Be forewarned: when watching Sundance Channel’s new series, The Mortified Sessions, where celebrities look back at some of the more embarrassing bits from their youth, adolescence, and other eras of their lives, you will almost certainly start contemplating which moments you’d share if host David Nadelberg invited you to be on the show. This visceral reaction won’t prove surprising if you’re one of the millions who’s surfed over to GetMortified.com since its inception lo these many years ago—Newsweek didn’t call it a “cultural phenomenon” for nothing, you know—but just in case The Mortified Sessions proves to be your first experience with Nadelberg and his efforts, I just wanted you to be prepared.
Although it may seem on the surface like an ordinary interview show, what you quickly realize while watching The Mortified Sessions is just how little most such series actually delve into the pasts of the people being interviewed. Everything tends to revolve around their latest project. Nadelberg, however, does his best to bypass anything even remotely contemporary, preferring instead to have his guests dip into a box marked “PRIVATE” and see what they come up with. Indeed, he really only brings up their career accomplishments if he can tie them organically into whatever artifact has been pulled out of the box.
The first episode of the series divides its time between Ed Helms and Mo’Nique, with the former kicking off his segment by discussing his transition out of being called Edward, an occurrence which took place when a camp counselor started calling him “Big Ed.” “I think it was just sort of, like, ‘Hey, homesick kid, feel better about yourself,’” Helms admits to Nadelberg, but the change in name made him feel cooler, so he stuck with it. As that didn’t take place until he went off to college, however, we also get to see a series of photos which document just how incredibly uncool he was up to that point. It wasn’t just his look. It was pretty much everything about him, based on the various stories and journal entries he shares from the era, which underline his awkwardness around women, starting in fifth grade, when he first asked a girl to “go” with him. Helms is incredibly forthright in his discussions about just what a dork he used to be, but it reveals a great deal about how he’s able to pull off the authenticity of a loveable goofball like Andy on The Office. (Spoiler alert: there’s not as much acting going on as you may have suspected.) If Mo’Nique’s segment isn’t quite as much of a laugh riot as Helm’, it’s still a very interesting look through her life, and she certainly seems to be just as willing to open up about these portions of her past that she hasn’t really had a chance to discuss before.
Following closely on the heels of episode one, the second episode of The Mortified Sessions is dedicated solely to Eric Stonestreet, a.k.a. Cam from Modern Family, and in addition to being funnier than Helms Mo’Nique combined (which stands to reason, I suppose, since he gets twice as much time as either of them), it also gives the impression that this series is at its best when it isn’t dividing its time between two people. Although it’s been documented elsewhere that Stonestreet really did play Fizbo the Clown when he was younger, he really gets a chance to flesh out the story of how he fell into playing a clown to such a degree that he actually applied to Ringling Brothers’ clown college. There are a few full-fledged laugh-out-loud moments in his past, including a tale of how he and a friend first tried on condoms, but the funniest story involves Stonestreet and a friend distractedly passing out stickers to kids at a carnival without paying attention to what the stickers actually say. (Suffice to say the phrase is far from kid-friendly.) Stonestreet also offers a very sweet story about his parents’ devotion to him, despite his career choice, and how he continued to assure them that their investment would pay off. When it did, Stonestreet’s mother accompanied him to the Emmy Awards. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.
Caveat: At the end of each interview segment, Nadelberg—who, if you close your eyes, sounds striking like Ira Glass at times—does get briefly sentimental, picking a photo from their box and asking them what they’d say to that version of themselves if they had the chance. Yeah, it’s kind of a Barbara-Walters-y question, but given all of the reminiscing that’s preceded it, you can’t say it hasn’t been earned. The Mortified Sessions may not be the deepest thing on the Sundance Channel, but based on these first two episodes, it’s certainly one of the most entertaining.
To bring things full circle to close, I can’t resist offering up a quick list of a couple of things I’d feel obliged to bring up if I was invited onto the show.
- My earliest published work was an ode to Wildcat Video, an arcade in Chesapeake, Virginia. It was published as part of the arcade’s ad in one of my junior high yearbooks. Representative couplet: “While your mom’s out shopping, spend a quarter or two / ‘Cause video games are the thing to do.” Yes, it’s awful. But I still pulled $20 in quarters for my efforts. That’s a lot of games of Joust, my friend.
- Norfolk television station WTVZ used a rotating group of high school students as amateur newscasters on a short segment called Report Card. I was one of them. One of my stories was about “Weird Al” Yankovic, a fact which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my success on the dating circuit circa 1984 – 1987.
- I spent the early part of my high school years unknowingly participating in an elaborate ongoing joke amongst my peers where, whenever I ran for class office and stood at the podium to give my election speech, they would give me a rousing standing ovation. They thought it was funny. I thought it was awesome…until I realized it was a joke, something I probably should’ve realized sooner, given that I kept losing the elections.
Go on, you know you want to offer a few of your own in the comments…