a key part of it. Why did you think maybe you should stop, and why did you think that you were going to continue anyways?
ADLON: My personal feelings about what had happened - you know, me trying to wrap my mind around, you know, this cataclysmic event that happened and was directly affecting, how do I keep making this show, you know? I mean, he was my consigliere when I was doing it. You know, I mean, I make this show in California. He lives in New York. We were able to talk out the stories and make the show together. And so we did that for two seasons. So he gets stripped of his executive producer credit, but, you know, we are co-creators of this show, and there's his name. So I say, what do I do? Do I call it "Schmetter Schmings" (ph)? Do I call it "Mo' Better Things" or something and, like, make a new show? I just could not wrap my mind around how I could continue this professionally.
And, you know, it was a whopper. I had to take a knee for some time. The fact that women were hurt by him and that he came out and he talked about it - we were all scratching our heads. I remember, you know, talking to my daughters about it. And I remember thinking about his daughters. And it was just - you know, in general, it was a lot. So I did not know how to kind of put my feet forward, one in front of the other.
GROSS: So what did you change so that you could move forward?
ADLON: Well, I was given the go-ahead by the head of my network, who's the incredible John Landgraf. You know, there was just a certain point that he called me. And he told me some other weird, bad news about, you know, we weren't going to be considered for any award season things. And it was just - we were being affected by this thing. And...
GROSS: Because Louis was affiliated with it.
ADLON: Yeah. Yeah. And so I just said to him at a certain point - I said, I - this doesn't really make sense anymore. I don't think that I can do this show anymore. I don't think that my heart's in it. I don't know how to keep moving forward. And he said, I'm not going to force you to do anything, but I want you to do your show. I want to see your show. I want you to keep doing your show. And he said, just take time and think about it. And it was so kind, you know? They gave me the time to sit and think and get my bearings and figure out how I could do it. And then - you know, I've talked about this. My friend Phil Rosenthal, who created "Everybody Loves Raymond," really helped me - kind of pointed me in a new direction that would help me resurrect my spirit and my passion for making my show again.
GROSS: Instead of coming up with the stories with Louis, you started a writers room and hired women - exclusively women?
ADLON: No. It's interesting because the submissions I was getting were only women. And so, you know, I was getting them from my network. I was getting them from my friends. And I said, hey; you know, my writing partner for the last 10 years has been a man. Please don't send me only women. So I read people, and I ended up hiring two women and two men. And, you know - and, I mean, I'd never been in a writers room, let alone run a writers room. I still don't know if I did it the right way, but I did it the only way I knew how to do it. And Phil was a huge help. He was - he helped coach me.
BIANCULLI: Pamela Adlon speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. Her FX series "Better Things" recently concluded after five seasons. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. Also, I'll review the newest addition to the "Star Trek" universe of TV shows, and film critic Justin Chang reviews a new French film called "Happening," which is set in the 1960s but whose subject is amazingly relevant to what's happening today. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON STIERNBERG, RUSTY HOLLOWAY AND JEFF JENKINS' "PENNIES FROM HEAVEN")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's 2019 interview with actor, writer and director Pamela Adlon. "Better Things," the FX series in which she starred, loosely based on her own life raising three girls with her mother living next door, ended last month with an uncharacteristically but charmingly upbeat finale.
GROSS: Your character sees images of her father sometimes, who kind of gives her advice. Sometimes it's good advice. Sometimes it's really not. And I saw a picture of your father. I can't remember if it was IMDB or someplace else, and he looks a lot like the actor playing the ghost of your father.
GROSS: I guess that was intentional.
ADLON: I made a my dad.
GROSS: Is that weird for you? - because he's...
ADLON: Well, it was crazy the first time. It was crazy. I mean, I had my friend Zoe Hay, who was the - you know, she was the merkin master on "Masters Of Sex."
ADLON: She created the hairpieces for Adam Kulbersh, who plays my dad. And it was unbelievable. When I did the pilot, I could not get over it. And, you know, I wear a green sweater quite a bit in my show and in - it's in the pilot. That was my dad's sweater. And so it's just - his spirit is all around because, you know, I'm doing what, you know, I watched him do. He was a writer and producer. And I looked up to him my whole life, and I went into acting because that was a natural way to get into the industry. But now this is - what I'm doing is really his legacy. So it's unbelievable to do a scene with somebody who looks exactly like your father from the '70s.
GROSS: And your father died in 1994, I think.
ADLON: That's right.
GROSS: So, like, you've really, like, revived him for the show. Yeah. And he did - he wrote a lot of episodic TV. I'm wondering what his attitude was for the shows that he wrote for, I mean, because IMDB isn't always accurate. But there were...
GROSS: ...A lot of shows where it says he did, like, one episode. I don't know if that's true or if that's a mistake.
ADLON: Oh, yeah, he did. Yeah. He wrote one episode of "The Love Boat" or maybe two. He wrote an episode of "The Jeffersons." He wrote an episode of "Chico And The Man." You know, he was a gun-for-hire writer, producer. And you go where the work takes you. And he was - you know, he and his partner, Phil Margo, wrote the illustrious TV movie "Venus Goddess Of Love" (ph) starring Vanna White.
GROSS: (Laughter) Excuse me.
ADLON: And I think that was '80 - what? - I don't even know - '88 or something. It made, like, the top 10 worst...
GROSS: Oh, gosh.
ADLON: ...TV movie lists of '88 or something like that. And he was so excited. He was like, we're part of the conversation.
ADLON: Yes. We're top 10. Top 10 anything is good.
GROSS: Was it discouraging for you to see him work so hard and just do episodes of, like, some good shows and some bad shows?
ADLON: It wasn't discouraging for me. I - it was work. I was seeing somebody working. You know, it's - and before that, he was writing comic books, and he was producing a daytime talk show. And my mother was working as well. My mother was working to support us while my dad was looking for income jobs. So my mother was a travel agent, and she was working for a composer, and she was working for a publisher. And so - she was a realtor.
And I have been modeled to working parents my whole life. So, you know, this little kind of scattershot career that I've built comes from all of these little things that I would see my parents do. And I've been working my whole life not just as an actor but doing other odd jobs. When I was - I was on "Facts Of Life" for one season, and then they got rid of me. And I was in a flower store. And my agent at the time - he walked in, and he's like, what are you doing here? And I'm like, I should ask the same thing about you.
GROSS: Oh, you were working in the flower store.
ADLON: Why am I working in a flower store?
ADLON: But I like work.
ADLON: You know, that was my thing. I mean, I worked at Alice Underground in New York. I liked working in retail. I - anything to keep my income, you know, going. And now, of course, I get the ultimate gift, which is doing something that I love.
GROSS: You've told the story to interviewers about how when you were in your teens and you were working - I think on a sitcom, maybe a movie - there was a scene where you were wearing a towel, and...
GROSS: ...The director said, oh, you know what would be really hilarious is if you dropped the towel. But I don't think you've said, like, what did you do? Did you do what the director asked you, or did you refuse?
ADLON: You know, I was about 15 years old, and I was wearing a towel. So we're supposed to be post-swim because we've broken into somebody's house. And he said that to me. And by some - I don't know - grace of some inner strength, I said, oh, no, I don't feel comfortable doing that.
GROSS: What was it like being a teenager - you were - what? - 15.
ADLON: I was 15.
GROSS: So you're 15, and you're telling the director, who's supposed to be telling you what to do - and that's his job. And you're telling him no.
ADLON: Yeah, he wanted to see my butt. He wanted me to drop my towel.
ADLON: He said we'd only see your butt. And I just was so uncomfortable.
GROSS: Has the #MeToo movement led you to rethink some of the things you experienced in your past and kind of see them in a different light?
ADLON: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. You know, when all of it was going down, I was haunted by, you know, memories. I was kind of, like, flipping through the Rolodex of my experiences and looking at them and going, huh (ph), that's really - that's just not OK. Or, you know, you know, I mean, I have three daughters, you know, and I want them to be protected. And I also want them to speak up for themselves and advocate for themselves because, you know, for me in particular, I've gotten hurt, you know, by being, you know, forced into doing something physical. But it's not a "stunt," quote, unquote, you know?
GROSS: You mean physically hurt, not emotionally hurt.
ADLON: Exactly. And I remember meeting an old - my old friend Steve Antin, who was in the movie "The Goonies." And one day, we were in a store, and we were just comparing scars where we got hurt at work. And so when I would be on jobs and I'd meet young people, I would say, don't ever, ever do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. You just walk away if anybody tries to pressure you.
GROSS: But then you risk losing the job, right?
ADLON: Yeah. That's the thing. And, you know, it's why I have my dad say - the dad character in my show say, you know, don't be a whistleblower, you know, and I do the opposite because people are still afraid to speak up. You know, and there's a lot of...
GROSS: How come you're not?
ADLON: Well, I don't know. It used to get me in trouble, and now it got me a show.
GROSS: Your character on the show - again, a single mother of three - and in your series, the middle daughter almost bullies her mother, your character. And she's so - like, the children, the three children are, like, so not curious about their mother's life, you know? And...
ADLON: Oh, my God, that's amazing that you said that (laughter).
GROSS: But they're not. They're really not. You know, like, you could be going through the most, like, extraordinary or excruciating thing. And it's, like, they don't even want to know about it. And you could go out of your way to do, like, something great for, say, the middle daughter and get her tickets to something she's been dying to see.
GROSS: And she'll just be rude to you about it. Or, like - so is that something that you've experienced? And how do you explain that? - because I know a lot of parents feel that way.
ADLON: It's just - I'm so glad you brought it up because it's just a very - you know, I describe it as being alone within the chaos. So they're all talking about their situations and everything. And I'm sitting there going, OK, well, I had, you know, this kind of really amazing thing happen today, or I feel bad about this, or I just went on a trip. I want to tell you guys about it. They really don't want to know (laughter).
So it's like that thing when people say when - if a kid says to you, how was your day, it's shocking. You're stunned. Oh, my God. Thank you for asking. My day - wait. Whew. Be still my heart. Let me take a seat. I mean, it's just they are extremely self-absorbed. That's the way they are. They're, you know, molding and changing, and they're losing their amniotic sacs daily and becoming - going in the direction of each other.
And, you know, I remember when my kids were younger, something - you know, one of my kids said something like, oh, you don't know who David Bowie is, Mom. And I was like, I will kill you because I invented the, you don't tell me who David Bowie is; I told you. And it's - you - there's this feeling of obsolescence when you have children who are, you know, gathering strength and momentum, and you're like, well, you guys pretty much don't need me anymore. You know, you're ready to go. It's a crazy kind of feeling. It's like, you know, you can be lonely and be living in a family. You know, I think it's particularly a single parent phenomenon.
GROSS: So when we started the interview, we played a clip from "Better Things" in which your character is telling her doctor that she needs something to help her sleep because one daughter's going through puberty, another is going to college, and she has to - and your character has to pay tuition. And your character is going through menopause, and it's just like, too much, and you can't sleep. So you yourself have been through a lot of that. Add on that you also went through the trauma of everything that happened with Louis. Are you getting any sleep?
ADLON: I do get sleep. I sleep pretty good, I got to tell you. I do the thing that I said in the scene with Dr. Babu. I don't sleep anymore. I pass out.
GROSS: (Laughter) Thank you so much for talking with us. I love talking with you.
ADLON: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me. It was awesome to talk to you.
BIANCULLI: Pamela Adlon speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. Her TV series "Better Things" presented its finale last month after a five-year run on FX. All episodes can now be seen on the streaming service Hulu. Coming up, I review "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," the new Paramount+ series that takes the "Star Trek" narrative back to its original origins. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA GARDIER'S "FJORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.