David Nadelberg’s “The Mortified Sessions” hits Sundance Channel

By Karl J. Paloucek

Imagine digging through the old boxes in your closet and finding, amid the clutter, your third-grade journal. The one in which you wrote about all of that important stuff — about the kid who flicked a booger at the teacher when she wasn’t looking, or all of the mushy stuff you wanted to say to that quiet boy or girl in the corner, but never did. Now imagine taking that journal and reading it aloud, as an adult, onstage in front of an audience of strangers. That’s the sort of thing that David Nadelberg has been after for the last 10 years with his stage show, Mortified, and it’s at the heart of his new series, The Mortified Sessions, premiering on Sundance Channel Dec. 5 at 8pm ET/PT.

The Mortified Sessions takes a slightly different approach from the stage show. Instead of putting the general public out front for all-purpose self-deprecation and humiliation, Nadelberg sits down with a shoebox full of childhood memories from various personalities — including Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Grey, Mo’Nique, Will Forte, Cheryl Hines and many others — and talks about the person who created the memories behind the objects. Nadelberg says that it’s an often-cathartic process. “Our interview series is loosely based on our audition process,” he explains. “[It’s] kind of like an interview, and it’s kind of like a casting session, and it’s kind of like a therapy session. … So we just took that concept and built a show around that.”

The stories he gets in the series are often hilarious — like Ed Helms remembering the time he sent Valentines to only the boys in his class, or Jennifer Grey talking about kissing Charlie Sheen in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There are moments of pathos and genuine awkwardness as well, but Nadelberg insists that it’s not so much about peeking into a celebrity’s past for the sake if it. “I’m interested in people who have achieved things,” he offers. “The goal of the show isn’t so much celebrity voyeurism as much as it is finding the DNA of someone’s success. Our unusual — I think — theory is that if you peek inside the pages of somebody’s past, if you look at an old prom photo of the bad hairdo, or if you read somebody’s embarrassing rap lyrics that they wrote when they were 14, that you can actually see the ingredients and the blueprints for the person that they’ve later become.”

Though most of the personalities interviewed on The Mortified Sessions are actors, theirs aren’t the only success stories Nadelberg profiles, or wants to. An episode that features Alanis Morissette also finds him interviewing TOMS Shoes CEO Blake Mycoskie — famous for his company’s donation of shoes to children in need around the world. But his ultimate “get,” he says, would be to sit down with a politician of any stripe. “That is actually the number one type of guest on my wish list,” he says. “I would be so fascinated to see someone like a Condoleezza Rice. Or Hilary Clinton. ‘What led to the type of person you are today? Were you always interested in world events? Or were you not — were you some frivolous girl who liked going to the mall?’ I’m really curious to see how the events of our pasts — especially sometimes the human and sometimes awkward events of our pasts — really shape people who shape the world. And whether that’s in politics or entertainment, these are all people who are shaping the world we live in. Or who have shaped the world we live in.”

But whoever appears on The Mortified Sessions, Nadelberg knows there are at least a couple of absolutes with everyone he interviews. “I’ve spent nearly a decade being invited to peek inside other people’s shoeboxes, whether they’re famous or whether they’re some teacher at a Midwest high school,” he reflects. “You learn two key things about people from this — and definitely, I’ve learned this from doing The Mortified Sessions — we are all very, very different. We have all led very, very different lives. We’ve all had very, very different outcomes. And that we are all — and it’s a weird dichotomy — we are all the same. In some ways, that’s empowering — to know that whatever flaws and awkward tendencies we all have, that we’re not alone in those. And in some ways, that’s weirdly depressing, because it means we’re all going to be freaks for the entirety of our lives. But at least we’re in it together.”


Photo: Carl Bringas