’Mortified’: The American comedy where people read out their embarrassing teenage diaries to strangers comes to the UK
Would you allow someone to read your teenage diary? Finally reveal those previously private, pubescent thoughts and feelings to someone trustworthy? Well, how about 400 strangers?
That’s what happens at Mortified. This cult live show is part of the increasingly popular storytelling scene in the US that, thanks to the huge success of sell-out nights like The Moth, is quickly moving into the mainstream.
At Mortified, adults get up on stage and read their most embarrassing childhood writings – diary entries, poems, schoolwork – to a room full of laughing former teenagers. It’s become a huge hit in the United States, spawning two books, a Netflix documentary (Mortified Nation) and a weekly podcast. It can be awkward to watch – cringeworthy, even – but it’s also honest, moving and, above all, ridiculously funny.
“We all have a relationship with our past,” says Dave Nadelberg, who founded Mortified 14 years ago. “We have great affection for our 14- or 15-year-old selves, so we want to let them be heard again. But we also have derision for and shame about them. We want to make fun of them, in a loving way.”
The show started after Nadelberg, from Detroit, found a teenage love letter he had written to a girl but had never sent. “It was ridiculous!” he says. “I wanted to share it, but not being a performer I thought it would be fun to just get some friends on stage for one night and invite them to share their own childhood writings. That one night turned into 14 years.”
Over the past decade and a half Mortified has opened “chapters” in more than 20 cities, from Portland to Paris, Dallas to Dublin. The latest branch to open is the first in the UK, in London. So why has the show become so popular? ‘It’s funny as hell!’ says Will Seymour, a Mortified veteran, who’s performed at many chapters since the early days. “Kids inherently have such a strange take on everything, but everyone can also relate to at least one or two things that someone shares. It’s so honest and mortifying and embarrassing for the reader, but I’m always really touched by how much I relate to a little bit of everybody.”
Seymour says the show has helped him accept his childhood. He had tough teenage years, he explains, “and I thought that doing the show could help me understand it a little better. As the years have gone on, I’ve come to understand and accept what happened to me. The beauty is, Mortified is the one place where you can get up and genuinely be yourself, and whatever the material, whatever someone shares, that person is fine – they survived.”
But that’s an American’s take. The British? Well, we’re a little more reserved. We prefer to bury our feelings and we’ll go out of our way to avoid an embarrassing situation. But when Mortified called out for participants for the first London show they received dozens of applicants. Why did they want to take part?
“Group therapy” is the phrase that constantly crops up when I speak to the UK readers. “I kept a diary from about age 11 to 17,” says 32-year-old Rob Scott, who’s taking part in the first London show, “and I haven’t made peace with it. Whenever I read it I don’t recognise the person that I used to be, it’s like reading someone else’s thoughts entirely. I wanted to get involved because it’s a way of completely accepting that that person was me, and to actually like that person.”
Scott, who has never been on stage before, thinks the nostalgia factor is what British people will most relate to. “Americans are a bit more outgoing in general,” he says, “but we love pointing back and going, ‘Ooh, I remember when a pack of spearmint Polos was 16p.”’ Major events are all the funnier when filtered through a teenager’s brain, too. Scott wrote about Tony Blair being elected Prime Minister in 1997, ‘but it was a footnote,’ he explains. “Most of that entry was about the fact that we had just won the Eurovision Song Contest.”
Lolly Jones is enjoying finding out how much she’s changed in the past 20 years. “I’m 34 now, and at 13 I just fell in love with anyone I met or saw. I’m still quite similar to that in a way, it’s quite pathetic!’ The fact that the British are more guarded about our feelings will make the show even funnier, she reckons. ”People tell things to their diaries that they don’t tell to people’s faces,“ Jones explains. ”And at that age you’re particularly dramatic. So if people just read the truth it’s going to be absolutely hilarious.“
Once accepted, each Mortified participant is teamed up with one of the show’s many producers, who helps the reader find their funniest material and turn their bad writing into good storytelling. “Most people who kept extensive diaries will have stuff that’s funny, it’s just a case of finding it,” says Reuben Williams, one of the producers of Mortified’s London chapter. “We’re all actually a lot crazier on the inside than we pretend to be, and there’s something nice about really honestly explaining – confessing, almost – how crazy and insane you were. Even if it is excruciatingly embarrassing it’s heartwarming too, because you know that there are probably other people who have done the same kind of things.”
A diary is just one source, though. As well as keeping a journal, Lolly Jones spent her teenage years writing poems about the Beatles, and that’s what she’s reading at Mortified London. “I thought I was John Lennon reincarnated,” she laughs. “It’s so sad! What’s a 14-year-old girl doing being obsessed with a band from 20 years before? I went to see Take That at Sheffield Arena and they did a Beatles medley. That was that, I was hooked. What a loser!”
Ross Brierley, another participant for the London show, isn’t quite as hard on his younger self. The 31-year-old is reading from strange scripts and plays he wrote as a teenager, which are “absolutely awful”, he admits. “But I’m also weirdly proud of my childhood brain’s ability to come up with the most nonsensical ideas. You can choose to be embarrassed about that stuff or not, I think.”
And that’s the beauty of Mortified. Sure, it’s funny to hear about someone’s angst and awkwardness, but behind the laughs there’s a heartwarming salute to the bravery and resilience of teenagers who are all just trying to figure out how life works. As Nadelberg says, “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or even when you were born, we were all that same weird kid.”
‘Mortified Live: London’ is at the Leicester Square Theatre, on 27 February (leicestersquaretheatre.com; 020 7734 2222). For more information on the ‘Mortified’ Podcast, go to getmortified.com
Five mortifying diary keepers
* Sara Finnerty, from Queens, NY, at 15 was a brooding bookworm but when she started dating she set about reinventing herself. In her journal she wrote about her sexual fantasies about a boy called Anthony who, “whether I like it or not, is my soulmate”. She had met him three times.
* Like most teenage boys, Kevin Miller was terrified of talking to girls. He was also a huge fan of ‘Star Trek’, so his journal entries about his quest for his first kiss are written as if they are captain’s logs. “Alert, alert, fire up generators, begin flirt sequence.”
* Shelley McLendon only wrote in her diary when she was upset or anxious, and that was usually about boys. Being a religious teenager, her entries are written to God as much as herself. “It’ll happen, Shelley. Please Lord, let it happen. I’ve got so much to offer, let me offer it.”
* As a teenager, as well as keeping an extensive diary, Will Seymour created an entire radio empire, which he would record everyday after school. “I had so much time and it went so deep,” says Seymour. “I found memos from the studio about firing Martin Scorsese. The studio didn’t exist!”
* Tynan DeLong used his journal to explore his inner gangsta rapper. For some reason, he ended each entry with a description of what he wore and ate that day: “I wore a Houston Rockets hat, white turtleneck, ivory pants and ate chilli dogs. Peace, one love.”