Screech No More
Dustin Diamond says that when he finally bid farewell to the “Saved by the Bell” franchise in 2000, they didn’t let him keep any of the clothes. And even if they did he wouldn’t have wanted them.
“I never had the good stuff,” he says. “The wackier the better.”
He is, of course, best known for his portrayal of Samuel “Screech” Powers in the four incarnations of that series, which began on Saturday mornings in 1988 when it was known as “Good Morning Miss Bliss.” Screech, you remember, was a spazzy nerd known for his aptitude in the classroom and ineptitude away from it. He always blew the schemes hatched by Slater and Zack, always said the wrong thing and never was able to win the affections of his unrequited love, Lisa Turtle.
This was back before nerd culture hit the mainstream.
“Before ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ before geekdom was considered cool,” he says, “me and Urkel were the only nerds.”
Diamond is a genuine child star — he got his first role on PBS’ “American Playhouse” when he was just 10 — but he says he doesn’t really identify with the cliché.
“Look at it this way,” he says. “I’m 36.
I’ve never been arrested, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I’m not a druggie and I’ve never committed any crimes.
“I’ve made some decisions for shock value,” he adds.
He’s talking about a stretch after the “Saved by the Bell” years that saw him write a tell-all autobiography that the rest of the cast disavowed, create a widely distributed sex tape that won’t go away, get involved with professional wrestling and “play” a heavy on reality TV. In 2007, he challenged the host of “Celebrity Fit Club” to “physical combat.”
“[On ‘Celebrity Fit Club’] I played the bad guy,” he explains. “That’s all scripted, a lot of people don’t know that. You want to keep working as an actor, and it’s not that you’re ashamed or you think it’s unimportant or a low point. You don’t want to be held back…. Reality TV — it’s TV. You need a good story, characters. You need an antagonist.
“It’s backfired a little,” he admits, “but since I’m not really a douche I just try to meet people and let them see me as I am.”
Now, after 30 years in the business, he’s reinventing himself once again — he’s working the stand-up circuit with a live act that has observational humor, some grown-up material and maybe an AC Slater joke or two. He’ll be at the Joke Factory in High Point on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s not the same thing [as acting] at all,” he says, “It’s a totally different monster.”
He should know. In all he appeared in more than 250 episodes of “Saved by the Bell” and its various iterations — the college years, the wedding movie and the final series, “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” which saw Screech working at the high school where he and his buddies had so much fun. Believe it or not, that series lasted seven years — twice as long as the original.
Diamond has been on television for a long time. The experience he’s gained brings perspective to his stand-up act.
“A lot of the younger generation, they all want to be famous. Every set is like an audition for ‘SNL,’” he says. “They do impressions, they dance, they whip out a guitar. ‘Maybe someone will notice me and I’ll get my own show!’ That’s what a lot of guys are after. I came into this industry already famous. I’m not in it for that. I approach it with a focus on craft.”
He’s working on his acting chops as well.
He recently finished work on two films — Captured Hearts with Robert Loggia and Scavenger Killers with Eric Roberts. He’d like to play some villains — maybe something in “Breaking Bad” or a Tarantino cameo.
“I really like the underdog,” he says. “The under-appreciated. I like Frank Zappa. My favorite band is Mr. Bungle. I like stuff that is obscure and out there and odd. My favorite actor is Gary Oldman. I love The Matrix. A lot of people say the first one is the good one. Not me — I liked all three.
“The thing I liked about [the third one],” he continues, “Neo and Trinity go off to fight for Zion, and they end up getting killed. I was bummed at first — no more Matrix, no more Neo. The series was over.
“But that’s life,” he says. “The hero doesn’t always make it.”
Dustin Diamond plays the Joke Factory in High Point, jokefactorycomedyclub.coml Friday and Saturday night.