Time out. It’s not like Elizabeth Berkley didn’t enjoy filming the Saved by the Bell episode in which Screech secretly records a slumber party to find out Kelly’s true feelings about Zack. And she was fine with all the girls crushing on a cute substitute teacher at Bayside High School. But then she read the script for an episode titled “Jessie’s Song.” She knew instantly this one would be different. And she became very, very ... excited.
“We were going to explore something different on a Saturday morning show and we were going to go deep,” she recalls. “As a young actress, I was finally going to have something juicy. All the others felt the same way. Like, oh wow, we were going to really act this week. It’s not just who’s going to ask who to the dance.”
What she didn’t realize was that “Jessie’s Song”—in which her character, overachiever Jessie Spano, develops an addiction to caffeine pills to keep pace with her hectic schedule—would not only be the series’ signature episode, it would remain seeped into our collective pop-culture consciousness a full 30 years later. And just to be clear, this is not some you-had-to-be-there touchstone in Gen X history. Even if you never watched a single installment of Saved by the Bell when it aired Saturday mornings on NBC from 1989 to 1992, you know the moment. You know that Jessie ends up melting down in her bedroom in front of her friend Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and yelping a mangled lyric from the chorus of a Pointer Sisters smash. Do I even have to say it? Aren’t you picturing “I’m so exciiiited, I’m so exciiiited, I’m so (gulp) scared!” right now?!
But the popularity of “Jessie’s Song” expands far beyond the concept of a harmless teen comedy pulling a Very Special Episode. In a ridiculously jam-packed span of 22 minutes, Zack persuades Jessie and her friends Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) and Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) to form a singing girl group; Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond) dresses in drag to record the girls singing in the locker room to covertly use as a makeshift demo; said group, now named Hot Sundae, films a low-rent music video to impress a record producer friend of Zack’s dad; A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) helps Jessie study for a geometry test and implores her to stop taking the pills; Zack and Slater fight over whether Jessie has a problem; and Jessie breaks down then finally admits that she does have a problem. “The night we shot it, I knew it would hit a nerve,” says Peter Engel, the 84-year-old TV executive who developed Saved by the Bell and cowrote the episode. “The response from the actors and the audience was unbelievable.”
Though Jessie’s dependency issues were presumably resolved by the next episode—“we had nowhere to go with it and we wanted to get back to the comedy,” Engel says—the legend lives on. In the form of GIFs and kitschy T-shirts and musicals, for starters. When a teaser for the brand-new Saved by the Bell series on Peacock was unveiled in August, viewers saw a middle-aged Jessie, now a Bayside guidance counselor, slap a bottle of caffeine pills out of a student’s hand and warn them of its dangerous effects. “I feel like we mentioned caffeine pills like maybe a dozen times throughout the first episode,” says writer and co-executive producer Tracey Wigfield of the series, which premieres November 25. “We wrote it for people who grew up watching the show who are more mature now and wanted something edgier. I wanted to poke fun at it a little.”
And just to bring it all home to 2020, the three-decades-old episode even applied to Election Day. “I don’t know if you saw my recent Instagram post, but it’s perfect for us,” Berkley mentions about 30 seconds into our phone call. “It’s a clip from the very thing we’re about to talk about because we’re all Jessie Spano on Election Day and so excited yet so scared.” The 10-second video has been viewed almost 100,000 times.
In an alternate TV universe, Berkley could have been pouring out her heart to Brian Austin Green. The future David Silver was cast as the lead student in Engel’s Saved by the Bell origin series, a treacly NBC sitcom pilot titled Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Former Disney child star Hayley Mills was top-billed in the title role, playing a put-upon junior high teacher in suburban Indiana. After airing in the Facts of Life time slot in July 1987, the series got bumped to the then-fledgling Disney Channel. Mills stayed in; the rest of the young actors (which also included Jaleel White and Jonathan Brandis) were replaced by new characters, portrayed by Gosselaar, Diamond, and Voorhies. Good Morning, Miss Bliss aired 13 episodes from 1988 to 1989 and was promptly canceled.
Except! NBC Entertainment chairman Brandon Tartikoff liked the concept of an easy-breezy teen series. He suggested that Engel move the students west to the sunnier Pacific Palisades and center the comedy around the perpetually scheming yet charming Zack. The show, newly rechristened Saved by the Bell, would air on kid-friendly Saturday mornings, breaking up the wall-to-wall cartoons of The Karate Kid, The Smurfs, Alf Tales, and Alvin & the Chipmunks. Three new students were added to the mix: the smooth-talking jock, the peppy cheerleader, and the type-A brainiac/budding feminist.
Berkley, an unknown Midwesterner who had appeared on episodes of Gimme a Break! and Silver Spoons, and Thiessen, a former Junior Miss America and Teen magazine contest winner with no professional acting experience, both vied for the role of Kelly. (Thiessen’s future Beverly Hills, 90210 costar, Jennie Garth, was also in early contention.) And while Thiessen nabbed it, “Brandon Tartikoff was the one who really wanted me on the show and pushed for me,” Berkley says. “So they gave me Jessie.”
Seven episodes were green-lit into production, with story lines befitting a squeaky-clean sitcom. Worst-case scenario, Kelly must deal with a zit on her pretty apple-shaped face after she’s named homecoming queen. Whatever. Hundreds of enthused students that were bused in from their local schools to the NBC lot in Burbank reacted at high decibel levels to what they were watching live. Engel, a TV producer since the early 1970s with two kids at home, sensed he had struck gold. “We weren’t even on the air yet but I knew this was magic,” Engel booms in his rat-a-tat New York City–born-and-raised baritone. “We had teens playing teens. There was nothing on the air like this. So I went to Brandon and said, ‘If you don’t give me 13 more episodes, I will lie down in your office right now and you’ll have to call security because this show is a can’t-miss.’ So I lied down! And he gave me the 13 episodes!” The series premiered August 20, 1989.
Engel is fuzzy on the workshopping process behind the second-season “Jessie’s Song”—but, in his defense, he spent only a day and a half cowriting the episode. “This was really a story about peer pressure,” he says. “She goes to extremes.”
The executive admits that he fell into drugs in the 1970s because he felt overworked and overwhelmed, which served as inspiration for the episode. The suits at the network felt differently. NBC manager of creative affairs Kevin Reilly called him into a meeting and put the kibosh on letting a teen character on a G-rated show get hooked on a narcotic. Engel pushed back. His cowriter Tom Tenowich hastily suggested an alternative. “I didn’t even know what caffeine pills were!” Engel says. “I just wanted to get out of the meeting.”
His staff was skeptical of the change. “I remember that we were sort of like, ‘Well, is this now still a problem if it’s caffeine pills because you can buy those at Rite Aid?’” recalls Franco Bario, the show’s producer who’s also an executive producer on Saved by the Bell 2.0. But ultimately that wasn’t the point. It didn’t matter whether she became addicted to illegal drugs, Bario says. Jessie had a problem with something that was altering her behavior. Other than substituting the words “caffeine pills” for “speed,” the shooting script remained intact.
If the episode didn’t reek of 1990 based on the baggy Z Cavaricci pants and moussed-up hair, the dialogue references to New Kids on the Block and Sinead O’Connor sealed it. But an iconic Pointer Sisters hit originally released in 1982 truly made it sing. The actresses performed snippets of “I’m So Excited!” three times in the episode, not including Jessie’s a cappella bedroom version. “We just liked the song!” Engel explains. “We thought it would be cool if they sang the Pointer Sisters.”
All these years later, Ruth Pointer laughs heartily when asked about the link between her saucy top-10 pop hit—which she cowrote with her sisters, Anita and June, along with Trevor Lawrence—and an earnest installment of a high-school-set sitcom. Still, she appreciated what “Jessie’s Song” was trying to accomplish, which is why she signed off on the usage. “In 1990, I was a recovering alcoholic and addict myself,” she explains. “There was a stigma to addiction and illness and people who were dealing with it were put out to pasture. There just was not a lot of attention at the time being given to it. So I thought it was a nice stretch that this television series wanted to deal with it.”
And though the name of the song came to fruition after Lawrence asked the sisters what a woman would say when she’s getting ready to go out on the town on a Saturday night, Pointer has her own ’90s interpretation. “You can take the title in the context that I’m so excited I’m getting help,” she says. “And at that time, I was. It was a hard time but an exciting time to be sober. Wonderful, really.”
Berkley, who never did see an iteration of the “Jessie’s doing speed!” script, required extra prep for the episode. Because Hot Sundae was purported to be MTV-ready, she, Thiessen, and Voorhies were tasked with making a music video to an original pop ditty titled “Go for It!” It required dancing and lip-syncing to a prerecorded track with their own vocals. Concept: The girls break a sweat inside a gym because, um, to quote a lyric, “a little work never hurt no one.” Berkley asked her personal dance teacher Michael Rooney to do the choreography, which included jumping rope and doing jumping jacks. (Michael, i.e., Mickey Rooney’s son, went on to coordinate the moves in 500 Days of Summer, The Muppets, and a gazillion music videos.) “We used a rebounder, which is now a big workout!” Berkley says. “That number was my dream.”
She changed leotards in the video, then changed emotional gears. Before Berkley and Gosselaar filmed the climactic scene—the “I’m so scared!” tag was in the script verbatim—director Don Barnhart instructed the actress to let her emotions guide her in the moment. “He gave us permission to go there as actors,” she says. “And the thing that we were so excited about, pun intended, was the opportunity to do that.”
Engel insists that the scene was filmed more than 25 times. “I kept saying, ‘Let them do one more,’ but the control room said no,” he recalls. “I knew they could do it. Mark-Paul was almost in tears at that point. Elizabeth was amazing. Then they did it on the 26th take. Everyone in the studio started to break down and cry.” Berkley says she can’t remember the exact number of takes, but she did indeed sob into Gosselaar’s shoulder. “Nobody was, like, blowing menthol into my eyes to get me to cry,” she says. “I mean, the thing that was so clear to me was that she was someone failing in every category and can’t keep treading water. So she just kind of had that flip.”
To that end, Berkley would like to reiterate that she and Gosselaar did not play the scene for laughs despite the relatively low stakes: “I’ve done work where you’re clearly in on the joke, but this was not one of those times. I work with teen girls and I help provide this space for girls to feel safe and heard and know they’re not alone.. It’s very easy to get in a heightened state where everything seems like life or death. For Jessie to not rise to an occasion meant having a breakdown. She’s a character who just put a lot of pressure on herself.”
Bario says that the emotion was so palpable while shooting that he still tears up thinking about it. “I know what it took for Elizabeth and Mark-Paul to do that scene,” he says. “It was pretty outside a normal scene for Saved by the Bell and I know they were close friends so it was heart-wrenching to see them dip into their personal feelings for each other in that moment.”
Bario, by the way, pulled double-duty in that episode. He also played the shaggy-haired record producer sitting silently with his arms folded at the Max cafe to watch the ill-fated Hot Sundae audition. Screech wound up filling in for Jessie.
“Jessie’s Song” aired on NBC on November 3, 1990. Decades before social media, nobody reacted on Twitter using hashtags like #Jessiebreakdown and #soexcitedsoscared. But for impressionable viewers used to watching screwball hijinks, it quickly became obvious the episode was a fascinating outlier. Wigfield remembers watching the scene as a 7-year-old in Wayne, New Jersey, and wondering why Jessie was acting so hyped-up. “Even as a child, I knew that shit was getting real,” she recalls, now an Emmy-winner for her writing work on 30 Rock. “And Elizabeth’s performance was so great and so different than anything else I’d see on the show.”
The episode lived on in memory banks and VCR tapes until 1992, when Engel sold the show into syndication for more than $10 million. No matter that only 40 episodes were in the cannon. All of a sudden, Saved by the Bell was airing multiple times a day in the afternoons five days a week on far-reaching cable networks like TBS and WGN—right when students were getting home from school. Fresh installments were pumped out on Saturday mornings as well. The show, which had a minuscule budget, went on location to Hawaii for a 1992 TV movie. NBC promoted the final graduation episode to prime time and put Saved by the Bell: The College Years on its fall schedule, along with the Cheers spinoff Frasier. It lasted 19 episodes before becoming part of the syndication package.
“Because of syndication, the show exploded,” Bario says. “The kids were already doing mall tours, but then they became part of their fans’ daily lives.” Reruns have been in mass circulation ever since, airing in 85 countries from Iceland to Greenland. All episodes are available on NBC’s Peacock streaming service, while IFC, the (ahem) Independent Film Channel, as well as Sundance TV continue to carry it on weekends. At this point, a third-tier fan has vague knowledge of Zack Attack and poor Becky the Duck just through sheer osmosis. Engel and Co. tackled drug use again in 1991 when the gang discovered that a movie star filming an anti-drug PSA at Bayside was a secret pothead. (The episode’s title and catchphrase: “There’s No Hope With Dope.”) But among the 86 original episodes, “Jessie’s Song” continues to stand out.
Engel, who also produced California Dreams, Hang Time, and the so-so spinoff Saved by the Bell: The New Class for the reprogrammed Saturday A.M. teen block (“TNBC”) in the 1990s, learned this first-hand when he embarked on the college lecture circuit: “Everywhere I went, I’d mention ‘Jessie’s Song’ because it was my daughter’s favorite episode and the place would go berserk,” he says. Berkley started doing professional autograph signings and engaging with her fans over social media, acutely aware that her episode was the one constant.
“It evokes a powerful reaction in people,” she says. “Fans know all sorts of inside bits but it’s become very clear that this is the one that has struck a chord and has had a deep impact. So many people will DM me and come up to me and say, ‘I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so scared.’ I think that fans find joy and comfort in it.” She did a jive to “I’m So Excited”—complete with a bedroom scene re-creation—during her 2013 stint on Dancing With the Stars. And when she, Gosselaar, Thiessen, and Lopez reprised their characters in an iconic sketch with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show in 2015, she belted out her anthem to rapturous audience cheers.
Those four cast members and offscreen friends gamely appear in the new series as well, while Voorhies pops up in a special reunion episode. “We really wanted to have fun and give winks to everyone who’s been so loyal over the years,” says Berkley, also a coproducer with Lopez, Thiessen, and Gosselaar. “We’ve all embraced our Saved by the Bell past. It’s all part of the journey. And the fact that a few generations love it and the episodes have such visibility can only be a positive.” (Diamond, who wrote a salacious memoir in 2009 for which he has apologized, is persona non grata among the OG cast and crew; nobody interviewed for this story mentions his name in conversation.)
So why is “Jessie’s Song” in a class of its own? Is it the impassioned tone? The over-the-top reaction to caffeine pills? The special bond on display between platonic pals Zack and Jessie? The cautionary tale of saying yes to everything? The Hot Sundae factor? Probably all the above. But mostly the caffeine pills thing. “I know that she was supposed to get addicted to something like crack, but I love the fact that they just changed the drug and kept everything else the same,” Wigfield says. “There’s just something really funny about the fact that she’s acting so wild for such an innocuous substance. It’s coffee, basically.”
Engel, for one, has no regrets: “I know we’ve taken a few jabs about it, but I liked that parents trusted us. Young kids were watching us and you don’t want to kill your farm system. So the acceptance of it was so huge that it overcame all my reluctance. At the end of the day, this is a show about people who care about each other.” Seconds Bario, “The show is beloved because it’s charming and there’s a sweetness to it. And in that episode, the reality was that these were friends who were there for each other. As I move around the world, I can see that fans appreciate that.”
And nobody appreciates it more than Pointer. “God bless Saved by the Bell,” she says. “Me and my girlfriends often talk about how certain songs just stand the test of time and make you feel a certain way. This is an example, and I’m so grateful.” Best of all, Pointer receives a special gift every time Jessie sings her song. “Let’s just say,” she says, still laughing, “Cha-ching, cha-ching.”
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.