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How 'Saved by the Bell' defied the odds to conquer Saturday mornings

It seems funny to think about now, but the question of whether the show could survive in a strange time slot loomed large.
/ Source: TODAY

All week long, TODAY is marking the 30th anniversary of the summer of 1989 with a look back at some of the notable (and not-so-notable) people, milestones and moments from that wild and crazy time.

There was no way to know it at the time, but the face of pop culture would undergo a seismic shift on Aug. 20, 1989, when a retooled show called “Saved by the Bell” was beamed into our living rooms for the first time.

Thirty years later, the adventures of Bayside High students Zack, Slater, Screech, Kelly, Jessie and Lisa continue to hold a special place in the hearts of viewers, even as they’ve grown into adulthood and left behind a world where getting a zit before the big dance is the most crushing thing that can befall someone. But in 1989, the show’s future was as dubious as one of Zack’s schemes because the concept of a live-action series airing on Saturday mornings, a time period dedicated to cartoons, was new.

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The kids of "Saved by the Bell" may have been the biggest reason the show enjoyed such success.NBC via Getty Images

“The idea of making shows for Saturday mornings, and for kids instead of adults, felt like someone was sending me to work in the basement, or Siberia,” series creator Peter Engel wrote in his 2016 memoir, “I Was Saved by the Bell.”

Born out of the failed Disney Channel show “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” at the urging of then-NBC President Brandon Tartikoff, “Saved by the Bell” featured “Miss Bliss” holdovers Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Lark Voorhies, Dustin Diamond and Dennis Haskins, while Engel cast Mario Lopez, Elizabeth Berkley and Tiffani Thiessen (then known as Tiffani-Amber Thiessen). Ed Alonzo, who played Max, owner of the popular hangout The Max, rounded out the cast for the first season.

“I never gave much thought to if the show would succeed or not,” Alonzo told TODAY. “We just went in day to day and tried to have fun.”

Ironically, the series would debut on a Sunday night, following a rerun of “Family Ties.” Kids were bused in for the first taping and it was there that Engel first got the sense there was something special about the program.

“They went berserk,” Engel told TODAY about the kids in the audience. “The first episode was crazy. It was nuts. It was like a Beatles concert.”

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Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Dustin Diamond and Mario Lopez kept fans in stitches as the trio of boy stars on "Saved by the Bell."NBC via Getty Images

The ratings matched the fervor of the studio audience. “You’re a success. You beat ‘Family Ties,’” Engel recalled Tartikoff telling him in a 7 a.m. phone call the next day.

The first episode that aired featured guest star Casey Kasem emceeing a dance contest. How did a show with no bankable stars slated to air on Saturday mornings wind up with a commodity like Kasem, who was known for his radio work?

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The romance between Zack and Kelly was one of the most enduring storylines from "Saved by the Bell."NBC via Getty Images

“I had an idea to do a dance show and Casey was a friend of my No. 1 writer, Tom Tenowich,” Engel said.

It wasn’t a typical pilot and aired because the show had a glaring question: Who would watch? The Kasem episode helped address the concerns.

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Casey Kasem guest-starred on the first episode of "Saved by the Bell," helping to give the show a little star power in a time before the cast was known.NBC

“We didn’t know who our audience was. I think that one was the best to showcase,” Engel said.

While there had been concern whether “Saved by the Bell” could thrive, it turned out the formula was right on target, blowing away the show’s stars, who were surprised by just how quickly it caught on.

“I, along with my other cast mates, were shocked at the response,” Alonzo said. “This was a first for Saturday morning TV. The live action instead of animation seemed to be a hit. And a good-looking, talented cast of kids helped a lot. We would leave the studio after a Friday night taping with tons of fans wanting a get closer look. I thought this was amazing.”

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"Saved by the Bell" creator Peter Engel at a cast reading with Mario Lopez, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen and Lark Voorhies.NBC via Getty Images

Alonzo’s character exited the show once it became clear who was watching. “It became apparent that we were appealing to the teens,” Engel said. “We didn’t need that type.”

Alonzo only has great memories of his time as Max, though. “I never had any reservations of not being part of the show,” he said. “This was a chance of a lifetime for an actor/magician.”

While the fan response was robust right off the bat, critics weren’t exactly smitten with what they saw.

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Tiffani Thiessen's acting was ridiculed by critics after the first episode, but fans loved her and co-stars Lark Voorhies and Elizabeth Berkley.NBC via Getty Images

“The reviews were absolutely devastating,” Engel said about the first episode. “The L.A. Times even made fun of Tiffani-Amber Thiessen’s name.”

Shakespeare, “Saved by the Bell” was not, but that was OK because it was never more than what it purported to be — silly and fun. It may have touched on serious subject matter from time to time — the famous episode where Jesse gets hooked on caffeine pills comes to mind — but the show hit the sweet spot for teenagers, focusing on relatable fare, like dating, exams and zits. It became appointment television for kids waking up on Saturdays after a long week of school.

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The cast from a 1989 episode.NBC via Getty Images

Heck, even the characters’ names were perfect. “Every one of the names came from people I knew,” Engel said — and that includes Screech, too. “A producer named Screech Wilson tried to get a job. He didn’t get the job, but I told him I’m stealing the name,” Engel said. Mr. Belding? “A cranky editor from Universal.”

Fans can cite lots of reasons for the success of the show, which ran for only 86 episodes over four seasons (there was also a “Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style” movie during this time), but Engel lays the credit squarely at the feet of the cast. “These kids never missed in front of an audience,” he said. “They were a unique group. It was all them.”

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Engel eventually would take the comedy into primetime — sort of. “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” lasted one season on NBC. When Zack and the gang left Bayside for prime time, the network powered on Saturday mornings with “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” which featured various casts for seven seasons, but never resonated with viewers the way the original series did.

The show’s choke hold on the zeitgeist has not loosened with time, either. There have been pop-up versions of The Max around the country. Engel says there’s a Broadway musical based on the show in the works. Jimmy Fallon staged a reunion that went viral a few years ago. Multiple cast members got together for dinner earlier this year and Lopez posted a picture of himself and Gosselaar re-creating a photo from 1989 — both instances incited a social media frenzy, further illustrating the undying bond this little Saturday morning program still has with its fans.

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The cast from the first season of "Saved by the Bell."NBC via Getty Images

Three decades have come and gone since we met Zack and the gang, and there’s now something comforting about “Saved by the Bell.” Viewers are taken back to a simpler time and it’s not a stretch to say the hokey quality of the show that hooked so many people is to that generation of viewers what “The Brady Bunch” was to the one that preceded it.

For many fans, the show offers a return to youth and a chance to reconnect to those many Saturdays (and weekday afternoons once it hit syndication) spent lounging on the couch, watching Zack and Slater fight over Kelly, Screech pine for Lisa, and Jessie champion social causes, all under the watchful eye of Mr. Belding.

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Zack cooking up one of his scams with trusty sidekick Screech.NBC via Getty Images

In 1989, though, that was all ahead of us and, as time has shown, “Saved by the Bell” proved to be Engel’s lasting legacy.

“I’m really proud of the kids,” he said. “They were an outstanding group. I never had a day of aggravation.”

Alonzo also still marvels at how the show took off.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted its success,” he said.

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Ed Alonzo, who played Max, with Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Alonzo, who remained with the show for one season, called it the "chance of a lifetime."The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Audiences tuned in that sleepy August night when “Saved by the Bell” first entered our lives and for Engel there’s irony in the fact that something he reluctantly took on turned into a pop culture phenomenon that still lives on three decades later.

“I didn’t want to do a Saturday morning show. It turned out to be the best experience of my life,” he said.