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September 23, 2016

Speaking for Herself

Long a voice actress and performer in other people’s shows, Pamela Adlon now stars in her own.

Steve Chawkins
  • Art imitates life for Pamela Adlon in Better Things, her semi-autobiographical FX comedy.

    James Minchin/FX
  • James Minchin/FX
  • James Minchin/FX

From the beginning, Pamela Adlon knew her way around TV.

Her dad, the late Don Segall, produced The Dave Garroway Show and later wrote for TV comedies including The Love Boat and Chico and the Man. Growing up on soundstages in New York and Los Angeles, Adlon started acting at 12 but hit her stride years later, voicing characters in animated series like Rugrats, Recess and, most famously, King of the Hill.

Now, after years in adult comedies, Adlon has launched a show using the most distinctive voice of all — her own. Her FX comedy Better Things chronicles the raw, frustrating craziness of daily life for Sam Fox, who, like Adlon, is an actor and single mother living in L.A.

“It’s semi-autobiographical,” Adlon explains. “I wanted to paint a picture of what real folks are like — not a candy version.”

That includes unclogging toilets, putting up with pre-teen prickliness, putting down slumber parties gone wild, looking futilely for love and stoically enduring a wide range of smart-kid barbs: “Jesus, Mom, you are so bipolar….”

Like Sam, Adlon is divorced and raising her three daughters alone. Both have British ex-pat mothers. (In the show, Adlon’s mum lives across the street and is played by Celia Imrie, whose recent work includes Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.) Both Adlon and Sam can be unrelentingly frank — “unfiltered,” Adlon calls it — and have paid their show-business dues.

Adlon, who took home a 2002 Emmy for her portrayal of Texas-twanged Bobby on King of the Hill, has had numerous film roles and still does voice work. But while Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness helped pay the bills, it was Adlon’s more serious comedy work that stoked her creative fires.

On Showtime’s Californication, Adlon was raunchy Marcy Runkle, waxer to the porn stars. She played opposite Louis C.K. in  HBO’s one season of Lucky Louie and later became a fixture on FX’s Louie  as C.K.’s acerbic, single-mom pal, Pamela.

Both C.K. and Adlon are creators,  executive producers, writers and directors of Better Things.  “He wrote the whole season with me,” Adlon says. “We have the perfect  tone together when we come up with stories and situations.” On Better Things, tone — honest, funny, disturbing — is everything.

At one point, when Sam’s oldest daughter, Max, tries to bring up sensitive subjects, Sam simply refuses to hear. “Honey,” Adlon says soothingly. “These things are normal — but you should be ashamed of them.” But Max (Mikey Madison) persists: “You’re my mom! I want you to know if I have sex or want to get high.”

“No!” her mother cries. “Hide things from me. Please!”


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2016

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