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Mortified's Dave Nadelberg on Bringing a Stage Show to TV

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Mortified is a stage show that's about to hit its tenth birthday, and since starting about a decade ago, it has evolved into a couple of books, a web series and will also soon be a documentary film. It's also got a companion piece TV show on the Sundance channel, which, just this week  kicked off its second season.

The show and the main thrust of Mortified's output is about people exhuming their high-school journals or other super-embarrassing stories from their past and bringing them to light in a frank, open and honest way. The person telling it is "mortified," and the audience is laughing both at them at first and, over the course of their reading, with them.

Mortified has been a mainstay in Chicago for quite a while now -- the next show is Oct. 20 at Schubas -- but, obviously, it's grown a lot. There's a lot that Founder/Creator Dave Nadelberg has to juggle with the enterprise, especially now that he's also the co-creator, executive producer and host of the TV show, which is called The Mortified Sessions. To find out more about how he juggles and what others can learn from his techniques, I gave Nadelberg a call.

How did the Sundance show come about?

Dave Nadelberg: Well, it's pretty interesting. The Sundance project started actually as a web experiment that we had done, my co-producer Neil Katcher and myself. I'd been doing Mortified for several years. In fact, next month we're going to be celebrating Mortified's tenth anniversary.

Congratulations!

Dave Nadelberg: Thank you. And Neil and I had been doing this web series and our agreement with ourselves was, look, we're not getting paid for this stuff online, so let's use it as a laboratory and always create new formats and new concepts and new ways to interpret Mortified. Whether it's animating the monologues you hear onstage or doing a one-minute version of a piece you hear or doing it's a full story for nine minutes onstage or whether it's doing interviews and just really tackling it from different perspectives. And we did that for about a year and a half until we burned out on making those things on our own. One of those interviews started catching the eye of some people in the television world and suddenly a Sundance show was born out of that. And so that's really a companion piece to the Mortified brand. It's not an adaptation of our stage show, nor is it intended to be.

That's probably a smart way to think about it, as a companion piece. Was that your idea or Sundance's idea?

Dave Nadelberg: That was completely our idea. We actually didn't even sell them an idea with Mortified in the title. We purposely pitched them a show called The Shoebox Sessions, and then only in the 11th hour through a bunch of legal wrangling did it become known as The Mortified Sessions. Yeah. Our idea was to create a sister project. We're really protective over Mortified, our stage show. We've gone down the pilot road and Hollywood road a bunch of times with our stage show and had never really been satisfied with the results in the past efforts. So we decided to save the direct adaptation of our stage show to a concert film/documentary which we eventually shot and we're actually in the final months of editing right now.

 

Obviously it changes things for you guys, and it changes things for your contributors as well. Do they need sign different papers to become part of the show?

Dave Nadelberg: I don't talk about specifics with money in interviews. Unfortunately there's not a clean soundbite on that.

Was it difficult to retain some of the rights when it became a TV show? Did you have to surrender some rights?

Dave Nadelberg: Well, it is actually rare that I talk to business publications, so this is kind of fun for me. This is not our first dance. Mortified has been courted quite a bit for Hollywood, and often those results have not been satisfactory. One thing I've learned is to be really protective over the things that you care about and really to protect the rights. Particularly to our stage show. With Sundance, we sold them an idea. Mortified was not in the title. We own the Mortified brand, basically. There are some stipulations to that, but that was really important to us. Everyone is one so brand-happy in this era, especially in Hollywood. When they see projects like Mortified, and if you want to sell them a book or a TV show or something, they want to buy it, but they want buy the whole brand. Which isn't to say that they'll ever do anything with all of the potential of the brand. But that's inherently sexy nowadays.

To us, there is something to really protect. We're a really small grassroots organization. I'm not Hasbro with Battleship or the Transformers or something where I'm making millions or anything like that. Running an organization like Mortified is like trying to make a go as a constantly up and coming indie-rock band. You feel like you're living in a band and you have a lot of fans and you have a lot of notoriety and a lot of acclaim, but it's very grassroots and scrappy. We're really serious about protecting the rights to our stage show.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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