The Fearless Personal Inventory
“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.”
Dave and Mandy had their breakthrough during their last session, so as we finally hear Mandy’s charmingly ridiculous songs, Dave’s emphasis is less on emotional trajectory than on timing and final pointers for the introduction. “That’s when you want to establish Mandy’s personality,” he says, “her weaknesses, and her goal.”
Mandy takes careful notes. She says she’s nervous.
“What kind of nervous?”
“The typical kind when you’re going to sing songs with lyrics like, ‘After World War I, what did we do? We went ahead and fought in World War II.’?”
“Well, whatever you do, don’t —”
“Crap my pants and run off the stage?”
“That too. Although that might be kinda funny. But not in the Mortified way. No, I was going to say, whatever you do, don’t doubt yourself. Take these words as seriously as the little girl who wrote them. But also have distance from them. There are two Mandys up there. The cool Mandy of today will lay the groundwork for the awkward, songwriting Mandy of yesterday.”
“I can’t believe you think I’m cool.”
“That’s the thing, we do think you’re cool. We think everyone is cool. That’s how Mortified redeems us all.”
Mortified is part of what Dave calls “urban archaeology,” where meaning is pieced together from genuine personal artifacts. He feels a special kinship with the Web site Overheard in New York, and with Found Magazine, which also does extensive live tours. As theater has become mostly irrelevant for the post-boomer demographic, Found and Mortified and comedy-essay shows like Sit ’n Spin have brought people back into seats for a more personal, direct kind of storytelling.
This is all a natural outgrowth of the times. In our post-postmodern confessional reality, rituals of public intimacy are part of the culture. Third person is dated. After the Me Generation, expression shifted to the constant, solipsistic but tangible “I.” MFA programs are bursting with memoirs. Everyone under 30 diarizes online. And half of prime time is people talking directly to the camera.
But what appears on Mortified was never meant to be revealed, which means it’s more genuine than the “revelations” on Top Chef or hotchick.blogspot.com, all of which have become burnished, media-savvy performances for projecting an intended image rather than truthful portraits. Mortified stories retreat to a time when self-exploration was not public. This is most clear in the Mortified book, which reads like a collective memoir from what will surely be the last generation of honest Americans.
And a great read it is. Where Mortified trumps cutesy projects like Post Secret is in the panoply of juvenile voices, which are impossible to fake. The sole flaw is the intrusion of “Adult Me” — comments from the contributors about themselves with an occasional few too many winks. Still, nearly all of the 52 entries in the Mortified book are laugh-out-loud funny. Like Lori Fowler’s record of not fitting in at her California Central Valley high school and joining the Future Farmers of America’s cotton-judging team (“I mean, after all, it is the fabric of our lives”); or Maria Victoria Suozzo’s spiritual communications on crushes (“Oh God, I know that I’m not really cheating on John Taylor by wanting Axl Rose so badly . . .”); or Abby Gross’ third-grade musings on various topics:
I wish Dr. Martin Luther King was here at this time. If Dr. King was here at this time, I wouldn’t be afraid of thunder. (Gosh! Am I a scardie cat!!)
I think George Washington is very good.
I really really wish my stuffed animals would come alive.
The best Mortified moments are played for laughs and poignancy, such as those in Kirsten Gronfield’s letter to her future self, a school assignment in which she elicits chuckles with questions like “Do you remember the time you went to see Les Miserables?” and “Are you still a Christian?” but eventually lands on the crusher: “Are you still me?”
There’s also suicide and sex and troubled youth, as with Sascha Rothchild’s transfer from a private junior high school in Miami Beach to the public school system, where she recorded her embrace of the spirit of Miami in the ’80s:
I am reading The Diary of Anne Frank. It really means a lot to me. The Diary of Anne Frank has really inspired me. Anyway, Friday after school Carlos and I finally made out. Nicole is being a real bitch. After I was with Carlos I spent some time with Tyrone, Trayon, and Tyrel. I love them . . . I have been getting drunk and stoned everyday. Also, Diego and I broke up. I didn’t mind that he was a drug dealer but it just wasn’t working out anyway. Nicole and I aren’t friends anymore. Squirrel and I are good friends and Sharron got a nose job . . . Oh, and I tried cocaine! It’s the coolest fucking thing on earth! I think I’m addicted. Oh well.
Sascha’s diary is not just a valuable cultural relic from Crockett-and-Tubbs days, says Dave. “The stories can’t function just as, ‘Hi, I was 14 and I was a dork or a fuckup.’ You have to figure out what that story says about all of us.” We may not all have been high on flake as 13-year-olds, but we can all surely identify with the underlying teenage tone of trivial obsession, and the accompanying dangers in the utterly sincere belief that the fleeting relationships and small events surrounding the acre of land where your junior high or high school sits are the most important things that have ever happened in the history of the world.
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
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.