‘Better Things’ Star Pamela Adlon On Child Acting, Androgyny, And Bobby Hill

I really like Better Things, FX’s new comedy starring and produced by Pamela Adlon, who was Louis C.K.’s frequent on- and off-screen collaborator on Louie. (Here’s my review from yesterday.) The show is deeply autobiographical, with Adlon playing a thinly-disguised version of herself: a single mom to three daughters, and a former child actress still plugging away in show business (finding more success in voiceover work than on camera) decades later.

At press tour, I sat down with Adlon to talk about how (when she was still going by Pamela Segall) she got started in the business, her early ’80s androgynous period — highlighted by Willy/Milly, where she played an adolescent girl who wished to be a boy, and woke up the next morning with a penis — the transition into voice work on shows like King of the Hill, the ways that her new art imitates her old life (like a cameo by Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, who once produced Adlon on a FOX sitcom called Down the Shore, before the network ordered that she be replaced by someone more conventionally attractive), and more.

Early on, how did you decide to become an actress in the first place, or was it decided for you?

Pamela Adlon: I just wanted in because of my dad (sitcom writer Don Segall). I grew up on sound stages and all of his shows. I just knew I wanted to be part of it. I think before I started acting, my dad was doing a pilot. Jimmy Komack was one of the producers, who produced Welcome Back, Kotter and all that. I did the stand-up for the audience that was there. My dad made me tell jokes. I remember walking around. I had a scarf on, and I did this. I had a clipboard because I wanted to feel like I was a part of it. It’s so funny, because now I’m living that out. Then when I came to LA for the first time, I met some kids who were in acting, but this one kid in particular was saying, “My agent came over, and we were jumping on my bed together.” I was like, “Really? I want an agent.” She had a composite, like the pictures on both sides.

I remember the name at the bottom. It said, “Beverly Hecht Agency.” I got the phone book, and I called. I got her on the phone, and I made an appointment. I sat my parents down, and I said, “I want an agent. I want to act, and I made an appointment.” My mother was like, “Ooh.” I think I was probably 11. She took me there. Beverly Hecht was Ben Hecht’s sister, the writer, and she had me read copy from a Tide commercial. Then she brought my mom in, and she was like, “She’s fantastic. Okay, I want to sign her.” I loved her. She was my first agent. I starred in weird little commercials and things. I just wanted all of it, all of it.

Willy/Milly, HBO played that a thousand times when I was growing up.

Pamela Adlon: Are you serious?

I could probably recite dialogue from that movie.

Pamela Adlon: Do you remember those days when they would play the same thing over and over?

Yes. This was the period where you were typecast as a tomboy, or someone that other people couldn’t even tell if you were a girl.

Pamela Adlon: I’m in a book called Female Masculinity, and they talk about that movie Times Square. It’s an unbelievable movie with these homeless kids in Times Square. Then they talk about me in that movie. Then they talk about Just One of the Guys, that the girl cross-dresses, but I grow an actual dick in my thing.

There was the Night Court episode, I remember, where you were posing as a boy.

Pamela Adlon: There was a point a few years ago where I realized I started out playing boys on camera and stage, and then I translated that to playing boys in animated shows. I was like, “Whoa, this is intense.”

When you’re a teenage girl and you’re growing up, and you’re getting cast several times in a row like this, what is that doing to you, if anything?

Pamela Adlon: It didn’t do anything to me. It’s the world that I felt comfortable in. The best example of this is that The Redd Foxx Show, they were casting for a boy that he would foster (parent). My agent at the time had said, “You should go in on this.” I had just had my hair chopped off again. I looked like Ralph Macchio or Bruce Springsteen, whichever one. I went in for the audience as Paul Segall. My tits were bound. I put an ace bandage on my chest, and I went in the room. It was an unbelievable rush to have people stand up and go, “Hey, Paul. How you doing?” Just to pass and just to feel nervous about it through every level when I went to Lorimar, when I met Redd Foxx, and then finally going to network in drag as Paul Segall. It was unbelievable. It was something that I loved. I would die if somebody put me in a dress or put me in something frilly or whatever. It had the opposite (effect). It was very empowering for me.

How did they react when you ultimately came out?

Pamela Adlon: Oh, the last time, they called me back into the room after every time, like at Lorimar, they were like, “Pamela, Pamela.” I’m like, “Shhh.” Barbara Miller was the casting woman, and she goes, “No, we told them to come back in.” I came in and I had my shirt open. I showed them the bandage. They were like, “We have to think about this. We got to think about this.” But very open, they ended up casting me. Redd said that he always knew that I was a girl — and then they ended up replacing me with Sinbad!

That wasn’t the last time you were replaced on a show. Seeing Phil Rosenthal in that one episode of Better Things reminded me of you getting fired from Down the Shore.

Pamela Adlon: I put the words in his mouth that happened when I was replacing Down the Shore.

Where he says that you’re very funny, but have no tits?

Pamela Adlon: Yes, exactly. Also, I think I replaced somebody on Down the Shore, and then I ended up getting replaced. Then I think the show ended up getting cancelled right after that.

Did someone actually tell you that that was the reason why?

Pamela Adlon: No. I think I probably was too boyish or whatever the thing was. I don’t really even know. I probably wasn’t sexy enough to be on that TV show. Oh, this is what Phil said (to me): “They ended up replacing you with a lox with no tits, and we still got cancelled.” That’s the story.

You didn’t exactly disappear from in front of the camera after that, but that was one of the last really notable things that you did in the ’90s that was live-action. After that, it was a lot of voiceover.

Pamela Adlon: Yeah, I think I did a lot of obscure things that never saw the light of day. Then, I became a mom in ’97, just all of that. And my dad died in ’94, so that’s a bench. It started shifting when I did Bed of Roses after my dad passed away. Yeah, struggling. That’s interesting, Alan, because for me, before my dad passed away, I was struggling to pay my rent there. I had to sell my record collection, like that kind of thing to get money. That’s when some animation started happening for me, and then it really, really took off. That’s a benchmark for me, ’94.

What do you remember from seeing the King of the Hill script and coming in for Bobby?

Pamela Adlon: I remember going to Fox, them handing me the sides, and this is the way it always worked with animation, and they would say, “Okay, well he’s a 12-year-old boy, and he’s from Texas.” I would be like, “Can somebody have told me so I could’ve watched Badlands last night or something?” Then we went through the whole process, and they had us do the voice to an animatic that they had. One of the last auditions, I walked in the room and Greg Daniels was in there. He said, “I hope you don’t get offended, but I’m going to turn around and look at the picture because I don’t want to see your face to distract me.” I was like, “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that.” That just turned into my favorite thing I ever did, hands down, ever.

He’s a great character.

Pamela Adlon: I love that show. I love that show, that character, that writing. I learned so much as a writer from those writers.

One of the recurring themes of Better Things, at least through the five episodes I’ve seen, not just in the one with Phil, is people talking Sam up as way more talented than the opportunities she has necessarily been given in her career, because of the way she looks or whatever. How much of the show — both those comments and the things that you get to do on it — is you trying to make a statement about what you’re actually capable of versus the opportunities you’ve been given over the years?

Pamela Adlon: I guess it’s just pulling different things from different times in my life. This story in (the episode with Phil) is that people are talking about Sam and this amazing opportunity is almost happening, and she never finds out anything about it. People are fighting for her, and then people are saying, “She’s 60 years old. Isn’t she 60?” It’s fun because it’s like I hired somebody to be in my show, and she said, “Look, I’m not even good with saying my real age. I don’t want to say that I’m older than my real age is on the show.” I’m like, “I’m telling that story. I’m saying I’m 60.” Celia Imrie who plays my mother, she’s like 63, in real life, she’s playing my 80-year-old mother, or ageless. A lot of things are drawn from real life, and from hearsay, and little bits and pieces of my career. They’re using a clip of me in 21 Jump Street. I couldn’t even believe they got that.

What are things Louis has told you, or what are things you’ve just learned from watching him do the other show about what you do and don’t want to do in terms of blurring the lines between your life and Sam’s life?

Pamela Adlon: Nothing like that. He had his own comfort zones with Louie. For me in terms of making my show, he would just say, “Don’t worry about story. Just don’t worry about story.” I was groomed to do this inadvertently because of the work that I did on Louie. Coming up with ideas for him was so easy for me. It was harder for me to come up with the concept for my pilot, and then the story started unfolding for this season of my show.

What’s your memory of the first time you guys met? Was it on Lucky Louie or was it before?

Pamela Adlon: Yeah, I did an audition.

Did you get along instantly or not?

Pamela Adlon: Yeah. I didn’t know who he was. My manager at the time had said, “You’re meeting this comedian,” whatever, and then I went in. I was going to do this Pamela Anderson pilot, which was called — I don’t even remember. Then he ended up wanting me to do his show, and he called me and said, “Please don’t do that show.” I’m like, “Nobody’s offering me either show.” They had to go through the whole thing of the blondes, everything. That worked out, and then I ended being able to contribute story ideas and writing on Louie. It’s just been an amazing collaboration because I help him with everything, and he helps me. I helped him with Horace and Pete. Every single thing that we do, we just exchange over 3,000 miles, and it’s satisfying.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@comcast.net