Having guaranteed Dustin Diamond and his management that I would remain “tasteful” in the publication of this interview, I’ll spare you the details of his sordid exposé on time spent as Saved by the Bell’s brainy misfit Samuel “Screech” Powers.
Yes, Diamond did write a book about SBTB (aptly titled Behind the Bell).
He nonetheless assured me during our hour-long tête-à-tête that he had little to do with the final product. Which is a good thing, as no matter how guilty of a pleasure the read might be (check it out immediately), it’s also rife with bafflingly egregious editorial errors, dubious-at-best rumors, racist inferences, and the gratuitous use of the invective “douchenozzle.”
“My close friends knew something was up because they know I never use that word,” Diamond laughed over the phone with me.
But… an editor friend of mine who was on the periphery of Behind the Bell alleges Diamond was indeed as much of a “diva” as one would expect from the book’s contentious depiction of him.
And then there’s Diamond’s notorious reality show persona culled from the likes of Celebrity Fit Club. Not to mention his infamous entry in the celebrity sex tape craze of the early 2000s. Which I’ll not go into here out of respect for his request to remain tasteful.
Talking with the man himself, though, I was surprised to discover he’s incredibly well spoken (even witty at times), wisely insightful about the (confessedly cruel) vicissitudes of his fickle industry, humbly self-aware of his provocative reputation, and just plain nice.
Of course, I needed to remind myself, this is a man who’s been acting since the days before his (according to his book, huge) balls dropped.
Who, then, is the real Dustin Diamond? Perhaps it’s time we set aside our preconceptions of the character behind that bell and let him speak for himself:
You’ve in the past lamented that it can be daunting to shed the iconic character you portrayed on SBTB. Do you ever regret having portrayed Screech?
I’m totally thrilled that that happened. It was part of my childhood. When people don’t want to be known as their character, it’s not like they’re ashamed of it or running from it. It has to do with future work and how the industry works. When you become a household name like that, you go to other auditions and they’re saying, “We like it, but we saw too much Screech in it.” And it’s like, “God, I can’t change my bone structure!”
But, certainly there are cases of those who played favorite TV or film characters and were still able to break out of their indelible roles.
People on sketch comedy shows like Jim Carrey on In Living Color get known for who they are and what they do because they’re playing lots of different characters. But then there’s getting known on a sitcom for just one character. In my case, it wasn’t, “Wow, Dustin Diamond really did a great job with that Screech character.” It became, “Wow, Screech is so funny.” It’s not a bad thing in and of itself; it’s just unfortunate the way it works in people’s recall. We’re a pattern-recognition-based species. When you’re first born, you associate a pattern with Mom and Dad. It’s “Mother,” who can be picked out from a million faces. It’s hard-wired into us. People see me and they don’t associate my real name with me.
Do you worry this will always be the case?
Now it’s changing because people are getting older and time’s moving on. But back then, it was tough. It’s not that you don’t want to be recognized for it. It’s that you want to continue working. And if you’re pigeonholed for that one thing, it makes it really hard.
Were you attempting to showcase a larger range by plunging into the reality show circuit?
I actually made a bit of a boo-boo there. Which I didn’t perceive at the time because I had been in the business so long. When I became known as a the “bad boy” on Celebrity Fit Club and other shows, that was all staged. That was all scripted. I’m not mean. People who know me know I’m really, really laid back and I love to laugh. I’m a big gamer geek more than anything else. The reason I played the bad guy so much was I figured it would give me some TV time. They didn’t think I could do it. I was like, “C’mon, guys I can do it.” I wanted to break the mold. Not to run away from the character but just to show the world I could do something different. I made such an impact as the loveable goofball that I wanted to show I could do something to expand my acting horizon. Unfortunately, it backfired a bit.
Having been in the business so long, as you’ve just said, begs the question of how you miscalculated here.
The problem was that I see reality TV as just TV. Other people see reality. Someone might be talking to someone else in a bathroom with a toilet and sink on one side, and then the camera cuts to the other side, and with the music playing over it and the editing being kept smooth, you don’t notice that cut. But, yeah: When it cuts to that different angle, it’s being filmed at a different time because they have to reset the cameras and everything else. I can’t help but notice that because I grew up on sets. People are like, “Whoa, they just had an argument!” No, that had to be staged. Those intercut moments could have been filmed hours apart, especially if there was a lunch break in between or something like that. I made the mistake the public would be hip to the fact that reality TV is just TV, just good entertainment, and that you need a good antagonist to stir up the pot. I didn’t fathom that people would think, “Wow, this is the real him. He’s mean.” Acting is a great gig; it’s really, really fun. But, it’s also really hard on the actor. Having to balance where you think the acceptance level of the audience is.
You were working in an era where many sitcoms with large ensembles like SBTB focused on a particular character. Were you paying much attention to what, for example, Jaleel White was doing with his Steve Urkel character?
That’s the weird thing a lot of people don’t realize. When you work in TV and are submerged in it all the time, you don’t get a whole lot of the “viewer” part of it. Sitting down and actually watching all this stuff. Someone might see someone they know from a show they grew up watching. But, for me, I have totally different memories. A lot of people I see, I remember from a party back then or something.
Can you elaborate on that dynamic?
For us, it was work. For the kids of that era that were on the TV shows, we weren’t as excited when we went to events where actors from some of the other shows would be in attendance. I’m thirty-six. I’ve been in the business twenty-eight years. In third grade, I was working in television and film, which is just bizarre to behold. By the time Bell was first airing, I had been in the business for four or five years. Which takes some of the mystique out of it. But, it also adds a whole level no one else gets.
What did being on that level mean for a budding child actor?
It’s like being part of a VIP club. You’d be at an event and could see people in the tent behind the scenes, and you didn’t want to geek out. You don’t want to be the guy from one show asking one of your peers from another show to take his picture. You gotta maintain your cool, man. We’re all young kids without driver’s license with other fans there too, and you gotta act like you’ve been there before.
That must have been a trying task for someone so young.
There was more of a recognition when you met your fellow actors. It was like, “Hey, man. You made it.” I met Jaleel White before we ever got our respective roles and running into him later, it wasn’t like, “Wow, this is exciting!” For me, it was like, “Hey, Jaleel, man. How ya been?” It’s a totally different meeting.
Would you therefore say there’s a discord between your sense of nostalgia and that of those of us who grew up watching you onscreen?
Every kid that was a part of that generation of those live-action shows was, whether we realized it or not, becoming part of nostalgia for other people’s childhood. People who watched might look back and say, “Hey, I remember these. I grew up with this stuff.” And when they watch it, it brings instant good memories back. But for the people who were on those shows, it’s like watching home movies of your friends from sixth grade.
I would venture to guess that without being on a show like SBTB, you have more time to indulge in the viewer experience you mostly missed as a kid?
I haven’t really changed all that much. I’m a big movie buff. I like bite-sized morsels of things. Even though some films are two-and-a-half hours, you’re getting a complete story. Whereas something along the lines of a sitcom, it’s kind of open-ended. It never really ends.
You’re still not watching too much TV?
I do enjoy certain shows now like The Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad, or Dexter. But I can’t imagine sitting down, watching something for an hour, and having to wait a week before seeing what happens next. Box sets and Netflix and Hulu and all these different things are godsends to me. I sit down and I power through these things. That’s what my wife and I will do: We’ll watch entire seasons in marathons. Back in the day with shows like Bell, you could pop in on any episode and you wouldn’t be lost. Nowadays, you can’t really do that, even with some of the sitcoms that by Season Three or Four are tipping their hat to jokes or character traits you’d have to know from earlier seasons.
Do you find that the disparity between the way your wife and you grew up impacts these shared television watching experiences?
One of the great things for me is I’ve got a trophy wife. She’s twenty-five and I’m thirty-six. So she’s an entire generation younger, and because of that, there’s stuff I missed that I can go back and appreciate now with her introducing it to me.
Even after a lifetime in entertainment, there’s still more to learn?
It’s just like becoming an expert in anything. You eventually learn it by experience. Growing up and being in the industry so long, I haven’t always made the best choices in certain things. I’ve pulled some publicity stunts in my day that people may believe are true or false. But, it is still entertaining for me just like it is for anyone else. Even though I might be on the other side of the curtain sometimes. When I do something – whether it be a standup performance or a cameo in something or a larger role – the entertainment value has to come from somewhere. And for me, I think story is everything. The overall story. That’s one of the things I liked about my era of TV: The experience in what you felt after watching these things left you with a good vibe.
Mathew Klickstein is a novelist, journalist, playwright, and screenwriter who occasionally makes money at his trades. His forthcoming SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age will be in bookstores (if they still exist) later this Fall.