You watched Saved by the Bell. I watched Saved by the Bell. Everyone of a certain age in America watched Saved by the Bell. If you’re between the ages of 27 and 42, it was impossible for you not to watch it.

“I call it the Bell generation,” says Peter Engel, the executive producer of the show for its entire run, in all its various forms. (When I tell Engel that I’m 39, he says that I’m “right in that wheelhouse.”)

But as familiar as you might think you are with the Bayside High gang, there are still some facts about the show that would surprise you. Here are 14 juicy tidbits we gathered from a lengthy conversation with Engel—who, by the way, is the author of the newish book, I Was Saved by the Bell: Stories of Life, Love, and Dreams That Do Come True. Enjoy.

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The Show Was Conceived in Three Weeks
“I was under contract at NBC,” recalls Engel, “and (NBC president) Brandon Tartikoff wanted me to do a Saturday morning show. With all my wisdom and experience, I told him to get someone else. That night my wife told me I was making a mistake. I said you’re right. So I went back and I told Brandon I’d have a show in three weeks. I didn’t have the whole thing written in three weeks, but I had the pieces and enough to get a go-ahead to continue.”

Saved by the Bell Was Not the Original Title
“We did a pilot called Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” says Engel. “It was based on Brandon Tartikoff’s sixth grade teacher, who had a great impact on him. We borrowed Hayley Mills from Disney to play the teacher. We did 13 episodes. It was OK. But it really missed. It wasn’t an adult show. It wasn’t a kids show. So we took four of the characters, Zack, Screech, Lisa Turtle and Mr. Belding, and added three other characters. We moved it from Indianapolis to California, and we made it into Saved by the Bell.”

The Pilot Had Other Future TV Stars
“Actually, the actor who went on to play Urkel (Jaleel White) and Brian Austin Green were in that original Good Morning, Miss Bliss pilot.”

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NBC’s Research Department Predicted Failure for the Show
“One day I came to Brandon Tartikoff’s office,” says Engel. “And he was screaming at someone on the phone, saying, ‘If I had listened to you, I wouldn’t have put on Family Ties, Cheers or Law & Order!’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘Research is predicting doom for Saved by the Bell.’”

Mark-Paul Gosselaar Was Nothing Like Zack Morris
“Without Zack, there was no show,” says Engel. “And before the show began airing, I kept calling our casting director every morning and every night, saying, ‘No Zack, no show.’ And Mark-Paul Gosselaar came in and he had that sparkle in his eye. And I said, ‘If this kid speaks English, he’s got the part.’ And of course he was such a good actor. Everyone thought he was Zack in real life. He wasn’t. He was the opposite of Zack in real life. He was a very quiet, very serious-minded young actor.”

Dustin Diamond Was Exactly Like Screech
“One day Mark-Paul said to me, ‘Screech is in the waiting room,’ ” says Engel. “And I said, ‘Yes, we’re having the Screeches back in today for callbacks.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand, the real Screech is in the waiting room. He’s Screech in real life.’ And that was Dustin Diamond. Who was only 11. I misread his birthday on his headshot. When I found out during the second episode that he was only 11, I said, ‘I never would have hired him!’ Which would have been a tragedy because he kept me laughing for 11 years.”

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A.C. Slater Was Supposed to Be Italian
“Slater was supposed to be like a John Travolta character. Saturday Night Fever, street kid, Army brat, Italian. And I didn’t like the people we were seeing. I called the casting director and said, ‘Where is it written that Slater has to be Anglo?’ She said, ‘You wrote it.’ I said, ‘Well, change it! Let’s open it up.’ Next day she called me: ‘I found Slater.’”

Lisa Turtle Was Supposed to Be White
“Lisa Turtle was supposed to be a Jewish American Princess from Long Island. Mall queen moves to California. They had brought Lark Voorhies in just to see me on a meet-and-greet—for down the line, maybe a guest part. We only had one script. I said, ‘Have her read.’ They said, ‘Have her read what?’ I said, ‘Have her read Lisa Turtle.’ And they said, ‘But she’s not black.’ I said, ‘She is now!’ And so you never know. But they were magic. Each one of the child actors had a great personality in his or her own right.”

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They All Dated Each Other (Well, Almost)
“Everyone dated everyone,” says Engel. “Except Screech. Because he was so much younger. But luckily nobody dated anyone while they were dating them in the show. Like if Zack and Kelly were together on the show, they weren’t dating in real life. But they were teenagers, what do you expect? They had their first kiss, first prom, first blush, first crush, first everything on that show!”

Only Once Did the Romances Get Out of Hand
“There were cliques because of who was dating who and who had been rude to someone,” says Engel. “One night we had a heart-to-heart that went on for hours! I said, ‘The beauty of the show is that you care about each other off-screen. And if you start to not, you’re going to see it on the screen.’ And everyone was so committed to the show that we never had a problem after that. They cared about the show so much.”

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The Show Tapped into an Underserved Market
“In those days,” says Engel, “no one ever measured 12 to 17, the teen and tween market. But in the first six weeks we realized we had more teenage girls on Saturday morning watching Saved by the Bell than the number-one show in primetime, The Cosby Show. And once we knew that, we went right after them—to the malls, the teen magazines, Top 40 radio, you name it.”

It Blew Up Internationally
“We knew we had something really special about three months in,” says Engel. “When we started to get foreign sales. Because no comedy had ever gone to more than six countries. Action shows went all over the world, but comedy is very specific to each culture. Usually comedy shows went to Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and that was it. We were in 85 countries because every kid went to school. And they all wanted to see how a California kid lived.”

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The Jessie Spano Caffeine Pills Episode Was Originally About Speed
“That episode was not supposed to be about the pills,” says Engel. “It was about the pressure she put on herself. To achieve the SATs and get into Stanford. And we wrote it as if she was on speed. But the network, which never interfered with us, said no way. So we said, how about caffeine pills? They said alright. So we wrote it as though she was on speed. But all we did was substitute the name ‘caffeine pills.’ And it turned out to be probably the most well thought-of episode. It had a tremendous impact on viewers.”

There’s a Broadway Musical in the Works
“I am working on a Broadway musical version of the show,” says Engel. “Hopefully that happens. I just finished writing it and now we’re bringing the music guy in. We’ll see what happens!”

To read more about Saved by the Bell, you can check out Engel’s book here. (That’s him with Gosselaar below.)

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