By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
“Hi. I’m Mandy, and I was a teenage quitter. An eternal Virgo, I’m a type-A, planning, list-making, proactive doer. Or maybe not so much of a doer as a starter.” Mandy Kaplan is sitting at her dining-room table in Studio City, reading from notes. In front of her is a Casio keyboard. Mandy is about to play some songs for us. They are songs she wrote in junior high. And they’re terrible. She used to gather her family ’round the piano and force them to hear her compositions, despite the fact that they’re all unfinished. “I had heard that Debbie Gibson wrote a hundred songs by age 16,” Mandy says. “And I wanted to do the same thing. I started three, and, well, didn’t really finish any of them.” In a few weeks, Mandy will perform her 2.25 childhood songs at Mortified, the ongoing live show where people read diaries, love letters, homework or other painfully honest expressions from their youth that were never meant to be seen by eager, sold-out audiences. Dave Nadelberg, the creator and producer of Mortified, is sitting with Mandy, guiding her through the tragicomic process of preparing one’s embarrassing adolescence for public display.
“So you were a quitter,” says Nadelberg, or Dave, as he’s known. Dave’s trying to help develop Mandy’s Mortified narrative. “But what else? Did you want to be a closer? That’s what we need to convey. We all have goals. What was yours?”
Mandy sits back a minute, pondering her teenage motivations. “The thing about Dave,” Mandy says, “is that he comes in your living room and makes you want to spill your guts.”
“I’m just trying to hold your hand,” Dave says. “I know what you’re going through. I’ve done it myself.”
The origin of Mortified, in fact, was a letter Dave found in a box at his parents’ house. “It was a secret-admirer-type love letter,” Dave says. “I was trying to sell my 15-year-old self to a girl.” The letter was supposed to be comical but sensitive. He referred to ninjas and tampons. It was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It was mortifying. What’s more, there were clearly other drafts of this letter. It was a work in progress. “I had forgotten about it entirely,” Dave says. “It was funny as the work of an idiot, the idiot I once was. And that told me a lot about myself. Somehow I knew then I wanted to put this onstage.”
That was five years ago. Nine months on and Dave did just that, along with seven other fearless readers, at M Bar in Hollywood. Mortified was an instant hit. Soon, there were two shows monthly in Los Angeles. Two years later, Dave expanded the show to New York. Today, Mortified is in five cities. There have been several hundred shows, almost all at capacity. Packed-in crowds have been entertained by quiveringly affected, unhealthy obsessions with English teachers, love-struck young Republicans, cloying poems about proms, and an excerpt from two years of letters written by a self-described “lonely fat kid” to the fictional television character Mr. Belvedere. The best moments are heartbreakingly familiar and howlingly funny.
With such a recipe for comic success, Mortified has developed a dedicated following and spawned several copycat shows. Dave has developed a Mortified pilot for Comedy Central, an animated short with Baz Luhrmann’s animating partner Bill Barminski, and is about to start a podcast. This month, Mortified expands into hard media: Simon & Schuster is publishing the Mortified book, a 400-page anthology of angst, humor, pain and redemption collected from the live performances. As the movement grows, bigger theaters are necessary, and Dave recently moved the Los Angeles installment of Mortified to King King, which is where Mandy will soon have to set up her little Casio and sing her songs.
“Initially,” Mandy says, “I thought these songs were about my being a bleeding heart. I thought my songs could change the world. But then Dave found out I wasn’t motivated to actually finish them.”
“She cares,” Dave chimes in, “just not enough.”
“At the beginning,” Mandy says, “I took umbrage at that. I thought: I’m not a quitter! But Dave bored in. ‘You mean you never started dating people and broke it off suddenly?’ Yeah, I did that. ‘You never started projects and not finished them?’ Oh, yeah, I did that too. Then Dave discovered that I adopted a black baby from Africa, but only sent money for a year and a half. I had no idea I was a quitter until Mr. Mortified sat at this table and figured it out!”
In this way, Dave’s casting process winds up leading Mortified performers through a kind of retroactive therapy. “Revisiting your high school journals can be an aching journey,” he says. “Sure, it makes people laugh; but every time, people learn something too.” Dave tunnels directly to the most embarrassing things he can find about you — your original words, in their original contexts — and picks out what’s most patronizing, absurd, uncomfortable, and therefore universal. “Just as psychologists are trained to look for those recurring themes in your life,” Dave says, “so does Mortified. Except we do it in 20 minutes.”
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