How 'Louie' (and 'Girls') Inspired Pamela Adlon's FX Comedy 'Better Things'

Adlon says Louis C.K.-produced dramedy isn’t a series about her: It’s about people like her.
Colleen Hayes/FX

While working on an episode of Showtime comedy Californication, Pamela Adlon felt a little uncomfortable about doing a scene where a child saw her having sex. So the mother of three daughters emailed series creator Tom Kapinos to see if he could tone down a particular part of the scene. His response? "Oh, you mean the funny part?"

The script stayed the same.

Flash forward a few years to the final scene in the series premiere of Adlon’s new FX comedy, Better Things, in which Adlon plays an actress named Sam Fox who also happens to be a mother to three girls. In the thick of a sexy encounter on a set, she suddenly stops the action to speak with the director about toning down a particular part of the scene in which a kid sees her having sex. The director’s response: "You mean the funny part?"

Such is the world of FX's Better Things, which at times is almost indistinguishable from Adlon’s own world. Not only do she and her TV alter ego act for a living and have three girls to contend with, but Adlon also notes in the pilot’s closing credits that the series is “dedicated to my daughters.” They both must also contend with the daily grind of being a single parent, which is the core principle behind the Louis C.K.-produced Better Things.

“When I started developing the show, I have to admit I got discouraged because so much of what’s on TV seems so big and not necessarily real,” the 50-year-old actress explains. “I thought, ‘Maybe there isn’t an audience for something about the real life of a single parent. People want something bigger.’ But I’m not that guy. I decided to just keep pushing through and it turns out, now is the right time for something like this.”

That’s at least partially thanks to her friend C.K. Adlon made several appearances on his FX critical darling Louie, producing the show as well as playing his occasional love interest. Much of Louie is about C.K.’s own experiences as a divorced dad, which proved to Adlon that there was indeed room on television for a similarly low-key comedy about a single mom that didn’t always have to be funny.

“When I saw Louie and Girls, I was blown out of the water,” she explains. “They were fearless portrayals of real life. Everyone has a different experience. I’ve always been interested in how other people live their lives, which is why it’s important to engage fully even in painful times. And out of that, I get to laugh.”

It might sound a bit self-centered for an actor to create a show about herself, but Adlon insists Better Things isn’t a series about her: It’s about people like her. Her eagerness to “show what it’s like to be a single mom” has led to scenes like her confrontation with an older daughter who asks her to help her get pot (seen in the trailer, below) and a moment with her youngest girl throwing a tantrum because her mom didn’t buy her the earrings she wanted.

"You don’t have to be a single dad to appreciate Louie," explains Louie and Better Things executive producer Blair Breard. Instead, you just have to understand “the mundane day-to-day things you do with kids.” The same is true for Better Things, which she insists is proof that “those tasks may be tedious, but they’re part of the fabric of our life.”

Breard believes this universality is what makes the show “transcendent. Everyone has relationships, so you can relate to everything she does. I watched an episode with a single mom friend of mine and she was weeping and laughing. And I watched one with a married father, and he was laughing and crying. There’s a real universal quality to what [Adlon] is saying in these stories.”

Although she has played wild, tough women in Californication and Louie, Better Things is the chance for her to show who she really is. “I’ve always been kind of a mom,” Adlon confesses. “I was out of my house when I was 18, and my friends used to call me 'mother' and 'care unit.' Everyone slept on my couch. And all of my daughters’ friends now call me 'mom.' I can’t help but get involved with my kids and their lives and their situations.”

That maternal instinct carries over to the set of Louie and Better Things. Adlon says she’s as much of “a neurotic mess as everyone else,” but Breard insists she “is like the sun and bathes everyone in her light. She has a huge capacity for joy and life, a very big heart that makes everyone who knows her more positive.” It doesn’t hurt that she regularly collaborates with C.K. on both his series and hers.

“We’re constantly going,” she explains. “We enjoy bouncing things off each other, whether they’re about the shows or just things that come up in real life. He’s great about making time to work together. He was doing his show Horace and Pete while we were filming Better Things, but he was still always there to help with rewriting.”

She appreciates his help, but when you get right down to it, it’s still her real life that continues to inspire most of Better Things. Take this interview, for example. Adlon began by squealing the name of a friend of hers at THR, then quickly added, “My daughter’s here. She heard me and now she’s making fun of me.” Which is a better thing for her.

“Everything that happens to me in a day enhances my parenting,” she says. “And my daughters now feel like they’re part of the show. They’re extremely proud of their mom, and nothing’s better than that.”

Better Things premieres Thursday, Sept. 8 at 10 p.m. on FX.