Anyone who watched “Louie” knows that Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon share an infinitely watchable rapport onscreen. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves in the Emmy-nominated FX show, their real-life friendship infused their characters with a warm naturalism that made “Louie” unlike any other show on television. It comes as no surprise then that “Better Things” shares the same naturalism; Adlon was a writer/producer on “Louie” and C.K. is an executive producer on “Better Things.” C.K. was instrumental in getting the show greenlit, pitching an Adlon show to FX president John Landgraf.
Former collaborator Tig Notaro recently disavowed C.K.’s involvement in her Amazon series, “One Mississippi,” even though he is credited as an executive producer. As unseemly rumors continue to surround the comedian and filmmaker, his fruitful collaboration with Adlon of a woman filmmaker who has benefitted greatly from C.K.’s support — and that’s all according to Adlon.
“You made me do it,” Adlon told C.K. in her slightly combative signature growl. He was interviewing his friend and collaborator at a recent Tribeca TV Festival screening of “Better Things,” and had just asked her how she knew she could create her own show. “I knew you could do it,” he said. “You told John Landgraf,” said Adlon. “You called him up and then you called me and you said, ‘I think you should be directing your own show,’ and I said ‘I can’t do it,’ and…you had already pitched me.”
Introducing Adlon to the crowd, C.K. included an extensive biography that began with her birth place, career as a child actor, and voiceover work. Standing to the side of the theater, Adlon shouted “Fuck you!” as C.K. listed “The Jeffersons,” “The Facts of Life,” and “Night Court” as part of her resume. He ended on a genuine note, “Pamela has accomplished all this while simultaneously raising her three kids on her own. I could never do what Pamela does and neither could any of you.” The two friends bonded early on about single parenthood; C.K. initially hired Adlon on “Lucky Louie” partly because she had three kids and he knew she “had stories to tell,” she said. “So you helped procure my writer’s voice early.”
The show stars Adlon as an actress and single mother of three living in Los Angeles. Sitting comfortably in the sweet spot between comedy and drama, the characters in “Better Things” never quite say what they really mean, or rather, what they say hints at a lot more than what’s on the surface. Always funny, often uncomfortable, Adlon seems to delight in life’s inevitable miscommunications, and the impossibility of fully understanding another person. As a director, she accomplishes this by insisting actors let scenes breathe, leaving plenty of space in between moments.
“I used to watch movies and shows I would be like — ‘I wish they would calm down,'” she said. “Now I have the playground, and I can just say, after the actors get it all out and do the big button and the blow, I can say — ‘that was so great. Okay, let’s try one where you just let the moment lay there, like a fart. You don’t have to fill it in, you can just be uncomfortable. But as actors we try and fill it in. I like it to breathe.”
Adlon directed every episode of season two, and co-wrote every one as well. To make the jump, the seasoned actress drew on her years of experience on set as well as a robust interest amateur photography. “I learned a lot from you, and working on ‘Louie’ with you, and the fact that I worked for so many years as an actor,” she said. “You’re sitting there. How many little side conversations can you have without saying — ‘Wait, what are you doing over there? What’s that called?”
With all of her talent, even an accomplished producer like Adlon needed the extra push from C.K. to make the jump to directing. “I never thought that I would have been able to do this in my wildest dreams. It was not on my radar to be a director and be my own showrunner. It’s a shock to me and it’s a relief, and it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
C.K. jumped in to add encouragement: “Well, I found out through working with you that you knew everything already,” he said. “You knew how everything is supposed to feel, you’re able to take pictures with iPhones that are better than anything I can do. You collected that through all the years that you had been in TV and watching things that you love, and then you tried it and it worked.”
“Better Things” airs Thursdays on FX.