INTERVIEW: ‘MORTIFIED’ FOUNDER DAVE NADELBERG
Mortified is all about the delight of vulnerable and embarrassing moments, found among the youthful scribblings of those bold enough to share with a live audience. It’s a bit of an exercise in good-spirited schadenfreude that is at once hilarious and cathartic—for “reader” and audience alike.
Creator Dave Nadelberg ignited the spark of what became Mortified after moving to LA to give writing a shot. When his mother fell ill, he moved home to care for her in Michigan, where he discovered among his childhood artifacts a love letter he had written to a girl as a kid and felt compelled to share with a live audience. Six months later he and a larger-than-expected line up of “readers” shared their stories to an audience who left hungry for more. And thus Mortified was born.
More than a decade later, The Mortified Sessions has had a run as a TV interview series on The Sundance Channel and a documentary is nearly complete—although it’s possible Dr. Phil may have recently robbed his studio, so there is a slight production delay.
|(Mortified promo reel)|
stated: Hi Dave. What’s up?
DAVE NADELBERG: I’m feeding animals. My zoo. Among them I have two feral cats found on the streets when they were kittens.
stated: How did everything turn out with your robbery?
DAVE NADELBERG: It’s been a pretty crazy week. The police came. We have a little office in LA in The Miracle Mile and we came in and discovered that thieves had kicked in the door and stolen computers from companies that we share office space [with]…so that sucked. Among the things that they stole was our main computer that we are using every day to edit our documentary, [ Mortified Nation, ] which we have been working on for a few years. Huge setback and it’s made our editor a little scared to come to the office. So THANKS, burglar!
stated: Yeah, I’m against burglarizing.
DAVE NADELBERG: We’re pretty sure that it’s just somebody that saw our TV show and didn’t like it.
stated: You think you were targeted by someone that had a traumatic childhood and The Mortified Sessions is reminding them of their past?
DAVE NADELBERG: I think we were targeted by Dr. Phil because he’s like, “I know I have the number one talk show and that The Mortified Sessions is probably ranked the 180th most-popular talk show. But they might move into the 120th slot and then who knows?!”
stated: You’re in his rearview mirror, and he sees you coming, and he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.
DAVE NADELBERG: Yeah, that’s what he’s gotta do. You don’t mess with Phil. That’s what I’m vibing.
stated: Let’s take it back. Let’s go wayyy back. Can you tell me how the idea for Mortified Sessions came about?
DAVE NADELBERG: So the origin of the story for Mortified is basically this. When I was in High School, I wrote a love letter to a girl. I never gave her that letter. I wrote it on the back of a submission form to a poetry magazine. I like to share that because of the pretentiousness of my 17-year-old self. I wrote drafts upon drafts upon drafts of this love letter. Then I forgot about it. Never gave it to the girl. Then I’m in my 20s and went back home because my mom had just been diagnosed with an illness. I didn’t really know that many people anymore back in my hometown in Michigan. I was rummaging through my bedroom and I find this love letter and it was a gateway to a past life. Reading it was really funny to me because I thought this kid was so ridiculous but I was fascinated because of how similar I still was to this idiot who wrote this melodramatic—trying way too hard—love letter.
So I basically had the idea that I’d like to share this with people, maybe even on stage. I’m not a performer, but everyone has that bug, like, “Maybe I could; if I could just be a stand-up?” Living in LA, you have a lot of friends who do that. And I thought, “This will be just one night. I’ll just do this as a lark.” The idea began from there, and it morphed and changed and became way less simple than I ever thought it would be. And that’s how Mortified began.
stated: And did you take the stage somewhere with your letter?
DAVE NADELBERG: Yes. I thought I’d put this up on the stage and invite others to do the same. I thought it would be a quick process. I’d rent a theatre and two weeks later do an open-mic thing. But for whatever reason I decided to meet with people beforehand. I sent out this massive email to see if anyone had something saved [like my love letter]. Two people replied, I wrote them back, and then the email went viral and I started getting emails from people all over. That was great and I started meeting with people that had journals or love letters or whatever they had. And I quickly realized that not everything you say from your past is that interesting to a stranger. I did not want this to be an exercise in, “Look at me!” I feel like a lot of performance—especially storytelling and confessional-style performance—can be very self-indulgent and exhibitionistic and gross. And so I knew there had to be a way to curate this but I did not want it to be an audition.
So that process took about seven months of just figuring out what good writing was for my purposes. Eventually we put that on stage and people were like, “When’s the next one?!” And I was like, “I don’t know. I didn’t know there would be a next one.”
So ten years later we’re still doing shows. We’re doing shows in ten cities, we have books, TV shows, a movie coming out—if it doesn’t get robbed again—and those emails that I got when I sent out that went viral, those emails have not stopped arriving. We get them every day.
|(Mortified Conversations: Felicia Day)|
stated: And so now you don’t have to solicit. It just comes into you?
DAVE NADELBERG: Well, we do solicit, but it comes in. People go to GetMortified.com and they can fill out a form to meet with us and figure stuff out.
The TV show that we do for Sundance channel, The Mortified Sessions, is not like our stage show, because it’s more of a talk format that’s actually directly based on the curating process. Our curatorial process is that somebody comes in, they read a little bit of their past, they show us some of their childhood artifacts, and we put all that aside and talk to them about their lives. Looking for little biographical details. Looking for something that we could include in the context of the piece. How those excerpts are framed when they are shared on stage, such as, “Hi, I’m Scott, I’m from NJ, my parents were divorced.” Or you say, “Hi. I’m Scott. I work as a scientist and I have two kids.” Often, whatever you share as context really affects and puts a filter on the whole piece that makes it moving and funny and fascinating. We’ve found that even though context occupies just a small amount of stage time for us it’s just as important as the actual diary, love letter, lyric itself.
stated: Context establishes who you were at the time. Laughing at the old you is a sign of growth and evolution.
DAVE NADELBERG: Yea. The fun of the show is that we are totally different from this kid and we have the liberty and license to laugh at them. “Ha, ha. That’s not me anymore.” And for the most part that’s true. But there’s DNA that you hear in every single mortified piece. Every time somebody digs up his or her past and you start hearing it you think, “Oh my God.” If you ask them enough questions, you realize there are patterns in there. In that diary entry there are behavior patterns in that poem [that explain] why you wrote it, who you wrote it to, what you wrote it about. They tell you really profound things about the person who wrote it.
stated: You receive these submissions for consideration online and then you meet these people in person. On occasion, after you meet someone in person or on the phone, I take it you are turning people down.
DAVE NADELBERG: Well, it’s not an audition—I’ll say that. I’m really adamant about that and we are sensitive about that. It’s not an audition in the sense that I’m not a talent scout. I really don’t care if you are an amazing performer. And if you are that is often not helpful to us. There are a lot of amazing stand-up comedians who would not be right for Mortified. All that matters is if the stuff that you said as a kid was funny or interesting for our unique purposes. When we meet with them our goal is not to judge them. It’s a very nurturing and collaborative environment and our goal is to listen for excerpts and passages that might be interesting and earmark them and go, “Oh, there’s one. And there’s one.” Once we find enough of those we invite them to be on the show. If we don’t find enough it’s not a rejection. It’s just, “Hey, we have not found enough yet. Try to find more because people are on stage for usually like eight minutes so we need to find enough material to warrant that. Here are some tips for things that you can do to find other things. For example, seems like everything that we found that we thought was funny from person X was stuff about their Dad. Do you have more writings about your Dad? You seem to be funny when you are bitching about your Dad grounding you,” or whatever it is. And then they go, “Actually, I think I’ve got a poem that’s like an angry poem that’s inspired by that.” So I’m like, “Let’s listen to it.” So it’s not technically a rejection. I understand it’s a nuanced thing, and we never want somebody to feel judged for things that they wrote that were never written with the intention of being used to impress us.
stated: Are there any standouts? Any particular speakers in the past that you feel the audience were the most surprised by in some way?
DAVE NADELBERG: There are so many. Typically I like the pieces that seem funny on the surface, whether it’s some ridiculous home movie somebody made or an exaggerated diary—“Oh, my God, I like this boy!”—and they are just like sassing out. But where some point during the diary you start to understand that there is something deeper going on in this person’s life and you know when we are able to have pieces that don’t just make people laugh but also make them cry. To me, that is the home run.
An example of this is Will Seymour, whose Mortified Live was covered by Ira Glass and This American Life. Will tells of how he wrote letters back and forth to his grandmother while she was dying and he was coming out of the closet. So she was reconciling an era in her life, marking the passing of time and reflecting and he was looking ahead and fearing his future of coming out. It’s a really funny piece, and it’s really dark and really heartbreaking listening to these moving and beautiful letters where both of them are going through a hard time. The letters are two people in a bad place trying to cheer each other up in a really strange way. [ LISTEN here ]
stated: The Mortified Sessions are an interview format. The Mortified stage show is a monologue.
DAVE NADELBERG: The TV show is where we interview people…in the pop culture sphere and we are peeking into their past. I ask them to place a few items in a shoebox and we look at those and we talk about how what those reveal about the person that they became. And the stage show is just them reading / sharing those artifacts with some context but not nearly as much. It’s sort of the reverse of the TV show.
stated: You had experience doing this in sessions auditing people for the stage show. Was it an easy transition changing to this interview format with people of some celebrity?
DAVE NADELBERG: The celebrity part I honestly don’t give a shit about. I care about it in the sense that it’s fun to meet someone that’s like a hero in the instances where that has happened. Like it was really interesting meeting Paul Feig because I love Freaks and Geeks. I got to interview Brian Cranston for the show and obviously he’s very impressive on Breaking Bad.
But I’m more interested in the celebrity aspect in terms of what they have achieved. I’m curious how somebody achieves ANYTHING, and I wanted to know where their success came from as a result. I look in their past at silly things for signs of their future or their present. The fact that they’re famous is incidental for my purposes. Obviously for marketing and television purposes it’s helpful.
|(Bryan Cranston on The Mortified Sessions on Sundance Channel)|
stated: Do you think there’s a common thread among the people who choose to participate in the live events? In the personalities of these people there’s a willingness to share something that is mortifying or painful. Is it cathartic for them? Are they people who have grown as individuals to such a significant degree that they are capable of looking back and laughing?
DAVE NADELBERG: The number one thing that we heard about it is that there is some cathartic element. And I’m adamant about saying that Mortified is entertainment. It does have therapeutic aspects, but it’s not therapy. Nor do I ever want to just be that. But I think for both the audience members and the people on stage there’s something really liberating and cathartic and there’s a really nice release that they get—more so than any other comedy format like stand-up or sketch. With a format like we have at Mortified, you feel pretty connected. At least that’s the feedback I get. You feel connected and you feel like you are all part of some weird mystic tribe and that’s really fun. In terms of what the recurring themes are of the people who want to participate. That’s a good question… I’m not even sure. What do YOU think it is? How about THAT?! Let’s turn that around!
stated: Damn, you’re good. I think certain people evolve more than others, grow up more than others. Well, first of all there needs to be a willingness to stand in front of an audience and you’ve either got that or you don’t. And I’m sure for a lot of these people it’s the first time they are doing that, but they’ve grown as individuals in some way and have a comfort level to laugh at themselves regardless of how long ago it was. And to have that self-awareness is something to be proud of. So I think they go up there and they are going to be proud of themselves afterwards and feel good about themselves.
You saying it’s not supposed to be therapeutic, it’s not therapy. It’s something different. Which is the other reason Dr. Phil should not have smashed down your door, because you’re not really a threat to him.
DAVE NADELBERG: You bastard, Dr. Phil. I’m coming for you, Phil!
stated: He’s a big guy, though.
DAVE NADELBERG: He’s a large man.
stated: But it’s ALL heart.
DAVE NADELBERG: Yeah. Maybe Jeffrey Tambor should host The Mortified Sessions because more people would have heard of it because they’d think, “Oh, Dr. Phil’s on! And he’s got a shoebox for some reason. Why is he asking Alanis Morissette about her past?”
|(Alanis Morissette on The Mortified Sessions on Sundance Channel)|
stated: For some reason it came to mind how fascinating it would be to do something with convicts. In person, currently convicted, in prison.
DAVE NADELBERG: Funny you should mention…there’s actually a show we are trying to develop that sort of deals with that. At some point somebody had an in with the San Francisco State Penitentiary and they were gong to have us do a Mortified performance there and I was like, “I don’t know if it’s going to go over well.”
stated: That might be more like a confessional.
DAVE NADELBERG: Yeah, our show can get really raunchy—so I think they would like that—but it’s also really girly at times, and frilly, and wussy…and so I’d be very interested to see what a bunch of hardened criminals would like or probably dislike about Mortified, but maybe. It might be surprising.
|(Actor/Spouses Nick Offerman & Megan Mullally on The Mortified Sessions)|
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