‘Better Things’ Star Pamela Adlon on Discovering Wooden Dildos With David Duchovny

Pamela Adlon as Sam. CR: Colleen Hayes/FX

Pamela Adlon as Sam.

FX is on a bit of a great comedy streak lately. First, Donald Glover’s Atlanta managed to be effortlessly hilarious while still illuminating a part of black culture practically nonexistent on TV before. Better Things, debuting tonight, takes a different but no less distinctive path — it’s a simple, grounded comedy that just so happens to be virtually devoid of white men.

Creator Pamela Adlon–best known for seven seasons of Californication, frequent collaborations both on-screen and off with Louis CK or as the unmistakeable voice of Bobby Hill–stars as Sam, an actress living in L.A. juggling landing gigs and raising three young daughters. It’s a warmer Louie, minus the schlubby sad-man aesthetic, a comedy that mines a great deal from life’s small moments: A daughter asking for a weed, the humdrum of L.A. auditions, the struggle of finding suitable porn past a certain age. We met up with Adlon recently at the TCA Press Tour in Beverly Hills to discuss finding these small moments, the allure of Los Angeles, and surfing the middle-age porn scene with Californication co-star David Duchovny.

I’m from New York, so any show that is set in LA is alien to me, because LA itself is so alien to me. Why do you think LA a place to both raise kids, and to set a TV show, and how those two things mix together. 

I’m from New York too but I grew up bicoastally, so I’m somebody who used to be, you know, “I’m a very disgruntled former New Yorker in LA.” When I was a kid, I would be really upset when we’d move back to LA. And then finally one day I was like, “I don’t wanna be one of those people that’s living this amazing life in LA and still mad just because it’s not New York.” And I realized this has been an amazing place to raise my daughters. They’re all very outdoorsy people…they’re indoor people, too, but they ski. They go to the beach. They use public transportation. My kids are like New Yorkers living in LA.

But I understand what you’re saying because when I was a kid I used to watch Emergency, which was a TV show in the 70s in LA and I used to be like “Ahhh” just when I’d see palm trees. And CHiPS? Oh, man.

LA just feels like it isn’t real sometimes. 

Well, it’s not. It’s funny because I used to say that about Californication, because I would say “This is not the California that I live in.” I loved the stories that we were telling on that show, but [Better Things] is about the California that I live in. And how my daughters and I go to Chinatown downtown on the train and have dim sum. And how we go to Boyle Heights, and then Venice. We live everywhere in this town, and it’s just an important part of all the people we know.

The Better Things pilot alone has so many absurd moments that still feel so real, like highlighting how hard it is to find specific porn. 

You know, actually I had this conversation when I was in Californication…I didn’t know about porn, or searches, or anything like that. They would say things in the scripts and I would say “I don’t understand. I don’t understand what BDSM is. I don’t know what ‘toss your salad’ means.” And Tom Kapinos would have to explain everything to me. And we had this conversation, I said “What do you do if you want to look at porn but you don’t want to see something that’s really, deeply upsetting? And you want to see like, middle-aged porn? People of your age?” And so I typed it in, and I got like “Porn of the Middle Ages.”

You went through history to find the right porn. 

Yes! And David Duchovny was like “Oh my God, is that wooden dildos? Is that cuneiform?” So somebody was around us and they said “You’d type in ‘mature.’ It’s ‘mature’ porn.” So these are things like, anytime you have a conversation, or you gain a piece of knowledge, it becomes something where it’s like “what if I played with that?” There’s different aspects that are dormant in me that I’m able to use as details in the show. And embellish, and create crazy scenarios.

My dad was a writer, and he used to call them “brain bits.” And I keep like files of little brain bits. In my phone, I’ll do a draft and in the subject line, I don’t know what you do, you probably do something similar, I always write the same word so I can find it. “Show idea” or “writing idea” or whatever.

You mentioned during the TCA panel that you were blocked for a while coming up with the general idea of the show. Do you remember the specific moment where it came together? Has it yet? 

Yeah, there was a turning point. It was after I’d starting writing for this show, this pilot, I just started flowing. And I’d be like, “Oh my God, maybe the time I went to the plastic surgeon with my friend for a consultation. How crazy was that?” Just write it down. And just being able to keep these scenes, and eventually I would just like [arranging various papers on the table between us], “okay, let’s put this here, and the scene where you go to the sex store here, and the school thing. Oh, we can’t use that.” It turned out it was just a matter of taking these moments, these brain bits or parts of me or whatever, and aligning them to tell the right story.