Pamela Adlon Started Working At Age 9, But 'Better Things' Happened At 50 Adlon has four titles in the credits of the FX comedy series Better Things: actress, writer, director and producer. "I want to elevate the mundane ..." she says. "This is the way I live my life."
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Pamela Adlon Started Working At Age 9, But 'Better Things' Happened At 50

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Pamela Adlon Started Working At Age 9, But 'Better Things' Happened At 50

Pamela Adlon Started Working At Age 9, But 'Better Things' Happened At 50

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The actress Pamela Adlon doesn't show up in the tabloids. Paparazzi don't hound her. But she has worked in TV consistently for decades. She starred in the sexually explicit comedy "Californication."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALIFORNICATION")

PAMELA ADLON: (As Marcy Runkle) That's it. All you do is mope around the house all day in your underwear. You're on notice.

SHAPIRO: She helped create the semibiographical show "Louie" with the comedian Louis C.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")

ADLON: (As Pamela) This is the best thing I've ever tasted. I'm going to eat this and then go home and kill myself.

SHAPIRO: And she won an Emmy for her voiceover work playing 12-year-old Bobby Hill on the animated show "King Of The Hill."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KING OF THE HILL")

ADLON: (As Bobby Hill) When God was passing out wit, you thought he said zit and you asked for seconds. Now, out the window.

SHAPIRO: At home, Pamela Adlon raises three daughters as a single mom. And that's also true of the character she plays in her latest TV show, "Better Things." In fact, most of the details of her character parallel her real life. Adlon plays an actress and voiceover artist whose mother lives across the street. And when Adlon leaves the set at the end of the day, she checks in on her real-life mother who lives across the street. In this scene of "Better Things," the youngest daughter accuses Adlon's character, Sam, of being mean to grandma.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER THINGS")

ADLON: (As Sam Fox) Honey, you're going to be mean to me, too. Your sisters already are. In fact, I need you to be mean to me when I'm old so I don't feel so bad about how mean I am to your grandmother now.

SHAPIRO: The first season of "Better Things" won a Peabody, and Pamela Adlon was just nominated for a best actress Emmy. When I met her here in Los Angeles, she was doing final touchups on Season 2 of the show. Her post-production office is in a brutalist concrete building that looks like it was suddenly abandoned 20 years ago. On the floor where she works, half-dismantled cubicles slump in a corner with piles of floppy disks scattered on the worn carpet.

ADLON: I've done photo shoots in here. And like, I take people over and, like, I threw the discs at the photographer.

SHAPIRO: I think most people would imagine that at your point in your career a place like this would be beneath you.

ADLON: (Laughter) No, Seth Rogen's right down the hall.

SHAPIRO: And this is where Pamela Adlon is doing the most personal work of her life.

ADLON: I literally feel like I'm going like this with my underwear.

SHAPIRO: You're opening yourself up here.

ADLON: I'm holding up my skirt. I'm like, this is my entire parts.

SHAPIRO: And you're showing it to the world.

ADLON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: That's scary.

ADLON: It doesn't feel scary anymore. It's like when I turned 50, I was like, oh, God, this is such a drag. Like, everybody on Twitter was like, welcome to the five-o and whatever.

SHAPIRO: And did they also say, and now your career will be over 'cause that's the way Hollywood works?

ADLON: Well, why am I not on the scrap heap? Why did everything start happening for me at 50?

SHAPIRO: Why? I don't know.

ADLON: Isn't that crazy? You have to work very, very hard. I've been working since some 9 years old.

SHAPIRO: Those conflicted feelings about age - they're in the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER THINGS")

ADLON: (As Sam Fox) I used to think the scary part about getting older was dying. And it turns out that the scary part of getting older is young people. It's like we're the Indians and they're the white settlers. And they keep coming and they take all our resources, and all we're left with is diseased blankets.

SHAPIRO: Adlon led us into a room where she was making final decisions with her team on the premiere episode of the new season.

ADLON: So anyway, let's watch.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

It begins with opening credits written in a rough scrawl on the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Mother, you had me, but I...

ADLON: I wrote out all of my credits. They have an alphabet of my hand. And that's my favorite color, green.

SHAPIRO: Green. We hear so many stories about shows that are created by committee with executives and network people tweaking and weighing in. And this really sounds like it was birthed from your mind, body, heart and soul...

ADLON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...And put onto television.

ADLON: This show came out of my vagina.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ADLON: I know you said it nicer. Ari said it nicer.

SHAPIRO: As the episode plays, she points out art on the set that her real-life handyman painted. Characters drink out of vintage glasses that she collected over the years. Even the actress playing her mother was amazed at how much of Adlon's world finds its way onto this show.

ADLON: When Celia came to my house for the first time she was like, oh, my God, it's just like the house in the show. I'm like, duh.

SHAPIRO: Suddenly, an assistant cracks open the door. Food is here. Adlon insists that everyone eat.

ADLON: Here you kids go.

SHAPIRO: What have you got here? Smoke whitefish, bagels.

ADLON: Mm-hm.

SHAPIRO: It really does seem that even while being an actress, a showrunner, a producer, you are a mom in every context.

ADLON: Oh, I am.

SHAPIRO: I almost hesitate to ask this question because I feel like nobody asked the creators of "Breaking Bad" about creating a very male show. And yet this is a very female show, which somehow seems more unusual.

ADLON: But I get upset because I don't feel like my show is just a female show. My show, of course, is a female-centric show and for women. But my show feels like human.

SHAPIRO: But it is unusual on TV.

ADLON: Yeah. Listen, I'm the boss of everything on my show and I still feel that weird, you know, woman thing. I have my name four times on the call sheet, and still sometimes...

SHAPIRO: Wait, as what? Actor, producer...

ADLON: Writer.

SHAPIRO: Writer.

ADLON: Director.

SHAPIRO: Director.

ADLON: And still sometimes you have that weird thing. I'm just thrilled that people think I'm a woman at all or a lady, so it's...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Since you played a 12-year-old boy on TV on "King Of The Hill" for many years.

ADLON: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: After the meal, we head back into the edit room so Adlon can finish touching up the first episode of the new season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER THINGS")

CELIA IMRIE: (As Phyllis) Sam's father was the ugliest man I ever saw in my life. Oh, yes, he was spectacular. That's why I noticed him.

ADLON: (As Sam Fox) Is that why you married him?

IMRIE: (As Phyllis) No, I married him because he was funny.

ADLON: That's what my mother says about my dad.

SHAPIRO: Really?

ADLON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: This is, like, directly from the...

ADLON: It's out of her mouth.

SHAPIRO: The actress who is playing your mother is saying lines that your mother would actually have said.

ADLON: Yes, exactly. I'm really a fraud because all I do is just document what my mother says.

SHAPIRO: Scene by scene, Adlon gives notes to the post-production staff on the colors, the sounds, the music.

ADLON: I wanted it to be more upbeat. This is too mellow. This is like the shift and she's going to lure them in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER THINGS")

ADLON: (As Sam Fox) Jason (ph), come here, my black son. I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jason) I love you, Mom.

ADLON: That's an homage to one of my daughter's best friends, Jason, who is, like, 6-foot-6. And he's my tall black son.

SHAPIRO: Does it delight your daughters to watch it and identify the Easter eggs? Or are they like, stop mining our lives for your show?

ADLON: Both of those things, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter). Pamela Adlon, congratulations on your show and your Emmy nomination. And thanks for giving us this preview of the next season.

ADLON: Thank you so much. Thanks for coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAUGHTER")

THE BLENDERS: (Singing) Daughter...

ADLON: (Singing) Daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter. That's my grandmother's painting. (Humming). Whoo.

SHAPIRO: "Better Things" returns for its second season September 14 on FX.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAUGHTER")

THE BLENDERS: (Singing) After school come straight home. Leave those boys alone, daughter, leave those boys alone. Go to the store, come back...

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