In those rare, wonderful instances in life, you meet another person with whom you just instantly bond. Your sense of humor, food interests, entertainment fascinations, etc.; are all strikingly similar. Very few people can make me laugh consistently, and when I meet someone who genuinely tickles my funny bone, I try to hang out with them as much as possible to learn their secrets. Such was the case with Dustin Diamond. I was very heartbroken to hear of his cancer diagnosis and eventual passing recently.

Through no insidious means, and by no disparate causes, we hadn’t spoken in the past decade and a half. It wasn’t because of anything dramatic; our lives simply took very divergent paths in the mid-2000s. But during a period of just under 10 years, we enjoyed a bunch of memorable, fun and funny experiences from the late 90s through the first half of the new millennium. Let me tell you about some of them. But be warned, some of these recounts might fall under the category of “you had to be there.”

We first met on the set of “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” in 1997. This “Saturday morning version” was the last gasp of the long-running NBC prime-time sitcom. It shot on Stage 11 on the old NBC lot in Burbank, California (which later would become home to “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” where I worked for almost 5 years). I was cast in a guest starring role as “Daffy Don” Lewis; a wacky radio DJ who comes to the Bayside Mall to emcee a dance contest – where the top prize was tickets to an MTV awards show to rub shoulders with the stars. (My character’s name was based on the director of the show Don Barnhart, who used that pseudonym for a period of time when he was in radio as a young man.)

Though I was most excited to be working with fellow Guest Star Amy Jo Johnson (also known as the first Pink Power Ranger) because my daughter was a huge Power Rangers fan at the time, it was a casual conversation with Dustin during some downtime that offered the first glimmers of a new friendship. And it all started with our common love of classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

At the time there were rumblings about a live-action Scooby-Doo movie in the works. It was Dustin’s dream of someday playing a live-action version of Shaggy; a role he was undeniably perfect for (being the living cartoon that he was). I told him I had several contacts at Hanna-Barbera who could probably help make that possible. During the rest of the week we hung out more and more on the set and found we had many other common interests.

The day they let the audience in for the taping was eye-opening. There were many young, exuberant fans of the show in the studio audience, and they all knew who “Screech” was. As Dustin was walking past the audience to ‘places’ for the next scene some kid yelled out, “Hi Screech!” Without missing a beat Dustin said, “Hi person!” I thought that was really funny.

Over the several times that we hung out, I saw many people recognize him and refer to him by his character name. And in only a few instances did he correct them by saying that his name was Dustin and that “Screech” was simply a character he played on TV. All other times he resolutely accepted his place in TV lore and acknowledged their greeting with a smile and a quick joke.

Another common interest we had was “Star Wars.” This was over the period of time when the prequels were being released. We made a point to go see each of them during the first week of their run at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. In the numerous scenes that required an extra dose of suspension of disbelief (ie: plot holes) we’d question “How could THAT happen?!” Then we’d both write it off with a simple nod of the head and a solve-all explanation… “The Force.” With that explanation, nothing else need be said.

During one of those times in the Chinese Theater, and during an especially quiet scene in the film, Dustin said out loud, “That little kid sitting in front of us just farted.” Everyone in the audience laughed, and it served as a much-needed mood lightener; as the audience was growing in a consensus of disappointment that ‘this movie really isn’t very good.’

Our pre-Star Wars ritual was to drive over to the Hollywood Wendy’s and get lunch, and then hit the movie. As I was thoroughly enjoying my chocolate Frosty (as I am known to do) I muttered, “Mmmmm, Frosty.” Something about the way I said it tickled him, and it became one of our catch phrases. (There were MANY!) Another one was “Coin! Coin! Coin!” – said like the creature in the old Scooby-Doo episode.

As “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” was winding down in the late 90’s, Dustin turned his attention toward lobbying for the role of Shaggy in the upcoming live-action Scooby-Doo film. He had arranged a meeting with Casey Kasem at Casey’s house so he could teach him how to do the Shaggy voice. This was an easy call to make, since Casey’s daughter had always been a huge fan of Dustin’s. I’ll never forget sitting with Casey and Dustin by the pool watching them work on the subtleties of the voice, and discussing the minute details of the character. It was amazing. Plus, Casey was happy to sign my Robin the Boy Wonder and Shaggy animation cels I had just purchased from a friend who dealt in animation art.

I had recently taken Dustin to my friend A.J.’s house to look through the piles of original Scooby-Doo animation cels he had just acquired for resale. We got some fun pictures which included Dustin being literally buried up to his neck in original animation art. But it was time to get serious about creating a presentation that would accentuate Dustin’s stunning physical resemblance to what a live-action Shaggy would look like.

During my time as a DJ at The Wave I became friends with Iraj Paran, one of the legendary artists of Hanna-Barbera. Iraj loved the idea of Dustin as Shaggy, and agreed to help create our presentation for the pitch to Warner Brothers with his fantastic illustrations. The booklet we designed would be completely illustrated, save for the photos of Dustin/Shaggy that would be integrated into the booklet showing Dustin’s Shaggy interacting with a hand-drawn Scooby.

I arranged a photo shoot at a studio in Hollywood. This photographer had recently taken my new headshots and was totally enamored with the concept. I also asked my pal Sergio Lopez to come by with an appropriately-colored wig that he could cut and style on Dustin just before the shoot. We found the perfect green t-shirt and we were good to go! Though Dustin didn’t end up winning the role in the film, his personification of the character was literally the cartoon-come-to-life. He could do the voice, the walk, and of course the physical resemblance was uncanny. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t cast. He was TOO perfect. So much so it was a bit frightening.

I told Dustin about these celebrity autograph shows that I had become fond of attending. The cross-section of celebs you could meet at these shows was astounding. I told him that celebs sat around for two days at the Beverly Garland Hotel in Studio City and signed photos and stuff people brought them for money. He loved the idea, and I arranged to have him included in one of the shows. I sat with Dustin at his table and helped with sales, but the REAL thrill was being seated next to my favorite Bond Girl Britt Ekland! It’s a weekend I’ll never forget!

When my agent friend Fred Westbrook found out that Dustin was amenable to attending autograph shows and public appearances, he got him booked as a special guest at a Vipers hockey game in Detroit. The hockey franchise had special guests attend regularly, and Fred had been successful at booking many celebs there. The money they were paying was terrific and the perks were amazing, so Dustin said he’d do it – if I went with him to help handle things.

We had a limo that took us all around the area to various radio and TV stations for promotional interviews. All the meals were paid for and we had great hotel rooms. When it came time to appear at the match, it was agreed that Dustin would be introduced to the crowd and come out on to the ice at the beginning of the evening. Being a physical comic, Dustin told me that he was going to purposely slip on the ice and do a pratfall. But his fall was so convincing that the entirety of the stadium thought he had legitimately fallen and hurt himself. Unfortunately, Dustin forgot to pay Fred his commission for the appearance, and getting periodic calls from Fred to inquire if Dustin was going to send the check to him soon became a bit of a running gag.

Dustin was a big fan of video games. When I got cast to do the voice and puppeteering of a digital character in a live TV video game show called “Throut and Neck” on the Gameshow Network in 1999, Dustin was fascinated. He never missed the show. Since the show was live live live on TV (with no delay whatsoever) anything we said on the show was broadcast in real time. This real-time format was necessary to facilitate the live-action video game play between players who called in to the show to participate in the action.

By this time Dustin and I had amassed a fair amount of personal catchphrases that made us laugh. Anything from obscure Beavis & Butt-Head quotes, to Scooby-Doo lines, to obscure references that absolutely nobody would get but us. So during certain times in the live gameplay on the show, I made sure that my character would toss out one of our catchphrases just for fun. The comments seemed to most like bizarre non-sequiturs. Absolutely nobody in the TV viewing audience, save for one video game-loving television star in Fullerton, California, would understand why my character Throut said what he said. But the irreverent tone of the show was the perfect format for such tossed-off comments anyway, so nobody minded my hidden ‘personal messages.’ I could almost hear Dustin laughing across that great distance between our Burbank studio and his home in Fullerton. After the show wrapped for the day I’d call him on my way home and quiz him to see if he caught what I said.

We also shared a love of super-heroes. He told me about a concept for a comedic super-hero cartoon he had. I can’t remember the name of the lead character (something like Amazing Man, or something similar) but his sidekick was a nebbish named Irwin. After Amazing Man transformed to his super-hero personality, he would be joined by Irwin as his super-hero sidekick.
But the joke was that when Irwin transformed to his super-hero persona, he disguised himself only by changing his glasses to a pair that was colored differently, and spelling his name Irwyn instead of Irwin…but these differences were enough to keep anyone from guessing his secret identity! Dustin had even created a specific way that Irwin/Irwyn would run, and it was really funny to watch. (I’m laughing now just remembering it!) He seemed to really love when I did a narrator voice that would introduce the show in my best Gary Owens impression – “And now it’s time for the ever continuing adventures of Amazing Man, and his sidekick IRRRRRRRRWWWIN!” (Hey, I warned you at the beginning of this article that some of these remembrances fell under the category of “you HAD to be there!”)

After Andy Kaufman mania had come and gone with the 1999 film “Man on the Moon,” Dustin had done some work with Jerry Lawler in the wrestling ring in Memphis. Like me, Dustin had always been fascinated by the comedy of Andy Kaufman, and getting to work with Jerry Lawler on a faux rivalry was a career highlight. Dustin and I created a concept to take to Mr. Lawler and company that would hearken back to the faux rivalry he had with Andy Kaufman in the early 80’s.

We got together at a friend’s backyard pool with a bunch of extras and sexy girls, and made a video to send to Mr. Lawler to pitch the idea. We called it “The RKO” – which stood for the Randy Kaufman Organization. Our pitch was that I was the illegitimate son of Andy Kaufman who was seeking revenge on Lawler for killing the father I never knew.

The assertion was that the piledriver Lawler gave Kaufman in their famous match of the early 80’s had released certain toxins in Andy’s body, and that had facilitated the onset of his life-ending cancer. As we explained this story on-camera in a manner most dire and threatening to Jerry Lawler, we could barely get through it with a straight face. The video was sent to Lawler’s people through Dustin, but I guess they figured that all the Andy Kaufman angles had been played out at that point.

Dustin always liked to dabble in music, and had recorded a few CDs with his group Salty the Pocketknife. One day he frantically called me for help. His band had paid good money for stage time at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in Hollywood, but his lead singer quit just before the gig. Dustin didn’t want to give up the stage time, so he asked me to sub. There wasn’t enough time for me to learn all of their songs, so we decided to make the moment a very “Kaufman-esque” one.

It was decided that we would all dress as classic Batman TV show characters (years before Gnarls Barkley made cosplay a part of their stage act). I would do the entire set dressed as the Adam West Batman. Dustin, on bass, would be dressed as the Riddler, and T.J. the keyboard player would dress as Robin. The band played their rehearsed set, faithfully recreating all of their group’s instrumentation, save for the lead vocals. I literally improvised the entire set with lyrics that just popped into my head based on the music I heard. And amazingly, we managed to do the entire set with a completely straight face.

The memory from that night that still makes me laugh the hardest are the looks on people’s bewildered faces in the audience. It was a weeknight so the club wasn’t that full, so it was easy to see individual people. One guy, who was standing right at the stage yelled up to us, “You guys suck!” And without breaking character I said in a perfect Adam West intonation, “Thank you!” This never failed to make us laugh as we recalled that strange, wonderful evening.

But the punctuation to the evening was when we were relaxing in the green room upstairs at the legendary Whisky. A few people came up to the room with interest and adulation. “Are you guys going to be playing again soon?” one of them asked. Dustin and I looked at each other with our OWN looks of bewilderment and said, “Ummm…it was just a gag, dude.”

Along the lines of Kaufman-ism, I invited Dustin along with our group of crazies for Halloween party-hopping in a limo – hosted by Tony Clifton. It started with dinner at Miceli’s, and then we proceeded to hit several Halloween parties. He dressed up as a nerd with goofy teeth and a bowl-cut wig. Nobody recognized him at all! But Andy Kaufman would figure into another aspect of our friendship.

I can still recall the day that Dustin called me in a panic to tell me that a former friend of his had stolen one of Dustin’s personal videotapes he made of a…ahem…sexual nature. The former friend released it publicly and Dustin was worried about the negative repercussions. My advice was that it wasn’t a bad thing at all. It made the careers of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashain, so don’t worry about it. At that point Dustin could use the publicity. But he reminded me that my assessment of career enhancement only worked if you were a sexy girl – not a star on a TV show for kids. He had a point.

So I suggested that he let it sail for a while, ride the wave of publicity and see where it went, and then come out and announce that it was all a Kaufman-esque gag; a purposeful subterfuge that was all staged – a joke – in attempt to finally shed the kid-friendly image. That was the line he took with it eventually, claiming that the participant in the video was a professional actor he hired to help create the ruse. Unless that was the real story all the time, and I was the one upon whom he was pulling the prank. Who knows?!

The last time I saw him, shortly before he moved to the Midwest to focus on a stand-up comedy career, was at the “Screamiere” of my 2004 TV pilot “Uncle Davver’s Really Scary Movie Show.” We had several ‘celebrity’ guests at the Screamiere, and like the others, Dustin was shuttled up to the “dead” carpet in front of the legendary Silent Movie Theatre in George Barris’ Munster Koach. Those were good times.

It’s amazing that even though Dustin suffered career ups and downs, through it all he seemed to always maintain his sense of humor. That wonderful, wacky, irreverent sense of humor. When I learned of his cancer diagnosis and subsequent passing, I remembered what he told me about his upbringing; something he hardly ever mentioned. His brother had died young, and so did his mother.

In fact, many of his comedic traits were developed early on in his childhood when his dad had him go into his dying mother’s room to entertain her and bring some comedy and cheer into her waning life. Circumstances like these always amaze me. Sparks such as these are the genesis through which great artists develop.

Example: Lon Chaney Sr. needing to visually act out the day’s activities to his hearing-impaired parents helped to create one of the greatest silent film actors ever. Andy Kaufman’s mistaken betrayal by his grandfather as a child forced him into a solitary world of make-believe and a multitude of personalities. Mike Myers dealing with the onset of his father’s dementia and Alzheimer’s was at the heart of the creation of the Austin Powers character; a character he created as a tribute to all of the things he enjoyed doing with his dad.

Will Dustin go down in entertainment history in the same ilk of the aforementioned legends? Who knows? Who cares? To me he was the source of a lot of great laughs, and a lot of great memories. As Dustin always used to say, “Trust the Dust!”

Dustin Diamond 1977-2021