Angst, Unlocked: Mortified’s Dave Nadelberg on His Favorite Embarrassing Stories

Youthful humiliation comes of age at the stage show where sharing the shame is humorous and healing

Dave Nadelberg didn’t set out to become an archaeologist of teen angst. A frustrated TV writer looking to create his own production, he asked friends to dig up their old journals. Eleven years later the relics haven’t stopped coming in. They’re the basis of Mortified, a periodic stage show in which ordinary people read diaries, poems, and mash notes from their formative years. From its home base in Hollywood (look for it at King King on December 11), the storytelling fest has branched out to nine other cities. No matter the location, Mortified remains a pageant of anxiety, yearning, and impossibly smutty fantasies written by virginal pre-teens (Nadelberg owns up to writing aching poetry about bagpipe music). Captured in a recent documentary, Mortified Nation, the confessions are remarkable for their earnestness. “There’s an attitude that for something to be considered good, it can’t be sincere,” Nadelberg says, “and I’m tired of that.” Though it originated as entertainment, Mortified has evolved into a performance that is both cathartic and hilarious—for subjects and audiences alike. By reveling in our most embarrassing moments, we break their hold on us and celebrate our universal awkwardness.

True Confessions
Dave Nadelberg on some of his favorite tales from the Mortified archives

  • The Musical Jock
    I love when people unearth home movies, scripts, and illustrations. Among my favorite oddities is a piece from a guy who, as a high school football player, secretly loved writing musicals. It was Broadway’s loss and Mortified’s gain.
  • The Wish List
    In Boston a woman recited a list she had written in junior high of all the things she wanted to accomplish. She hadn’t kissed a boy yet, but nearly every item on her list was fixated on sex, from wanting to do it on a water bed to somehow doing it on a roller coaster.
  • Jesus Journals
    We get a lot of diaries from gay men and women who were closeted teens. The ones that break my heart are those where the self-hatred and shame are so clear. In one, a closeted black kid in the Bible Belt spends most of his time trying to figure out why he’s so obsessed with his best friend, a male.