For anyone who grew up watching Saturday morning television in the late ’80s/early ’90s, there’s one Very Special Episode that no doubt stuck in our minds as both a learning lesson and a source of unending mockery: Saved By the Bell, season two, episode 9: “Jessie’s Song.” If that doesn’t ring a bell, this will:
Yeah, “Jessie’s Song” was the episode of TV that taught kids everywhere to never be so obsessed with grades that you get addicted to caffeine pills. Were so many youths hitting the C that they really needed this sort of fictionalized scaring straight? If you were in elementary school at the time, you might have believed so. If you were older (or, when those of us who were that young at the time then got older), you probably realized, no. Of course not. This scene, and the whole episode centered around an addiction to a drug that equaled about a pot of coffee per bottle, was ridiculous.
But thanks to Saved By the Bell’s executive producer Peter Engel and his new fantastically titled book, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True, we now know that not only is he aware of the long-standing mockery, but there’s a bigger story behind the episode.
Today, when I meet fans of the show, “Jessie’s Song” is almost always the episode that comes up first. It made a big impression on them. But it’s sometimes laughed about now, as a lot of people look back and say, wait a minute, caffeine pills? Really? And to be sure, when you watch the scene where Zack discovers Jessie’s “addiction” and intervenes, a lot of people today will say, as Dustin Diamond did years later, that Jesse was acting more like a heroin addict than someone on NoDoz.
But what Engel reveals is that in the original script, the drug that had Jessie Spano so excited (and scared) wasn’t caffeine, but speed.
But Standards and Practices, the censorial department of NBC, vetoed it, saying speed was too serious for Saturday mornings. I insisted that we needed to start dealing with more important issues than we had in the past, and that speed was a vehicle not only for exploring drug use but also the pressure that kids put on themselves to achieve. But Standards and Practices wasn’t budging.
Engel can’t remember who came up with the NoDoz substitution, but Standards & Practices went with it. Engel wasn’t crazy about the idea. As he put it, “we might as well have had Jessie get addicted to earl grey, or breaking into the Max to snort coffee grounds. But hey, we had to start somewhere.”
Still, the scene everyone remembers, with Zack comforting the over-excited Jessie, was what sold the episode, whether she was was on speed or coffee. Jessie was supposed to be on her way to sing for a record label, but also needs to get into Stanford, lock Slater down, be generally perfect, and all it takes is another pill. Zack knocks the bottle out of her hand, they struggle, and she sings the ever-quotable GIF above.
This would have been perfect if the bottle had actually contained speed. Nevertheless, during the taping, the live audience was absorbed like never before. Kids were sitting on the edges of their seats. Many of them were tearing up. The atmosphere was very emotional, intense. We did the scene a few times, and everyone in the control room said we’d gotten what we needed, but I insisted we do another take, during which the kids really turned up the emotion. In this last take especially, Elizabeth let the moment, and the atmosphere on stage, overtake her. Mark-Paul, who was almost crying in real life, kept adding “Jessie” to the script, saying, “Jessie, listen to me,” or “Jessie, it’s okay,” so that there were, in some takes, nearly fifteen “Jessie”s in a two-minute scene. We didn’t write all those Jessies, but Mark-Paul was in the moment, really soaring, so we weren’t going to bother him.
Finally, some vindication for those of us who were under ten (or whatever age allowed you to be affected) when this episode aired and we found ourselves moved to pledge a life free of NoDoz. Because it doesn’t matter what your vice is; if teenagers put enough passion and “Jessies” behind their onscreen tears, it’ll scare youths straight.