Chicago's live-lit scene is a robust one, with storytelling events filling up the calendar every month. They're cheap to produce, and I suspect they tap into a desire among audiences to experience something without a screen of one sort or another getting in the way. You don't even need a mic. Just a person with a story — and an audience willing to listen.
The Mortified stage show started in Los Angeles (and has since expanded to other cities, including Chicago) with a specific focus: Adults (usually in their 20s and 30s) reading from their embarrassing scribblings of youth: journals, letters, school assignments.
"I think everyone's had moments from their childhood that they've been mortified by, so why not bask in everyone else's uncomfortableness?" says an audience member with a jokey shrug in "Mortified Nation," the documentary concert film that captures three years of performances across the country at various Mortified shows, including one filmed in Chicago at Lincoln Hall in the spring of 2012. (The film screens this weekend at the Siskel Film Center, with the director and producers of the Chicago chapter on hand for a post-show talk.)
"August 14, 1991," begins one entry from a Chicago performer named Brigid. "Dear Diary: We were having pasta with clam sauce for dinner. It was gross, so I asked if I could make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Dad said that this is what was for dinner, so either I ate that or nothing. I DON'T UNDERSTAND THAT AT ALL! I kept on asking him, saying, 'If you don't like something, why can't you eat something you do like?' He got mad and sent me to my room." What follows is a list of unprintable insults, one entirely made up but outre nonetheless.
Nor does her mom escape the pre-pubescent vitriol. "Dear Diary: Today my mom made me go to my room just because I told Brendan to shut up. I don't know why she thinks it's a bad word. Mom is a dork, a moron and a geek. I hate her so much! P.S. By the way, I had a great New Year!"
Interviewed sitting with her parents after the performance, she admits to warning them, "I don't know if you want to be there." They took it in good humor, though.
Which is key to Mortified's appeal, I think: As intense as those teenage feelings may have once been, they invariably sound idiotic and hilariously melodramatic in hindsight.
Or as the young adult author Cecil Castellucci says in the film: "For adults going back to that stuff now, the reason why it's so embarrassing and the reason why you're reading it is because it's still kind of you — even though it's not you anymore, and it's not that desperate, it's like, that's how you are. That's how you felt. That is your truth. It's kind of glorious and embarrassing and sweet at the same time."
The documentary is strongest when the camera simply captures a person onstage, performing the words of his or her younger self.
Over the years there have been efforts to translate the stage show into a film or TV series.
"We had several attempts through so-called proper channels in Hollywood, and ultimately there's a reason you never saw any of those," Mortified founder Dave Nadelberg told me. He launched the project a decade ago with a teenage love letter he unearthed several years after it was written. You can understand his protectiveness of the Mortified concept. (A celebrity Q-and-A sister project hosted by Nadelberg, called "The Mortified Sessions," aired on the Sundance Channel for two seasons; the interview format gave the project a different sensibility.)
But if you're going to film real people reading from their childhood diaries, you're putting them in a vulnerable place — one that could easily be exploited by TV or film executives whose interests may lie in juicing up the embarrassment factor.
"We wanted to do something on our own terms," said Nadelberg, "without any Hollywood oversight. After our last go-round of trying to get something off the ground, our friend Mike Mayer, who directed the film, said why don't you just do something on your own?"
Nadelberg and his collaborators went the independent route, raising $20,000 on Kickstarter.
"Our hope was that we could find other people willing to give us resources, and quite honestly those people arrived in the form of Netflix who, before we even shot a single second of footage, came on board as distributors of the film and gave us just enough backing to make the movie we wanted to do." ("Mortified Nation" can be streamed on sites including iTunes and Amazon; Netflix will make it available this year.)
"The real fear for us is that the performers would watch it and think we didn't handle how they're portrayed in a respectful manner. They put a great deal of trust in us, that we wouldn't trivialize their lives and portray them like idiots, which can happen with nonfiction films and TV series.
"Mike really wanted to celebrate the performers, not make fun of them. And I think he did a really good job of capturing the spirit of the stage show," Nadelberg said, "and he did so in a way that doesn't feel like some sort of commercial for Mortified." I would disagree with that last part.
As the film progresses (and turns its attention away, momentarily, from the live performances) it can occasionally feel like an earnest recruitment film. These portions lack the undercurrent of self-satirizing comedy that is so essential to the Mortified brand. Otherwise it's just navel-gazing.
When it comes to producing the show itself, however, Nadelberg gets it.
"The name of the show is Mortified, so we sort of have to make it funny — and embarrassingly funny. It's not called the Diary Show, where you might have the freedom to never be funny. So even when we have a dark story that deals with things like divorce or death or abuse, we want to balance that with comedy."