I don’t want to act trashy or low class. I just want to be mysteriously seductive, the same way Carol Seaver was trying to do when she told everybody she went to bed with Bobby Wynette on Growing Pains… Can’t I be the height of voluptuous femininity, singing, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” or “Open your heart, I’ll make you love me,” or “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend?” How come I have to be the short 14-year-old girl who doesn’t know how to have the ANIMAL MAGNETISM that makes people want to DO things with her. Do, meaning DO. Erica Kane is my idol of the day.
On Sept. 24, 1987, Jenny Epel wrote these and other searing desires in a spiral notebook that absolutely no one was ever supposed to read. And for 20 years no one did, aside from a few close friends, until she hauled the bloated, disintegrating journal to a Brooklyn bar and read it aloud to a room full of strangers.
Epel was a volunteer at January’s Cringe reading, a monthly gathering where adult New Yorkers read from their “teenage diaries, journals, notes, letters, poems, abandoned rock operas, and other general representations of the crushing misery of their humiliating adolescence,” as creator Sarah Brown describes it. Also reading was Amy Shapiro, a Cringe regular who is best known for sharing her journal from the summer she lost her virginity in Death Valley. “Last night was so much passion,” she wrote. “So much passion it turned my fruit into a vegetable.” Other indignities have ranged from Blaise Kearsley’s account of her high-school affair with a cab driver to Marc Balgavy’s letter to Fox suggesting an episode entitled “The Death of Brandon Walsh.”
Brown, 29, started Cringe after she began emailing excerpts of her middle-school journal to friends for fun. “I had all these notebooks filled with horrible love stories, including fan fiction of Treasure Island, except the TV version with Christian Bale,” she says. “I was the captain’s daughter, and we totally hated each other until we were attacked by pirates.” The emails were so hysterically received she figured there had to be many more angsty pages just waiting to mortify their now-grown-up authors. She was right, and Cringe has become so notorious since its first show in April 2005 that attendance has nearly outgrown the fire code at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, the Prospect Heights neighborhood bar that hosts it. The reading originally drew people by word-of-mouth, but it has now been featured in local and national press; its listing in Time Out New York even attracted The Daily Show’s John Oliver to a recent Cringe, which he called an example of “what humanity does best—wasting each others’ time in increasingly imaginative and enjoyable ways.”
KING OF ALL EMBARASSING MEDIA?
But even with the popularity, Brown was floored when, within one month last fall, she received two offers: one from Crown Publishing Group to compile a book of Cringe material, and another from The Learning Channel to turn Cringe into a traveling reality show. The book will be released in spring 2008, and the show’s pilot was taped in November, with word pending as to whether it will become a series. Cringe certainly seems ripe for mass consumption, especially with childhood nostalgia becoming hip, from VH1’s I Love the… series to the proliferation of Transformers T-shirts on thirtysomethings. Cringe isn’t the only event of its kind, either—it inspired the Salon of Shame in Seattle, and a similar show called Mortified, which launched in Los Angeles in 2002 (the notable difference being that Mortified screens material and holds auditions, while Cringe is straight-up show-and-tell). Still, some question whether the media expansion of Cringe will take away part of the intimate catharsis that makes it so meaningful.
“Freddy’s is such a special place, especially since it might get torn down,” says Amy Shapiro about Cringe’s current home, which faces the prospect of demolition to make way for a massive arena complex. “Everything that happens there is extra magical. It’s like seeing your favorite band at a local bar instead of an arena—Cringe will definitely be different if it’s on TV.”
“I think the voyeuristic attraction will translate,” says Harris Danow, a law student who’s read multiple entries from his Luke-and-Vader-collaged composition book. “People will be on their couch cringing. And whether it’s on TV or not, there will still be forums like Freddy’s—it will spread to other cities.” Brown says that if Cringe does become a television series, it will be filmed at venues in different cities that have a “Freddy’s feel,” although the pilot itself was filmed at Crash Mansion, a larger, upscale club in Manhattan. “I was concerned at first that it would lose something, become cheesy, but after seeing the pilot, I’m more confident that it can [maintain] the same tone,” she says. “Either way, I’m going to keep the live reading at Freddy’s as long as it’s open.”
Brown’s book will also offer a different view of Cringe than the one from Freddy’s backroom. It will be scan- and design-heavy, with the handwriting and doodles of contributors, as well as dated photos and current interviews. “Some of the fun of the book will be the voyeuristic thrill of reading someone’s diary,” she says, adding that the book will include material from a much wider demographic than the typical Cringe crowd in Brooklyn. “For me the most fun will always be in the live readings, but with the book, you’ll find something different every time you read it.”
In any form, the material speaks for itself as a matchless source of unintentional irony, like this sixth-grade entry from frequent reader Maggie Jacobstein: “Amber wrote me a letter, and her father abuses her and her mother. I am so scared for both of them. Kerri didn’t get me a present from Mexico, and she got all her other friends one. Today hasn’t been a good day, on all points.”
“Honestly, it’s brilliant satire, it just happens to be real,” says Aaron McQuade, a 30-year-old musician who shares his early, (i.e. awful), songwriting at Cringe (sample lyric: “I keep frustration in a bottle, I keep confusion in a jar, it’s 10 o’clock... do you know where your emotions are?”). John Oliver also says that holding one’s self up to public ridicule like Cringe is “the purest form of clowning.” “I never kept a diary, but like most comedians I often prostitute stories from my childhood to make strangers laugh, although I usually embellish them,” he says. “[But] one of the things I loved about Cringe Night was that they didn’t.” Brown agrees that the unedited, unrehearsed storytelling is what sets Cringe apart from other shows that exploit adolescent absurdity.
“It’s incredibly sad, really, looking back on these things you wanted so badly,” says Brown. “Most of them didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way you wanted, because you didn’t have the experience in life to know they wouldn’t. But it’s also hilarious.”
Indeed. “I was reading Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries and stopped,” wrote Danow in late 1994 about the book that inspired him to start a diary. “I didn’t have time. I don’t have time for anything anymore. Kurt’s gone. I miss him.”