Dave Nadelberg basically owes his career to a childhood crush. The Los Angeles-based 38-year-old is the creator and coproducer of Mortified, a wildly popular live storytelling series where adults read excerpts from their dusted-off diaries, songs and stories — all written during the messy throes of adolescence.
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The no-holds-barred comedy show, which got its start in 2002 on the LA stage, has inspired spin-offs in several cities across the United States, not to mention the comedy hub of Malmo, Sweden.
It has also spawned two best-selling books. “Mortified: Real Words. Real People. Real Pathetic” and “Mortified: Love Is a Battlefield” formed the basis of the Sundance Channel show “The Mortified Sessions.” There, Hollywood stars like Adam Goldberg (“Saving Private Ryan”) and Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) expose the most embarrassing vestiges — photos, poems, sketches — of their gawky teenage years.
But none of it might have happened were it not for an awkward missive that Nadelberg penned in high school.
“I was in my 20s when I found this love letter that I wrote to a girl,” recalls Nadelberg, who worked as an entertainment journalist before founding Mortified. “I never gave her the letter, but I started giving it to other people. They all thought that it was ridiculous, and I got a weird charge out of sharing that with people.”
From that charge comes “Mortified Nation,” the documentary that tells the Mortified story. Produced by Nadelberg and longtime Mortified partner Neil Katcher, and directed by Mike Mayer, the movie is available on iTunes so that everybody can “share the shame” — the movie’s tagline.
But more than an excuse to humiliate, the Mortified brand is about honoring who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re headed, says Katcher. “Mortifed is really about the importance of knowing where you came from,” he adds.
Jews have inherited a Talmudic-like tradition of self-examination, says Nadelberg. It’s this constant self-analysis that hews close to the heart of Mortified.
“There’s something about making fun of myself that feels … Jewish,” he says. “Jewish humor is historically self-deprecating, and what Mortified does is take that to a very human level.”
Much the way Jews have employed storytelling to mark their historical experience — in the Torah, the Haggadah, the Book of Esther — Mortified uses the musings of youth to preserve, or even reclaim, one’s adolescence for posterity, notes Katcher.
Our very own Bible
“[Mortified] is about using stories as a way to observe your history and not lose your identity,” says Katcher. “In a weird way what we’re doing, while we’re not using the Old Testament, is using our own version of the Old Testament — our diaries and journals.”
For “How to Get Divorced by 30” author and “The Carrie Diaries” TV staff writer Sascha Rothchild — an old friend of Nadelberg and an early Mortified participant — growing up Jewish in Miami was based largely on how well someone could spin a tale at the dinner table — a skill that primed her for Mortified.
“The rule was that we had to be interesting, and that taught me and my siblings how to tell a story,” says Rothchild, whose “Miami Vices” bit for Mortified about drinking and drugging as a 12-year-old was featured on National Public Radio’s “This American Life.”
“Storytelling was always really ingrained in my life — that was really what the culture of being Jewish was about,” she says. “That feeling of being loud and honest and animated was what helped define my sense of Jewishness.”
The stories in “Mortified Nation” run the gamut from one woman’s girlish romanticizing of Anne Frank — “I really related to her struggle” — to a clip of a participant reading portions of a grammar-school book report on “The Exorcist.”
Particularly unique about Mortified is its cross-cultural, cross-generational appeal. “At the end of the day, whether you were a cheerleader, a jock or a nerd, we all have secrets,” says Nadelberg.
As Rothchild puts it, “Whether we were cool or losers, we all went through this stuff, and we can all universally respond to it. The amazing thing for me now is to look back and to see how little I’ve changed. In a lot of ways I’m more self-aware and mature, but at the core I am always that kid trying to figure out my life. And I think it’s the same for everyone. We can’t believe we’re not still 12 or 13. We can’t believe we’re grown up.”
Still, the hurt and pain that Mortified digs up can be part of the healing process. For Nadelberg, whose mother died in 2007, her old journal functions as the final conversation they never got to have.
“These journals and diaries are like voices, they’re like time machines,” he says. “They are voices from the past brought to the present. The words are full of energy and full of light, and they have no idea that time has marched on.”
That Nadelberg is devoting his adult life to something because of a crush — and the girl still doesn’t know it — seems an apt plot point of the Mortified story.
“The whole purpose of a love letter is that you’re supposed to give it to someone — and I did. I just didn’t give it to her,” says Nadelberg. “I gave it to these other people, and it’s moved them to share their childhood with other strangers.”
To watch Mortified Nation, log on to mortifiednation.com