On September 11, 2001 (don’t worry, I’m going to get around to Saved by the Bell in a second), I was working a healthy 45-minute walk away from the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, far enough away from the two planes that crashed into the Twin Towers that the smoke clouds didn’t quite reach us, but close enough that I could hear the explosions, and smell the burning buildings in the air. It was, in a word, traumatizing, as it was for millions of other New Yorkers, and the world at large.
I worked at a school at the time, so after making sure the students were safe and the building locked up we were sent home. I did not go home, because I didn’t feel like I could be alone in my one-bedroom apartment. Instead, I made the hours-long walk uptown, crossing the bridge into Queens so I could stay with friends who lived in Astoria. Walking with thousands of others, I could see the smoke plumes pouring off downtown, and was greeted by the same sight later as myself and my two friends in Astoria obsessively watched news footage of what had happened, right outside our windows, on their small TV.
As the minutes turned into hours, and we were going around in circles talking about the same event, I angrily commented that I wished I could fly a plane straight into the terrorists’ faces. My friend, exhausted, without missing a beat, looked at me and said, “shut up, or I’ll fly a plane into your face.”
Was it a funny joke? Maybe? I don’t know. But the shock of what happened, and the mere fact that she was even making a joke hit me in the right way. For the first time, all day, I laughed. And I laughed for, I think, five solid minutes.
The reason I tell this story is because it’s extremely weird to laugh in the middle of tragedy, and that’s generally how I’ve felt about anything involving coronavirus over the past year. TV has tried, mind you — repeatedly — to make the shared trauma we’re experiencing relatable and fun. I have not been on board. At all.
That is, until the last scene of Peacock’s Saved by the Bell, which has the only good coronavirus joke told all year.
Spoilers for the final episode of Saved by the Bell Season 1, “Showdown,” past this point, but at the end of 10 episodes of Bayside High shenanigans, the main cast is all — naturally — chilling in The Max. Thanks to Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), the kids from the impoverished Douglas High School are allowed to stay at Bayside, Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen) are making out on top of the jukebox, and things are happy and normal. Daisy and Zack’s son Mac (Mitchell Hoog) even point this out, celebrating their victory and explaining that it’ll be nice to get back to a nice, normal drama-free school year.
“I”m just glad this is all behind us,” Daisy says. “We don’t have to fight these huge, insurmountable obstacles anymore. I just get to be a normal kid at Bayside for a while.”
Mac agrees, then gets a notification on his phone. He looks confused at the screen and says: “What’s coronavirus?”
Then they all get milkshakes, and the season ends. I laughed for, I think, five solid minutes.
There are a number of reasons this joke works so perfectly, not the least of which is that it’s the final joke of the season (more or less) and they don’t deal with the ramifications of that text notification at all. I have no need to see Saved By The Bell: The Coronavirus Years if and when the series is picked up for Season 2 by Peacock; and I don’t expect the show will deal with the current pandemic in any way, if it does return.
The juxtaposition is also extremely important here, something that the new Saved by the Bell plays with all season, balancing real world issues — wealth inequality, racism, bureaucracy — with goofy humor straight out of the original series. The final episode is, under the surface, dealing with some serious topics about how Zack’s California Governor is playing the political line and holding up the future of an entire school of children, but through the lens of comedy. The comedy comes first, though, which is why the seriousness of the current pandemic as a joke comes as such a surprise right there at the end.
And another reason this worked for me, personally, is that I spent the previous nine episodes and change watching the show as a far-away fantasy. Not just of Bayside, but of people able to casually walk through the halls of a high school, without masks, not in pods, with no fear of infecting each other with a deadly virus. That’s something we don’t have right now, and even for shows that aren’t set in the real world, it’s hard to not think about how the series was filmed given coronavirus restrictions, when it was filmed, and what it means to see people interact like this without wearing masks. That the Bayside kids are going to have to deal with all that going forward is reality crashing into fantasy, real hard.
But more than all that, just like my friend’s extremely jarring 9/11 joke told on 9/11, it’s the release that makes the joke so funny. Over a quarter of a million people dying in the United States alone is no laughing matter, but being allowed to laugh to the point of crying is an important thing to be able to do. Laughter lets us process our emotions in a different way than sadness, and that’s what that final joke did for me. My entire job is about watching TV, yet I’ve been holding my breath for months now, like most people living on the planet, in shock over what we’ve been living through. Whether watching a show set in the “real” world, or one set on a spaceship, or set at a fantasy high school that thrives on pranks, the very real threat of coronavirus is always looming in the back of my mind.
With the Saved by the Bell finale’s perfect last joke, I finally felt like it was okay to laugh, at least for a little bit. And laughter, as they say, is the best medicine. Other than vaccines.