Ridin’ Low in My Chair: “The Gift”

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January 15, 2014 by billysparrow

“The Gift”

Aired: September 8, 1989 (a Friday, so, if the DVD air dates are to be believed, the first three shows didn’t originally air on a Saturday. Interesting.)

In a haiku nutshell: After lightning strikes/Screech becomes a clairvoyant/But it doesn’t last

Trivia that will impress, well, no one: Q: What is history teacher Mr. Testaverde’s first name? A: George

The highlight of the third episode of “Saved by the Bell” (and it’s not much of a competition) is the appearance of history teacher George “Terrible” Testaverde, played by 1980s icon John Moschitta Jr. Perhaps the name does not ring a bell but, trust me, you know him. For back in the day, when you just sat down, shut up, and watched the commercials because that was the only reasonable option, John Moschitta Jr. was a god. A fast-talking god.

According to Wikipedia (the most exciting phrase in halfass research), Moschitta first came to the public’s attention via an appearance on the TV show “That’s Incredible!” where he demonstrated his skill, which, let’s face it, is indeed incredible.

The commercial gigs and other TV appearances followed, surely culminating with the casting session that brought him into the halls of Bayside as the history teacher whose name strikes fear in the hearts of all who hear it. And it is Terrible Testaverde’s midterm that sends the gang into a panic, especially, of course, Jessie, who is clearly showing early signs of heading down the pill-cluttered path, though at this point it seems possible she might also explode before drugs even enter into the picture. As Jessie freaks out in the girls’ locker room (already becoming something of a running theme three episodes in), Kelly helpfully offers that Jessie will be known as “the wacko one” after Jessie notes that Lisa is the “fashionable one” and Kelly the “popular one.” Thanks, pretty girl, for calling me a lunatic! That’ll help! What a shrew.

Anyway, Zack thinks he has found the answers to everyone’s prayers when Screech gains the ability to see into the future after he is struck by lightning while disconnecting Zack’s ham radio, which Zack lost in a bet to Slater, who wants the ham radio so he can contact a gymnast he left behind in Germany (what a sentence, huh?). Yes, kids, before e-mail, we were forced to rely on ham radios to reach over long distances. I mean, who among us ’80s kids didn’t spend countless hours on a ham radio in high school? What’s that? None of you? I find that hard to believe. Well, whatever. The point is Zack can use Screech’s newfound clairvoyance to (a) get back his beloved ham radio from Slater, plus Slater’s hip bomber jacket, in another bet and then (b) get the questions on Testaverde’s midterm in advance so he can ace the test, win another bet with Slater, and earn Kelly’s undying love.

Sadly, Zack learns that while technology (if a ham radio can be considered “technology”) giveth, it also taketh away, in this case in the form of Zack’s giant cell phone (nearly as iconic as Moschitta). For when the phone knocks over Screech’s glass of soda, the reaction, I guess, reverses whatever it is that gave Screech the ability to see the future. Thus, Zack is screwed, and winds up getting an F-minus after scheming to keep Mr. Testaverde from administering the test by faking a plumbing emergency at the school (the scheme is foiled because Mr. Testaverde comes to school anyway, as plumbing is his hobby…brilliant writing).

So that’s “The Gift.” But while researching (after Wikipedia, I went to YouTube…I’m exhausted), I found my own gift, a special that aired on NBC prior to “Saved by the Bell” officially joining the schedule. I don’t recall any of these, but I guess NBC (and other networks) used to run half-hour specials previewing the new Saturday-morning lineup, and the one for 1989 (which likely aired around the time of “The Gift” perhaps on September 13, as the ALF Wiki website claims…yeah, that’s more research, pal; I should really be getting paid for this) was called “Who Shrunk Saturday Mornings?” and features the Bayside kids, ALF, Marsha Warfield, Sherman Hemsley, John Candy, and, yes, John Moschitta Jr. It is ’80spectacular. You can find all four parts of this brilliantly acted special on YouTube (here’s one and three) to feel all the magic, but please let me highlight parts two and four, as part two features the only known collaboration between John Candy, Zack, Screech, Slater, and Lisa (I feel like my life has been leading up to this discovery) and part four swaps out Candy, adds Sherman Hemsley, and officially introduces “Saved by the Bell” to the world.

I feel stupid now for ever thinking this project might be a complete waste of time.

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