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Sascha, of course, survived her Miami vices enough to laugh with us about them now. Which is where the humor often resides. “That’s why we don’t shy away from touchy stuff,” Dave says. “We’ve had pieces about depression, anorexia, molestation even. Youth, warts and all — that’s the motto. Some people come to me with dire family histories. Alcoholism, parents dying of cancer. These stories can be hilarious too. If we can go onstage and make people cry and then laugh about it, we’re doing something right.”
So far, so good, judging from the live reception I’ve seen. I’ll admit that I was skeptical before visiting a show. Mortified puts on eight readers, a lot to ask of a room full of people drinking beer. And the tired nostalgia-chic infecting fashion and movies and advertising had made me wary of laughing at anything capitalizing on period goofiness from the ’70s or ’80s.
But Mortified rises above all that. Like the book, the show is long on heart, short on cynicism, and choreographed so that each reader illuminates a different facet of foolish youth. It’s rarely precious and avoids gratuitous pop-culture references. Many of the performers are actors and writers, but Dave tries to ratchet back any performative impulses in favor of letting the raw source material speak for itself.
Because the unwritten contract is that the audience members need to believe that it could be them up there. A charming, charismatic celebrity has no edge on the average Joe if his or her yearbook correspondence or Dungeons & Dragons character profiles aren’t hilarious. Dave doesn’t sit in casting sessions with arms folded, saying, “Five minutes — impress me.”
“I really like working with amateurs,” Dave says. “The best is when an architect or an attorney or someone who would never otherwise perform gets up, just destroys the room.”
As the ultimate democratic equalizer, Mortified is so much more satisfying than standup comedy because of the lack of artifice. You hear hints of yourself coming through the PA, or sometimes more than hints. To enjoy the show is to hear a sort of confession in effigy. Embrace your weaknesses, the readers say to the assembled masses. Confront them. We too were awkward and thought no one understood us. But remember: Childhood isn’t terminal. You grow out of it. And learn enough to entertain people in bars with it later. Many of the performers are terrified before they go on, rightfully so, since they are about to be judged — yet again — for their youthful shortcomings. But they all leave the stage triumphant, washed over with relief as they bask in the audience’s wild approval of their pitiful former selves.
The night that Mandy performs, King King is full. A bank of cars is backed up in front of the valet. Mandy’s still nervous, as is everyone else. The Today Show is filming tonight. Fellow first-timer Jon Larroquette, the son of Night Court’s John Larroquette, gets up after the intermission and explains that he was reading his notes until the last minute, even in the bathroom, where he almost peed all over them. Then he proceeds to nail the Mortified vibe with excerpts from his rebellion against rich-kid, sitcom life in Malibu, which took shape as a psychotropically inebriated Rastafarian poet speaking truth to power: I and I don’t want your money. I and I think your suit look funny. Where you gonna run, down-presser man, when your day come?
Next up, Mandy sets up her keyboard. She later says that it all went by in a blur. We hear about the doer and the quitter. The songs are just as horrible as they were in practice — exactly what the crowd wants. A roar comes up as her third and final ditty, intended at the time to have global importance but never completed, goes over huge.
“I’m so relieved,” Mandy says afterward.
“See?” Dave says. “You did your bleeding heart justice and finally saw your songs through.”
“I guess loose ends and half-finished projects can come together into something,” Mandy says.
“See, the cool Mandy of today rehabilitated the silly singing Mandy,” Dave says.
“I still can’t believe you think I’m cool,” Mandy says.
“I told you,” Dave says. “Mortified thinks everyone is cool.”
MORTIFIED: Real Words. Real People. ?Real Pathetic. | By DAVID NADELBERG | ?Simon Spotlight Entertainment | 399 pages | ?$15 softcover
Mortified Live, Mon., Dec. 11, 8 p.m., at King King, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; $10 advance, $15 at door. (877) 238-5596 or www.getmortified.com
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