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TELEVISION REVIEW

Actors recall their early embarrassments

In “The Mortified Sessions,’’ Eric Stonestreet recalls his childhood desire to be a clown. The series allows famous people to recall their early years. In “The Mortified Sessions,’’ Eric Stonestreet recalls his childhood desire to be a clown. The series allows famous people to recall their early years. (Carl Bringas)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 5, 2011
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Tonight on “The Mortified Sessions,’’ Eric Stonestreet recalls his youthful dream of becoming a professional clown. He’d invented a clown character named Fizbo - the same character he would revive decades later as Cameron on “Modern Family’’ - and he tried and failed to get into clown college twice.

It’s touching to watch him and “Mortified Sessions’’ host David Nadelberg study yellowing photos of the teen Stonestreet in full makeup, with an uneven smile painted across his white face. If Jay Leno were displaying the photos, he’d be ridiculing Stonestreet, who’d no doubt be promoting something. But on “The Mortified Sessions,’’ which premieres on the Sundance Channel at 8 p.m., we are simply sharing a personal moment with the actor. Stonestreet is remembering life as an overweight kid seeking an identity. He’s smiling - there’s nothing self-pitying in his response - but you can tell he is moved by his early pain and persistence.

It’s a lovely sequence, and it encapsulates what’s best about this new series. There is something appealingly bittersweet about watching people looking back, as they feel old, secret pain and yet liberate themselves by sharing it and laughing at it. That kind of catharsis is the motivation behind the entire Mortified project, on which “The Mortified Sessions’’ is based. Mortified is a decade-old venture created to enable people to tell their early stories online and on stage. Mortified events are held in a number of cities (including Boston), and a few Mortified performances have been featured on the radio on “This American Life.’’

Not every guest on “The Mortified Sessions’’ is as satisfying and compelling as Stone- street, as they prefer to recall fashion mistakes and hair issues rather than deeper discomforts. Watching Mo’Nique go through her box of memories to laugh at her long fingernails and describe her pride in her accomplishments is engaging enough, especially for Mo’Nique fans. But it’s not the kind of self-standing piece that has a sense of universal import. Mo’Nique isn’t on “The Mortified Sessions’’ in order to ask us to watch or buy something, which is a plus. Most talk shows double as PR campaigns. But still, she’s not revelatory.

As host, Nadelberg provides just the right kind of presence. He commiserates, and laughs along, but gently pushes his guests forward as much as he can. You might want him to ask Ed Helms, who is tonight’s first guest, more about the heart surgery he had as a kid. Helms doesn’t really go into his illness, preferring, quite amusingly, to sing a song he wrote in college.

But Nadelberg’s role is to foster, not to confront. “The Mortified Sessions’’ is an opportunity for self-analysis and nostalgia, not a cross-examination. At it’s best, the show is an homage to both the heroism of children and the healing power of storytelling.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

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THE MORTIFIED SESSIONS

On: Sundance Channel

Time: Tonight, 8-8:30, 8:30-9