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Trans Playwright Tobly McSmith on Saved by the Bell, Transparent & Life After Coming Out

Trans Playwright Tobly McSmith on Saved by the Bell, Transparent & Life After Coming Out

Photos Courtesy of Allison Michael Orenstein

Written by the same team who penned Showgirls! The Musical!, which made a splash among critics when it came to New York’s Kraine Theater last year, Bayside! The Musical! is an irreverent and incisive parody of the hit ‘90s sitcom Saved by the Bell.

Produced by National Lampoon and starring Dustin Diamond, the original Screech, the show puts an adult spin on Saved by the Bell’s notoriously safe and repetitive formula, tearing apart its quirks and retooling it for a now-adult audience while also showing it the kind of playful love that fans appreciate. The show was written by Bob and Tobly McSmith, no relation, who also provide live music for the show on-stage with the actors, often becoming part of the story themselves. Out sat down with co-writer Tobly McSmith to discuss comedy, caffeine pills, and what it’s like being a trans man in the New York City theater scene.

Out: Why Saved by the Bell?

Tobly McSmith: Why not? Bob, the guy who was sitting across from me playing guitar, we’re the co-writers and we came up with the idea about 10 years ago. We had day jobs, and we would watch Saved by the Bell and smoke pot before we went to work. I think it was ingrained in our heads, and we came up with the idea. We had never written anything together; we had never written a musical, but we both knew music. So we kind of went from there.

What’s your relationship with Saved by the Bell? What are some of your favorite or least favorite episodes?

When I go back and watch it now, it’s so ridiculous. But it meant so much to me growing up. I related to all of these characters and didn’t relate to them at all. I wasn’t any of them, but I knew them, you know? The show is so silly, but it was so smart at the time to do that kind of Saturday morning…

Sitcom? Adult-style sitcom?

Right. So Peter Engel was super smart about doing that. I would say every episode I love, I also hate. The caffeine pill one is just so ridiculous. They wanted to address drugs without addressing drugs, and that’s how they did it—which is crazy.

What are your inspirations for writing comedy or parody?

I would say that one of our biggest ones are the South Park guys, Matt and Trey. Cuz we have a very dirty sense of humor, and when we first put it on ten years ago, it was way dirtier, and we’ve cleaned it up.

How was it dirtier?

I think we made more ass jokes. I think it was 100% more ass jokes and slight racist jokes. We were pushing lots of lines then, and it helps now understanding what the line is and getting it right. And go over it and come back across it and kind of play with it, whereas the other time, we were way left of it.

My understanding of the South Park guys is that, for them, there is no line. Where would you draw the line?

I think with them, too, as long as it’s smart and makes sense, the line can disappear. If they’re commenting on something or have a point behind it. If you’re just being racist to be racist, that’s ridiculous. Like, our Lisa, how she figures out she’s black? That’s a play on how she never acted black and how they originally cast Lisa Turtle as a white Jewish girl. So we kind of make the joke as if they didn’t cast the white Jewish girl, but they just said: “You be the white Jewish girl who is black, too.”

So, Slater is gay in the musical. Where did that decision come from?

For 10 years, through eight iterations of that script, he has always been gay. We’ve never written it without him being gay. If you watch the show, the way he dances, he looks at Zack in these ways...

Do you think that was intentional at all?

I don’t know, he’s very homoerotic. And also wrestling. And his nickname for Zack: Preppie. There’s so many links to him being kind of...I don’t know. And the way he and Jessie have this relationship, but he didn’t care about her. And she was always so focused on her schoolwork. And his dimples, right? He’s so gay.

Saved Shirtless028

How does being trans inform your writing?

It’s very recent for me to have come out. It’s been four months since I’ve started the process of transitioning. I don’t know what it’s changed yet. I think I’ve become more protective of the trans community, although we never made fun of it before. Yeah, so it’s kind of new.

We seem to be getting to the point where modern Saved by the Bell-style shows seem to be addressing gay characters and themes. Do you think we’ll eventually see a trans character in a kid’s sitcom?

You would really think so. I mean, there’s so many viral videos of young kids coming out and their parents warning them, so you feel like it makes for good entertainment content, right? It’s got to. Do you remember The L Word? There’s one trans guy, I think his name is Max, and he’s like three episodes of like terrible, like he does too much testosterone, he gets too angry, like very cliche, but that was years ago, so they were kind of ahead of it, you know? And now with the show Transparent coming out, I think that’s going to be really great. And just Laverne Cox, in general, kind of leading the way.

How would you like to see media address trans people in the future?

We’re at the point where it needs to be addressed and the process of it all needs to be addressed a lot, and hopefully in a couple years, like how gay characters are, “Oh, they’re just gay,” soon, there will be people where, “Oh, they’re just trans.” And it won’t be a big deal; it’ll just be them. But I think we’re in the period now where people want to see the process and how hard it is and how great it is to do.

There seems to be a concerted effort among some to give trans kids more visibility and options. How do you feel about that?

Right, but if you read the comment section of several articles about it, it’s a mess. I mean, the people saying “My kid wants to be a dog. I’m not going to let him shit in the yard.” Just, oh god. But it’s definitely a good time for it. I wanted to do it for years, but I had a corporate job, and I was worried about how that would look. That’s happened really recently, too. So they sent the disclosure memo about a month ago, and they sent it to the whole company, and it explains my name change and pronoun change.

Did you ask for a disclosure memo or did they want to do it?

I asked. I went to HR and said, “I’ve started the process.” And this was a new thing for them, a new experience, so we looked into it together and figured out the best way. We got a book and it had some examples, and we drafted up the email.

What’s it like transitioning on the job?

I was scared, and that’s what stopped me for so long. And it’s scary to make yourself so vulnerable and open to whatever, because at work you have to have an image and appear one way, and it was very hard for me to allow it to happen, even though it needed to. So they sent the email out on a Friday, and all weekend, it would hit me that that email went out and it gave me like...you know when you make a mistake? I felt like it would hit me. It was very like a physical feeling. But I was getting emails from people slowly writing in support, and then I came into work a few days after that and there was a card on my desk and people came up to me and a couple of people gave me a gift, and the support has just been insane and so wonderful. And it shouldn’t have been a surprise, because I’ve been at the company 10 years and have relationships with all these people, but it was a surprise.

Have you noticed differences in how people on the job or in the theater world treat you now?

It is still a little fresh. I mean, I feel people...they’re hesitant to use the pronoun. It takes a minute, right? It takes a minute for them, but I found that people are more open to me now. It’s like when you open up to people, they open back up to you.

What projects can we expect from you in the future?

Everyone is always like, “So what’s the next musical?” And we always tell people it’s Schindler’s List: The Musical just to watch people’s faces. Everyone has great ideas. This is your next musical: Power Rangers. And I’m like, “Tell me three storylines that we could do from that show?”

What about the musical would make people demand a show like that?

Like Power Rangers? I think they’re just thinking of ‘90s things.

We were talking about television earlier. If you were offered a chance to do a Saved by the Bell reboot, would you do it, and how would you do it?

I would definitely do it. I think we would take composites of every ‘90s show, like 90210, Saved by the Bell, all of them, crunch them together, and use the 90210 episode with the gun, all important episodes, and they would just throw up on each other. It would just be like...because our jokes are just rapid fire, so we would be able to nail that in TV too.

Bayside! The Musical! is currently playing in New York City. Watch trailer below:

See showtimes and purchase tickets here.

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