The author of the memoir Behind The Bell presents himself as the voice of experience, wisdom, and authority. He’s the man at the end of the bar with an impeccably rumpled trenchcoat reeking of sadness and scotch. He has the craggy, deeply lined face of a man who has lived. Every scar tells a story. Every wrinkle uncorks a boozy anecdote.
You think you’re hot shit with your tight jeans and your hipster haircut? You think you’re fucking Charles Bukowski because you cried when you wrote some poetry in college after your sophomore roommate committed suicide? You think you’re hard? You think you’ve suffered? You think that makes you a man? You think all this bullshit matters? That doesn’t make you shit. This man has seen your kind before. He’s seen it come and he’s seen it go while he remained. At that very barstool.
He is, in other words, a man with stories.
So sit down, youngblood, grab yourself whatever crap beer you drink (“Pabst Blue Ribbon? What the fuck is that?”) and prepare to learn something. Because your elder is about to school you on the way the world really works. He’s about to disabuse you of your romantic fantasies and blow your mind.
Is this man a combat-hardened war photographer? A journalist whose career stretches back to the jungles of Vietnam or the battlefields of Korea? Not quite. He’s Dustin Diamond. You know him as Screech. His war zone? The set of a family-friendly ’80s high-school sitcom the world knew as Saved By The Bell.
Diamond can assume the role of the wry voice of experience because he thinks you’re an idiot. Diamond assumes that the typical reader of Behind The Bell is a pathologically naïve, easily impressed Saved By The Bell super-fan who assumes that the show is a near-perfect recreation of the lives of its cast, populated exclusively by chaste, church-going thespians whose devotion to their craft is exceeded only by their love of the Lord.
That theoretical reader will indeed be shocked and horrified by the book’s explosive revelation that rich and famous teenagers have sex out of wedlock, drink alcohol (despite being underage!), smoke pot, and generally behave every bit as deplorably as teenagers are expected, even demanded to behave. Everyone else will be alternately bored and repulsed. Mostly repulsed.
Behind The Bell exists entirely in the psychic space of the sad, sour failed joke. You know the experience. You’re at a bar in a strange city. A guy who has had a few drinks too many fixes his boozy gaze in your direction, gestures over at a bosomy, exhausted-looking waitress nearby, and leers, “Boy, I bet she can really suck the chrome off a tailpipe.” He can’t tell whether you heard him, so he repeats the quip. Only this time, there’s an aggressive, insistent edge. This time, he’s sure you’ve heard the joke and found it lacking, so before he returns to his scotch, he lets out a bitter, defiant, “What are you, a fag? Whatever.”
Behind The Bell exists entirely in that moment, only Diamond isn’t making a smutty crack about an anonymous waitress at a bar; he’s draping a chummy arm over our collective shoulder, winking, and saying, “Man. That Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. What a fucking cum-Dumpster, am I right?” and expecting us to collectively give him a high five of brotherly solidarity. He doesn’t seem to understand why we’d respond with anything but vulgar enthusiasm, because Dustin Diamond assumes that everyone is as horrible as he is. That has to be a dreadful way to go through life.
If Diamond were honest with himself, he’d have written a book about how when he was 11, he landed a television show that wasn’t very good, but it became important to people for reasons that have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with hormones and nostalgia. He would have written that he was younger than everyone else and less mature and desperately wanted the approval of the rest of the cast because they were cooler and older and beautiful and everyone wanted to fuck them. But these older, cooler, more attractive fellow actors rejected him because he was young, awkward, and filled with the hubris and unearned entitlement that comes with being a child star. He wanted to be part of the gang, yet he was doomed to a lifetime of being on the outside looking in. The bitterness grew until it became the ugly engine that brought Behind The Bell into existence. Behind The Bell is ostensibly written by a guy’s guy, a pot-smoking, beer-swilling dude who loves rocking out and banging chicks. But it clearly comes from the tortured psyche of a pathetic, self-hating little boy unconvincingly pretending to be a pot-smoking, beer-swilling dude who loves rocking out and banging chicks.
I would have respected Diamond if he’d written Behind The Bell from a place of vulnerability, if he’d acknowledged that he was a hurting little boy doomed to live in the shadow of a childhood gig that continues to define him. Instead, he approaches us from a place of smug, leering faux-superiority, as if to say, “You and me, we know what’s what. But these Hollywood people, aren’t they fucking ridiculous?” That’s the essence of sarcasm: It assumes an inherent superiority over whatever is being mocked. Diamond isn’t qualified to cast judgment on anyone. Ever. Yet in Behind The Bell, he sits in sour judgment over the rest of the Saved By The Bell cast.
Diamond, a genuine famous person and consequently better and more important than you and me, is doing it all for the people, as he writes in the book’s introduction:
Fuck fame. Allow me to tear down your allusions [sic]. My motivation in writing this book is to yank back the curtain and show you the wizard. I want some girl in an office building in Tacoma, Washington, to realize she has more class than Tiffani Amber-Thiessen; that a dude slicing pastrami in a deli in Brooklyn has a better temperament than Mario Lopez; that, on balance, they’d all rather be Tom, Dick and Harry than Zack, Kelly, Slater, Jess, Lisa and Screech.
Diamond makes his feelings on his costars apparent when he casually describes Tiffani Amber-Thiessen as “SBTB’s set whore and Hollywood’s pass-around girl.” Bear in mind that at some point in the show’s run, Diamond had a stalker and moved in for weeks with Amber-Thiessen’s family. Diamond repays their kindness by calling their daughter a whore and depicting her mother as a sentient time bomb whose poisonous DNA will doom Amber-Thiessen to a lifetime of obesity.
Those are not the thoughts and actions of a man who has coped poorly with fame. Those are the thoughts and actions of someone who is bitter to the point of mental illness. As the book lurches to a conclusion, Diamond imagines a fantasy Saved By The Bell reunion that betrays his true feelings about his cast members:
I haven’t kept close tabs on what all the cast members are up to post Bell. It’s certainly far from the forefront of my mind, but if it ever happened, I’d love to see the gang reunite in a film where everyone plays against type. Let’s give everyone a real test, push their acting chops to their outermost boundaries. I’d love to see Mario play a mentally ill person, Mark-Paul play a homosexual struggling against his true self. Um, I want to see Tiffani play a crack whore. Man, this is hard. Okay, still just spitballing here: Lark can play a homeless person with rags for clothes. Elizabeth can play a prim and proper schoolmarm with skirts cut at the ankles. I’ll play the serial killer. Twenty minutes into that film, if everyone is doing his or her jobs, no one in the audience would recognize anyone from the gang from Bayside.
What did Diamond’s castmates do to earn such vitriol? Diamond’s case against everyone boils down to this: Everyone liked Mark-Paul Gosselaar, whom he caricatures as “The Golden Child,” more than they liked Diamond. They coddled Gosselaar. They fawned over him. When he got into Paul Verhoeven, they all got into Paul Verhoeven. This killed Diamond. He couldn’t get over it. He still can’t.
According to Diamond, Gosselaar at various points slept with all of his female co-stars, and also possibly had an epic threesome with Thiessen and the show’s executive producer, Peter Engel. That’d be an explosive revelation if Diamond had any proof, but much of Bell is devoted to Diamond staring at a locked door and imagining that sexy, rich, famous people are having enthusiastic, debauched, amazing sex behind it.
There’s no specificity to any of Diamond’s accusations, no telling details or humiliating moments etched permanently in time. There is nothing whatsoever to distinguish them from the kind of groundless accusations a bitter has-been might level at his more successful former colleagues, so it’s probably wise to treat them as such. Part of what makes Behind The Bell such a maddening read is that Diamond ostensibly has dirt. This isn’t Janet Hubert in her memoir implying that Will Smith might have spoken smack about her behind her back. This is Dustin Diamond writing that pretty much everyone other than himself and Mr. Belding were fucking. The not-so-secret question behind every lurid memoir is “Were they fucking?” In this case, the answer is “Oh God, yes. Were they ever!” But there’s nothing beyond that, so the revelation has no real value. Since Diamond is not privy to the hot sex his co-stars enjoyed with one another, he afflicts us with leering accounts of the thousands of women he has “filthed” with what he repeatedly refers to as the “monster” in his trousers.
In my Random Roles interview a few years back, Bronson Pinchot referenced an infamous Rolling Stone interview he did at the height of his Perfect Strangers fame where he said his idea of a perfect weekend was fucking until the skin came off his dick. Pinchot was making a statement: Show business had transformed him into an asexual clown, so he wasn’t just going to assert his sexuality, he was going to thrust it in our faces. The same is true of Diamond. Saved By The Bell robbed him of his sexuality. So in Behind The Bell, Diamond doesn’t just assert himself as a sexual creature, he shoves his dick in the reader’s face. Behind The Bell could just as easily have been named Fuck Yeah Screech Got Pussy, Pussy Like You Wouldn’t Believe!
Here are some excerpts that give a sense of the book’s leering tone when it comes to sex:
- “The road trips were subsidized trips to Assylvania. All you can bang buffets.”
- “Another weird thing about Mark-Paul was that he was always extremely reserved when it came to sharing his exploits chasing ass.”
- “Our early friendship got off with a bang—that is, the two of us banging three chicks at the same time, to be precise.”
and most pointedly:
- “Many sexual encounters with the show’s extras were mutually parasitic transactions.”
Note that Diamond uses the word “parasitic” rather than “beneficial.” Nothing is ever beneficial in Diamond’s sad world. People don’t help each other: They feed on each other. Diamond wants us to know that he treated Saved By The Bell extras as his own personal harem and took great pleasure in fucking them on the actual Saved By The Bell set. If his co-stars wouldn’t fuck him, Diamond would fuck anyone around who would. According to Diamond, he fucked more than 2,000 women, including an NBC executive who had a May-December fling with a 15-year-old Diamond and is now conveniently too dead to deny Diamond’s assertions.
After the original cast of Saved By The Bell departed, Diamond signed on to costar on Saved By The Bell: The New Class. Diamond writes about how he suspected that the writers of The New Class deliberately tried to undermine him and co-star Mr. Belding (he has a name, yes, but neither you nor I should ever invoke it) by making their relationship not so much homoerotic as explicitly homosexual. According to Diamond, they’d write stage directions where Screech and Mr. Belding gaze into each other’s eyes and soulfully embrace. If Diamond is being truthful—I assume everything he says is at the very least a big exaggeration—then that is officially the most awesome shit ever. Rock on, subversive, anonymous Saved By The Bell: The New Class scribes.
Diamond spends much of the book saying horrible things about the small children who were once his professional peers. In this passage, he scores an incredible linguistic victory over young kids he met 20 years ago:
I introduced myself to Kris Kross. Based on their clothing, I was confused as to where I should present my hand for shaking. Predictably, they blew me off. I said, “So, what are you guys gonna do when your song ‘Jump’ plays itself out?”
“We got a whole album, yo,” said Kris or Kross.
“Mmm,” I thought. “A whole album indeed.”
I wonder what they did when that song did play itself out… a few weeks later. Either way, I’m still waiting for that second hit from that whole album.”
Behind The Bell finds Diamond shadowboxing a past he still doesn’t understand, throwing jabs at former co-stars who left his orbit ages ago, and desperately trying to rewrite the past to serve his agenda of make himself look terrific. So we’re treated to a revisionist take on Saved By The Bell where Diamond deliberately mugged egregiously so audiences would have no choice but to separate the cartoon character of Screech from the serious young actor portraying him. Diamond still genuinely seems to think that was a smart move, just as he’s still seething that Matthew Lillard got to play Shaggy in a live-action Scooby Doo movie when Diamond totally deserved the role. Diamond lives in a permanent state of bitterness now, even though the world has been far kinder to him than he has any reason to expect.
Before he lets you go, Diamond has one last bit of business for you. He knows how dumb Saved By The Bell was. Oh yes, he does. He possesses the secret knowledge that a television show famous for being cheesy was, in fact, cheesy, as he conveys in this passage:
Even though we were kids, we knew when something was lame-o. Allow me to sample a line for you: Screech knocks a turkey off the counter in the kitchen and goes to get it only to be stopped by Zack. As Zack lifts the bird from the floor, Screech says, “Okay but don’t gobble it!” Truly, this was not exactly Pulitzer-worthy material we were working with. But what could we do? We groaned on the inside. Sometimes we would try to sabotage lines we knew were more stupid than our normal level of stupid. The corniness did exact its toll over time in our personal lives. No one wants to go to school and have kids go out of their way to get in your face and say, “You’re fucking stupid, man. Your jokes are dumb, and you play an asshole.” Thanks, chum.
With Behind The Bell, Screech sets the record straight. He is no longer hamstrung by the demands of playing a geek. He’s no longer reading other people’s lines. He can be himself. He can reveal his true essence. I have read Diamond’s book, I’ve heard his story, so I now feel singularly qualified to say, “Dustin Diamond, your jokes are dumb, and you, not the character you once played on television, are an asshole.”