Saved by the Bell‘s most unforgettable episode almost didn’t make it to air.
One needs to only say the three words to bring up the episode in question: “I’m so excited.”
The moment appeared in a season 2 episode called “Jessie’s Song,” which followed Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) descending into caffeine pill addiction while trying to balance school and her new singing group, Hot Sundae. Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) confronts Jessie about her habit, prompting her to try and manically sing the Pointer Sisters’ hit before admitting through sobs: “I’m so … scared!”
It was a scene that’s since reached cult status — repeated and recited by millions of teens across the country for decades to come (and even recreated by Berkley during her Dancing with the Stars run). But according to the popular NBC Saturday morning show’s executive producer Peter Engel, the storyline was originally conceived as something far more troubling.
In an of excerpt of I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True that first published by Vulture, Engel explains he and writer Tom Tenowich originally intended Jessie to get hooked on speed.
“Standards and Practices, the censorial department of NBC, vetoed it, saying speed was too serious for Saturday mornings,” Engel wrote, of the change.
Engel said he tried to fight it — insisting “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.” So instead, someone suggested caffeine pills.
Standards and Practices gave the switch the green light. Though the substance was switch, the episode itself didn’t change much at all.
“We compromised,” admitted Engel. “We kept the episode virtually the same, but swapped out the speed. I wasn’t pleased about it — after all, the average caffeine pill was the equivalent of a cup of coffee, if that, so 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.”
He revealed that while Berkley’s performance in the scene makes her appear like she was “more like a heroin addict than someone on NoDoz,” the seriousness of the scene had an impact on everyone.
“Even though we can laugh now about how silly the caffeine pills were, there’s a reason that so many young adults make a point of telling me that ‘Jessie’s Song’ was, hands down, their favorite episode,” Engel said. “No one was making programming for kids like that at the time. It made an impact. It helped them grow up. And I’m still, to this day, proud to have my name on that episode.”
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Engel added that Berkley and Gosselaar were so in the moment during the taping of that scene, that 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,” he said.
“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 ‘Jessies’ 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,” he continued.