SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Oh, my god.
PAMELA ADLON: I apologize.
SANDERS: Don't apologize.
ADLON: I'm so sorry.
SANDERS: I just wanted to be hugged.
My guest today was running late to our interview in LA because of the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who was also at NPR West for an interview.
ADLON: There's a guy with a giant truck outside. I can't get in. And I was like, it's Ben Mendelsohn.
ADLON: And he literally - I'm in a loaner car, so I didn't want to mess it up. And he literally helped me park my car.
SANDERS: Takes a village.
She was late, but she did not come empty-handed.
ADLON: Get it all up. Oh, I brought you a present.
SANDERS: Wait. What?
ADLON: It's like Jolly Rancher crack but not sugar. And your teeth won't fall out.
Y'all, my guest, the actress and director Pamela Adlon - she came ready to play.
ADLON: So we're not cursing.
SANDERS: We don't. You can curse, and we'll bleep it. I can't curse.
ADLON: Because I said the word tits with Terry Gross, and she was like, we're on the radio. I was like...
SANDERS: She said that?
ADLON: I was like, I'm so sorry, Ms. Terry.
SANDERS: I was playing that one yesterday. It was really good. Oh, now they want you close to the mic.
ADLON: It's me and Sam. We're the tits, baby.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Now they're saying not that close. I like it.
SANDERS: I like it. Terry's good. Terry does this thing where like, you want to impress her.
SANDERS: You want to impress Terry Gross.
ADLON: You're immediately a child...
ADLON: ...Around her. I've never been in the same room with her, but I always feel very...
ADLON: ...Reverent. And oh, it's Ms. Terry.
SANDERS: Yes. Yes.
ADLON: You know?
SANDERS: Ms. Terry - exactly.
SANDERS: Ms. Terry.
ADLON: Yeah. Yes.
SANDERS: I love it. Well, this will not be that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and my guest today is Pamela Adlon. She is the head writer, director, showrunner, creator, snack-bringer and star of the FX show "Better Things." She does a lot. That is because the show was basically her life, literally. "Better Things" is a comedy-drama about a divorced actress raising three kids in LA. In real life, Pamela is a divorced actress raising three kids in LA.
In this chat, we'll talk about how she juggles everything, about seeing your parents as real, three-dimensional people, about the awful, crazy, beautiful, wonderful, experience of becoming a parent yourself. We'll also talk about what it's like to have a show that was created by Louis C.K. in the wake of the #MeToo era and why she keeps his name in the credits. All right. If you haven't already guessed yet, listeners, Pamela is not afraid to use very colorful language. So just a warning to you all, the bleep tone in this episode got quite the workout.
OK. Let's get to it. Here's my chat with the one the only Pamela Adlon.
SANDERS: I'm so happy to have you here.
ADLON: Thank you.
SANDERS: I have been a fan of your show for years. And I'm honored to talk with you about that and a lot more.
SANDERS: But I want to start by asking you about your directorial debut. I'm talking about you directing a music video for Madonna.
ADLON: Oh, my god. It's so funny because...
SANDERS: Please tell me all about it.
ADLON: I know. OK. So we made this video. Madonna had this contest. And she looked at the camera. And this was when MTV was fun. And she said, go ahead. Make my video.
SANDERS: For which song?
ADLON: "True Blue."
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
ADLON: And we made the video. And my protagonist - heroine in the video was my best friend Gail Boggs...
ADLON: ...Who is black. And then the hero's boyfriend was our friend Tucker (ph), who was, like, this beautiful, like, square-jawed, white guy. And then they had this mannequin that she walked around. It was all downtown LA. And we did all these things with color and everything. And we were like, let's just go throw this into the contest. And we made top 10.
SANDERS: I love it. I love it. How much of that director can we still see or feel in your show now, in "Better Things?"
ADLON: I think it's completely different in the fact that I did that with two other people. I wouldn't say that my show isn't collaborative now because I have so many people on my crew and in my cast and my staff. And so I give props to everybody. But it's...
SANDERS: But you drive that show.
ADLON: Oh, yeah. I'm running it. I'm running it.
SANDERS: Well, because your director, head writer, lead actress in the thing...
SANDERS: ...Showrunner, everything.
ADLON: Yeah. And I'm a mom first.
ADLON: So I've always kind of been a mom in my life. Like, my friends used to call me Mommy...
ADLON: ...When I was in my 20s. And I had a sofa bed - like, this pullout couch. Everybody lived there.
ADLON: Everybody lived in my apartment. They called me Mommy or care unit.
ADLON: And I took care of everybody.
ADLON: And so when I became a mommy, I wasn't ready for being a mommy of human girls.
ADLON: So that's like a crash course. And then I had one. And then I had another. And I had another. And then being a mommy without a partner in the house was another crash course and then kind of waking up and realizing, oh, maybe I need to put myself out there and do more things now.
SANDERS: Yeah. We should stop right now to give a little elevator pitch...
SANDERS: ...Of the show for those who haven't watched it yet. You're missing out. Watch this show. But describe your show in 25 seconds.
ADLON: Oh, [expletive]. I thought you were going to do it.
SANDERS: No easy answers here, Pamela.
ADLON: Oh, my god.
SANDERS: I'll help you out. You don't need any help (laughter).
ADLON: OK. So it's...
ADLON: (Singing) It's a story of a lovely lady - ay (ph)...
ADLON: (Singing) ...Who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
ADLON: I never did that before.
SANDERS: I love it.
ADLON: It's perfect.
SANDERS: That was really great.
ADLON: So yes.
ADLON: And so she's bringing up her daughters - single mom in Los Angeles. She's kind of just punched the time card - actor, gun for hire, has an English mother who lives next door. And it's a human show. And it's not a lady show. I used to fight because everybody was like, oh, that's for chicks. And it's not.
SANDERS: No, it's not. Yeah. And there is - you do something with your show that could be really difficult and really hard and really confusing. Your character Sam is her own fully formed character with plotlines that are her own in that show. But we also know that a lot of Sam's character comes from your own life, from Pamela's life. And it's - there's got to be a delicate balancing act of making sure both of those people, Pamela and Sam...
SANDERS: ...Feel different even though a lot of their stories are similar.
SANDERS: How have you worked through that tension, if it's a tension?
ADLON: I love that because that's new.
ADLON: I haven't touched on that in quite a while. It was harder for me to inhabit Sam than any other character I've done.
SANDERS: Even though she's the most like you.
SANDERS: Like in many ways - a former child actress...
SANDERS: ...Three kids, single parent...
SANDERS: ...Lives in LA, British mother. That's you.
SANDERS: But this was the hardest you say?
ADLON: Well, it just - because I was like - you know, even when I was pitching the show, I thought, oh, I'm not interesting enough to have a show of my own. There's no way that anybody is going to want to watch me.
SANDERS: You know, men don't say that. But go ahead.
ADLON: Well, I do. You know, I mean - and I thought I have to take it so completely far away from my life. It can't be me as an actor. It can't be me, you know, with three girls. It has to be something different. And my dad, who was a writer, would always say write what you know.
ADLON: And this is very simple 101 stuff. And so when I leaned into that and take the bones of my life and just kept that then you jump off from there.
SANDERS: Yeah. And you end up making a show that only you can make.
ADLON: Yes, exactly.
SANDERS: Which is the best show because then they can't fire you.
ADLON: That's right.
ADLON: I've - oh, listen. I always felt like at a certain point, they're going to pull me out and put Amanda Peet in here.
ADLON: Like, they're just going to be like, no. She ain't all that. We don't like that. You know, I always, always felt...
ADLON: Oh, god. yes. I've always been waiting for the rug to get pulled out from under me or, like, the Lucy with the football thing.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
ADLON: But that's the survivor in me. And my friend Robin (ph) always says, that's the potato farmer. That's the goyische side of you...
ADLON: ...That keeps going, that keeps going so...
SANDERS: Because you don't know when they might come and just take it.
ADLON: Yeah, exactly.
SANDERS: When do you not feel that feeling?
ADLON: It's always kind of there, you know? I always have this little buzz, like I have to take care of everything. I definitely don't feel that I have to prove myself the way I used to. There was a time years ago when IMDB started that I was like, why did they have my birth year on there? That's poison. That's like a bullet.
ADLON: That's a loaded gun...
ADLON: ...Pointing at a woman in Hollywood.
SANDERS: You think it's better now?
ADLON: I do. I really do.
SANDERS: How much better?
ADLON: You see women who are in their 60s and 70s and 80s who are working. We've been waiting for our stories to be told.
ADLON: You know, so it's like when women are in it, it's always better, you know? So I do think it's a lot better. I think that there's a lot of work for, like, young, hot girls, you know? But I think that there's a lot of work for old [expletive] women like me, too.
SANDERS: Into it.
SANDERS: Into it. Into it.
All right, time for a break. Coming up, why Pamela Adlon can't help being a mom to everyone, including me. BRB.
This story, on a surface level, you know, functions as a telling of what it's like to be a modern, single parent. But it also, in this really smart way, gets into what it means to be a person who is taking care of their parents right now today. There is this scene in the premiere of Season 4 where you have what could be a stereotypical mom-of-three-kids moment. I'm going to pull this car over. But in the scene...
SANDERS: ...You pull the car over because your elderly mom is just going crazy. It's not the kids.
ADLON: Yeah. Yeah.
SANDERS: It's your mom.
ADLON: Yes. Yes.
SANDERS: And I'm like, oh, I get this (laughter).
ADLON: Yeah. It's a thing.
ADLON: I guess they're calling my generation the sandwich generation. And it's another way that the show has really changed my life and been therapeutic for me because my mother used to drive me crazy.
ADLON: She'll tell me the same story over and over.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah (laughter).
ADLON: Please don't talk about Verizon calling the person on the - you know, and going to the store. And she went to the - how many doctor's visits? - and everything. And it used to make me want to tear my hair out.
ADLON: And then, one day, I'm sitting there, looking at my mom. And I'm like, oh, this is funny.
ADLON: She's funny.
ADLON: If I just get out of my own way and I look at it for what it is - it changed everything.
SANDERS: Yeah. Well - and this is a thing that kids don't realize until a certain moment somewhere in their 20s. Something clicks. And you say, oh, my God. My parents were fully formed human beings before I got here.
ADLON: Yeah. It's amazing.
ADLON: Yeah. It's something that - you know, I feel like if my show was on any other network, it would be like, you know, Sam's, you know, dealing with her mom, her kooky mom. She's dealing with her terrible kids. When will Sam find love? Like, that is so the opposite of...
ADLON: ...What the show is.
ADLON: It's just human interaction. And just nothing is cut and dry.
SANDERS: Yeah. And no one is exactly a hero or a villain.
ADLON: That's right.
SANDERS: Sometimes, the daughters are total a-holes.
SANDERS: Other times, they're the voice of reason.
SANDERS: Sometimes, Sam is the best mother in the world. Other times, she's yelling profanities at everyone around.
ADLON: That's right.
SANDERS: And that's life. But it takes a certain level of self-realization to get there. Like, what in your life brought you to a place where you're able to say, in your life and in your work, no one's cut and dry. Everyone is complex. Everyone - because, like, it'd be really easy to make a show with stock characters. It'd be...
ADLON: You know, I feel like life experience and all of that - but really my kids...
ADLON: ...You know, because they are incredibly thoughtful, completely conscious people. And when they say, mom, don't do that. You don't know their story. And they're very fair and right-minded with the world and with other people, not with each other and me...
ADLON: But I don't know what my life would be like if I would have survived this long. What they have given me is just endless. And the way I look at my life is really - my kids have really fueled that. I mean, I kind of always was that way a little bit.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Speaking of ways in which you were always like that, you know, you've mentioned a few times now that you are - you're the caring one. You're the mother. You're the nurturer. You're the one who takes care of the people. Why do you think that is? Because like, I feel like I'm a decent human being. I'm not that guy. I ain't feeding you. I'm not hosting the party. I will show up. I will drink your alcohol.
ADLON: That's amazing.
SANDERS: But I'm not...
ADLON: See. I even brought you a hostess gift.
SANDERS: You brought me candy. Yeah.
ADLON: (Laughter) I know.
SANDERS: What's that about? I love it.
SANDERS: What's it about?
ADLON: I don't - I guess. It was something that was always in me. Like, if I was at somebody's house, I would do their dishes. Like, if...
ADLON: I know.
SANDERS: Did your - was your mom like this? Was your dad like this?
ADLON: I want to be more like you, Sam.
SANDERS: I'm just literally - I don't do my own dishes - good God.
ADLON: I'm not picking up the check.
ADLON: I'm not going to do the dishes. Sure, I'll come over. I would like a little more of that. But I think that I'm - yeah. Sometimes, it's too much.
ADLON: I liken it to the scene of Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost" after the ghost leaves her. And she goes, (retches).
ADLON: And she's sitting there, and she's exhausted.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
ADLON: You know, so it's kind of like that because I let everybody take a piece.
SANDERS: And it is - for me at least, it was interesting and refreshing to see in your character on this show a woman who is extremely successful and career-driven and goal-oriented and doing all of the work but also still doing the - I am the mother with the minivan picking the kids up.
SANDERS: I am at home cooking them dinner. You're doing both - or your character's doing both...
SANDERS: ...And it's not in this way that is Sheryl Sandberg - you can have it all. You're doing it all. But you're still like, it's stressful (laughter). Like, it's a lot.
ADLON: Yeah. Yeah.
SANDERS: You're showing it really raw.
ADLON: Well, I was in my life. And I was, you know, shooting "Californication" or recording the "Tinker Bell" movies or any of the other Disney stuff that I was doing...
ADLON: ...And "King Of The Hill..."
ADLON: ...And living this, you know, quote, unquote, "Hollywood life." And then at the end of the day, I would be, like, cleaning up dog [expletive] and pulling the cans in...
ADLON: ...And doing all the mundane things. And I thought, this is so crazy. It's funny to me. I wonder if anybody else would think it's funny. But, you know - so I went through that. And that's what I was able to put in this show, you know?
ADLON: It's not like, you can have it all.
ADLON: But what I needed when I was a young mom was other moms to share with me. So when I was looking at the robot mom who was, like, making the thing and the casseroles for the class and everything - and I'm like, oh, my God. How does she do that? I need to know. And I always felt a little bit judged. And I needed somebody to be a bro to me as a mom.
SANDERS: And say, here's all of it.
SANDERS: It looks like this and that.
ADLON: Can I look in your kid's lunchbox?
ADLON: I want to see what you made your kid for lunch.
SANDERS: Yes. Yeah.
ADLON: It's that simple.
ADLON: So that's what I do with my show now...
ADLON: ...That I hope that other moms and parents can see. And as a woman, I know that sharing with other women is the most generous thing you can do.
SANDERS: All right. Time for another break. When we come back, a very special message to Pamela from a very special friend of this show. There are tears. There is laughter. There's whitefish salad - seriously. BRB.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Hey, listeners. It's Sam. Duh. If you're in LA, I have an announcement for you. If you're near LA, I have an announcement for you. We are having a special live show at NPR West in Culver City next month, March. We've lined up some public radio royalty for a special live show Friday morning, March 27. I'll be talking with NPR's David Greene. I'll be talking with NPR's Kelly McEvers. And we'll have a special guest as well on the morning of Friday, March 27 for a live taping of our Weekly Wrap from NPR West. It'll start early at 8:30, but we'll have coffee and breakfast. Come join us. It'll be a fun experiment. You can get tickets at nprpresents.org. Come out and see us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: This is from a friend of yours.
SANDERS: I told him I was talking to you.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Pamela Adlon, it's your friend, Ari Shapiro.
SHAPIRO: From the first day I met you, when I showed up for an interview and you had half-sour pickles and smoked whitefish salad and bagels and - my God, my mouth is watering just remembering this.
SHAPIRO: I knew that this was going to be an extraordinary friendship. I don't know anyone who does as many things as you do and does them all so damn well. I am in awe of you, I'm impressed by you, and I miss you. Sending you a big hug from the East Coast, Pam Aldon.
ADLON: Oh, my God. That made me cry.
SANDERS: He's the sweetest guy.
ADLON: I can't believe it.
SANDERS: He's the best.
ADLON: He just killed me.
SANDERS: He interviewed you how many years ago?
ADLON: Oh, my God.
SANDERS: And y'all just stayed in touch, right? I love that.
ADLON: We did.
SANDERS: I love that.
ADLON: He - oh, my God. I love him so much. I'm crying.
SANDERS: It's OK.
ADLON: I can't believe he got my name right, too. It was so...
ADLON: That just really - thank you.
SANDERS: Of course. I want you to hear it. But I also want to talk about a thing he brought up in that voice message for you. He talked about all this food you had laid out when he went to your house. The thing I notice on the show - Sam the character is extremely busy all the time, and yet she's always cooking for everybody.
SANDERS: Why is she cooking so much? I think of my mother, who was a busy working woman. And the first thing she outsourced was the food. She wasn't doing it. Someone else would.
ADLON: Well, you know, for me, it's occupational therapy. Like, it helps me. So, like, when I say I get anxiety or the Sunday scaries, I'm focused on this one thing. I'm making sauce. I'm doing a chicken. I'm making lasagna or quiche or whatever. It's so healing for me to just do something like that. And I cook the way I cook. I'm not an expert. I don't know what I'm doing.
SANDERS: It looks good on the show. Like, I can recall you making lasagna that one scene.
SANDERS: I was like, that looks like good lasagna.
ADLON: It is good...
SANDERS: It's good and saucy.
ADLON: ...Because it's the thing that brings my people together, you know? And so it was the one thing - like, the way I could give love to my family is through food, you know?
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
ADLON: And Rocky, my youngest, said to me one day - she goes, Mom, I don't really like that brown chicken, but I'll eat it because you made it. But just so you know. And I'm like, OK, [expletive].
SANDERS: (Laughter) There is this really interesting dynamic that I see in this show that has been making me unpack all the ways I was or was not nice to my parents as a teenager. And watching your show, I'm just like, I think I was really rude to my parents for several years.
ADLON: I love that. It's so funny.
SANDERS: And I'm like, I think I got to call them up and be like, sorry about that.
ADLON: I love that.
SANDERS: You know?
SANDERS: You lay it out so bare 'cause, like, these kids in the show - they love their mother.
SANDERS: But every other sentence is Mom, Mom, Mom.
ADLON: I know. It's just the cut down contrary...
SANDERS: Yes, yes.
ADLON: Oh, I'm sorry it's opposite day every single day of my life.
ADLON: I apologize.
ADLON: I love that. I have a guy who's been with me for years since the beginning of the show as a post-PA writer's assistant, Ryan, and he would say to me every day - he said, I call my mom so much now.
ADLON: I see you momming (ph) so hard and doing the show, and it makes me appreciate my mom.
SANDERS: I love that. I love that. Everything I've read about the show and how you run it makes it seem that the space in which the show is made is a woman's space, and it feels inherently different from a set run by a dude.
SANDERS: What are the biggest differences?
ADLON: Well, it's a thing. Like, when we would have guest stars come, they would say, wait. What's going on?
ADLON: What's going on?
ADLON: It just feels different. It feels less - I don't know if this is the right word - important.
ADLON: But, like, everything when men are walking around and - we're talking about equipment and lensy (ph), lensy, lensy. You know, no. No.
ADLON: It doesn't have to be that way.
SANDERS: It's stripped of ego.
ADLON: Yes. When you strip it of that, your days are shorter, more efficient. You're getting what you need. And, you know, I mean, I fight that feeling even on my set that I'm running. And I have a female first AD. There's other elements that come in that - we're like, OK, well, that's not the way we're doing it here.
ADLON: And then when I'm, like - if I go and do another TV show or...
ADLON: ...A movie, I see all of that stuff happening there. And I'm biting my tongue because I'm not running it.
ADLON: And I'm like, don't tell them how to do it.
ADLON: But there is an easier way to do things that doesn't strip the crew of their marrow and makes you want to go to work every day.
SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and, like, small things - like, I've read a lot now that you just kind of, like, make sure everyone's day ends at a reasonable hour so they can go home - dinner with their families.
SANDERS: I want to say that I really appreciate the way that you have dealt with Louis C.K. and the fallout from that since his incidents, and I really appreciate the way that you still keep his name in the credits as a creator of the show because I think we're in this moment right now where there is a certain pressure under the #MeToo movement to disappear these men...
SANDERS: ...And to make them go all the way away and to forget they ever existed. But I don't think that's fair.
SANDERS: We got to remember it happened so it don't happen again.
SANDERS: In the same way, it's like, I don't ever want to stop talking about slavery.
SANDERS: You can't not talk about it.
SANDERS: You know, there has to be a realization that these men were there. They were part of this industry, and their legacies can live on in positive or negative lights. But it's there.
SANDERS: You shouldn't have to answer questions about that man for the rest of your life.
SANDERS: But I appreciate that you don't ignore that he was a part of your life.
ADLON: Oh, he's a huge part of my story, yeah. And you look back at "Louie," the show, and it's just this magnificent thing.
ADLON: You know, I mean, the show is just great. And the contributions to "Better Things" - and so yeah, it's significant because when you realize - I kind of did something in Season 1 of the show, where we're at the anti-patriarchy rally.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. I love that one.
ADLON: Do you remember that?
SANDERS: I do.
ADLON: And Frankie's like, Gandhi was pen pals with Hitler, and Martin Luther King beat his wife. And I'm like, what are you saying?
ADLON: And she's a 12-year-old girl.
ADLON: And then Mother Theresa sucked. She was a Catholic nun. There's nothing good about her. You know, it's just a kid saying these things.
ADLON: But she's saying our heroes - yeah - have flaws.
SANDERS: Yeah. And like you were saying at the top of interview, like, no one is one thing. No one is just one thing.
ADLON: That's right.
SANDERS: There's good and bad in all of us, and we can speak to that. And that's just life.
ADLON: That's right.
SANDERS: You know? Anyways, I know you have to go. This last question is very personal. I cannot figure out whether "Better Things" the show is saying to people without kids, oh, my God; have kids; it's the best thing ever...
SANDERS: ...Or if it's saying to people without kids, do not do this. I say this as someone who is 35 and considers one day having children.
SANDERS: And I'm like, well, what is "Better Things" telling me about parenthood? Should - does...
SANDERS: ..."Better Things" want me to do it or not?
ADLON: Guess what?
ADLON: It's in the middle of those two things.
ADLON: Right down the middle, baby.
SANDERS: OK. OK.
ADLON: It's both.
ADLON: It's not one or the other.
ADLON: It's like, this is messed up; don't ever do it, or, this is the greatest thing; you're going to get so much back.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: Thanks again to my guest, actress Pamela Adlon. Her show "Better Things" is back for its fourth season on FX March 5.
Also, don't forget. Listen to this show on Friday. We'll be back with another wrap on the news and the culture of the week. And, of course, per use (ph), we want to hear you share in that episode the best things that have happened to you all week. It could be a big thing, a small thing, a life-changing thing, a serious thing, a funny thing - whatever. Just send it to us. Record the sound of your voice onto your phone, and email that voice file to me at email@example.com. You might hear yourself in the show. I would love for that to happen, OK?
All right, listeners. Thank you so much for listening. I am Sam Sanders. Till next time, talk soon.
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