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Over the course of 11 years, four television series, and a pair of TV movies, Dustin Diamond played just one character: Samuel "Screech" Powers, the comic relief on Saved By The Bell, as well as its precursor Good Morning, Miss Bliss and its two spin-off series, Saved By The Bell: The College Years and Saved By The Bell: The New Class. Surrounded by sexy troublemaker Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), sexy cheerleader Kelly (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), sexy brain Jesse (Elizabeth Berkley), sexy jock Slater (Mario López), and sexy princess Lisa (Lark Voorhies), Diamond displayed an awkwardness that provided a welcome counterpoint. At 25, Diamond seems to be the exception to the child-star rule. Instead of experiencing a nightmarish descent into drugs, crime, and denial, he's embraced his place in the universe, happy to talk about the old days while looking forward to other things. Diamond's resistance to the usual trappings of early fame might have to do with his real-life similarities to that lovable dork on TV: He plays chess (the subject of his video Dustin Diamond Teaches Chess) and the electric bass. Most tellingly, once in a while, he inadvertently slips a bit of the Screech voice into everyday conversation. Salty The Pocketknife, his progressive-rock band, was just days into mixing its debut album when Diamond spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his music, his stand-up act, and, of course, the Screech years.
The Onion: What was your first acting job?
Dustin Diamond: It was a commercial for a food company called Giant Eagle Food Stores, a supermarket on the East Coast. I had one line. I said, "Busy." They said, "How does Giant Eagle Food Stores food taste to you?" And I look up and go, "Busy!" That was it.
O: Do you have a copy of that somewhere?
DD: Somewhere, but I try to keep it hidden. That was when I was a li'l young'n.
O: You grew up in L.A.?
DD: I grew up in the Bay Area, San Jose. From there, I spread to Southern California, to the Orange County area. I never really lived in L.A. I don't like all the hubbub. I don't mind being close to the hubbub, but 45 miles is about close enough for me.
O: What was auditioning for the part of Screech like?
DD: Auditioning for the part of Screech was a unique experience. It was just another acting job when I started out, but as the callbacks started getting more and more, and they started bringing me and some of the other characters back and weeding out the people they didn't want, the groups got smaller and smaller. I started getting paired up with the same people again and again. It got more exciting and yet more stressful as time went on. Here I was, 11 years old, auditioning for a major series, and finally getting it after auditioning a number of times. I think I auditioned on six separate occasions, going in multiple times. It came down to two Zacks that they paired me up with, one with black hair and one with blond hairof course that was Mark-Paul, who got the part. I went in with Mark-Paul numerous times, and they loved our chemistry together.
O: Was that exciting, or were you just nervous?
DD: It was nerve-wracking, because each time you go back, there are more and more important people in the room watching you do your thing. By the end, you're in a rehearsal hall where there are nothing but people in suits, straight-faced. One person might be all-powerful and just say, "No, I don't like him," and you're out that quick. I just tried to ignore it, went in there and did what I do, and hoped they liked it. I guess they did.
O: How much did you contribute to the character of Screech?
DD: What they do is, they hand you a piece of paper that's a description of the character, like a breakdown of what the character is supposed to be about. It's almost like a bio on a character that doesn't exist, and you're supposed to fill in that bio and make it believable. Doing the faces and doing the other stuff, the walk and the goofy other things I did on the show, that was just improv, having fun with the character while we were taping it. Originally, they wanted Screech to be screeching in his voice all the time. They wanted him to talk really high-pitched all of the time. That's why they called him Screech. He made you feel like nails screeching on a chalkboard, to be around him. The bio said, "Extremely intelligent, lovable eccentric type, but not good socially." He had the nerdy qualities of wanting to be in the ant-farm club or whatever, all these other weird things. That's the writers having a lot of time on their hands, I guess. I read the description and fit into the character. As the auditions were getting closer and closer to the rooms full of suits, they realized at some point that people would get tired of this whiny, high-pitched voice in five minutes, much less a hundred episodes to get to syndication. They said, "Can you just crack your voice sometimes?" I did, and they liked it, and they kept it. And now everyone knows me as doing the Screech voice. It's become an icon. "Do the Screech voice!" I get that all the time. It's funny. I get a lot of people asking me, "How do you do the voice?" I have to pause and think, "Doesn't everyone know about falsetto?" Everyone's done some sort of goofy voice in their life. I didn't think it was that complex. But it does amaze! [Laughs.]
O: How often do you get recognized?
DD: It depends. Some days, I can go pretty much the whole day incognito, if I'm trying to. Other days, I can't walk two feet. I went to Disneyland, and I just got mobbed by kids and people and families. It was amazing. I've worn a full beard, glasses, a hat, a big jacket that covers all the way up my neck, walking away from someone 30 feet away, and they say, "Screech!" How do these people know?
O: What kind of range of reaction do you get from people who recognize you?
DD: I get people who are completely, jaw-droppingly shocked, like I'm some huge, mega, Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized star, which I don't consider myself to be, obviously. Some people are just so amazed to see me, and then other people go, "Oh, yeah, I've seen that shownow, can you get out of my way? I need to pick up a quarter." I've had every spectrum you can think of. I've autographed everything, too. I autographed someone's baby once. They said, "Can you autograph my kid?" I asked if they had a piece of paper or something, and they said, "No, autograph my kid!" I was like, "Planning on washing your baby at some point, aren't you?"
O: Has that waned over the years?
DD: Yeah, the show obviously isn't the hip new show. But people did grow up with my character and the rest of the characters for years, so people still get excited when they see me. Maybe I was responsible for someone laughing a lot during their prime years of being a kid. Between 10 and 20, I've met so many people who just said, "Oh, you cracked me up, you made me laugh every Saturday morning." It's unique, because when I was a kid, cartoons were all that was on on Saturday mornings. We were the first live-action sitcom on Saturday morning. Now it's filled with stuff. We were the trailblazers. It was hard, because our competition was The Smurfs and Bugs Bunny. Think about it: Bugs Bunny is a hard cookie to break. That's hard to beat. The competition has been popular for 60 years in that slot, and we actually took the first spot away from them.
O: Do you have any regrets, or any of the typical child-actor complaints? You seem well-adjusted.
DD: Everybody's life is different, every tale is different. Sure, it's tough. I didn't have a normal childhood, but I don't think I would've had a normal childhood anyway, just because I've always been the oddball, the kid people have to figure out. I don't feel like I missed out on anything. I went to a studio school part of the time and a regular school part of the time, so some people ask if I missed out on the high-school experience, but I don't feel I did. I was doing something that was just as life-changing or just as important to the growth of my childhood, just in a different way. Chalk it up to diversity.
O: Do you ever get odd fan mail?
DD: I've gotten some pretty weird stuff. I got a fly once. Someone sent me a dead fly, and they would send it every weeknot the same one, I wouldn't send it back! [Laughs.] I've gotten toenail clippings, I've gotten spray-painted rocks. Just weird stuff. I've gotten hair. I got a spider, and the person wrote in the letter that they hoped it was still alive, and if it was, they wanted me to send it back. Of course, it wasn't. I opened it up, and it was just a letter with a little smear in the corner that used to be Charlie the spider.
O: Were there times during Saved By The Bell when you felt like you'd had enough?
DD: I was going to leave the show after The College Yearswell, we only did one season, so it was The College Year, I guess. The New Class had done one season while we were doing The College Years, and they had a Screech-type character called Weasel, and I guess the ratings weren't doing so well. So the producers wanted me to come back and be the administrative assistant, with Mr. Belding, the principal. I would not quite be the adult, but not quite be the kid, so I had a place cut out for me, and I had a character that was very easy for me to do at that point, because I had done it for years. I could pretty much do Screech in my sleep. I could phone it in. My initial reaction was to say no, which I did, and then they came back at me with a better figure. It's show business, and the business aspect is important, because everyone's gotta eat. I weighed the decisions out and thought that I might get pigeonholed as this character forever, but I'm pretty confident that I can break it, because I'm not actually the character. I don't think I'll be punished for being a successful actor. I take it as a compliment, actually, that I can be good enough to convince people that I really am that way. It's like when Leonardo DiCaprio did What's Eating Gilbert Grape. When you see that, you think, "Whoa, that's the heartthrob in Titanic that girls are swooning over?" It's an amazing transition. On a side note, one of my favorite actors, because of that, is Gary Oldman. He slips into incredible characters, where if you didn't know it was him, you'd freak out. Did you see Hannibal? He was the burned guy, the mangled guythat didn't look anything like him! Talk about a character actor! That's something that I would aspire to. I think that the business aspect of it panned out. It was easy to do the character, and I was guaranteed work that was very easy. I could sit down and concentrate on music, and chess, and all my other interests. Now that it's over, I don't look back on it as a mistake. I'm confident that I can break the mold of the character.
O: You had a bit part in Made, right?
DD: Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau from Swingers did Made, and they're fun guys to work with. The movie's got P. Diddy in it. J. Lo, Jennifer Lopez is in it. I guess I'm going to be D-Dimey. [Laughs.] All kinds of big names are in it. In the scene I'm in, I'm playing myself. I walk with my girlfriend into a nightclub, and these guys are really ticked off because they can't get into the nightclub, but they'll let me in. They start shouting, "You're gonna let Screech in, but you're not gonna let us in?!" I did another film recently with Pauly Shore called You'll Never Wiez In This Town Again, but I'm not sure when it's coming out. It's another one where I pretty much play myself. I don't know what scenes they're gonna use yet, but in one scene, I'm at Pauly's house at a party and I'm leaving, and he says, "Thanks for coming by." I walk past him looking uninterested, because I'm with this girl I've been hitting on all night, and I say to Pauly, "Thanks, man, tell Pauly it was a great party."
O: Any other acting work in the pipeline?
DD: Yeah... I'm not really putting acting on the back burner, but I'm putting music on the front burner. I'm not giving up acting. It will always be a part of what I do. I'm going to direct and produce and all that stuff, too. Usually people in the acting business end up both in front of and behind the camera. Working for so long in the business, I know how it works. It's not too much of a challenge; the challenge is making it all come together, being in charge of a huge team of people that you trust.
O: Have you met many actors in the same position as you? Did you ever bump into Urkel at a party?
DD: Actually, Jaleel White and I just did a film together; we both cameoed. Once again, we're not playing our charactershe's not playing Urkel and I'm not playing Screechbut it's called Pay Or Play. [Since this interview took place, Pay Or Play became Big Fat Liar, which opens Feb. 18. ed.] There was a film called The Monster Squad a long, long time ago. It wasn't a very good film, but for those that did see it... I was in that, and so was Jaleel White, and that's where we met. This was way before Family Matters or Saved By The Bell, way before. We were just young actors, and I think we pretty much both got cut out of the film. I know I did, and I didn't see him in it, but he was at the set. It was down to me and another guy for the lead character, and they hired this other guy because I was too young at the time, and I didn't have enough experience. They liked me, though, and they wrote in a bit part for me, but that got cut for Hollywood reasons, time constraints or whatever. Years later, we end up becoming two of the three icons of the '90s for comedy.
O: Who's the third?
DD: To tell you the truth, I'm not really sure. I know there's three, though, because it was listed in some sort of Hollywood poll or magazine. I know it's not Carrot Top, it can't be him. I know that if anyone says "Screech" or "Urkel," anyone would know who they're talking about. It's an amazing thing. I always thought that MTV should do a Celebrity Deathmatch between Screech and Urkel. I wouldn't even care who won; I just want to see me in clay, with bones splattering around. That would be cool. I'd do the voice for it, too.
O: I know it's not true, but...
DD: The "Mike D. of The Beastie Boys" question? It makes sense, but it's all coincidence. Mike Diamond and Dustin Diamond is a coincidence. We both play bass, coincidence. We both have similar features, like our noses. Everyone thinks we're brothers. It is a rumor.
O: When Showgirls opened, with your old co-star Elizabeth Berkley, did you run right out and see it?
DD: Wow, that was a bizarre experience, just because we weren't sure why that decision was made. I don't think anyone at the studio that knew Elizabeth expected it. If you wanted to break out of your character... I'm doing different stuff: stand-up comedy, music, showing my other interests, taking roles that are not along the Screech lines. I'll still do comedy, but it'll be a different type of comedy. I wouldn't see why you'd want to go so far afield to change your image that you'd take a role so demanding or drastic as that. It pretty much was just an exploitation of a Saturday-morning icon, I feel. I don't think that the movie had any more substance than, "Hey, we should go check it out to see the girl from Saved By The Bell naked!" That's pretty much what everyone went to the theater to see. Then again, people went and saw the film. [Laughs.] I guess the business aspect worked. Was it good for her career? I don't know. I don't think being nude in film has hurt anybody's career. You look at how many people have flashed their chest in numerous films, and I don't think it's hurt anybody. Maybe there's one or two, and maybe Elizabeth is one of them. It was such a drastic change. People ask if I saw it coming, and to tell you the truth, I didn't. She was more like a sister, because I worked with her every single day for years. Plus, I was the youngest of the bunch, three or four years younger than the rest, so I was like the tagalong little brother at the time. Here I was, going to the theater, watching Showgirls and going, "Wow, that was a shock!" I don't own it on DVD, if that was the next question.
O: Did you start doing stand-up while you were still on TV?
DD: No. We finished The New Class in November of '98, and probably early '99, I started going out and doing stand-up. And for the last three years, I've pretty much been traveling the entire country. I've done everywhere from Idaho to Iowa to New York...
O: What's your act like?
DD: I start out with the Screech stuff, because that's what everyone knows me as, and that's what everyone wants to see right away. I don't portray Screech on stage, but I talk about it, I talk about the show and the business, and then I start gradually expanding into things that I think are funny, just personal observations. I think it plays nicely, rather than just going up there and going for shock value like Bob Saget does. He does America's Funniest Home Videos, the dad on Full House, and he seems very soft-spoken, like, "Hey, I'm America's dad-type guy." And then his stand-up act is dirty. It's pure filth, where even Andrew "Dice" Clay would go, "Ow, ay!" Even George Carlin would tell him to take a break. It scares people. My act isn't purely clean, because it's coming from me and not the characterI'm not a squeaky-clean guybut I would rather give them what they want to hear right away. Once that's out of the way, the rest of the time is mine to play with. Like I can talk about Slater... All the girls loved Slater, growing up. He was in Teen Beat magazine, Tiger Beat, all the girlie-bopper magazines. But I ask this: Do the girls that were the teeny-boppers back then realize that they liked the guy with the mullet? It wasn't even a regular mullet; it was a permed mullet! He wore those white jeans that were pleated, the low-top cowboy boots with the buckles, come on...
O: I didn't realize until recently that you're actually a huge fan of chess.
DD: I'm an avid chess player, and I do a lot of work with the U.S. Chess Federation. I'd like to see chess get bigger and more widely accepted by the average person. My chess video is instructionalit teaches you how to play the game from scratch, if you've never seen a chess board beforebut it's aimed at the non-chess player. I make it easy, and it's the first chess video in the history of the world that incorporates comedy. People are laughing and realizing that they're learning. People who thought they'd never be able to play the game are learning, and people who thought they could never learn the game have said they've watched my video and learned to play. I've gotten some ignorant statements from people who find out I play chess, and they think I'm just like Screech, like, "You play chess with a bunch of other nerds?" Yeah, tell Bill Gates that. He's the biggest nerd, and the richest man on the planet. I don't see what the nerdy thing is about being able to play a game that's more complex than any other game on Earth, a game that builds your focus, concentration, memory, and coordination. You're a general on a battlefield. It's like fighting a war with someone on a battlefield you can see, without sitting on a hot hill with horses and cavalry and archers. And no one gets killed! There's a certain beauty to chess. It's just a fantastic game. You can learn a lot about yourself as you gain levels in chess. I can tell, by watching someone play, the way their mind works. Are they a risk-taker? Are they going flashy with some big attacks on the side? Are they defensive and cautious and timid? You can tell a lot about someone through a chess game. Football is kind of the same, but it's different in that you can break stuff. If people knew more about it, they could appreciate it more, instead of thinking it's the old-stuff game that Russian guys play in the library for hours and hours.
O: But your main focus now is music?
DD: I've been playing music my whole life. I started out with classical guitar, but I never really had the time, because of my acting career, to sit down and pursue music. In 1994, I walked into a Guitar Center and realized that I always listen to bass when I listen to music. I wondered if I could play bass, and I figured that it was two less strings than a guitar, and they're bigger, so it might be easier. I picked it up and taught myself, basically. I've never had a music lesson. I just fell in love with it, and it felt more "me" than a guitar did. Even though I can play guitar, bass is a lot more fun for me. I used to date Johnny Cash's granddaughter, and she's a fantastic songwriter and singer and guitarist. We used to play out together. I just started hanging out with some heavy cats then, heavy guys, and started listening and learning, soaking up as much knowledge as I could. That helped me grow as a musician and a personsome of these guys say some pretty deep stuffand I guess at some point, I decided that I wanted to start a band that was like the music I listen to. The type of music that I like is like Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Tower Of Power, Miles Davis... I like a wide variety of music. I like Jaco Pastorius and Joni Mitchell, but then I like Mr. Bungle, John Zorn, crazy stuff like that.
O: How far do you think you can go, considering that you're not making very commercial-sounding music?
DD: We're paying our dues all over again, really. We're not saying, "We've got a TV celebrity in the band, so we're gonna make lots and lots of money!" We have to jump through the hoops all over again, but I don't mind that. I have faith in our ability and our music. I'd like to play music for the rest of my life and make my living doing music, and just do acting things here and there, much like what Henry Rollins does. If I could play music and make my living that way for the rest of my life, I think that's what I'd do.
O: Anything you'd like to add?
DD: If I was gonna say anything, it'd just be a word of advice: Just do exactly what it is that makes you want to do what you do. The stuff I listen to in my private collection, it's what moves me, makes me want to play. I want to make other people feel like I feel when I listen to that music. Whether other people like it or criticize iteven if there's only 10 people on the planet that love it, you're touching 10 people that way. There probably is a lot of music that no one's ever gonna hear. For anyone doing music, just do exactly what it is that makes you want to do it. If you like listening to odd, strange, bizarre noise and that makes you want to create it, do it. Even if everyone around you tells you it's crap or thinks it won't work, someone out there is going to appreciate it.