Taken from the Pilot: Dustin Diamond – The Director’s Cut

A few weeks ago, my editor at The Virginian-Pilot asked me if I’d be interested in doing an interview with comedian David Alan Grier about his upcoming appearance at the Funny Bone in Virginia Beach. As ever, I jumped at the chance because…well, it’s a paid writing gig, so why wouldn’t I? Also, though, I liked In Living Color as much as the next guy, and, frankly, I was kind of bummed when Comedy Central kicked Chocolate News to the curb after only a few episodes. But these reasons became moot when Grier bailed out of his gig, thereby leaving me with seemingly no chance of having an article in this week’s issue of Pulse Magazine.

And then came Screech.

When I found out that Dustin Diamond had been drafted to fill Grier’s weekend slot at the Funny Bone, I thought, “A-ha! Surely this will secure my spot in this week’s Pulse!” My editor, however, was somewhat less sure. In the end, though, some pieces were shuffled, a hole appeared in the schedule, and—woo-hoo!—I was asked to step in and fill it.

I admit that I walked into the interview not really having any specific expectations about what Diamond would be like, although in the back of my mind I probably worried that he might be one of those overly-defensive former child actors, which is no doubt at least part of the reason why my first reference of his most famous past gig was to acknowledge the blessing/cursing aspect of it. As it turned out, however, Diamond was a great interview, has a strong sense of who he was, who he is, and who he wants to be.

Wow, y’know, I knew that felt cheesy even as I was typing it, but it’s even worse than I realized. Sorry about that.

Anyway, point being, despite websites and VH-1 appearances to the contrary, Dustin Diamond is neither a dick nor a douchebag, as far as I can tell…but you be the judge. Between the Pulse Magazine piece – which you can read by clicking here – and this unexpurgated transcript of our conversation, though, I think you’ll find he seems to be a pretty nice, well-rounded guy who just wants to spend his time making people laugh. There are worse things for a guy to aspire to.

News Reviews Interviews: How are you?

Dustin Diamond: I’m tired! I just got off the road, man, and I’m getting ready to head back out.

NRI: Excellent. Well, the fact that you’re keeping busy, anyway.

DD: Oh, absolutely. I’d always rather be begging for time off than begging for time on.

NRI: So where are you coming from?

DD: Well, I just did Tampa , Florida, and then I did Jacksonville and Clearwater, and then I headed to New York, did that yesterday evening, just got back and got a little bit of sleep this morning, and now here I am, ready to tackle my day.

NRI: How much time do you spend on the road nowadays?

DD: I’m out 47 weeks a year on the norm. I usually take two weeks off for the holiday time, two weeks off for Halloween, and one week off at my choosing.

NRI: So how did you find your way into stand-up? Did it start as just straight-ahead spoken word and ease into a stand-up thing?

DD: Well, you know, coming off of TV, I pretty much…I never got nervous doing anything, performance-wise, for the public. I’ll try to make a long story short. I was taking a girl on a date in California, and I had passed by the Brea Improv, in Brea, California. We had come out of the movie theater, saw this guy’s name on the marquee, I recognized the name as someone I’d worked with on one of the Saved by the Bell made-for-TV movies, and said…I was a comedy fan, but I didn’t know there were anything like headliners or featured comics or openers. I’d never even been in a comedy club. I just knew the specials that you’d see on TV. And I ended up going in to say “hi” to him, we caught the last 10 minutes of his act, and he said, “Why don’t you stick around and catch the next show?” While the featured comic was up, we were totally enjoying ourselves, and he said, “I’m getting ready to head up, but…you’d really be good at this. You don’t get stage fright, you don’t get nervous, you’ve got good stage presence, good delivery, good timing…you’d just need material. Would you ever think about doing it?” Well, I’m on a date, I’m just kind of shooting the breeze with him, so I said, “Sure, why not?” He introduced me that show!

Mind you, I was a professional performer, an actor, I was even a comedian, at least as far as TV goes, so I was no stranger to the public. But I was so nervous. My heart was beating like nobody’s business, my stomach was churning, and I was literally scared to go on stage. But in my nature…I’m a pro, so I got up on stage. I had no material planned, and I was only up there for three or four minutes, but that’s an eternity when you don’t have anything prepared. But I ended up getting such a rush out of it. Whereas normally those nerves turn into stage fright and people freeze up, I use that like endorphins, like energy. And I wanted to tackle it. I was so mad. Like, “Why was I so nervous? Why was I scared? I need to do this again!” And, of course, the stand-up act eventually bit me, because once every three or four months between November of ’98 and November of 2000, I started getting up on stage. In November 2000, I said, “You know what? I’m gonna do this full time. I’m gonna ply my trade and earn my keep here and pay my dues.” And I started getting up wherever and whenever I could. And here I am, 14 years later, and it’s been just the greatest I’ve ever done. It’s been such a blast.

NRI: So what’s your writing regiment like?

DD: Writing is very difficult for me, ‘cause I’m one of these people who…I can’t sit down and say, “I’m gonna block out two hours, and I’m not gonna come out of this room for the next two hours, not until I’ve got gold.” It just doesn’t work that way. Whenever you try to force something, the lightning never strikes. When you’re not looking, that’s when you find true love, y’know? It’s the same story everywhere, and it’s the same thing with stand-up for me, where various things will come up, things I’ll notice that are funny, and I have to be conscious and pull out my iPhone or iPad and write these things down, or do a voice memo, or pull out the notepad and actually put them down, or else they just get lost throughout the day. My memory is fantastic as far as retaining…I can tell you the serial number from a dollar bill 23 years ago. But I can’t tell you what we were just talking about five seconds ago, y’know? It’s almost like I’m a hard drive, and my capacity is full.

What I find is 90% the best for me is ideas that just come up and about, where I have a loose idea of the general premise, an idea where I want to go with it, and then I just pick a moment in my act. You know, every so often…I call it hammocking, where you take bits of material that work, you string ‘em up between two trees, and you take that grace period that you’ve created in between two guaranteed big-hit laughs and just hit ‘em with some new stuff. And if it’s a good, solid idea or premise or interesting in the beginning…generally I find that my personality and interaction with the audience tends to dig up more, and then I stand upon it. Proving it in the battlefield, I think, is the best thing for my taste, because the audience is the ultimate judge as to whether you’re on the right track or not. And if you’re on the right track, of course, it stays. If it doesn’t, no one will ever hear it again!

NRI: I have to presume that the whole Screech thing is both blessing and albatross, given that people come because they know you from Saved by the Bell yet, at the same time, it’s got to be obnoxious when people are just screaming out, “Screech!”

DD: You know, I really don’t get people screaming out anymore like I used to. I did when I was first starting, but that’s because, y’know, the show was still just right there, fresh on people’s minds, we were still kind of making new episodes, and…I was more loose. And I didn’t take the reins when I came in. The hardest thing for me… When I first came in, I wasn’t a great standup. In fact, I sucked. I was known for TV, but stand-up’s a totally different beast. I mean, it’s a completely different animal. So people were expecting me to be good just because I was a recognizable name and a cultural icon of sorts, and they were going, “Oh, that’s that guy Screech from Saved by the Bell. I saw him do stand-up. He sucked!” And it kind of hurt, but at the same time, it was, like, “Hey, man, I’m sure you’d suck your third or fourth time on stage, too!” So I really had to kind of put that past me.

Even though I’ve been in the business 28 years now, I’m still a young man. I mean, I’m only 36, y’know? I think Jerry Seinfeld, in Comedian, said it right: the number of years you’ve been on stage kind of reflects a maturity level in you. If you’ve been in 10 years, you’re kind of like a 10-year-old. If you’ve been doing it 20 years, you’re like a  20-year-old. I’ve been doing stand-up for 14 years now, and there’s definitely some truth in it, because a lot of times I’m a 14-year-old upstairs. [Laughs.] But at the same time, I’ve been in the business for 28 years, so it’s not like this is my first foray. My experience and my stage control is seasoned. Extremely seasoned. And I think that dichotomy, that balance, is really nice.

The number one thing I get is people who will come up at the end of the show and…they’re kind of embarrassed to say it, because they feel like it’s almost an insult, but I get a lot of people coming up and saying, “You know, man, a lot of actors try to do stand-up, and we came out tonight not knowing if you were gonna suck or not, but you were really good.” And for me, I’m, like, “That’s the best thing you could ever say.” That’s better than someone coming up at the end of the night and saying, “You still suck!” [Laughs.]

NRI: Do you tackle Saved by the Bell during your act at all?

DD: I hit it right off the bat. I do just a couple of passing jokes on it. But it’s not…I don’t have, like, Saved by the Bell bits, y’know? I’m definitely a storyteller as well as a comedian, but I’m not…I interweave my jokes throughout the stories that have happened in my life and things that I think are funny. I’m definitely not living off the coattails of the show. I mean, it certainly helps, because it gets people in the door. And who doesn’t want butts in seats for a nice evening out? The club wants that, and the comedian definitely wants that. But I think, once they’re there, the approachability has to go beyond, “Hey, we’ll give you some applause ‘cause you’ve earned that. We recognize you and you worked your way into our living rooms as we grew up. But what have you got now?” I mean, it quickly fades, and you’ve got to stand and live and die by your own jokes. A lot of people think that actors, especially former child actors, try to avoid getting known for certain things, and there’s all the “oh, he doesn’t want to be called this” stuff. That’s not the case. When people stop recognizing you, that’s when you’ve got to worry. The real issue is just that, at some point, if you’re an actor, you want to keep working, and in this business, you can never guarantee that someone’s gonna hire you for a job.

Saved by the Bell was a big show, but, God, that was when I was 11 ‘til I was 21. So I definitely don’t shy away from it, but at the same time, when I came off that show, I had to deal with people saying, “We want someone for a comedic role in a film, it’s a big motion picture, a theatrical release, we need someone with good facial expressions, rubbery features, good comedic timing.” I’m sitting there going, “Put me in, coach! This is great!” I’d go on the audition, I’d knock it out of the park in my mind, but the feedback would be coming back, “We really liked you, but we saw a little too much Screech.” And I’m going, “Well, guys, I can’t change my bone structure!” [Laughs.] It’s, like, “Give me a break! This is me!” So that’s why things like Celebrity Fit Club…of course, everybody thought I was such a bad guy, but that was all scripted going in. I mean, we did multiple takes and everything. Now, I do mention that in my act, because I think that’s something funny. After 28 years in the industry, I see reality TV as just TV. Other people see nothing but the “reality” part. Now, you sound like a wise, mature man…

NRI: Why, thank you.

DD: [Laughs.] What I’m saying is that, beyond people like yourself, I’ve got to deal with the fact that…I mean, like, some people don’t believe ALF isn’t real, y’know? Between doing that, and, of course, there was the t-shirt campaign I had way back when, and then putting out my tell-all book and all these things… A lot of people fed off of that and were, like, “Oh, he’s bitter, he doesn’t want to be known as that character, there’s a lot of anger there.” But there isn’t, I swear. I’m the guy who most wants to sit back and laugh. That’s why I love comedy so much. If I won the lottery tomorrow, if I won a billion dollars, I’d still be doing stand-up every weekend.

NRI: Do you have any regrets about having done Saved by the Smell, or was it just kind of a goof?

DD: Well… [Starts to laugh.] Let’s put it this way. For legal reasons, I can’t say anything directly incriminating or otherwise, but…let’s just say that the Saved by the Smell thing…well, first of all, the subtitle was just an internet thing that was put up. It was actually called Screeched. I thinks someone just came up with the other because they were trying to be clever with wordplay. But it was put out on the tail end of all these Pam Anderson and Colin Farrell and…everybody was coming out with a sex tape. Me…? In my infinite wisdom, being a dumb kid 10 years behind in the maturity loop, I thought it would be funny if Screech had one. And it was put out that it accidentally got out. And then people turned it into, “Oh, he’s making porn!” Which was not the case. It was supposed to be a private video that got out, but…let’s put it this way: you never see my face or anything else in the same shot at the same time. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to sit back and figure out that this could easily be doctored up in real time with a stunt wang. [Laughs.] So I’m not allowed to say definitively one way or the other, due to gag orders and restraints or whatever, but at the same time…c’mon, man, I grew up in front of TV. I’m no dummy. I’m just saying the skin tones don’t even match! But, y’know, no one in this industry ever wants to admit that, “Oh, could this person have done this for a publicity stunt?” Or… [Gasps.] For money? Sure, why not?

I have no problem living like an honest, hard-working man. I’m not a criminal, I’m not a drinker, I’m not a druggie. I think I came out of the Hollywood child star grinder fairly unscathed. I recognize that I’ve made a few poor decisions in my life. [Laughs.] But who hasn’t? I think it’s funny, because it’s the same way I lived all my lifestyle. I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A lot of people think, “Oh, that’s not very Hollywood.” Well, I’m not very Hollywood! I think I’m just like the guy next door. I like to hang with real people, just like the next guy. If I’m hanging around people that won’t talk to you if you’re not driving the latest Lexus, I’m uncomfortable!

NRI: Lastly, have you got any anecdotes from working on Purple People Eater?

DD: Oh, my goodness! Wow, you’re bringing up a classic! [Laughs.] Purple People Eater was one of the many, many…near 30 films I’ve been in that no one will ever see. They have B-list actors, like Bruce Campbell, who’s the king of the B-listers. But I’m the D-man. I’m gonna go for the D-list. I think Purple People Eater was a really fun film to work on, though. I got to work with Neil Patrick Harris way back when, and I got to work with Lindsay Price, whose name you may not recognize, but she did, like, The Bold and the Beautiful and a couple of other soap operas and dramas. Getting to work with Shelley Winters and Ned Beatty and Chubby Checker, and getting to meet Sheb Wooley, who wrote “Purple People Eater”…at that time period, it was kind of a cool film. And let’s face it: I was 10. At that age, I was doing all kinds of really cool stuff. ‘Cause that was actually just before Saved by the Bell hit, because I got that when I was 11. Also in that same year I was doing The Wonder Years. And I did Big-Top Pee-Wee, the second Pee-Wee Herman film. So that was kind of a big deal. And remember, as cheesy as the film was, for a kid, getting to be on a movie where there’s any kind of special effects…? I was pretty excited. Now, unfortunately, it turned out to be Purple People Eater instead of, like, The Matrix Reloaded. [Laughs.] But there’s still time. Now, mind you, I’ve said that, but now I’ll be cast next year in Purple People Eater 2.

NRI: From your mouth to Hollywood’s ears… Seriously, though, the first time I ever interviewed Neil Patrick Harris, I asked him about that film, and he spoke rather fondly of it as well.

DD: Yeah, y’know, what’s funny about that film is that it was shot in just under a month, and I worked for two of those weeks. So I’m, like, “Wow, so they shot the whole thing in four weeks, and I was there for two of ‘em, but…I’m not in half of the film! How did that work out?” [Laughs.] They must’ve really pushed a lot out during that last week!

NRI: Well, look, thanks for finding time to talk. I know you got added to the Funny Bone’s schedule at kind of the last minute, so I’m glad I was able to get you on the phone in time to write something for the paper about your appearance.

DD: Oh, absolutely. And thank you for your time. And thank you for coming up with some good memories and good questions for me! Y’know, sometimes you tend to get the same stuff…

NRI: I’m sure you get people forcing the Screech angle down your throat…and, inevitably, that’s gonna be part of this story, too, and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. But I figured the least I could do was try to flesh it out a bit beyond that.

DD: Yeah, I appreciate that. For me, the biggest things are…well, first of all, to talk about Celebrity Fit Club. That was probably the biggest mistake I ever made. The reason I wanted to play the bad guy…they actually wanted Warren G to play the bad guy originally, but Jim Ackerman, who was the east coast head of VH-1 and was working with and directing me, said, “Okay, well, this is what we’re gonna do, and it’s gonna be good ratings…” And, of course, it did so well that they brought me back for the season after that, too, and for Celebrity Boot Camp. Now, mind you, I wasn’t trying to out-crazy Gary Busey, but, I mean, there’s no instruction book for how to do this.

What’s funny, though, is that I ended up doing the role in the first place because I wanted eight weeks of footage of me playing a bad guy or a crazy guy because I wanted to get on Breaking Bad or Dexter or some show like that. This is all just industry work for me. I know what the camera wants, I know what the audience wants. But when it was all said and done, it was shocking for me to realize that everyone thought I really was really mean. Like, to the point where people were scared to approach me at shows! Which is crazy, because I’m the most approachable person. Like I said, I’m from the old school belief of where it’s when people don’t recognize you that you’ve got to worry. People ask, “Do you hate being called Screech?” No, it means you were a fan. It means you’re aware of me. What actor doesn’t want that? So that was the weirdest thing for me. It left me thinking that, y’know, if I could go back now, I would’ve let Warren be the bad guy. [Laughs.] I thought it was a good move for showing my versatility!

NRI: So do you continue to audition for acting roles?

DD: I do. But now I keep it strictly to movies. I just did a movie where I co-starred with Eric Roberts that’s called The Scavenger Killers, and I play an FBI agent who ends up getting killed…which was kind of cool, because it was my first-ever death scene in a movie. I’d never gotten to do a death scene before. And then I just did another film—oddly, I died in that one, too!—with Robert Loggia called Captured Heart, and that was pretty fun. By the way, I don’t know if you can slip it into the article or not, but I also just got into Twitter recently, and I feel so far behind everyone else. My Twitter is @DustinDiamond, and I’d love if it you could post that.

NRI: I’m sure I can manage that. In fact, I actually just started following you the other day.

DD: Oh, well, thank you very much!

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