Before Pamela Adlon started writing season four of her excellent FX series Better Things, she wrote a series of phrases on note cards and stuck them to the wall. “Divorce is contagious.” “Togetherness.” “Forgiveness.” “Rain.”
“I feel like I had themes this season for the first time,” Adlon tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. The results are some of the most impressive work of her career.
Over the course of our conversation, Adlon opens up about the many times she has had to “reinvent” herself. “I’ve always had a work ethic and the most important thing is keep working, keep providing,” she says. “And I think that came from the fact that my dad, when he turned 50, the lights went out in terms of people wanting to hire him. He went through ageism as a male writer in Hollywood.”
As a woman over 50 in the same industry, she knew she would have it 10 times harder if she didn’t make opportunities for herself. And that is exactly what she has done with Better Things.
One standout episode from the new season features a surprise appearance by Mike Judge, who co-created King of the Hill. Adlon won an Emmy Award for voicing young Bobby Hill on that animated series. “I never thought Mike would come down to do this scene, just stick his head in,” Adlon says, explaining that Judge was “totally game” for the cameo.
During the previous season, it was revealed that Adlon’s alter ego Sam had played “Rooster” on a show called Ching of the Mill. “I wrote that as a placeholder in the script and thought, I’m going to make up another show,” she explains. “But then we went with it.”
This season, Sam gets word that there’s a reboot in the works, but then finds out they want her to re-audition for her own part. When I ask if she would up for a real-life reboot of King of the Hill, she replies enthusiastically, “Um, yes! Of course! That show is a huge part of my story. And just putting food on my table.”
If King of the Hill gave Adlon financial security, it was her role as a writer and actor on FX’s Louie that gave her major creative street cred. Adlon and Louis C.K. created Better Things together and he continued to write on that show through its second season. But it all nearly came crashing down after C.K. was exposed for serial sexual misconduct and both FX and Adlon cut ties with him.
Adlon has been reluctant to say much about her working relationship with C.K. since she released an initial statement about how “devastated and in shock” she was following his “admission of abhorrent behavior.”
“I learned so much,” she tells me of her experience working with C.K. on Louie. “It was, I think, for me, the biggest crash course in what I’m doing right now. In terms of being able to be in scenes and direct scenes. It was an incredible masterclass for me.”
There’s a scene from season four of Louie that got a lot of attention when it came out—and even more after the revelations about his behavior. In the scene, Louie tries to forcibly kiss the Pamela character against her will. She struggles to push him off and escape his apartment, yelling, “This would be rape if you weren't so stupid” and later, “You can't even rape well.” Ultimately, she reluctantly lets him kiss her but does not seem to enjoy it.
There’s a similar scene from season two of Better Things that plays out very differently. Sam is in a car with her close friend’s ex-husband Jeff. They lean in to kiss each other but at the last minute she clamps her hand over his mouth and goes on an operatic spree, repeating, “No, Jeff, no!” As Adlon tells me, she and Louis C.K. collaborated on both scenes but she denies that there is a connection between them. “That didn’t even come up,” she says.
Ultimately, Sam feels empowered in that scene from Better Things in a way Pamela doesn’t in the scene five years earlier. But Adlon insists she wouldn’t change a thing about the Louie sequence if she had to do it over today. “No, I wouldn’t do it differently,” she says. “I’m proud of that scene.”
How ‘Better Things’ is unlike anything that came before it on television
“I hadn’t really seen my kind of lady person represented on TV. Somebody who was middle-aged and not wearing Louboutins and stuff. Just being regular. That was the gamble. When we were first coming up with the concept for the show, I was like, well I can’t be myself. I have to create something. Like, oh, I’ll have a gay brother who lives in the back house, that’ll be be funny hijinks. Or maybe I’m a manicurist. Or what happened to the father of these girls? Maybe he disappeared on an island like Olivia Newton-John’s husband? But my dad was a writer and he always said ‘write what you know.’ So if you run away from the things that are close to you or make you uncomfortable, the writing’s not going to resonate.”
On watching the three actors who play her daughters grow up
“It’s really cool. My real-life daughters helped me pick their counterparts. And it’s shocking to see how much Olivia [Edward, who plays Duke] has changed. When people binge-watch the show they’re actually watching these kids morph. I guess the person who changed the most from season one to season two was Hannah [Alligood, who plays Frankie], because I plucked her right out of the Bible Belt. She was really just this raw clay. When she went from season one to season two—her first scene was the Bar Mitzvah episode where she’s breaking me down in my ear, was incredible. And she does not like to be mean to me. Last season when her character went away, her dad and I had a conversation and he said, ‘I think Hannah’s having a hard time being mean to you.’ And so I had to say to her, ‘Hannah, it’s not me. We’re just telling a story.’”
What it was like working on ‘The Red Foxx Show’
“I auditioned for that show in drag as Paul Segall. My hair was completely cut off and I looked like a dude. Because they were trying to cast a boy. And so I taped my breasts down with an ACE bandage. So I got the job, and Redd was like, ‘I always knew you was a girl.’ But then I think Redd and everybody got too spooked because I was this little white girl who would be hanging out with him in his apartment. Like that would be problematic once my gender was revealed. And then I got replaced by Sinbad. And I would joke for years and years, ‘He gets all my parts.’ OK, here’s one great Redd story. He would say, ‘You’ve got the best teeth. I’ll give you $7 million if you let me suck your teeth.’ He would basically offer me $7 million to suck my teeth. He loved my teeth.”
Did she really audition for ‘Friends?’
“We all did. Every single one of us. Everyone who’s my age and 10 years earlier and 10 years later, we all auditioned for Friends. I remember being at NBC and we were all there. And it was just a show. Just another show like any other show. But David Schwimmer got it and he and I went to high school together so that was kind of fun. And now my daughter, it’s like Jesus to her. My youngest daughter. It’s on in my house so much and it makes me laugh so hard. It’s kind of incredible.”