After more than three decades and dozens of other characters under his belt, Mark-Paul Gosselaar is revisiting the one that first made him a household name: Zack Morris on “Saved by the Bell.”
The veteran actor is not only going to guest star in the Peacock continuation series of the classic NBC Saturday morning live-action kids’ show, but he also teamed up with Dashiell Driscoll, the mind behind the viral sensation “Zack Morris is Trash” (and a writer on the upcoming Peacock series) for the “Zack to the Future” podcast. Each episode of the podcast features the duo discussing a singular episode of the original series, sometimes with a special guest.
It’s not the first time since the show wrapped production in 1994 that Gosselaar stepped back into Zack’s oversized shirts and blond locks (that would be 2009’s guest appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”), but the podcast does mark the first time he is watching — and critiquing — his performance as Zack.
“I feel like it’s a little bit torturous every week for me to go through this process because I am watching my work — and it doesn’t matter that it’s 30 years old, it’s still something that I feel like I can improve,” Gosselaar tells Variety. “There’s moments where I’m talking with Dashiell and I say, ‘My timing is off there, if I had just done it this way I bet I would have gotten a bigger laugh.’ But that’s just the perfectionist in me, which is why I don’t like to watch my work: I feel like I should leave it on the set.”
Gosselaar and Driscoll started with the first aired episode of “Saved by the Bell” proper (they skipped “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” despite Peacock listing those episodes as the first season of “SBTB”) and are continuing in linear aired order, one episode at a time.
“Our pitch to Cadence13 was to be able to do all of the episodes, including the specials,” Gosselaar says. “This first season I believe we’re doing 25 episodes and the plan is to eventually work our way through the show.”
In between taping podcasts — and on a break from his guest appearance on the new version of the show — Gosselaar talks with Variety about why now was the right time to look back on this seminal work, what he has learned about himself and production from watching the episodes he has thus far and whether he wants to revisit any other roles in a similar manner.
How does it feel to be back to work on “Saved by the Bell” now?
The date we were given was Aug. 10 and I would have bet my house that we never would have made that, but we did, and I have to say we all feel safe — as safe as can be. We’re being tested every day and the protocols are pretty good. I think all of us are pretty comfortable. We’ll see how “Mixed-ish” does.
With Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” right around the corner, the timing for a podcast that revisits the original series seems perfect. But from a personal standpoint, what about this time in your life made you feel ready and interested to revisit the show, especially when you are so open about not liking to watch your past work?
I’m not really sure. I’ve always thought of revisiting “Saved by the Bell” in some capacity. Back in 2009 it was my idea to go on [Jimmy] Fallon’s show and play Zack Morris through the entire interview. That was something I worked with Mike DiCenzo, one of his lead writers, on; Mike [wrote] a full 11-page script for us to go through. So I always wanted to do something, but I could never find something that would celebrate the original product without tarnishing it in some way. Had I thought of “Zack Morris is Trash” I would have been very proud of that take on it because I think that’s an original take. I was a huge fan of Dashiell through his work on “Zack Morris is Trash.” And I’ve been approached many times to do a podcast, but I didn’t watch the show so I couldn’t wrap my head around how we would do a rewatch show. So we’re trying to do something different. There’s rewatch shows for “The Office” and what Zach Braff is doing with Donald Faison, but it’s still so fresh in their minds; they still remember the process and the stories that happened on set. I remember nothing. The [new show] really accelerated the talks of getting it on the air, but Dashiell was the key to doing a project that didn’t feel like the current ones out there. It felt like a fresh take on it and I was excited to be his partner.
What exactly is your process for this podcast? Do you really only watch one episode at a time?
One a week. I was actually on the road with my family in a RV so the first three episodes were taped from my bathroom in the RV — Dashiell would be on one side of the phone and I’d be on the other. But the last three shows we’ve been able to do in person, which helps with the chemistry and just the vibe in the room. I watch the show on a Saturday, I take notes, Dashiell sends me some bullet points, I rewatch it on Sunday right before we begin taping to see if there’s anything that I missed. We’ve been taping them on Sundays from my garage. And what we’ve been doing lately is rewatching the show in the background — no sound — as we do the show. It’s sort of a work-in-progress.
Each episode might lend itself to something different.
Exactly. For instance, the episode where it was “Dancing to the Max,” that was just the perfect opportunity to talk with Elizabeth Berkley and get her take on that. And recently we watched the show with my old [“Franklin and Bash”] castmate Breckin Meyer, and that was a fun take. We have other guests lined up. Obviously the show has impacted quite a few people, inside the industry and out, and we have the luxury of talking to those people. The show is still very fluid and we’re trying to find the formula, but for right now keeping it loose and us having fun is good for the show.
Are you lining up guests based on the episode’s theme or story, or is it solely based on schedules?
It’s interesting you say that because what I’d like to be doing is watching three or four episodes a week, but we’ve been able to do one a week just because of my schedule. I’ve had to rely heavily on Dashiell to be proactive and to basically tell me the episodes. For instance, the episode “Screech is a Woman,” Zack dresses up in drag —
I remember, you don’t have to summarize it.
[Laughs] Well Zack is Bambi, and we both came up with the idea that, “Wouldn’t it be great to talk to somebody from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and just get their take on it?” Like, how did I do, were you a fan of the show, did this in any way impact your life? But we ran out of time. It was a great idea, and in the future, when my schedule loosens up a little bit, we just need to line up these guests before. Nikki Glaser is another one who wants to come on the show, and I would love to do something with her when it’s a dating episode because her thing is all about dating and I’d like to get her take on that. So as we go along we’re going to be more proactive, but it’s been tough with my schedule.
There are other episodes where you dressed up like a woman so you could easily get somebody from “Drag Race” for a later episode.
That’s what Dashiell said. The next episode [in our lineup] is “Aloha Slater” and that’s a good opportunity to have Mario Lopez on the show. So basically we just see if there’s an organic way to include somebody on the show, and if there isn’t, then they just get Dashiell and I.
Speaking of Mario, there was a moment on a recent episode where you noticed that he missed a mark and was blocking your light so you were in shadow — but that was the take they ended up using anyway. What else are you learning about the way the show was produced by watching it back now?
I learned so much from being on that show. It was a classroom on the set for me of how to conduct myself as an actor. Looking back, I bring up things like character protection. But I think that was one of the things that attracted so many people to the show: It was just the innocence of these characters, as well as the actors portraying them. A lot of people forget that we were the same age as the characters, so we were going through the same experiences as them. And there was no ego on the set — there was no negative energy — and when you watch the show you see that bleeding through. So not getting another take now, as an actor I would put my foot down and say I need another one. But I don’t know that people were looking that carefully at this show, it was a Saturday morning show.
But do you think they should have been? For kids’ shows today, they are spending so much money and audiences are savvy.
That’s different, though. We thought we were canceled every season; we thought no one was watching the show. This really felt, even in production, like a Saturday morning kind of thing. There really was no model to go off of and no one that we could compare ourselves to. Some of my peers were David Faustino, who was on “Married… With Children,” but that was a primetime show. So for a Saturday morning show we did OK, but even in terms of my paycheck, it was nothing compared to what actors nowadays get — it was nothing like what the kids are making on the reboot.
No budget for a show today should be compared to a budget from a show from the ’80s!
My shows that I’ve done for Fox, “Pitch” and “Passage” — “Passage” was almost “Game of Thrones” money. It was crazy.
That had to be the VFX, though. The VFX on “Saved by the Bell” — the time-out or the fuzzy pink border — are things the kids on the show could probably do on their phones today.
Yeah we talked about the VFX on the original show on this past podcast and we didn’t have the technology to do the freeze-frame correctly. It was just like stopping the video tape and that was it. It looks very dated, but that’s the charm of the show. Watching it now I appreciate it for so many different things that I never picked up before. It’s been a fun journey.
You mentioned this when you guys did the “Dancing to the Max” podcast episode, but that was not shot as the pilot, though it aired as the pilot. How does watching things out of the production order affect what you’re doing?
We’ll make a note of it when it airs. I remember that night that we shot the original pilot — in the first season, it’s Episode 15. I remember the anxiety; I remember having my first scene in my bedroom talking to the audience. That was a big moment for me.
There are also moments in “Saved by the Bell” that were teachable moments then, like the “No Hope With Dope” episode, and moments that seem teachable now, with hindsight.
We had a disclaimer at the start of “The Lisa Card” episode that this is supposed to be a celebration of the show. If we wanted something different, Dashiell’s already done it with “Zack Morris is Trash,” which, again, is a brilliant take. But that’s not our take: Our take is to have fun with the show and point out things that maybe some of the fans have missed and sometimes we get lucky by jogging my memory of certain things. It’s hard to look past certain things because they don’t vibe with today, and I’m sure we’ll do more episodes where we have to do more disclaimers at the top of the show.
How does hindsight affect what you’re doing on “Mixed-ish,” which is set in the ’80s?
I think we’re very careful on “Mixed-ish.” Only two of our characters are ever allowed to be inappropriate, and that would be the Gary Cole and Christina Anthony characters. They walk that fine line. My character, as well as Tika’s [Sumpter] character are a little more woke for the ’80s. On the show there have been moments where you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” Like, Ted Danson did blackface. You’re just like, “Wow, that wasn’t that long ago, this is nuts.” There’s still inequality everywhere, but the fact that it was so apparent in certain situation in the ’80s, we’re learning lessons through comedy, which I think is the best way to digest a lesson.
How does revisiting some of the messes Zack made as a kid inform how you want to play him now as an adult?
I don’t need to go back. I think that Tracey [Wigfield, showrunner] and the writers have done a very good job of staying true to the characters that we portrayed in the past while also moving them into the future and also coming up with a guideline or a blueprint that still works. I feel like the character that I’m playing is not the same Zack Morris but a heightened version of him. I think what you can see from the trailer [is] that the characters are larger than life; they’re a little more animated than we were back in the ’80s and ’90s. And I think it’s a fun version.
In more recent years, comments have been made that Zack and Kelly are probably divorced. Is that canon for the new show?
I probably shouldn’t answer that because I don’t want to get in trouble. I got in trouble for posting a photo on Instagram. I’m not very active on social, but I posted a shot of me with my wig on at the prep for the show. And NBC asked me to take it down. They’re very protective of the product.
How does revisiting Zack and “Saved by the Bell” influence your interest in wanting to revisit some of your other characters now?
If there was one character that I wish I could have retired on, it would have been Mike Lawson [from “Pitch”]. I think all of us would jump at the chance, but I don’t know that there is a platform for us to do that on, and all of us are on different things and I don’t know how the logistics would work. But whenever things come up like that Hulu video that we did, we all get very, very excited — and then it goes nowhere. I think if there was another show that I think a podcast could work [for] it would be “Franklin and Bash.” Breckin and I reliving that show would be fun, but some of the other shows, it would hurt too much.
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