How the creator of 'Mortified' turned your childhood diary into a movement

By Jeff Ayers — / Death Wish Coffee Blog

Would you reveal secret stories from your childhood? 

At one time during your childhood, I bet you wrote down your deepest thoughts and emotions in a journal or diary and locked it away from the rest of the world. When you were a kid, it would have been the end of the world if those secrets had gotten out. Now, thanks to Dave Nadelberg and all things Mortified, adults across the world are doing just that to critical acclaim and entertaining results. 

What started out as just a simple live show has now grown into multiple mediums and genres. Mortified Live, the show which spans 20 cities all over the world, allows audiences to witness adults share their most embarrassing childhood artifacts (journals, poems, artwork, etc.) in order to reveal stories about their lives. This idea is now a podcast, multiple books, and documentaries, and a brand new series on Netflix called The Mortified Guide.

On a recent episode of Fueled By Death Cast, Mortified creator Dave Nadelberg gave a deeper look into this crazy and cathartic social movement. You can hear the entire episode along with my own Mortified experience as I read a poem I wrote in 7th grade to Dave and his team on the show.

When Mortified Live started out, was it a hard sell to get people involved? 

Dave Nadelberg: Audience members were always on board, and I'd say agents or industry people who I would float it to might say, "Well, why would anybody be interested in people who aren't famous?" Anybody who was trying to look at it through the lens of like marketing or something that is professional.

They were like, "Well, maybe it'll work," or, "What do you do after the first six minutes?" But for the most part, people were just on board. They just got it and they said, "That's really fun." It really had no ambitions to be much more than a fun night. Then that fun night became many. 

Now with all its various forms, Mortified has been around for many years. In that time, has anything surprised you, or have you come across anything you didn't expect?

Dave Nadelberg: Yeah. I mean, we get crazy letters from people about like how various stories have impacted them, maybe even changed their lives. Often dealing with sexuality and sexual orientation and sort of coming to their own truth. But really I've had people tell me that they've reconnected with parents who they haven't spoken to or long lost friends who they haven't spoken to. As much as it's about these people who are on stage, it's really about you sitting in the audience hearing this person and then reflecting on your own experience. So while you were watching The Mortified Guide or listening to the podcast, or if you're reading one of our books, or whatever that it is, you're immediately putting it in context of your own life.

Photo source: The Clear VoicePhoto by Rebecca Aranda.

Speaking of the Netflix series, The Mortified Guide — the show is so well produced, and everyone involved is great on stage. Are these all people that have done the show before, or are they first timers like kind of walking on stage for the first time? 

Dave Nadelberg: Yeah. It would have been very fun to do the TV series where these people had never been up before, but these people in the series were people we kind of plucked because we had seen them at our stage show or heard them at our stage show and thought, "Oh, man. This would be super fun to have." So all these people had participated in Mortified before. Some of them are marketing executives and teachers and psychiatrist or psychologists and shopkeepers and whatever. And then some of them are writers, some of them are actors or singers.

For instance, someone who's a comedian doesn't necessarily make them funnier in our show. If anything, it usually works against them where they're too polished. So sometimes, like even behind the scenes, we were editing around that. The challenge is it's not that we want to fool anybody, but it's that people want to believe that everything that they're hearing on stage is real. That's the contract we essentially have with our audience. While everything is real, but we also know that our audience will doubt it no matter what. They'll be like, "This is awesome, but this part was fake, right?" We're like, "No."

Sponging their childhood demons and sort of baring that awkward inner child is sort of like a fun thing for people. Then there's also the curiosity of everybody, not everybody wants to get on stage but everybody is curious about what it's like to be on stage and what is ... Not everybody has the courage to actually do it, but everybody has the curiosity of being like, "What would it be like if I got on stage and like rocked a room, either because I'm hilarious or because I'm shredding a guitar or whatever." This allows people who have pretty much zero talent, like you could be very talents on Mortified, but you don't have to be. 

Photo source: Mortified

Finally, the new book out from Mortified is "My Mortified Life: A Guided Journal." What exactly is a guided journal?

Dave Nadelberg: We wanted to do something really different, and for years people had suggested you should come out with your own diary. So I've been thinking, "What would a Mortified diary be?" So that's basically what this journal is. So it's a journal filled with writing prompts that asks you all sorts of questions about your life now as well as your life back then, like growing up, and asks you the same exact question and basically asks you to compare. How much have you changed? Are you still the same weirdo you were when you were 14?

Whether it's something as simple as like what's your favorite movie? Like in the past year, what's your favorite movie or TV show or something, and why do you like it? What genre is it? What are some of your favorite things about it. And then going back in time and going well, what was your favorite TV show or movie growing up? Why did you like that? What genre was it? What were some things about it? What's different about those two things and what's the same about those two things? 

So you can do something as sort of almost superficial as that, but then there's things like what's the biggest fight you've ever had, or the best gift you've ever received? Then and now. If you think about the most memorable fight you had in the past year, who was it with, how long did it last, how did it resolve, if it's resolved, did it make your relationship better? All these things, and then going back in some point in childhood — what is the most memorable fight you had growing up, who was it with, what was it about, what was it really about, how long did it last?

Photo source: Mortified

All those kinds of questions ... It illuminates the patterns in your life. Things that seem very different are actually in many ways sometimes you find the connected tissue and you're like, "Oh, those are kind of similar." So the idea of the book is to really just create writing prompts to help you see that. 

At the end of each of these questions, you get to rate yourself up on what I call the Bowie/Betty Spectrum. That is are you a David Bowie in life, are you someone who's constantly prone to changing and evolving, or are you someone who is perfect just the way you are. You never change. You're like a Betty White. So where do you fall on this spectrum? So you rate yourself, and throughout the book you kind of keep doing this to determine are you a Bowie or are you a Betty.

Related: Fueled By Death Cast Episode 75 - MORTIFIED - DAVE NADELBERG


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