Before working with talent manager Barry Katz on the NBC comedian contest showcase Last Comic Standing, producer Peter Engel already had cemented his producing legacy with the Saturday morning hit of the early 1990s, Saved by the Bell.
On Katz’s new podcast, Industry Standard, Engel sat down with Katz to reminisce for an hour and a half, in which the duo touched on their work together executive-producing Last Comic Standing, celebrity impersonator talent contest The Next Best Thing, and Engel’s career before and leading through Saved by the Bell.
Casting Saved by the Bell, Engel said:
- He didn’t realize that Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack) had dyed his hair blonde before the audition for a previous role.
- He certainly didn’t realize that Dustin Diamond was a couple of years younger than the rest of the cast, until after casting him as Screech. “He’s only 11?! I’d never have hired him.”
- “We couldn’t find Slater” initially, he said, until broadening the role’s ethnicity, and never played up Mario Lopez’s heritage. “Slater was supposed to be Vinny Barbarini (sic) with a leather jacket, from Welcome Back, Kotter. Italian kid, who was a street kid, who was an Army brat.”
- Similarly, Lark Voorhies proved she was a different Lisa Turtle than he originally imagined the role. “Lisa Turtle was supposed to be a Jewish princess from Great Neck, Long Island, who I knew who moved out to California.” “They said, Lisa Turtle’s not black,” Engel recalled after asking Voorhies to read for it. “Well, she is now!”
- “No one wanted Tiffani (Thiessen) but Brandon (Tartikoff) and I,” he said. “People don’t remember, but Elizabeth Berkley and her were up for the same part.” He said that added some drama onstage and off. When casting people fought him over Thiessen, he recalled telling them: “I said I know. She can’t walk, she can’t talk, she can’t chew gum at the same time. But she’s going to be a major star.”
Engel said NBC initially ordered only seven episodes of the series, and he worried it’d die quickly bunched with a smattering of other Saturday-morning programming the network had acquired from overseas. So he lay down on the floor of Tartikoff’s office until he granted him 13 additional episodes or called security to drag Engel out. “In retrospect, if I hadn’t done that, we’d be seven episodes and out,” Engel said now.
Also, 25 years ago, Kevin Reilly was the young NBC executive assigned to Saved. Engel joked about giving Reilly notes on his notes, and added: “We named Screech’s robot after him, Kevin the Robot…And I still have the same trouble with him today, and he’s the chairman of FOX.”
Engel also told stories about growing up in the same New York City apartment building on the Upper West Side, a floor away from the young Bernie Brillstein; of talking his way into the exclusive NBC page program while in college; and of meeting and campaigning for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
Engel and Katz touched on Last Comic Standing, too, albeit briefly.
The duo executive-produced that stand-up comedian talent competition for seven seasons from 2003 to 2010 on NBC.
Katz recalled discovering Josh Blue before the fourth season and knowing Blue would win before they even began production. Katz joked that NBC kept hoping to fire him from the series but never getting around to it. In a pre-production meeting for the fourth season, he said:
“I took the disc, and I slid it across the table, and I remember it turning around and around, and it stopped in the middle. And I said, that’s going to be the guy who wins the show this year. Everybody looked at me and said, ‘What, are you going to fix it again, Barry, so it’s one of your clients?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not one of my clients. It’s a kid from Denver, and it happened to be Josh Blue.”
Katz said NBC made him sign a 66-page contract that prevented him from taking advantage of his executive producer role on the series.
Industry Standard with Barry Katz, episode four with Peter Engel, debuted today.