For ’90s kids, “Saved by the Bell” was everything. The iconic teen sitcom followed relatable and lovable characters like Zack Morris and Jessie Spano as they dealt with the trials and tribulations of being a teen at Bayside High.
Show creator Peter Engel recalls being there through it all in his new memoir, “I Was Saved by the Bell.” We asked the 80-year-old television producer about the book, putting cellphones on television and his thoughts on a reality TV star being president.
You’ve been in showbusiness since college. Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
No, because I was too naive back then. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would never have continued the journey. I know too much now. I never thought for a second I would fail, and fail I did many times. Got my heart broken a million times, but it’s coming back that’s important.
So Donald Trump, a reality TV star, is going to be our president. Any thoughts on that?
My thought is that we get what we are. This is going to be a business corporate utopia for some. Can that work? I’m not sure. The campaign was almost like a circus, but Trump is brilliant at the media. He knows exactly what he’s doing — the tweets in the middle of the night.
I can only hope for the best. I say give him a chance as opposed to those who want to get rid of him the first day he’s inaugurated. I’m not thrilled about it, but this is America and somehow we always come back. To some people this is a tremendous high. To me it’s a tremendous C-minus of who we are and what we understand. I also think the internet and the cellphone are to blame. [Pause] You know, I had the first cellphone on television with Zack. I should have gotten royalties, I’d be very rich.
Nobody ever had cellphones on television back then. Some doctor shows had beepers, right? But no one till Zack had a cellphone. On the other side of the coin, I think a cellphone and the internet has been the worst thing upon our social structure because we have lots of information, but no knowledge.
Ain’t that the truth.
You can find anyone who agrees with you. I mean you can go to the internet and you’ll find eventually someone who agrees with you, and Trump understands that. He tells people what they want to hear and now that he’s the president-elect, he’s had enough of them. It’s going to be a very interesting ride.
It’s the culture that’s been created.
Yes, and I think that the presidential election is a two-year reality show. At the end of the day — and I’m a Democrat — who would you rather watch for the next four years on television? And quite frankly, even as someone who’s not happy about what happened, I’d rather watch him than Hillary. It’s called show business.
If “Saved by the Bell” was on now, would you have covered the 2016 election in the show?
We did [touch on politics]. In the first episode, we did a Dan Quayle joke. When Jessie says to Zack, “Zack, if you keep cutting class and not doing your homework, what are you going to grow up to be?” He says, “Vice president of the United States.” Then we did the fracking thing where Zack took the oil can and squirted it all over the wonderful new high school they were going to have. John Krasinski in “Promised Land” with Matt Damon did the same thing three years ago.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? And “Saved By The Bell” really broke new ground — you had one of the first interracial kisses on television between Zack and Lisa Turtle.
We did take on issues. We didn’t even think of that because we got 12,000 letters that week. Nothing about black and white, but how could he do that to Screech? Knowing how much Screech loved her.
Were the characters inspired by any real people?
The names were. The new president of the television academy, Hayma “Screech” Washington. I didn’t hire him all those years ago, but I used his name. Zack was named after my dear friend John Delorean’s son Zack [of Delorean cars]. John was one of my closest friends. Then, Lisa Turtle was a [girl] I knew from Great Neck, Long Island. Slater was the name of a kid in my son Joshua’s kindergarten class. So the names I used, but none of them were based on anyone except for Lisa Turtle, who was a mall queen.
Is there a character you were most like in high school?
I would’ve loved to have been Zack, but I wasn’t Zack. I was shy, but within my comfort zone I would be vocal. When I did my college tour in 2006 to 2007, I went to 35 colleges. It was fabulous and I would say, “Now look, if we’re going to get along then there’s something you have to understand — I was never Zack, but don’t think I was Screech. Otherwise, we’re done right now!” [Laughs]
Any advice for aspiring producers out there?
Don’t give up. The best way for the young people to get into the industry is to write a script. With a good script, no one cares how old you are, what color you are, where you come from — a good script will get attention. And I always say dream big because big dreams are as hard to accomplish as little ones so you might as well dream big.
For more on Peter Engel’s book, visit iwasavedbythebell.com.