"This news I'm gonna be writing isn't funny and I swear to God if anyone is reading this you better shut it now cuz this is NONE of your business!" That's how Jennifer McDonnell began her diary entry on Jan. 2, 1989. Little did she know that, more than a decade later, she'd read those very words to a room full of strangers, then allow them to be published in a book entitled, appropriately, Mortified. What began as a stage show in Los Angeles, where people read their most cringe-inducing, teenage-angst-ridden diary entries, poems, fantasies, and more, has spread to other cities and made thetransition to book form. Mortified, compiled by founder David Nadelberg, collects 51 stories of summer-camp crushes, Duran Duran fan fiction, anti-prom poetry, and more. Nadelberg spoke to The A.V. Club about teenage life, coming to terms with it, and making molestation funny.
The A.V. Club: When Mortified began, how did you think it'd work?
David Nadelberg: I really didn't know if this would be funny past the five-minute mark. I knew this was a cute and interesting premise, but I really wanted to make sure we were never just relying on pop-culture references from the '70s or '80s that might get mentioned in one of these pieces, like, "Ha, I remember the Rubik's Cube." I don't want to do a basic-cable countdown show. I want to take people through an experience of what this person's life is.
AVC: Have performers ever been hesitant to read?
DN: We don't get people who say, "Oh you know what? I'm not over it," and therefore they don't want to. They say, "I'm not over it, but this is going to help me." When people look at the book and attend our shows, we try to cover a spectrum of youth. Of course we're limited by who approaches us, but we really try to not just make it about white girls with diaries from Long Island about boys they liked at summer camp. As a result, we try to tackle anything a kid dealt with, whether it was crushes—as cute as that—or as really heavy as mental depression, eating disorders, death, divorce. This book tackles a lot of those darker things, and we just try to find a balance when it gets too heavy. I have a rule that we can go dark, but it has to be dark and funny. Those are my favorite pieces. We try not to ever do the snarky, laugh-at humor. I think there's a version of this show that could lean that way. Our comedy outlook is "laugh at, cheer for."
AVC: The Mortified MySpace page has Found in its "top eight" friends. You're definitely kindred spirits.
DN: I've really learned about this weird urban archaeology, art-meets-archaeology movement that is going on in pop culture right now, like Found and Mortified, and I guess PostSecret and I think even bands like the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players. These things that are plucked from the world of the mundane, that seem like nothing, that are just buried in a drawer or just in the bottom of the trash Dumpster, they're actually quite profound and sometimes insanely funny and moving. I think that concept of accidental art has existed for as long as art has, but for whatever reason now people are finding new spins on it, and audiences are really hungry for that.
AVC: Do you have any criteria for something that'd be inappropriate?
DN: Sometimes there is some heavier stuff that gets thrown our way. The "Problem Child" piece was one we wanted to do for a long time, but since it mentioned molestation, we knew it was going to drag anyone in the audience down. Then we found a way to contextualize it, where the joke was about him and not about the person he's describing, because we don't want the joke to be making fun of that. The piece is actually a kid who's going through a really hard time in Buffalo, New York, and winds up only falling in love with people who have worse problems than he does. [Laughs.] So of course when he meets a molested girl, that's gold. That's really dark and twisted, but that's the kind of weird, messed up logic that a lot of us have as adults. We formulate our weird quirks and behavior patterns right at this age in adolescence, and it's inescapable. That's what he did. So I think if this were fiction, that might be crass, but because it's not, I think it comes off a little sweeter. That's our hope. Maybe we're just giant assholes.