How I Get It Done: Pamela Adlon of Better Things

Pamela Adlon Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Pamela Adlon is a mother of three and the showrunner, writer, director and star of FX’s Better Things, a semi-autobiographical sitcom which she co-created with her longtime collaborator Louis C.K. All ten episodes of the second season — which premiered September 14 — were directed entirely by Adlon over a period of 40 days. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her daily routine:
I get up at 6 a.m. and sometimes I make lunch for my two youngest kids. Usually my oldest sleeps late, and I get my kids out the door to school. For years it was me just doing all of that and then driving to a carpool or this or that. Now my two youngest are in high school. After that, it depends what my day looks like. Yesterday I woke up and I did radio and then I went and did a color session for my show, then I went and did a Bob’s Burgers recording. Then I went home, and my kids were all there, and I started cooking. It’s go-time all the time.

On family meals:
Cooking is the best occupational therapy for me. And when I cook everybody comes to eat. It’s the greatest thing. My youngest daughter, one time I said, “Do you like the brown chicken?” and she said, “It’s not my favorite, Mom, but if you cook I’m gonna eat it.” I always remember that she said that to me. My favorite thing used to be when the kids would hang out [with me] while I was cooking, but now they all have their phones and their computers and they want to be in their rooms so it’s usually, it’s me going [raises voice], “Does anybody want to be in the kitchen when I’m cooking?”

On directing the second season of Better Things by herself:
It made my life a whole lot easier. Everything just flowed through me, and everybody felt safe and they knew the buck always stops with me. I have a vision and an aesthetic and a style that really lent itself to me taking over in every way on my show. In that way it became a lot easier for me to execute this whole season.

On being efficient on set:
When I was hiring people for my show I would say, “I need you guys to form a triangle-V around me. Whoever is the head of the department, everything should go to them and [that person] should go to me.” Because I went through season one, I know how to not be peppered by a million questions, because inevitably you’ll get asked the same thing 20, 40 times. I’m trying to keep my days very efficient and I keep my set really tight. Every single corner is active and everybody gets to thrive in the job that they do. I don’t waste people’s time.

On taking care of her cast and crew:
I’ve been this way my whole life — I’m a little mommy, and I like to take care of people. I remember doing an arc on Boston Legal several years ago and their craft service was the best thing I ever saw. They had three hot pots going all the time and I made a note of that and I thought, Oh my god. If I ever have my own show, I am going to feed the shit out of my crew and make sure they’re so happy. Because, you know, fed crew’s a happy crew. So my set is a very inclusive, happy set. It’s very collaborative, but it’s not a set that, you know, work is having social business or anything. People are concentrating and focused on the work at hand, which is why we’re able to be so efficient and get home at a decent hour. For me, running a set and directing has been the most rewarding thing of my life and a happy surprise, because it was never really on my radar.

On staying organized:
Oh god, it’s everything. I need somebody to organize my stuff right now, if you know anybody. I have an assistant and he’s wonderful. He was like, “Maybe we should hire somebody to organize your stuff.” I was like, “Isn’t that what you’re for?” Please, can someone organize my life? When things are neat and clean around me I feel calm and at peace. If it’s a hoard and a mess, it makes me crazy.

On how naps kept her sane during a 40-day shoot:
For me, self-preservation is about shutting down completely. It doesn’t mean you have to go to sleep — it’s about taking your pants off, laying down in a quiet place and not talking at all. I think taking your pants off is a huge thing — everybody should take their pants off. It feels too good.
At lunch when we were shooting at the house that we shoot at — Sam [her character on the show]’s house —I would go into her bedroom everyday, my second AD would tape off the room and he would kick everybody out of the upstairs of the house and I would stick earplugs in, throw a piece of black over my eyes, and I would pass out for 20 minutes. And that kept me going.

On what she eats:
When I go to the set, I get hungry right away so I will eat lunch for breakfast. Then, by the time it’s lunch I am able to sleep. In general, I like to try to get as much protein in as possible. I like having tuna on spinach, like a bed of spinach, or you know, I like hard-boiled eggs. I like anything that’s like protein. I like turkey on a wrap.

On being a working mom:
I have a job like anybody else. You know, most people have a job unless you’re a total loser and you don’t want a job. What if I was a pediatrician? I used to always look at my daughters’ doctor, who’s a lady, as the ultimate rock star. I can’t believe that she’s a pediatric doctor, and she was bringing up her daughters at the same time I was. I feel like it’s kind of like that right now for people with me and my show. They’re like, “How are you being a mom and have your kids and have this show?” You know what? It’s the same and you just do it.

On balance:
For many, many years I chose my kids over things and opportunities professionally because it just wasn’t the right time. I had to be with my children at that point because they were younger. Now they’re all older, which doesn’t mean they need me any less, but they understand and they have more maturity to know that I need to go out and work right now — that this is the time for me. If it ever came down to being like, “Oh, I got offered a movie in Prague. Good-bye! I’ll see you in a year!” I couldn’t do that, unless I was taking them with.

On the difference between her and her Better Things character:
Sam is kind of like a little mixture of me before I was a mom, 20-year-0ld me, and me in early mom-dom. She’s not really me now. But certainly as the show keeps going — and we’ve done 20 episodes now — she’s her own person. And sometimes I step outside of myself and I laugh and I go, “Oh my god, you’re being just like the lady from that show.” And I’m talking about my own show!

On co-writing with Louis C.K.:
We never say no when the other person has an idea, because there’s nothing that kills creativity faster than making a judgment on an idea before it even begins to be a butterfly of a thought. That’s the most important thing. You let it play out. You let people talk out. Whatever comes out of their mouth you encourage it, because it’s going to lead you to the next thing. I would say that that’s the number-one thing; we’ll say, “Let’s explore this. Let’s go down the road.” Sometimes if Louie is writing a story I can’t even say anything because he’s just got a spirit in him that’s taking him away. Sometimes he’ll make a comment or offer up making a cut or something; there’s a scene this season that he suggested that I cut a big part of. But now that scene has been quoted three times by reviewers. So he just said to me, “You’re always right. You’re the tiebreaker.”

On being a woman showrunner:
There have been massively positive shifts in the industry. But I still feel it; I still get that thing. Look where I am right now. You can be on the top of the world one minute and then I could walk into another situation or another set with a bunch of men, and they don’t know me from Adam, or know what my accomplishments or achievements have been, and I still feel that thing and that energy. It happens to me on my own set with men, and it’s an ugly feeling. But I do think that it can’t last much longer. I think that certain people need to be shown the way. You can’t correct people because they’ll get super defensive and it won’t lead you anywhere. So all you can do is show with the way you live your life and lead by example.

On having an inclusive set:
I just try and be inclusive with everything. I love having women, I love elevating women. My department heads are women. It’s amazing. It’s a huge, huge accomplishment to have women all around you. It feels good. If I am being a pioneer for women then I’m absolutely thrilled. At half a century, to be doing what I’m doing right now, I feel like my [personal] story is as important for people as my show is. It shows you you never give up and hard work pays off.

How I Get It Done: Pamela Adlon of Better Things