West Bloomfield native David Nadelberg, 37, is sitting down with celebrities to revisit their childhood. That is the premise of “The Mortified Sessions,” a new show airing on the Sundance Channel on Monday nights at 8 p.m. In each episode, Nadelberg sits down with personalities ranging from Megan Mullally of “Will & Grace” to Oscar-winning actress Monique as they look back at the past through items such as childhood photos and diaries, revealing how their childhood shaped them into the people they became. The show is the latest off-shoot of the “Mortified” brand Nadelberg helped create after he found an old love letter he wrote. That led to stage shows across the country and two books in which people open up about their childhood, drawing laughs but also connecting with others. With a cult following stretching across the U.S. and even to Sweden, Nadelberg shows no signs of slowing down. He spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly from Los Angeles about his past, his thoughts on the TV show, and how he met one of his heroes from Canadian TV.
First of all, congratulations on your new show, “The Mortified Sessions,” airing on the Sundance Channel. Please give our readers a description of what the show’s premise is.
DN: “The Mortified Sessions” is a weekly series on the Sundance Channel where we sit down with noteworthy people, everyone from celebrities to CEOs, and talk to them about their most embarrassing childhood writings and photographs, things that they’ve saved in a shoebox since childhood and have dared to unearth on television.
You have an impressive list of guests lined up for the show’s first season. How do you approach these celebrities and other personalities about opening up their childhood memories to you? Which interview that you’ve conducted this season really stood out to you? Who are other personalities that you hope to have on the show in the future?
DN: Well for starters, the television show is really a companion piece to a series of stage shows and books that we have been running for about 10 years called “Mortified.” Some of the guests we’ve had are just fans of “Mortified” in general, people like Danny Pudi from NBC’s “Community,” and Eric Stonestreet from “Modern Family.” And then other people are sort of new to the “Mortified” family and it’s just a matter of approaching them and having them spark at the idea.
I think celebrities in general can get tired of doing things where they’re asked the same old questions, like what was it really like working with so-and-so on the set of whatever movie, and our show really asks different things. So I think it can be a refreshing conversation for them — it’s not your standard publicity mill.
(All the interviews) stand out to me and they’re all really unique and that’s part of what makes “Mortified Sessions” special, that we’re celebrating what makes everybody unique and at the same time celebrating how those unique traits are shared by so many.
There’s this sort of collective identity that I think we all have, that we were all that same awkward kid when we were younger. But, in terms of just a few specifics, we recently sat down with Danny Pudi of NBC’s “Community,” and I find his upbringing very fascinating. He grew up in Chicago, he’s a Midwest kid who is half-Indian and half-Polish and that’s a really unique combination and I think it gave him a really unique life perspective that I think helped him become a really great comedic actor today and a really unique actor.
Other people like Cheryl Hines — you might know her from “Suburgatory” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — she shared some stories of going on a date, going to prom, and when her prom date gets up and leaves the table for a minute to go to the bathroom. She’s so interested in kissing this guy but is so intimidated by boys at her age that she takes her finger and dips it in his Coke and then takes her finger out of the soda and puts it in her mouth as if to somehow mix their saliva together as if that’s kissing.
And it’s that kind of neurotic behavior that we have and that obsessive behavior that I think that we do as kids and probably still in some weird way do as adults that our show loves to celebrate.
In our show, the message is that it’s okay to be who you are and it’s really one of the real reasons I think people do this show. Our show can humanize people in a way that I think very few other shows are able to do and I think there’s something kind of exciting about that.
Somebody on Twitter or Facebook said, “What I like about your show is that you’re not treating celebrities as though they are entertainment machines, but as human beings,” and I like that compliment because certainly that’s a goal of ours.
I would absolutely, absolutely be fascinated by to sit down with somebody like Mark Zuckerberg or Tina Fey. I’m really interested in people who have unique achievements because what we like doing on the show is picking somebody who’s known for something. In the case of Mark Zuckerberg, he’s known for connecting people and encouraging people to post their images and their lives online and I’m curious to know, a guy like that, what was he like as a kid, what was his relationship to socializing as a kid and was he a connector as a kid? Was he someone who was very private as a kid? Because, obviously that’s not a word that hovers over his life today.
And even likewise, with somebody like Tina Fey, she’s someone we know for being whip-smart comedic overachiever, just a really inspiring person and I’m curious — was she the girl who was the captain of a team and then also the editor of the yearbook and if she wasn’t, at what point in her life was there some sort of change where she became Superwoman?
This TV show is the latest spawn of a project that has resulted in two books, stage shows across the country, an Internet show and a dedicated following. How do you explain the appeal of “Mortified” and people looking to revisit their childhood? Do you feel that these sessions are therapeutic in a sense?
DN: In terms of what I believe the appeal of “Mortified” and “The Mortified Sessions” could be is I think we all want to relate. I think there’s a hunger in pop culture for stuff that is authentic and real in that there is a lot of great entertainment that is fantasy and allegedly reality-based and people love those and they should because those are great.
But often times, those things maybe don’t capture the human experience and I think there’s this craving for that and it’s the type of thing that I think has driven the success of public radio shows like “This American Life.” It’s completely fueled by, I think, that appetite, and I think television doesn’t have a lot of shows that tackle that, definitely not in the unscripted world, so I think that’s what we’re trying to capture.
In the terms of it being therapeutic, I’m always careful and adamant to say that our show is not therapy. I’m not a therapist, but there are certainly very cathartic things. There’s certainly a very cathartic and therapeutic element about parts of our show and not just for the participants or celebrities, but for the viewer. I think sharing your past or listening to somebody else share their past and these moments that define them that seem like fun, silly little memories, but are actually quite powerful and sometimes moving in the case of some of our guests like Eric Stonestreet and eventually Ricky Schroder, who both share pretty emotional tales of their lives.
I think there’s the potential for a great gift for viewers to connect with people that they admire on the screen and to be able to connect with them in a whole new level.
Tell us what inspired you to start “Mortified” and how growing up in West Bloomfield played a part in that process. What were your ambitions growing up and was it your goal to work in the entertainment industry?
DN: Well, I think the Midwest is a breeding ground of teen angst. There’s not a heck of a lot to do in the suburbs when you’re a teenager at least. It can feel really confining and I think often times people turn to the page and they write in diaries, they write poetry. I was never a diary kid — I was really the pretentious performance poet type.
But “Mortified” began actually when I returned home and found inside an old cardboard box a love letter that I had written to a girl. Funny enough, I had written it on the back of an entry form to a poetry magazine and I never submitted it and I had never given the letter to this girl. But, I found it years later as an adult and I thought it was ridiculous. I thought it was hilarious — unfortunately, unintentionally.
And I thought it was fascinating because I was interested in the relationship between my past and present self and I started wondering what other people had saved from their childhoods and started encouraging other people to dig up their pasts and share them on stage with me one night. And it snowballed. What I didn’t know at the time, what was supposed to be a little fun turned into a strange movement.
I’ve always been fascinated by media. Growing up in Detroit, I watched a lot of Canadian television actually, and I watched “Kids in the Hall” a lot and a lot of my inside jokes with my best friends were based on these jokes that these guys who lived in Canada made up and would put on television. Only due to television was I able to have this rich relationship with my friends where we would quote them and pretend to be their characters.
And it was cool because one day I had this epiphany that only through the magic of either television or film or print that I was able to have this in my life, whether it was from the “Kids in the Hall” or other artists that I really admired and I always wanted to be able to give back to that experience and create that for other people if I could.
We had a screening party not too long ago just for friends and as it turned out, one of the “Kids in the Hall” has actually become pretty close friends with the co-creator of “The Mortified Sessions,” Neil Katcher, and this guy, Bruce McCulloch, wound up coming to our screening party and it was just such a really profound thing, because he came and he watched and he came up to me afterwards and he was like “Wow, this is really great. I’m so proud of you and this is so funny and it’s really special.” He has no idea that I was a fan of his like that and it was just such a great full-circle thing.
What was the early process like for you in starting the “Mortified” brand with the book and stage shows and at what point did you realize that you possibly had something special on your hands?
DN: After our very first stage show, I just had a lot of people saying “When is the next one?” And I was like “What do you mean? This is just some dumb little thing I’m doing for a night.” And they were like “No, this is great, this is different. I’m laughing in a different way than I laughed then when I saw stand-up comedy or sketch or improv.”
And that there was something more human and visceral and poignant even that you don’t get in other types of live performance, be it comedy or theater and they said this is such a weird hybrid, you really should stick with this and see where it goes.
Little did I know that it would lead to a television talk show basically, but sometimes, especially in Hollywood, you have to learn how be guided by adventure and just sort of see where things go because you can’t possibly control your destiny and maybe in some ways, the best way to control your success or destiny or whatever goals you have in Hollywood or entertainment is to not try to control them too much.
Mortified also has chapters in cities ranging from Los Angeles to even Malmo, Sweden. Do you think a chapter will ever be started in the metro Detroit area? What other projects are you working on, be it with “Mortified” or your career in general?
DN: We would love to (start a chapter in Detroit). We have 10 chapters going and we are very, very grassroots and I think even our TV show, we’re a growing TV show on a growing network and we don’t have some massive billboard campaign. I kind of like that because that really ties into the word-of-mouth thing that has always fueled “Mortified.”
But, at the moment, because it is so grassroots, it is challenging for us to branch into more and more cities without insuring quality and so we’re really trying to get to places like Detroit and other cities like Miami or Philadelphia. That is our goal in 2012, to sort of examine how to do that in a way that will make sure the shows are good.
But in the meantime, the best way that we can get to Detroit is actually with this television show and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do television is we can get not just to Detroit, but we can share this whole “Mortified” experience with people all across the country.
“Mortified,” for good or for bad, has become my career, but right now we’re working on a concert film. We’re about to go across the country for a project called “Mortified Nation” which we’re crazy excited about. Starting in January, we’re going to be filming that. It was funded by fans from all across the country, which is inspiring at least to me and encouraging and cool.
I’m a writer. I’ve been spending many years writing screenplays and books that will probably forever drive me crazy and maybe one day see the light of day. But, that ties into the “Mortified” stuff. “Mortified” is a celebration of frustrated attempts at writing. Of course, I’m only going to continue to have that experience with the written word.
How can people who want to learn more about “Mortified” find information?
DN: There’s two great ways. No. 1, you can go to getmortified.com. Then, in terms of the television series, they can go to sundancechannel.com and that’s where you can find all the latest episodes and really cool web-exclusive clips and videos with all the guests from the show. They’re always adding new content to the “The Mortified Sessions” website every day on the Sundance Channel site. So those are two great ways to experience “Mortified.”