Celebrity comes naturally to some. People like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton used their unearned fame to launch careers in fashion, media, and other entrepreneurial endeavors, but their initial celebrity was mere happenstance: They were born pretty and rich.
But others have to work at fame. They know the cost, the effort to reach the apex, even if the ascent happens at an early age.
Dustin Diamond, better known to the TV viewing public as Screech, the doofy, nerdy sidekick on the hit '90s sitcom Saved by the Bell, attained a level of celebrity synonymous with an entire era of television. Diamond first donned Screech’s outfits of suspenders and wildly mismatching patterns at the age of 11. He inhabited the role for the next 13 years, through several incarnations of the original show.
Today, at 40 years old, he is likelier to be referred to by his fictional moniker than by his birth name. But surprisingly, Diamond has yet to grow weary of being called Screech.
“Someone put up on the internet that I hate being called ‘Screech’ and that I get angry. I don’t know where that started. I guess the curse of internet trolls. I don’t mind it at all. To have instant recognition or something that instantly brings people joy or a smile to their face, of good memories when I made them laugh as a kid or growing up. That’s an incredible feeling. It’s when people don’t remember you or keep quiet, that’s when you gotta worry, because that’s when you’re on your downward slope.”
It’s an honest answer that offers a glimpse into the mind of a celebrity attempting to remain in the spotlight. Each year, thousands of hopefuls fly to Southern California searching for that big break. Often they wind up as servers at restaurants or tour guides ushering along curious tourists. For those who do get the sweet taste of Hollywood’s ambrosia, nothing else will do. So how does one retain his relevancy?
Well, for Diamond, he turned to his comedic talents. Most comics tour dive bars, open mikes, and small clubs for years and years before venturing into TV land, but Diamond did the reverse, transitioning from sitcom fame to standup life. His material isn’t quite as graphic as that of his '90s sitcom colleague Bob Saget, but it’s still plenty grown-up, a combination of dirty and nerdy.
During his nearly 20 years of honing his craft onstage, Diamond has also done a number of celebrity game and reality shows. Although he was never in danger of being nominated for an Emmy, there is one film role he does regret: porn star.
Or faux porn star, as it turns out. In 2006, he released his very own sex tape, Screeched: Saved by the Smell. It was, according to Diamond, all fake, a cash grab and an ill-advised publicity stunt.
The role of Screech didn’t reel in the millions he’d hoped for, but Diamond is more than happy to use his Screech card to get the occasional VIP treatment. Whether it’s a nightclub or a concert he doesn’t have tickets to, 25 years after Saved by the Bell went off the air, that account still holds credit.
“I don’t use it too much, but it does come in handy. When I do use it, it’s for the benefit of my friends and those around me. It gives them a better experience," he admits. "Or when you’re on a date. That’s always a good time to drop it.”
While Diamond is busy giving the average person a memorable celebrity encounter at a rock show, he’s had his fair share of bizarre interactions with fellow actors.
“Gary Busey was a trip. He was as you’d expect. He was crazy. He was a nice guy, but you weren’t sure if he was gonna hug you or if he was gonna hit you just because he’s so intense. ‘Hey, man! We’re gonna bond with our fingers!’ Bond with our fingers? This doesn’t sound good. Turns out he just wants to high-five you with a high-two.
“In Hollywood circles, you run into all kinds of weirdos. There’s that old joke that Hollywood is like a bowl of granola: nothing but fruits, flakes, and nuts. The joke is tongue-in-cheek as it is, but it is kind of true.”
From the religiously superstitious to Method actors yelling in their trailers at absolutely no one in particular, actors run the gamut on the spectrum of eccentric. However, when it comes to the world of "wackadoos," as Diamond puts it, fans are liable to exhibit equally strange behavior.
“I had a fan a long time ago, in a fan letter — repeatedly, every single week for almost two years — ask for an article of clothing, a personal possession, a lock of hair, and a bodily fluid. They wanted to build a voodoo doll. They wanted all those things. Everyone asks for pictures. What [this fan] wanted was for me to come to their birthday, and that was the day that they wanted me to move in. You heard me right: move in.”
Diamond relays stories of his Saved by the Bell costars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen, who braved their own scary fan encounters. Gosselaar, who played the role of Zack Morris, had a "Stan" moment with a fan threatening to walk in front of a truck if certain demands weren’t met. Thiessen, who played Kelly Kapowski, felt threatened by a man who had sent her a very expensive piece of jewelry.
Diamond relates these tales with a natural knack for storytelling — one that's been a blessing for his standup but a curse in other parts of his life. Behind the Bell, a 2009 tell-all book with Diamond's byline, painted an unkind portrait of the life and times of the cast, describing "sex, drugs, and wild parties." Diamond told New Times that a ghost writer fabricated the majority of the book without his consent. But since its release, Diamond has reconciled only with Mario Lopez, who played A.C. Slater, during an interview for Extra; he remains estranged from the rest of the cast.
Diamond has had his own scandals, many of which he's incorporated into his comedy.
“I talk about that stuff right off the bat. I joke about making it to 40 without getting arrested, and then my wife gets attacked in a bar.”
Infamously, Diamond was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2014. As a result of the aforementioned bar fight, Diamond spent three months in a Wisconsin jail. He was exonerated of the most serious charges but convicted of a pair of misdemeanors, including carrying a concealed weapon: his pocket knife.
That's just one of the reasons Diamond has attained a sort of bad-boy label in recent years. Ironically, at one point in his career, Diamond would have welcomed such a title, wanting so badly to shed his Screech persona in order to have more roles available to him.
“I’d go out and do a reading, and time after time my feedback would be: ‘You know, you did a great job, but we saw a little too much Screech in there.’ And I’m like, 'Guys, I can’t change my bone structure; give me a chance.'”
Instead, he became the villain on Celebrity Fit Club, a so-called reality show as authentic as the breasts on Courtney Stodden. The producers and the script called for Diamond to be, for lack of a better word, a douchebag. In fact, Diamond says VH1 paid him an extra $25,000 for his villainy. Unfortunately, he was so good at it that audiences believed it was the real Dustin Diamond. It was another career move that backfired on him, one that he laments. “If I could go back, I wouldn’t have done that.”
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Hindsight might be 20/20, but it seems his outlook on the future is just as clear.
"At this point, I’m changing my perspective. I want to have a kid one day,” he says. A large part of his plans for fatherhood involve standup comedy. Though it is, and always will be, a way to remain working in show business and his main weapon in the battle of relevancy, comedy also allows Diamond to grow as a person and serves as an education to others, including his own potential children.
“I’m starting to shift my act towards something more mature. It’s an evolution where I’ve reached that point where I have stuff to pass on to my offspring: 'Learn from my mistakes. Here’s something stupid Daddy did.'”
Have-Nots Comedy Presents: Dustin Diamond
8 p.m. Friday, June 23, and Saturday, June 24, at Open Stage Club, 2325 Galiano St., Coral Gables; opestageclub.com; 305-441-7902. Tickets cost $15 to $40 via eventbrite.com.