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Sharing the Shame

Truth is so much more mortifying than fiction

November 13, 2005|VICTORIA NAMKUNG

When writer David Nadelberg stumbled across an old love letter he had written as a teenager, he had an epiphany: "I want to get this onstage." And he figured that others must have equally embarrassing relics from their youth. How right he was. The result is "Mortified," a monthly stage show starring real-life Angelenos who line up to share aloud their most embarrassing teenage diary entries, love letters, poems and locker notes. Featuring a litany of mortifying moments, from first kisses gone wrong to tales from summer camp, the 3-year-old show has expanded to New York and is slated to hit San Francisco in December and Boston early next year. We channeled the angst with the 30-year-old Nadelberg, "Mortified's" creator, producer and sometime performer.

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Why does this theme fascinate you?

The origin of the show really came from me finding a draft of a love letter I wrote to a girl who was in ninth grade when I was in 10th grade. It's a very creepy letter [in which I try] very hard selling myself, so much so that there is a coupon at the end with my phone number, and it says, "Clip-n-Save." It tries to sell me as very funny, so I make a joke about ninjas. To show my sweet side, I talk about how much I love "Say Anything" and beach volleyball. My prior work [has been] all over the place as a compulsively creative person. But I'm attracted to super-fantasy or super-reality, and "Mortified" falls into the latter. Some people have billed this as reality stand-up.

Why is this stuff so funny?

Because it's inescapable and true. There's that cringe-worthiness about it where you want to get out, but you're trapped by the words, and this isn't some story or memoir that can distort the facts. These are the facts, and they tell us that we sucked. For the audience and the performers, whether they're architects or famous actors, it's like saying we were all the same person.

"Mortified" is gathering steam in other cities, but it originated here. Is there any significance to that?

There's no greater town for this show than Los Angeles. It's a show about public humiliation and opening yourself up and showing the world that you're willing to get stomped on. That's daily life in Los Angeles. You don't have to be an actor or a writer to be in this show.

Who gets chosen and who gets rejected?

If you get rejected by our show it's actually a compliment that you just weren't lame enough. It's nicer than getting rejected from a Buick commercial. I look for people who are good at playing themselves. That's the charm I want to infuse. While we can finesse it, you're stuck with what you wrote back then. Our goal is to help you seem as lame as possible. If you can be pretty pathetic before you show up, that helps too.

Your auditioners run the gamut from soccer moms to marketing executives. Is there a "type" who shows up and reveals more versus others?

If you are a Jewish girl from Long Island who went to summer camp and had a string of failed relationships at that camp and wrote tons of diaries about it, you've probably auditioned for our show. That's our stereotypical auditioner. I don't know what it is with East Coast girls and diaries, but there is some mystic connection. I try to get guys into the mix, [and] since most guys didn't write diaries, they have letters. Or every guy when they were 15 thought they would be Jim Morrison for a moment, so they have some crappy lyrics they wrote.

One of your mottos is "personal redemption through public humiliation." Does any healing really take place?

"Mortified" is intended to be not just a communicative experience, but also a cathartic one. By reading your old journals or letters to total strangers who are coming just to laugh and howl at you, you wind up essentially shedding your inner dork, and it's a release. It's more interactive than stand-up or improv because the stuff we're talking about carries a lot of baggage. Everything we talk about hits some sort of nerve with something that happened in your life. It's like the funeral for your teen angst.

What material have you found most mortifying?

We only put up the stuff that truly is mortifying. Kids tend to write about romance, so most of the show tends to center on that, although we try not to make it the "I like a boy and he doesn't like me" show. The romantic stuff we do in the show, and the more salacious stuff about drugs and sex, isn't necessarily as funny. The dorkier stuff, like someone talking about how upset they were that their favorite "Star Trek: Next Generation" character was killed, is most mortifying and better.

Do L.A. and New York differ in terms of performers and material?

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