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SAVED BY THE BELL: How a Big Part of Our Childhood Almost Never Made it to TV: Kicking Back With Jersey Joe [BEST OF FaN]

It’s the classic children’s TV show all Generation X’ers grew up with.  See how SAVED BY THE BELL evolved over the years and barely avoided cancellation after a much different pilot episode!  Every American kid in the 90s woke up to this show on Saturday mornings.  It’s great fun to check out all the clips in this walk down memory lane!

Originally published 04/08/11

NBC’s Saved By the Bell was a staple of Saturday mornings for most Generation Xer’s in the 90s.  Just about every youngster tuned in and the show quickly became a mega hit spawning multiple spin-offs and movies.  However, the beloved show that most teens would give anything to see, very nearly didn’t make it to air.

The teen sitcom Saved By the Bell was created by Sam Bobrick and aired in various forms from 1988-2003.  The show was originally inspired by NBC president, Brandon Tartikoff, who wanted to do a series about an “inspiring” teacher.  As with many shows, the original pilot episode was drastically different from what would finally hit the air.

The show was originally to be titled Good Morning, Miss Bliss starring Haley Mills.  The original pilot episode was broadcast on July 11, 1987 as a one time special on NBC (it took The Facts of Life’s time slot for the evening).  This episode has only ever been shown that one time and featured an array of future big name stars; Jaleel White (who would later star on Family Matters), Jonathan Brandis (who would later star on Seaquest DSV), and Brian Austin Green (who would later star on Beverly Hills 90210).

The pilot is notable for having dramatically different sets, a slow Family Ties like opening credit sequence, and Mr. Belding’s first name being Gerald and played by actor Oliver Clark.

After the broadcast, NBC passed on the series and that should have been it.  However, executives at the then new Disney Channel were interested and picked up the rights.

Disney ordered a new pilot and eventually 13 total episodes.  Mills stayed on as Miss Bliss, but the rest of the cast was dramatically overhauled.

Mr. Belding’s first name was changed to Richard and actor Dennis Haskins was hired.  Haskins would be the only character to stay on for the entire series and the following spin-off.  Eventually, he would pick up his signature phrase “Hey, hey, hey, what is going on here?”

Another teacher, Miss Tina Paladrino, who appeared in the original pilot, was recast with actress Joan Ryan.

An entire new group of children were also cast.  Good Morning, Miss Bliss introduced us to the first three child actors that would become a mainstay of the franchise:

Zack Morris (played by Mark Paul Gosselaar) who would basically become the main child star of the series and is a charming, manipulative teen that always comes up with a crazy scheme and would need his friends to bail him out.  He often looks to Miss Bliss for guidance, but once she is replaced when the show goes on, that role is taken over by principal, Mr. Belding.

Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond), a nerd with a major crush on Lisa Turtle.  He would later become Zack’s best friend.

Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies), a rich and sophisticated shopaholic.  She was often seen wearing designer clothing and her parents both worked as physicians.

We are also introduced to three other characters that would only be around for the 13 Miss Bliss episodes: Mikey Gonzalez (Max Battimo), who was originally intended to be Zack’s best friend, Nikki Coleman (Heather Hopper), who was originally Zack’s nemesis, and school supervisor Mylo (played by TK Carter) who would often lend the gang advice.

The sets were completely redone and started to look more like the final series.  The scripts would also focus more on Miss Bliss as the main character and her interaction with her eighth grade students.  Her home life was explored.

The opening credits were changed to still photos over a grey background with a new theme “The Best of Times” by Charles Fox.

The Disney Channel officially premiered the series on November 30, 1988 and was cancelled after airing all 13 episodes.  After a second chance, that should have been the end…

But liking what they saw on Disney, NBC executives decided to pick up the rights to the series and the show was about to undergo even more changes. However, this time they got it right.

Gosselaar, Diamond, Voorhies, and Haskins would be the only cast members to stay with the show during the transition.  Miss Bliss, Mylo, and two students were dropped.

The show’s title was officially changed to Saved By the Bell. Executive producer Peter Engel was actually hoping to call the show When the Bell Rings, but was talked out of it by Tartikoff.

The stories were rewritten to now focus on Zack, the gang’s weekly adventures, and on real teen issues.  They also grew up a bit and were now in high school.   The school also changed locations, instead of being based at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, the series moved west and was now based at the now legendary Bayside High School in Bayside, California.

The two students who were dropped from Miss Bliss were replaced by three new characters:

Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Amber-Thiessen) who was the most popular girl in school, captain of the volleyball, swim, and softball teams, and the head cheerleader.  She became Zack’s love interest and the two would eventually get married in the last movie.

Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) is Zack’s next door neighbor and he often climbs through her bedroom window to visit.  Jessie is class president and dates AC Slater through most of the series, although their relationship is often put to the test.

Albert Clifford “AC” Slater (Mario Lopez) is the token jock of the group.  He is captain of the football team and also wrestles.  He is an army brat who transfers to Bayside in the first Saved by the Bell episode.

One other new character, Max (Ed Alonzo) was the owner of The Max, the favorite restaurant and hang out of the gang.  He was also a master magician.  His character would only appear during the first season and would disappear after The Max is sold a couple of episodes into season two.

The theme song and opening credits would also get a major overhaul with the theme changing to “I’m Saved by the Bell” by Scott Gale and hip animations over a very 90’s background.

This new version debuted on NBC Saturday morning, August 20, 1989.  Critics’ initial response was very negative, but the new series was an immediate hit with teens.  It quickly became the highest rated series on Saturday mornings.  Due to it’s success, NBC would abandon it’s long standing schedule of cartoons and add more live action series for teens and redubbing the block, TNBC (Teen NBC).

After the successful first season run, NBC repackaged the Good Morning, Miss Bliss episodes.  An intro from Zack would explain that these were from the junior high years and opening credits in the new style were created.  All 13 episodes were reformatted and are still broadcast in this manner.  Although a few of the plot lines do not fit into the series continuity.

For the third season, NBC doubled the amount of episodes ordered and scheduled them back to back for an entire hour.  The second episode of the hour was the “Malibu Sands” episodes.  For these shows, the gang (except Lisa whose family is already a member) take summer jobs at the Malibu Sands resort.  Several new guest characters are introduced for these episodes, with the most noteworthy being Stacey as the daughter of the resort’s owner and who becomes a love interest for Zack.  Stacey is played by Leah Remini, who would later star in The King of Queens and as a panelist on The Talk.

To add to the excitement for the upcoming fourth season, NBC ordered the series first TV movie, Saved By the Bell: Hawaiian Style.  The movie, which aired on November 27, 1992, sent the gang to Hawaii where Kelly’s grandfather invites them to stay at his hotel.  While there, a wealthy businessman threatens to buy Kelly’s family out and the gang tries to save it.

NBC would again order extra episodes for season four.  To do so, they would have to resign contracts with the entire cast for the additional shows.  Berkley and Amber-Thiessen refused to sign on for more and their characters were replaced by new girl Tori Scott (Lana Creel) for many of the last season episodes.  NBC would then rotate between the Tori and Jessie/Kelly episodes with no explanation given to the viewer.

After 4 seasons and 86 episodes, which as a kid – seemed longer, the series ran their final episode in prime time on May 22, 1993.  In the finale, the cast finally graduates from Bayside High.

NBC was well prepared for the series departure, however.  They followed the final episode with a sneak peak at the new fall series, Saved By the Bell: The College Years.

After a summer of reruns, the next generation of the series was ready to launch…

Saved By the Bell: The College Years officially began on Tuesday, September 14, with Zack, Slater, and Screech all attending the fictional California University in San Francisco.  Actress Amber-Thiessen who plays Kelly suddenly had a change of mind and transferred to the school starting with episode two.

New friends were introduced including Leslie (Anne Tremko), Alex (Kiersten Warren), Danielle (Essence Atkins), anthology professor Jeremiah Lasky (Patrick Fabian), and dorm advisor Mike Rogers (Bob Golic.)  After Kelly returned, Danielle suddenly disappeared after the pilot.  Later in the run, a new authority figure was introduced as Dean Susan McMann (Holland Taylor), who had a serious dislike for Zack.

A completely new opening credit sequence “Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow” was also featured with shots of the new cast.

This series aired in prime time on NBC Tuesday nights and was destroyed by Full House in the ratings.  The show’s nineteenth and final episode aired on February 8, 1994.  In the finale, Zack and Kelly decide to elope to Las Vegas and set up the plot for the franchise’s next TV movie.

The news on Saturday morning was much different, however…

The second spin-off also premiered that fall.  Saved By the Bell: The New Class took over the old time slot on Saturday, September 11, 1993 and would run for 7 seasons.  Initially, the only character to crossover was Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins), but Screech (Dustin Diamond) would join him as a school administrator for season two and beyond.

This new series had the same exact concept, look, and feel of the original with a new class of students at Bayside.  Many of the scripts were recycled plots from the original series as well.

Unlike the original, this show featured a large cast turnover.  Each season would have at least one to three major cast changes.  Some students would appear and then disappear the following season, only to be replaced by a new student.

In the first season, new student Scott (Robert Sutherland Telfer) was almost a duplicate of Zack, but would only last for the first year.  Tommy D (Jonathan Angel) was the jock of the group, similar to Slater.  He would last from seasons 1-3.  Characters were also created similar to Kelly, Jessie, and Lisa, and only lasted a few seasons as well.  In all, 17 different students would walk the halls in the 7 seasons.

The original opening credits were kept, but updated with the new actors.  Mr. Belding was finally given a new, larger office and some of the hallway sets were slightly reconfigured.

After the cancellation of The College Years, NBC wanted to give final closure to the original characters and produced a TV movies as a series finale, Saved By the Bell: Wedding in Vegas.

In the movie which aired on October 7, 1994, Zack and Kelly finally tie the knot.  Of course you can see the plot of this one… they get into a fight, almost call off the wedding, but patch everything up just before the end credits.  This TV movie is now broken into four episodes for the syndicated reruns.  I just wonder if anyone at standards and practices thought about having underage teens getting married and running around Las Vegas casinos was a good idea for kids?

Now that The New Class was the only series left on the air, more changes were made.  Longtime hangout The Max was destroyed by a fire at the end of season 4 and had a major renovation for the rest of the series.  In an effort to boost ratings, Zack, Slater, and Kelly make a surprise visit for an episode to help save the day, when a wealthy businessman wants to buy the school.

NBC saw the end coming, and spit the episodes shot for season 6 into two seasons, thus creating a season 7 with the same cast to prolong the life of the show.  Sadly, after 143 episodes, The New Class went off the air with the last new episode airing on January 8, 2000.

The finale was similar to the first series ending, where the students graduate and go their separate ways.  Mr. Belding leaves to become Dean of students at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (which is Haskin’s Alma Mater.)  No closure was ever given for Screech’s character.

What made this series great were all the special moments.  Zack would often break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.  He would also call “time out” to freeze and scene and “time in” to start up the action, again.  His big grey cell phone was also a staple of the show as well as some of his crazy dream sequences.

One episode featured the entire cast shooting a PSA for NBC to talk to children about avoiding drugs.  NBC president, Brandon Tartikoff, who had the original idea for the show also starred in the spot.

Other memorable moments include an episode where the gang had to be paired as husband and wife for a social project, Jessie getting hooked on caffeine pills, firing up an old radio station, and their wars against rival school, Valley High.

After the show, many of the main cast found it hard to get work and were typecast for years.  Tiffani Amber-Thiessen dropped the Amber from her name and got a job on Beverly Hills 90210.  Elizabeth Berkley scored a lead role in the NC-17 adult movie Showgirls.  Eventually, Mario Lopez would end up as the current host of Extra, and Mark Paul Gosselaar would land a role on NYPD Blue and Raising the Bar.  He will star in the upcoming TNT series, Franklin & Bash.

Sadly, Dustin Diamond has fallen out of favor with the rest of the cast and has had a harder time landing an acting job.  He has appeared on such reality shows as Celebrity Fit Club and appeared as a contestant on Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling.  He also appeared in American Pie Presents: The Book of Love.  He currently has an ongoing feud with the rest of the cast and has not appeared during any of the reunion attempts, including the latest when all but he appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  He released a book in 2009 about what life was like behind the scenes of the show, called Behind the Bell.

All of the TV movies and episodes, except for Good Morning, Miss Bliss have been released on DVD and are now mostly out of print.  All of the episodes including the Miss Bliss Junior High shows are currently syndicated to various TV stations.  Reruns of all series can also be seen on TBS.  Netflix currently streams episodes of the re-edited Miss Bliss Junior High shows and DVD rentals of all other series.  Amazon has individual shows available for rental or purchase.

On, you can even take a quiz to determine which cast member you are!

As you can see, there’s a ton of history for what started as one little Saturday Morning kids show.  Growing up, I was there almost every week and kids at school would talk about the show on Monday.  In fact, it was so good — it killed the NBC cartoons and made a ton of money for the network.  Eventually, broadcasters would move away from kids programming all together and now fill the time with local news and informercials.

THE 411

Title: Saved By the Bell

What: Live action sit-com for teens

Episodes: Good Morning, Miss Bliss: 13, Saved By the Bell: 86, Saved By the Bell: The College Years: 19,  Saved By the Bell: The New Class: 143, and 2 made for TV movies

Length: 30 minutes and the movies are originally 2 hours and rebroadcast as 4 episodes

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: If you haven’t seen this show in a while, try catching a rerun on TBS.  You can also rent the DVD if you don’t want to pony up the cash.  Take a flashback to the 90s, long before MTV turned shows like this into absolute crap.

And jeers to NBC, for blocking many of the videos of the series currently posted online.  While I get that you’re trying to protect your property and sell it elsewhere — what’s wrong with a fan uploading the opening credits or a montage?  It would be a nice preview and would probably make old fans want to check it out more.