Most people want to forget their awkward adolescence, burying ill-fated romantic conquests and pathetic attempts to fit in so deeply that the shame returns only in occasional, cringe-inducing flashbacks.
Then there are Dave Nadelberg and Neil Katcher. As co-producers of long-running spoken-word stage show Mortified, these 38-year-old Angelenos want you not only to acknowledge your repressed retrospectives but also to celebrate them — and share them in front of a roomful of strangers.
Unlike the Moth or other storytelling events that cover broader topics, Mortified focuses on what is usually the most awkward time in our lives: our second decade of existence, when puberty, bad hair, acne, ill-fitting clothes and desire for popularity — or even mere acceptance — lead us to say, do and, most importantly, write the most naive, stupid or (unintentionally or not) thoughtful things.
Mortified started 11 years ago when Nadelberg, then an entertainment journalist and TV writer, found a love letter he'd chickened out on sending to his high school crush. It. Was. Mortifying.
It also was not so original, as Nadelberg found out when he read the letter to friends. “Like a reflex,” he says, he found that others had stories to tell. Even better: People of all ages, races and demographics had saved the diaries, poems, short stories, songs or even plays they wrote in their teenage years, and felt a sense of catharsis sharing those decades-old documents, even if it's in front of a microphone.
“Unlike a typical comedy show, where the audience is watching and the comedian is living or dying on every joke he or she is telling, the audience at Mortified is different,” Katcher, a television writer, producer and developer, explains on a warm weekday morning, as he and Nadelberg jockey for space in their compact Mid-City offices. “It's more sort of interactive and communal in this way. It's about the shared experience. It's this different energy that's in a room at a show. That's easy to capture.”
Mortified is now a regular event at King King in Hollywood, as well as several other places around the country and, inexplicably, Sweden. It has spawned two books of essays, had presenters' readings featured on This American Life, and generated a Sundance Channel show called The Mortified Sessions, wherein audiences could see celebrities like Bryan Cranston and Alanis Morissette dig through their shoeboxes of memories.
And, on Nov. 5, Nadelberg and Katcher are releasing their first film documentary, Mortified Nation, on video-on-demand. (A Los Angeles screening at, fittingly, Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, is scheduled for Nov. 16.)
The movie is a labor of love for Nadelberg, Katcher and the Mortified community. It was made, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $21,174. Its poster was designed by a friend of Mortified, Brice Beckham, who played youngest sibling Wesley on Mr. Belvedere as a child actor and now is a TV producer.
This DIY realism speaks to what Mortified is about. The film is a concert documentary featuring some funny yet inspiring presenters, but it also delves into the history of the project and shows how life-changing it can be.
While there isn't a Catfish-like moment — Nadelberg never tracks down the subject of his love letter, who inadvertently helped create the movement — Katcher did meet his wife at a Mortified event. The couple and their baby, now almost 18 months old, are featured in the film.
“We just want some record that Mortified existed,” Nadelberg says, adding that it was important for him and Katcher to go it alone and make the movie they wanted to make, although they are selling it with the help of a distributor and a production company. “We're in charge, which means whatever's bad about the movie will be our responsibility, and whatever's great about it will be our reward as well. But we're making that for our sense of self-satisfaction.”
Traveling across the country to gather stories from people of diverse backgrounds, the film captures the mantra recited at the end of Mortified performances: “We are freaks and we are fragile, but we all survived.”
It also shows that Mortified has grown up. In the early days, Nadelberg admits, he “got a lot of Long Island girls who went to summer camp and liked a boy.”
The movie shows the humor in some of the more tragic stories, such as a closeted lesbian who prays for her mother's acceptance while also seeking the affections of a friendly waitress at a nearby restaurant.
But is the movie also signaling the end to a chapter of Mortified? After all, with the popularity of microblogging sites like Tumblr, today's teens are more willing to share their feelings with the world in real time. Shoeboxes full of hand-scrawled notes are so old-school.
“As long as there's this relationship where a kid doesn't have control over his own life, there's gonna be that angst,” Katcher insists. “What we've discovered is that the pressures of being a teenager — although they vary from person to person, whether you're the cheerleader or the dork — the pressures to fit in and to find your niche and people who understand you are essentially the same. You feel alone in your experience no matter who you are.”
Plus, it's not as if he and Nadelberg are short on ideas for new projects.
“I want to do this project called Mortified Generations, where we take the projects from yesteryear as read by the kids of today's generation,” Nadelberg says. “So that you have some girl who has grown up in Los Angeles post-9/11, reading the diary of some kid who grew up in the 1970s in the sticks.
“There's something really healing in that. … It's a bit of a warm hug. But not in a syrupy, Martha Stewart, Hallmark Channel kind of way. It's a warm hug that punches you in the face first.”
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