At the first annual Tribeca TV Festival this week in New York, which featured everyone from the cast of the rebooted Will & Grace to Amy Sedaris to Trevor Noah, Pamela Adlon entered the press room at the Cinepolis Chelsea, beaming, just minutes after the festival’s undisputed headliner had whisked by on her way to the red carpet.
“Oh, f—,” Adlon, the writer, co-creator, director, and star of FX’s Better Things, said upon hearing that she had just missed Oprah Winfrey. She hurried back to the curtain, peering out, before turning back and taking a seat in a folding chair next to me. In just half an hour, after all, she would be taking her own turn on the red carpet: Though the second season of Better Things had gotten underway earlier in the month, Adlon arrived on Friday afternoon prepared to screen the third episode of the season (“Robin,” in which her character, Sam Fox, goes on an impromptu weekend-long wine-tasting getaway with a very, very new love interest) and to discuss the series with her longtime collaborator Louis C.K. as part of the festival’s opening night. (Though she took over directing duties full-time for the show’s wry-yet-moving second season, she and C.K. continue to share writing credits on many episodes.)
When we sat down to talk, she had recently returned from the Toronto Film Festival, where she attended the premiere of C.K.’s new film I Love You, Daddy, and from the 69th Emmy Awards, and she was about to return to Los Angeles the next day. (Earlier this year, Adlon earned an Emmy nomination for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy for her work on the first season of Better Things.) She paused amid Oprah sightings and everything else to discuss writing in a post-Trump world and directing her own show, and to share what she’s watching, listening to, and reading—and, as anyone who watches Better Things might expect, what art she’s been “ogling.”
You directed the second episode of the first season, and the finale. Now, you’re directing all of them. Why did you want to take on directing full-time?
I was there. I’m the director of record of season two, but I was just there, and it’s a very handmade show. It was kind of a natural evolution, and I didn’t really get a daunting feeling, like I was afraid to do it. I never really knew what would go into it, and it was just a massive learning curve, season one. I was equipped and ready, season two. I know how to not waste time. I know how to keep things tight. I know how to do chess moves, because that’s the way I live my life raising my daughters by myself. That’s the best kind of boot camp that you can possibly have.
The season finale aired just a couple days after the election, and I know a lot of people interpreted it in that context.
I’m wondering if, now that you’re writing in the aftermath of that, if the political context more explicitly informs your writing.
I would say that the world climate around me would influence my writing. I try to keep my show and what I’m trying to portray timeless, in a way—that is, just human condition things. I just feel like we’re dealing with all the same stuff since cave people. I try to keep it timeless, but I’m mindful of everything that’s going on around me.
You spend some time sitting on the toilet this season.
Do you read on the toilet?
I do, and hopefully I have my glasses.
What do you tend to be looking at?
I have a whole magazine rack in my bathroom with books and magazines, so, oh, god, there’s still a book that’s been there forever called The Explosive Child—you know, all the parenting books that are just covered with dust that never helped, or whatever. In the bathroom is when I look at the social media stuff. I don’t make a point to look at it any other place, other than when I’m shitting.
What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
I look at my phone. I have to look at my phone for my kids. I’m like, okay, that one kid who didn’t come home, I’ve got to see if she came home. My middle daughter: Is she home? Is she in the house? Check on all my kids, my texts, and then I’ll look at email and be like, what do I have today, I don’t know.
Do all your kids still live with you?
All of them, yeah, and their friends.
So you go to your phone before you check if they’re physically there.
[Pauses.] Yes. Yes.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m reading a graphic novel called My Friend Dahmer. It was made into a film. I have a Ray Davies book and a Sally Mann book, the photographer, and another book called Stitches, which is a graphic novel.
Are you into graphic novels?
Yeah, kind of into them because of my youngest daughter. She started reading them in school, so if my kids are reading anything, then I want to read it. I also have Twilight: Los Angeles by Anna Deavere Smith.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
When I can watch anything—right now, all I do, if I have something on in my room, it’s Turner Classic Movies. I just have that endlessly on a loop. You can never be dissatisfied. My kids come in and we’re watching it. The other night we watched Broadway Melody. It was unbelievable. It’s from the ’20s, and sitting there watching it, my oldest daughter comes in—my 20-year-old—she sits down next to me. I’m in heaven. Then, my 14-year-old lays her head on her shoulder. We watched the whole thing. It’s the most satisfying thing in the world. I’m not in a thing of shows keeping me up at night; it’s hard to stay awake. I’m exhausted at the end of the day. But the one show that I go to that I’m getting through this season is Insecure.
What is the last movie that you saw in theaters?
I saw [Louis C.K.’s film] I Love You, Daddy in Toronto. We saw it a couple weeks ago; it premiered in Toronto. Before that, a movie that I wasn’t in, I couldn’t f—ing tell you to save my life. When was the last time I went to see a movie? I think it was the movie with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams. He played a boxer. Southpaw. And the one with Sylvester Stallone—Creed. Those were the last two movies I saw in the theater because I went with my youngest daughter. I know I’m going to the movies tomorrow when I get back to L.A. because she’s taking me to see It. My kids are obsessed.
Had you seen I Love You, Daddy before the premiere?
No, I’d only seen pieces of it, because Louis and I, we’d worked together and we help each other, so he’d send me links and say, “What do you think about this cut or that cut?” He didn’t want me to see the whole thing until Toronto, so we all watched it roll out, like, me and Edie Falco and John Malkovich and Charlie Day. It was really fun to watch it all in one piece.
What was the last thing that you saw at the theater?
We go a lot in L.A. I think that it was probably Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Darren Criss [on Broadway], which was right before the election. On election night, I had a big party and it was unbelievable because Judy Gold came in tears. Jeff Garlin was there with his family. Allison Janney was there. We had this beautiful party with a gay pride flag, Hillary flag, all blue, a donkey mylar balloon. My daughter Gideon set up the whole party and everybody was gone by 10:45 in f—ing tears. My friends called me from the Javits Center and then Darren and his girlfriend Mia [Swier] came after he did the Hedwig performance. It was just me and the teenagers and Darren and Mia, and we all played music and sang, played piano, Darren played guitar, my kids all sang. I have this video of everyone playing the music, and my youngest daughter is like, with her fingers up at the—and it says “Trump Wins,” and we were all in disbelief. I remember that so well. So that’s the last thing I saw in the theater, and then Darren came that night.
What were you guys playing?
We sang “Wild World,” Cat Stevens. We just went there into all the rock, you know what I mean? Deep. Deep.
Are you an art person?
Oh, yes, if you see my show, you see art all over the walls of the house. Art’s huge for me.
Yes! So what was the last piece of art that you bought, or admired?
Oh—both different. I bought four pieces by Edwin Ushiro from my friend Eric Nakamura, who owns Giant Robot and Giant Robot II. Edwin Ushiro. Unbelievable—look him up. And the last thing I admired was, I was just in Paris and I saw a show at the contemporary museum of Giacometti and Balthus and this guy Derain. Incredible. Then, at the D’Orsay, the Henri Fantin-Latour. Ogled. Ogled the f— out of the impressionists and all that stuff.
What’s an upcoming release you’re most excited about?
Oh, gosh. That’s just not on my radar. I saw that Harry Potter is coming to Broadway, which made me kind of excited. But you know, just because I’m working so much, I don’t know what’s on the horizon.
What is the last song that you had on repeat?
“Celluloid Heroes,” by The Kinks.
Classic. What about the last concert you went to?
I don’t even remember. I go see music so much. I saw Tom Freund and Ben Harper.
How do you get your news?
BBC, WNYC, NPR, KPCC. Radio. Public radio.
I saw on your Instagram that you met RuPaul. Tell me about that.
We’d met her before. My friend Allee Willis wrote the song “September” for Earth, Wind, and Fire. It’s the first song you hear in my season this year. Allee had a big “sound of soul” party at her house, and Ru was there. But that night, my daughters were like, “Mom!” and they grabbed me. And they said, “It’s RuPaul,” and we all get together and RuPaul is like, “You gotta go fast,” [snaps] “Now,” [snaps] “Yesterday,” [snaps] and she was gone. Yeah. [laughs] We love her.
Do you watch the show?
Yes. We’ve been obsessed for years because you know, we’ve grown up in that world, so I even put a clip of RuPaul in the fifth episode of my show this season, and I feel like I was like, Oh, I got her, an Emmy nomination—she’s everything. We love RuPaul.
Do you have any favorite accounts to follow on social media?
I follow a lot of artists and I follow a lot of chefs and cooks. For me, it’s about art and music. I just love seeing what they’re up to. Or a curator like @marthacoopergram—she does amazing things in all different cities all over the world with art and kids—and David Choe. A lot of art.
Do your kids let you follow them?
Yeah, they do. They used to block me, and now we’re all an open book for each other.
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Um… [laughs] I make sure my foam earplugs are on my nightstand and my soft black robe is on my bed so in the morning I put them in and I throw the black over my eyes.