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Pamela Adlon: 'Better Things' Season 3 Is 'An Exaggerated Version Of My Life'

Feb 26, 2019
Originally published on February 26, 2019 12:03 pm

Pamela Adlon is a member of the "sandwich generation" — the mothers/daughters and fathers/sons who find themselves simultaneously caring for their children and their parents. Adlon's three daughters live at home, and her mom lives next door — a reality reflected in Better Things, the FX series she writes, directs and stars in.

Now returning for its third season, the show centers on a single working mother of three daughters who is also trying to help her elderly mother and keep her acting career alive.

"It's an exaggerated version of my life," Adlon says.

The latest season of Better Things almost didn't happen. In 2017, Adlon's co-creator and longtime collaborator, Louis C.K., admitted to sexual misconduct with multiple women.

C.K. was removed as an executive producer of the series and Adlon severed ties with him, but Adlon says her heart was no longer in the project. She struggled to decide what to do with the series.

"I could not wrap my mind around how I could continue this professionally," Adlon says. "I did not know how to put my feet one in front of the other and move forward. ... I had to take a knee for some time."

Adlon says FX gave her the time she needed to "sit and think and get my bearings." Finally, she decided that the show would go on — but with a new set of writers.

"My friend [and Everybody Loves Raymond producer] Phil Rosenthal really helped me," Adlon says. "[He] kind of pointed me in a new direction that would help me resurrect my spirit and my passion for making my show again."


Interview Highlights

On hiring her first-ever writer's room for season three, after cutting ties with Louis C.K.

The submissions I was getting were only women. I was getting them from my network. I was getting them from my friends. And I said, "Hey, my writing partner for the last 10 years has been a man [Louis C.K.]. Please don't send me only women." So I read people, and I ended up hiring two women and two men. And I'd never been in a writer's room, let alone run a writer's room. I still don't know if I did it the right way, but I did it the only way I know how to do it.

On being asked about Louis C.K. in the press

It's almost like women who are connected somehow to these men who have been shaken down by this thing — the women are almost being "reverse #MeToo-ed." If you have any affiliation, you're ending up answering for these things. ...

... we're having to answer for men, as opposed to talking about our lives and ourselves. - Pamela Adlon

I'm talking about how everyone's relentlessly asking Sarah Silverman about him. And how Chloë Grace Moretz can't get away from it because she made this movie with him [I Love You, Daddy]. So we're having to answer for men, as opposed to talking about our lives and ourselves. It's difficult.

And then the women who were affected — the victims of these people and Louis — it's heartbreaking if there's anything but support coming in their direction. I wish that I could do something for them. And I wish that we would have to stop answering for the men.

On the way her body changed in mid-life, and how she incorporated that into show

My body changed. I got thicker. And 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." Things were just tighter.

It was a moment that I thought, "Oh boy, I'm going to have to do this in my show." [When] you get into your 50s, your metabolism does funky things. I decided that it would be a very generous thing for me to kind of illustrate it in my show, so everybody doesn't feel so alone. That happened to me, and you sit there, and you're by yourself. 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.

On filming a project when she was 15 years old, and having the director tell her it would be funny if she dropped her towel

By some grace of some inner strength, I said, "Oh no, I don't feel comfortable doing that." He wanted to see my butt. He wanted me to drop my towel. He said, "We'd only see your butt." And I was so uncomfortable.

There was an actor who was in a scene with me, and we were supposed to kiss. And I was terrified. I don't think I'd had a kiss yet. I remember him saying, "An apple is an apple, a plum is a plum, a kiss isn't a kiss without the tongue." And I was so grossed out.

This is the way I came up. This was the '80s. I really hope that things are different now. I really do. I think that they're changing. I don't think that they're absolutely different, because people need to be told the same thing over and over again before they get the picture.

On the differences she has noticed between her daughters' teen years and her own

There is so much more acceptance now. And there was so much shame when I was growing up — the shame of having to hide liking somebody; having to hide liking somebody who's the same sex as you; having to try to assimilate and hide who you are and the origins of who you are; having to hide your age. All of that. And I don't think that my daughters are growing up with that at all. ...

But at the same token, I would say it's almost more difficult, because when I was growing up, you could be bullied at school, somebody could pass you a note, somebody could physically do something to you, but you could go home. Now it continues in your phone. ...

Everybody's measuring themselves up to each other, and it's absolutely devastating. Because there is so much acceptance, yet all of these kids who are so beautiful and fluid and not claiming any sexuality or gender — they're so open — they're looking at each other's Instagrams and Snapchats, and they're comparing themselves, which is just poison.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Pamela Adlon is the co-creator, director, co-writer and star of the FX comedy series "Better Things." She plays Sam Fox who, like Adlon, is raising three girls as a single mother while also helping her aging mother, who lives next door, and trying to keep her acting career alive. Two of Pamela Adlon's daughters are now teenagers. The other is 21.

Adlon has been acting since she was 9. She won an Emmy for her voice work as Bobby Hill, the son in the 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 on his earlier show "Lucky Louie." He and Adlon co-created the series "Better Things," but she severed ties after he was accused of sexual misconduct by several women. And he admitted it was true. We'll talk about that a little later.

Let's start with a clip from the new season of "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 the doctor says, oh, like errands; just let go of it; everyone's got errands. Here's 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...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) 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 (ph), it's like - it's a lot. And some mornings, I just...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Birju 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 (ph). I need a full night of sleep.

(Laughter).

GROSS: Pamela Adlon, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on season three of "Better Things."

ADLON: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: So this season, everyone is going through a change. Like you said, you know, your oldest is going to college, the middle's in puberty, your youngest is being bullied at school. Your character's mother is - seems to be in the early stages of dementia. Your character is 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 multigenerational 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 that 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 you. For a woman - you hit that 40. You know, it affects you because it is such an ageist, sexist industry, which I think is now shifting and changing. It's still not 100 percent 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 job's 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 turned 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 - it 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: Well, let's keep going with that, or are these jowls?

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: 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's put on a few pounds. So it seems like you've put on a few pounds. So I think in that opening scene, there's maybe a few extra pounds than there really were (laughter).

ADLON: No. That's all me, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, OK, all right.

ADLON: (Laughter).

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 two 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 on my show.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLON: 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 (laughter) to do it - to kind of illustrate it 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...

ADLON: Interesting.

GROSS: ...You know?

ADLON: Yeah.

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? Yeah.

ADLON: Also, I mean, I didn't gain that much weight, but...

GROSS: No. I know. I know. But...

ADLON: No. I'm kidding. But...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: 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 this 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. (Laughter). So...

ADLON: Yeah.

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 young man who's supposed to be giving the safety talk is talking like this. And, like...

ADLON: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: ...No one can hear him. And you finally say, like, you're, (laughter), 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...

ADLON: Yes.

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 (laughter). 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, anyway, 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 (laughter) make everybody squirm.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon, and she writes, directs and stars in the FX series, "Better Things," which is loosely based on her own life as a single mother of three who also has an acting career and is also helping take care of her mother, who lives next door. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon. She's the star, the writer and the director of the FX comedy series, "Better Things," in which she plays someone very similar to herself. It's a lot to balance.

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 this 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 awards 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.

GROSS: My guest is Pamela Adlon. She co-created, co-writes, directs and stars in the FX comedy series "Better Things," which starts its third season Thursday. We'll pick up where we left off after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Pamela Adlon, the co-creator, co-writer, director and star of the FX comedy series "Better Things," which begins its third season Thursday. She plays Sam Fox, who, like Adlon, is juggling raising three girls as a single mother while helping her own aging mother who lives next door and trying to move forward with her acting career.

Adlon has been acting since she was 9. She won an Emmy for her voice work on the animated series "King Of The Hill" as the son, Bobby Hill. She appeared on seven seasons of the TV series "Californication." She worked with Louis C.K. on his series "Louie" and his earlier series "Lucky Louie." He co-created her series "Better Things," but she severed ties after he admitted to allegations of sexual misconduct.

When you found out that the women had come forward and made the allegations against him, had you heard rumors? Did you know anything about it before?

ADLON: Oh, God. I'll tell you what I told the New Yorker, which is that if you hear a rumor or you read a blind item or something like that, and you hear it's about somebody that you know, all you can do is ask them about it and confront them.

GROSS: And you did that?

ADLON: I mean, I'm not going to talk about it any more than that. I'm sorry.

GROSS: OK. OK.

ADLON: It's almost like, you know, women who are connected somehow to these men, the women are almost like being reverse #MeToo'd (ph). So, you know, if you have any affiliation, you're ending up answering for these things that...

GROSS: You're talking about yourself.

ADLON: Yes, I'm talking about myself. And I'm talking about other women. You know, I'm talking about how everybody's, you know, relentlessly asking, you know, Sarah Silverman about him and about, you know - and how Chloe Grace Moretz, you know, she can't get away from it because she made this movie with him. And so we're having to answer for these - for men as opposed to talking about our lives and ourselves. And it - you know, it's difficult.

And then the women who were affected, you know, the victims of, you know, these people and Louis, you know, it's heartbreaking if there's anything but support coming in their direction. And, I mean, I - it's - I wish that I could do something for them. And I wish that I could stop having to answer. And I wish that we would stop having to answer for them, for the men.

GROSS: That leads me to my collateral damage question. Putting aside Louis the person for a second and putting aside the actions that he's responsible for, the show itself - it was a really great show. And there were great performers on it.

ADLON: Oh, you mean the "Louie" show.

GROSS: The "Louie" show, yeah. So, like, all the people who worked on it in one way or another - you were one of the stars. You had a recurring character...

ADLON: Right.

GROSS: ...On the show. And so like, you know...

ADLON: And I was a producer and a writer on it as well.

GROSS: Right. So that's a big chunk of, like, your resume that is kind of - nobody wants to see it now. No one wants to hear about it now. So I'm wondering how you feel as, like, an actress and one of the writers and producers - right? - of the "Louie" series knowing that people aren't watching it now. And it's, like - it's your work too that's not being seen.

ADLON: Yeah, it sucks.

GROSS: It's kind of a collateral damage thing. So I'm just wondering how you feel. Like, what's supposed to happen with the work?

ADLON: I don't know because "Lucky Louie" was a beautiful, great show too.

GROSS: You were...

ADLON: That's...

GROSS: You were - you played his wife on that.

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: That's his first show.

ADLON: Yeah. So that's in the garbage can, you know? And I don't know what the answer is. I mean, I heard one of the people from "The Cosby Show" talking about - I think it was Malcolm-Jamal Warner - was talking about how it really affected him because of residuals and things like that. And, I mean, that's - that is the collateral damage.

GROSS: Right. I interviewed Louis several times. And a question I wish I asked that I didn't was about the women characters on his show "Louie" because it seemed like whenever he dated someone, including your character, in a way - she was always, like, a little crazy, sometimes even predatory. And I never asked him about that because there was so much about the show that I really loved. I figured, why spend time on something that made me uncomfortable?

And maybe I was uncomfortable asking because maybe I didn't want to risk losing the rapport that we had. But I'm wondering if any of, like, the portrayals of women on his show made you uncomfortable then or in retrospect.

ADLON: That's so interesting. I mean, I remember when he wrote that my character Pamela, like, threw all his furniture away. And I said, why are you doing this? Why are you trying to make everybody hate Pamela? Like, that's so crazy. I think that he just - I mean, he would like to do things in extremes. But, I mean, that's interesting. You would have to ask him that question. I don't know. I feel that, you know, when he wrote the Sarah Baker - the "So Did The Fat Lady" episode and when she made that beautiful speech, I mean, that was all him, you know?

GROSS: That was a speech to a waitress that he met at, I think, a comedy club. And...

ADLON: She - yes, that's right.

GROSS: She was - she's a large, young woman. And she felt like no one ever wants to date her or see her as sexual because she's large. And he - and she, obviously, would like to date him. And he doesn't really want to be seen as someone who she's dating. But - yes. But then he makes a - do you want to just describe the speech that you're talking about?

ADLON: Well, it was her speech to him.

GROSS: Her speech to him, right. Right.

ADLON: Yeah. And it was...

GROSS: But he wrote it. Yeah.

ADLON: He wrote that speech. And I remember auditioning the women for this speech because I held the audition in Los Angeles for Los Angeles people. And Sarah Baker came in here. A lot of women came in. They were deeply affected by these words. And, you know, it's - I mean, it's an absolutely extraordinary soliloquy that this woman - she just lays everything bare. And it is a testament to his heart and his depth as a writer to be able to go in and understand somebody like that. And that speech, in a way, is him. You know, it's him talking about himself.

GROSS: OK. So that leads to another thing I've been wondering about. How do you figure out what to do? When Louis was, you know, accused of this and admitted to the sexual misconduct, I mean, I would imagine - and you can tell me - that you had two feelings. One was probably to try to help him because - I don't know. It just seems to me somebody who's doing that in front of women is really troubled and needs some kind of help - therapy or something.

At the same time, there's this urge to say, like, I'm not going near you. Like, what you did was really damaging and terrible and inexcusable. I'm going to sever ties with you. So were you torn between the idea of doing something to help him, to help make him realize what he'd done and get better - like, you know what I mean? - change.

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: Between that and just saying, I'm done with you.

ADLON: I think that it's exactly what you're saying. You know, I mean, my first instinct is to help, to reach out and help everybody, you know, in every aspect of my life. It's always been that way. You can only offer help so much, you know? People have to be able to accept it, the help. In terms of professionally, I needed to start completely fresh. And I had no choice. I was not going to make my show with him anymore. So that's why I had to contemplate whether or not I was going to do it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon. She's the co-writer, the director and the star of the FX comedy series, "Better Things," which starts its third season on Thursday. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon. She is the co-creator, the co-writer, the director and the star of the FX comedy series, "Better Things," which begins its third season Thursday.

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.

ADLON: Yes.

GROSS: I guess that was intentional.

ADLON: I made my dad.

GROSS: Is that weird for you 'cause 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."

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: She created the hair pieces 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 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.

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: But there were 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 in 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 list of '88 or something like that. And he was so excited. He was like, we're part of the conversation. Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: We're top 10. Top 10 anything is good.

GROSS: (Laughter) Was that 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 two 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 - I've been working my whole life, not just as an actor, but I - doing other odd jobs. When I was - I was on "Facts Of Life" (ph) 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?

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

ADLON: But I like work, 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 a 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 the...

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: And the director said, oh, you know, it would be really hilarious if you dropped the towel. But I don't think you've said, like, what did you do. (Laughter) 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.

GROSS: So...

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, ha. That's really - that's just not okay. Or you know, my - 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.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest is Pamela Adlon, the co-creator, co-writer, director and star of the FX comedy series "Better Things," which starts its third season Thursday. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK SONG, "WE ARE ALL SNOWFLAKES (FEAT. YOSHINORI TAKEZAWA)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Pamela Adlon, the co-creator, co-writer, director and star of the FX series "Better Things." She plays a character like herself - a single mother raising three girls while also helping take care of her aging mother and trying to keep up with her acting career. Season three starts Thursday.

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 (laughter). And...

ADLON: Oh, my God. That's amazing that you (laughter) said that.

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.

ADLON: Yeah.

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 - 'cause 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 (laughter) to know. 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: My day - wait, who; 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 sacks 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 - 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: But, you know, like, your oldest, who's 22 now, I think, and who...

ADLON: She's 21. Yeah.

GROSS: Twenty-one. And she has an acting career now, as does your...

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Middle daughter. But your oldest, who had moved out of the house, moved back in. So do you consider that a sign of your success or your failure? (Laughter) Do you know what I mean?

ADLON: Oh, for me, it's a success. I love it. You know, and, I mean, at a certain point, I had my three daughters and then two other kids living in the house up until a couple months ago. And, you know, it's a happy place, you know? For me, I love to be home. I'm a homebody. When I'm not in production, I cook almost every single night, you know? And now my daughters are cooking. And it's extremely - yeah, it's a success for me except when they're bitchy. Then I'm like, get out.

GROSS: (Laughter) 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 - and your character has to play 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 "Louie." 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.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, good luck with the new season. 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.

GROSS: Pamela Adlon co-writes, directs and stars in the FX comedy series "Better Things," which starts its third season Thursday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Mary Pipher who wrote the best-seller "Reviving Ophelia" about the pressures and anxieties faced by teenage girls. She wrote about adults taking care of their aging parents in the book "Another Country." Her new book "Women Rowing North" is about women who, like her, are transitioning into older age. Pipher is a clinical psychologist. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY GIBBS AND BUDDY DEFRANCO'S "SLEEPY OLD MOON")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY GIBBS AND BUDDY DEFRANCO'S "SLEEPY OLD MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.