Twenty-five years ago, people thought Dustin Diamond was cute.
He was Screech, the nerdy and over-earnest goofball—TV’s pioneer “adorkable” character—who got to hang with the cool kids on Saved by the Bell, a Saturday morning campy comedy that mixed wholesome humor with preachy social messages into a cocktail that turned the slight series into a pop-culture phenomenon. On August 20, the show will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its premiere, and in the years since Screech first walked the halls of Bayside High, people have thought many (many) different things about Dustin Diamond. Cute was not among them.
In a self-described effort to shake the ghost of Screech and kick off the goody-two-shoes legacy of Saved by the Bell, Diamond began, publicly, to play the role of the bad guy. But the choices he made—putting on the persona of a first-rate jackass on the VH1 reality series Celebrity Fit Club, releasing a so-called sex tape, and attaching his name as author of a sordid and seemingly preposterous tell-all about his years at Bayside called Behind the Bell —didn’t broaden Diamond’s image and make him more castable in the eyes of Hollywood. It made him seem like a douchebag that no one wanted to work with.
In recent years, however, Diamond’s moved on from trying to distance himself from Screech and is embracing the popularity of the character and the show instead—particularly as, with each passing year, the ’90s nostalgia that seems to drive the Internet gets more potent. Case in point of this shift: Diamond will join the cast of the hit New York City musical Bayside! The Musical!, a made-with-love spoof of Saved by the Bell presented by National Lampoon. Beginning August 27, Diamond will play a version of himself in the show, which has scored largely positive reviews from critics since it debuted in March 2013.
Still, Diamond is finding the reputation he's accrued over the past decade hard to lose. It reared its head just last week when his former Saved by the Bell classmate Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played blond stud Zack Morris, and his Franklin & Bash co-star Breckin Meyer trashed Diamond in a joint interview with HuffPost Live. Gosselaar bashed Diamond’s involvement with the tell-all Behind the Bell, calling him “negative,” while Meyer pushed further, calling Diamond “such a dick.”
In a long phone call that spanned everything from the sex tape to Behind the Bell to his musical theater debut to Gosselaar and Meyer’s recent comments, Diamond defended himself to The Daily Beast and expressed his desire to turn a new leaf in his relationship with Saved by the Bell. His comments were as enthusiastic and seemingly genuine as they were long, rambling, and, at times, over-defensive and a little manic. It’s his side of the story, and should be taken as just that—his side—but with Diamond set to sing and dance about Saved by the Bell later this month, we thought we’d give him the chance to talk about it, too.
I hear you’re about to do some singing and dancing.
Yeah! Bayside! The Musical! I’ve had a blast at the show before. I’ve been there twice now, and I’m looking forward to coming in for a long third run.
So will you really be singing and doing all that musical theater-y stuff?
Oh, I think I’ll leave most of it a surprise, but I will say there will be some singing. I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s a lot of interaction that I helped write and create to insert myself into the show in meaningful ways that make sense. That don’t feel like blatant pop-ins that don’t need to be there.
“Breckin I’m sure is a nice guy and there might be some blind loyalty to his co-star, but I don’t know all the things he’s been in. I know he’s been in Clueless, but that’s about it. But if you say Screech or the guy from Clueless, who are people going to know?”
Are you a good singer? I think the only glimpse we’ve ever gotten as to whether you were musically inclined was in the Snow White and the 7 Dorks rapping episode of Saved by the Bell.
[Laughs] Nothing done as Screech is a good representation. I am not anywhere close to being any kind of a Broadway singer or professional. I wouldn’t even trick myself into thinking I could hold a candle to the professionals out there. But I know how to control my voice and sit within my vocal range. I’ve always been musically inclined. I had a band. I played bass. I have perfect pitch. I’ve always been gifted at that.
So you are a really good singer, then?
Long story short is when I was younger I had to do a role where I had to smoke, and I’m not a smoker. Back then there were no vapor cigarettes for you simulate smoking. So I taught myself how to smoke cigarettes for this film role and it ended up killing my really, really high range. But at that point I didn’t foresee a musical career. But the way they’re working me into the show is more of a comedic role anyway, so it will all fit and all make sense.
Is it wild to hear that all these years later there’s still such an obsession with Saved by the Bell?
Yeah, and especially me, because the Screech character was so hard to shake. Especially with something this big, you have the natural process that kind of occurs with everybody. It’s kind of like a band that at some point gets sick of playing the same songs. They hate these certain songs and they don’t want to play them again. They despise them. Then eventually they come back and they embrace them again. It’s a natural process, and it happens with actors as well.
It happened to you?
There’s a period where I rebelled against Screech. I was like, “Man, I’m an actor.” After giving off the Screech role I wanted to do other things, and people would say, “I like you but we see too much Screech in it.” I’m like, “Well, I can’t change my bone structure.” So I kind of had a love/hate relationship with the character for a while. I thought that it held me back a lot, even though I was so proud of it. I matured later in life. I’ve had a job since I was 8, you realize, so I never grew up with everyone else. So instead of having rebellious teens, I had my rebellious 20s. So now in my 30s I’m full circle and back in the embrace mode.
What do you consider your rebellious 20s?
During that rebellious time I did that Celebrity Fit Club, where I played the bad guy. That was all scripted. None of that was real.
Celebrity Fit Club was scripted!?
Yeah. I had to gain weight to even be on the show. I had to keep it between me and producers. I couldn’t tell the other cast members about it. And, like, I’m not mean at all. I’m the most approachable, laid-back guy in the world. I like to laugh more than anything else. But I thought that being the bad guy on TV would show me in a believable light to convince casting directors to put me in Breaking Bad, or Dexter, or Law & Order.
Was the sex tape part of the plan, too? To prove that you’re not Screech anymore?
Yeah, that was all designed by me. What I didn’t foresee was that it would backfire in the way that people would think, “Oh, he’s a jerk. He’s hard to deal with. He’s an ass.” I was like, wow, eight weeks of so-called reality TV makes people undo years of how they’ve grown up with someone. The problem is that I didn’t see it from the fan perspective. I saw it from the behind-the-camera eye, because that’s what I know. So reality TV, I see the TV part, whereas everyone else sees the reality part. But it was directed reality, scripted reality. It wasn’t real. But after doing that I faked the porn, and that was an ordeal.
I’d say doing the porn was an ordeal, yeah.
At the time everyone was doing a sex tape. I thought that it was crazy, because when you grow up in front of the camera you know better. Colin Farrell and Johnny Knoxville and Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, and then Paris Hilton came out with one. My buddy and I were sitting on the couch and her video came on the news, and they were saying that it was confirmed that she had business relations with this video and was making money off of each one sold. They said it was rumored she made $14 million in revenue from that. So my friend said, “Damn, buddy! A Screech video’s gotta be worth at least a million!” I was like, “You know, you might be right!”
So then you did it.
I put the thing together. I got a stunt wang. I’m not an idiot. I’m not going to really put myself out there. So I got a stunt person to come in. And I thought, what if this thing makes $3 million? That’s nothing to scoff at. But after that people looked at me dirty, like, “He does porn.” No, I don’t! I faked that one at a chance for millions. I’m an opportunist, really. Needless to say it did not make millions. But I had to take the shot. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.
But then something changed, right? Because it seems like you’ve been embracing the Screech association lately.
That’s crazy. But, yeah, we’re all getting older, but every year brings us back to remembering our youth and where the good times were. Those things are so popular. It’s funny because, after all this stuff, and I wrote my book. Well, my book wasn’t written by me, really, it was written by a ghost writer.
You’ve said you regretted the release of that book, haven’t you?
Yeah. It was written by a ghost writer. I talked to a guy a few times, so there were people up in arms, “Oh! He’s putting all this trash out.” But I was like, “I didn’t even write it!” It has my name on it, but it was written by a ghost writer. So the things like that, the Fit Club, the porn, and the book were kind of like the one, two, three of the bad-boy image. But I’m done with that. Like I said, I think it backfired a bit. But honestly, on the flip side, I think it did break the image. People did only see me as an 11-year-old goofball from a Saturday morning campy TV show. I loved the show and I loved the characters and I think it’s funny, and it’s wonderfully campy when you watch it, but there’s a separation that needs to happen when I go out and I’m talking to adults. So in a situation like Bayside! The Musical, the whole thing is so tongue and cheek it’s all making fun of that and showing love for it as well.
Well, on top of all the other hoopla surrounding Saved by the Bell, the trailer for the Lifetime movie The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story came out today.
I’m executive producer on that movie!
So is this movie going to be salacious? The conversation surrounding seems to at least be hoping for that.
It’s going to be happy. Here’s the thing. It was based on my book, loosely, but that’s not to be taken seriously because the production staff and everybody knows that the way it worked was that I talked to a guy on the phone for a few hours. He was from a French Canadian publishing company, a first-time writer. They didn’t want to trust with me 80,000 words so they gave me a ghost writer. So I talked to him on the phone and he was supposed to take that and write a transcript and fill it out with stories. It tells stories like it’s coming from me, but at one point it refers to someone as a “douchenozzle.” I’ve never used that word in my life. So it’s all coming from this guy who I spoke to a few times. And I was supposed to get a draft copy of the book to proofread, but I never did. I got a final copy, which was what was going to press. I was like, “What the hell? This isn’t right. This isn’t right.”
So you’re saying the stories in Behind the Bell weren’t true?
While there are some truths to the book and details that are accurate, there’s a lot where he just took his own freedom and his own rein. And then people, because of the past with me being a bad boy and because I was revealing dirt, looked at that in a very negative light. That’s not how I intended that. I’m not a walking anger bomb. So long story short, I think when this movie comes out, it’s going to surprise people because it’s not salacious, it’s not dirty, it’s not negative. It’s embracing all the positive things that happened and clarifying certain things. I think it’s going to be pretty enjoyable. I think everyone’s going to like it, including the other cast members.
But the title of the movie is The Unauthorized Story. I mean, calling it that is probably why people are expecting it to be salacious and along the lines of what the book was.
No, it’s definitely going to be in a positive light. It’s not out to trash anybody or put anybody down or make anybody look in a negative way. That was never the intent, so it’s definitely not the way it’s going to end up.
So this is all pegged to the 25th anniversary of the show. I remember back at the 20th anniversary People magazine did that cover, but you weren’t on it.
That People magazine cover was notorious because at that time period people said I wasn’t invited. That’s not true at all.
So why weren’t you there?
I do stand-up comedy. I’ve been doing it 40-something weeks out of the year for 16 years now. I had a theater that I was doing, and I wasn’t about to cancel a 2,000-seat audience to take a photo shoot in L.A. and have to fly myself out there on my own dime to put myself up. All for a photo shoot, when people have millions and millions of photos of us anyway. My snarky response, because people were snapping at me about it, is that I would say, “Let me ask you this. Do you remember what they said about Mario Lopez in that article?”
I can’t say that I do.
Exactly. Nobody does. That’s the point! Nobody remembers that. That didn’t help anybody’s career. So I would trap everyone with that, by innocently asking if they remembered what they said about Mark-Paul or Tiffani. Of course they don’t. It was just a coffee table book that was thrown away. “That’s interesting,” and that’s it. So for me to fly myself out there and cancel a sold-out show, that wasn’t going to happen. Then people went on the Internet and started saying, “Oh, it’s because they hate him.” They don’t hate me. In fact, I haven’t talked to a lot of them. I talk to Mario sometimes and Dennis and I’ve talked to Lark. But Mark-Paul and Tiffani and Elizabeth? I haven’t talked to those guys in years.
Is there a reason you haven’t talked?
When I was young and all those old bonds were being made, I was 11, and they were like 15. That gap is insurmountable at that age. When I’m getting out of junior high and they’re going into college and high school is an ocean that was never shared together at the same time by us? That’s a huge thing. No one who is drinking legally at bars wants to hang out with someone who doesn’t have their driving license yet. They were much older than me, so we weren’t tight, tight friends other than the bond we had on stage. It’s not a sad story or a sob story, it’s one of those things that’s just a fact of life.
Why do you think everyone loves to seize on any hint of discord or bad blood between you guys? That interview Mark-Paul did last week calling you “negative” got a ton of play on the Internet.
Why are there Internet trolls would be a better question. Here’s the thing, Breckin Meyer was the one really going at it. Mark-Paul gave the trained response we learned together at NBC when we were kids. He did the professional “Don’t say anything too bad” and just keep it to “I don’t remember anything but the good times from that.” Safe answers. Breckin Meyer was the one who went more off the handle. A lot of people do that for ratings—I don’t know what his reason was for. But he even said, “I’ve never met Dustin.” So how can he say these things when he’s never met me? We’ve never shared a conversation, we’ve never met face to face. We’ve never been in the same room. That makes me judge someone, personally.
I consider myself to be an intelligent person, and I like intelligent people. For me, an intelligent person, in my mind, does not just look at things they read on the Internet and instantly believe them and judge someone else they’ve never met. Especially if you know that there’s trash written about that person. If you’re in the public eye you know that there’s haters for them, too. Obviously the more popular you are the more you’re going to get it, which I guess I should be flattered about. The reason people fed on this story is because my character and persona got so massive. People in Budapest and Bangladesh know who Screech is. Breckin I’m sure is a nice guy and there might be some blind loyalty to his co-star, but I don’t know all the things he’s been in. I know he’s been in Clueless, but that’s about it. But if you say Screech or the guy from Clueless, who are people going to know? So the bigger the name, the more attention it’s going to draw.
So before I let you go, what do you hope is going to be the outcome from doing Bayside! The Musical! and revisiting Screech again?
I don’t make any moves for “career moves,” per se. It’s hard to gauge because things change so much. As far as doing this musical, I’m doing it because I like the people and I like the cast. I think it’s really fun. I started out in theater so it’s a step back to that and to my roots, so to speak. I like that. I’m at home on stage. I’m at home performing. I’ve been doing it 29 years and I think it’s a nice opportunity to be in New York and close to family and friends and have an experience I’ve never had before. I’ve never lived in New York. So I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to making new friends. I’m looking forward to, overall, having a good experience in life. That’s what I’m really positive about. I don’t tend to look at this as something that’s good for my career down the line or that it will mean money later. I don’t look at things like that. I like the craft, and I like the work, and I like the people.