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Arts and Entertainment

A Peek Inside the Surprising Pasts of Famous Folks: Talking With "The Mortified Sessions" Host & Creator David Nadelberg

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In one of the first episodes of "The Mortified Sessions" on the Sundance Channel, David Nadelberg sits down with actor Ed Helms, who admits that as a teenager, he was "mortified" at the idea of asking a girl on a date. Suddenly the guy who shows up on our small screens weekly in "The Office" and on the big screen in movies like "The Hangover" has a lot in common with a lot of us.

So how does a tattered notebook crammed with doodles and poems, a prom picture, an essay written in penciled block letters, or an unsent love letter saved in a shoebox or album shape who we are today? That's the concept of "Mortified," a long-running stage and book series created by David Nadelberg, who is also the creator and host of this new television interpretation of the "mortifying" journey into the past and into the lives of the famous people who sat down with him to share their own life artifacts.

We connected with Nadelberg via email to ask him about the show and why so many of us hold on to those old pieces of us as we move forward.

LAist: I know for you, "Mortified" began when you opened up a box and found "artifacts" in writing from your youth. What was that experience like for you?

David Nadelberg: I obviously didn't know it at the time but it was life changing. Mortified began with the discovery of an unsent love letter from high school. At first, it was just something that made me laugh. But the more I read it, the more I became fascinated with how much it revealed about me both then and now. That epiphany-- that our childhood artifacts are not just ephemera but unique windows into who we are -- is the foundation of Mortified. This is true in everything we do, whether it's our stage shows or books or our Sundance series.

How did the idea for making "Mortified" into a show featuring celebrities come about?

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My producing partner Neil Katcher and I did a Mortified web series many years ago. It mostly featured clips of Mortified stage shows. Our goal was to play with formats each time in small ways. Despite zero budget. So we collaborated with tons of talented friends and experimented with formats-- short form, long form, mixed media, music, etc. It was our little lab. Eventually, we tried an interview format. That experiment became The Mortified Sessions.

The TV show is not an adaptation of our stage show, but rather a companion piece. For the TV series, the idea is to peek into the past of people who have, in some way, shaped the world we live in. Notably, those who've shaped pop culture. But the star of the show is not the celebrity or the host. The star of the show is what's in the shoebox. And the fun of each episode is finding out what those items reveal about the person who saved them.

How did you come to work with the celebrities who are "interviewed" on the show? Did they have their own archives easily accessible?

Some people have tons of stuff saved from their childhood. People like Ed Helms, Eric Stonestreet, and Cheryl Hines seem to have endless childhood photos and writings. Some people have less stuff saved. But even that becomes fodder for conversation.

Why do you think we keep letters, schoolwork, diaries, and so on from our childhood and teen years?

For some, it is just nostalgia. But for a lot of people, I think it is because deep down they still feel for that kid, root for that kid. Adolescence is hard for most people. What happens at 11 or 14 is what makes us who we are. I think some people subconsciously save stuff as a way to honor that kid.

What do you think we can learn from seeing the "mortifying" poems, school photos, and journals of famous people?

They see themselves. They see that we were all that same strange kid. There's comfort in that.


Some of actress Megan Mullally's early writing (Photo via The Sundance Channel)

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Of the people you meet with on "The Mortified Sessions" did anyone surprise you with what they'd written or revealed about their childhood?Every single guest surprised us. Bryan Cranston shared hilarious and insightful stories about his past. Danny Pudi unearthed some amazing lyrics. Margaret Cho, whose comedy is devoted to celebrating tolerance, spoke about the impact of being labeled different as a kid.

Whose "shoebox" of memories would you most like explore, if given the chance?

I'm interested in people who have achieved unique things. I'd be fascinated to see what childhood mementos people like Tina Fey, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Giamatti, and Condeleeza Rice saved.

Is "Mortified" still going on live on stage around the country? What's the latest "Mortified" news?

Our stage show, Mortified Live, has grassroots chapters in ten cities.

Our Los Angeles show is Wednesday December 14 at 8pm at King King. It's a special themed event-- Mortified's Pop Culture Xmas Show. A night of pieces themed around kids' obsessions with classics films, comic books, and music. One of the pieces is a journal of a midwest kid who spent weeks agonizing over a drawing he made of of Steven Spielberg. Another piece is from a guy who tried to write his own episode of Saved By the Bell as a teenager. In honor of that, the event features a surprise guest cameo that is hilarious and strangely moving. Going to be a fun night.

The Mortified Sessions airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on the Sundance Channel. Mortified Live has chapters in Chicago, DC, New York, and San Francisco, as well as other cities; upcoming shows are listed online here.

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