I first saw “Mortified” (the show where real people read writing from their most awkward years) at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco years ago. I loved the show so much, I invited them to perform at a an event I produced and became a long-time fan and friend of Dave Nadelberg, one of Mortified’s founders. Today Mortified is releasing its first full-length documentary film, and I interviewed Dave “just for fun” and to share our mutual love of teen angst with AdLibbing readers.
Ad Council: For Mortified newbies, what inspired you to create the show?
Dave Nadelberg: Mortified is an international storytelling project where adults share their most embarrassing childhood artifacts (old letters, diaries, home movies, poems, art) in front of total strangers. It began over 11 years ago when I unearthed an unsent love letter I wrote in high school.
Part of this story is captured in our debut documentary, Mortified Nation, which just came out on iTunes & Amazon.
AC: At what point did the shows become “a movement,” and are there marketing/branding lessons you learned along the way?
DN: Mortified was originally planned as a one-night event. At that time I had no formal plan to grow it into a brand that included stage shows, books, TV projects and now a film. There was a key moment after the first show a decade ago, when people kept coming up to me asking “so when’s the next event?” I was caught off guard. When your audience knows something you don’t, you’ve tapped into something bigger than itself. I realized it was my job to harness that.
Mortified is all about community. It’s 100 percent word of mouth. My favorite reaction is when people read our books or watch or new film and respond by talking to their friends about the objects THEY saved from childhood. Mortified becomes a springboard for people to reflect on their own life. That is easily my favorite reaction. I’m excited to see that extend to wider audiences with the release of Mortified Nation.
AC: Is there a “social good” aspect to mortified – besides just being mortifying?
DN: My hope is that the Mortified Nation film continues the tradition of our other projects, inspiring people to go home and dig up some object from their past and share it with even one person. There’s a real cathartic value in that. You learn about yourself when you share your past. You notice the patterns and themes in your life when you examine your old diaries or poems or artwork. Plus, it’s just fun to do.
A big theme of the film is people’s relationship to shame. We’ve all heard that “it gets better.” What our documentary explores is that “it gets funnier, too.” We love using comedy to tackle heavy issues of shame and identity that all of us faced as teenagers… and still face as adults. I think the film’s director, Mike Mayer, has done a fantastic job capturing that.
AC: You teamed up with the Sundance channel in 2011 on The Mortified Sessions. How has the show impacted Mortified? Any lessons learned from bringing the concept to TV?
DN: The series was always intended as an off-shoot, a companion piece. Interviewees included actors (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Modern’s Family’s Eric Stonestreet), musicians (Alanis Morissette), directors (Paul Feig, creator of Freaks & Geeks, director of Bridesmaids) even entrepreneurs (TOMs Shoes’ founder Blake MyCoskie). It gave us a chance to break free from the format of the stage show are explore the underlying themes of Mortified in a more conversational manner.
The documentary is radically different from the TV series and is much closer to the core of what most people know us for. In fact, Mortified Nation actually marks the first time that audiences can experience our stage show, anywhere, anytime. We’ve been making the film since long before the TV series was even a germ and we’re thrilled to finally be able to share it. Tonally, it’s a very unique movie — part comedy concert film, part documentary.
AC: What is your favorite Mortified performance or story?
DN: My favorites shift each day. But there’s a segment in our documentary that has been haunting me lately. It’s a segment that deals with a woman who had a very tough childhood and shares aspects of that on stage. We were afraid at first that audiences might find it too somber and miss the humor it in. But we’ve been doing screenings across the country this month, and it’s been incredible seeing people react to that story with huge cheers and roaring laughter. I credit our director Mike and editor Hilda Rasula with finding that balance between comedy and pathos. The film is very funny, but it’s also very soulful. You don’t see that in most comedic documentaries.
AC: Can people still participate in new stage events?
DN: Our stage shows happen frequently in ten cities, and we are always looking for new people to join the Mortified community. No performance background is necessary. In fact, we prefer total amateurs. People can visit getmortified.com too find out how to participate or even just attend.
As for our film, Mortified Nation, people can buy it or rent it at home using digital on-demand services like iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vimeo or GooglePlay. It’s even available on Playstation and Xbox — that’s the new reality of releasing indie films today. We’re also hosting screenings nationwide. Visit mortifiednation.com for details.
David Nadelberg is a writer, interviewer and producer. He is best known as the creator of Mortified, a grassroots storytelling project where adults share the embarrassing things they created as kids. Over the course of a decade, he grew Mortified’s empire of angst to include stage shows in ten cities, two books, a web series, and various film and TV projects. Nadelberg hosted two seasons of the Sundance Channel talk show, The Mortified Sessions, which featured intimate conversations with personalities ranging from actors to rockstars to CEOs. In 2013, he produced his first film, Mortified Nation. He is currently working on a memoir, The Upside-Down Man. Nadelberg has appeared on numerous radio and TV shows including The Today Show, Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered. Raised in Michigan, he lives in Los Angeles, where he is on a constant search for good tomato soup.