Caption: Dino Stamatopoulos, center, surrounds himself with Columbia talent at Starburns Industries, including (from left to right) Joe Passarelli (BA ’03), Duke Johnson (’95), Jay Johnston (’93), and David Tuber (BA ’05).
Creative force Dino Stamatopoulos (’87) says he never set out to build a studio full of Columbia College alumni, but throughout a prolific 25-year career, he’s found that like-minded colleagues make for the most rewarding work.
By Stephanie Ewing (’12)
Photography by Anthony Chiappetta (BA ’95)
Each weekday morning, Dino Stamatopoulos (’87) heads to work at his Burbank, California, production studio, a beige stucco castle complete with climbing ivy and crenellated turrets.
Inside, the castle reveals itself to be a warehouse full of cameras, miniature sets, and hundreds of tiny puppets—the guts of Starburns Industries, the stop-motion animation production company founded in 2010 by Stamatopoulos, the executive producer, and his colleagues Dan Harmon, James Fino, and Joe Russo II.
The company was named for Stamatopoulos’ quirkily coiffed character from Harmon’s hit NBC show, Community, where Stamatopoulos also worked as a consulting writer and producer.
Though Community put Stamatopoulos in front of the camera for new audiences, he’s been busting guts behind the scenes for 25 years as an Emmy award-winning comedy sketch writer, and the creator and producer of animated shows Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.
“Dino’s sense of humor is dark, black comedy and is absurd and full of rage and pain and love,” said Chris McKay (BA ’91), one of Stamatopoulos’ directors. “The whole world is funny to Dino, even the crying parts.”
Stamatopoulos’ astute writing and generous spirit have earned him many friends and constant collaborators, and whether by coincidence or design, at least 16 of them are fellow Columbia alumni. Actors Jay Johnston (’93) and 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit (’89) and director McKay are part of Stamatopoulos’ inner circle. Stamatopoulos’ Columbia classmates, Broadway theatre director David Cromer (’86) and comedian Andy Dick (’89), have contributed to his shows. Stamatopoulos wrote for Late Night with Conan O’Brien with Conan’s longtime sidekick, Andy Richter (’90), and on the cult-classic sketch comedy, Mr. Show, with its creator, Bob Odenkirk (’87).
Columbia has been a fruitful source of connections for Stamatopoulos throughout a career that took him from the Chicago suburbs, to New York TV studios, to a castle in L.A.
The Columbia College Years
The Norridge-raised Stamatopoulos became interested in comedy when he was young, finding inspiration in the work of Monty Python, Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, David Letterman, and Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl.
“Before that, the Scarecrow and the Lion from the Wizard of Oz were definitely seminal,” joked Stamatopoulos.
It was Stamatopoulos’ father who suggested he attend Columbia.
“I had a definite leaning towards the arts, and he brought the college to my attention,” said Stamatopoulos. “I was so excited to go that I actually fantasized about dropping out [of high school] and going early, taking my GED. But my dad wanted me to finish and graduate like everyone else.”
When he finally arrived at Columbia in 1983 to study theatre, Stamatopoulos met one of his guiding lights, comedy studies professor Norm Holly. Holly became his “comedy mentor,” teaching him the value of rewriting.
“I was so arrogant that I never wanted to change anything I originally wrote,” said Stamatopoulos. “Norm’s biggest contribution was to acknowledge my talent while, at the same time, letting me know I wasn’t perfect.”
Duke Johnson (’95) is a director at Stamatopoulos’ production company, Starburns Industries. He directed the animated episode of Community and has also worked as an executive producer, writer, and director on Moral Orel; its prequel, Beforel Orel; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.
Jay Johnston (’93) is known for his acting and writing on Mr. Show and for his role as a police officer on The Sarah Silverman Program. Johnston has worked with Stamatopoulos on Morel Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole as a producer, writer, or actor, and he made a guest appearance on an episode of Community. A Chicago native, he also worked in The Second City’s touring company alongside Scott Adsit (’89).
Holly and his students performed comedy cabarets in the basement of the theatre building, and that’s where Stamatopoulos met Andy Dick, Scott Adsit, and Mike Stoyanov (’88). Dick and Stamatopoulos became friends and played comedy clubs around the city, while Adsit and Stamatopoulos performed as an off-the-wall sketch comedy duo. “We had a very similar sensibility,” said Stamatopoulos, “although Scott is far more subtle than I am. He’s the Dean Martin to my Jerry Lewis.”
In one memorable routine, they drew a sweeping mustache on a baby doll to parody a children’s TV show in Spanish-sounding gibberish. “I remember doing that on stage at the Funny Firm and people yelling out, ‘Speak English!’” said Stamatopoulos. “They weren’t into anti-comedy back then.”
Though Stamatopoulos and friend Tom Bell (’88) eventually opened their own theater on Loyola Avenue, the pull of L.A. was strong. Dick had already gone west to look for a big break and found work, as had Stoyanov, who would get a gig playing Anthony on the NBC primetime sitcom Blossom. So in 1989, Stamatopoulos and Bell decided to hit the road, too. “It was a change of pace, getting out of Chicago and seeing what other part of the world was out there,” Stamatopoulos said.
Making It Big
Stamatopoulos spent the next three years working hard to earn his big break, trying out all sorts of Hollywood jobs, including working as a production assistant for Stoyanov’s film Freaked and as an extra in film and television. He even spent two months in the desert, dressed as a knight in armor and a full beard for the campy Bruce Campbell flick, Army of Darkness.
Stamatopoulos’ moment finally arrived in 1992. After Andy Dick appeared in the pilot episode of The Ben Stiller Show, he convinced Stamatopoulos to send the producers “a stack of writing [he’d] amassed in Chicago,” including a spec episode of The Simpsons.
The Ben Stiller Show hired Stamatopoulos as a writer. Although the show was canned after one season, it won an Emmy for best writing, and propelled the 28-year-old into writing sketch comedy—mostly in New York—on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Late Show with David Letterman, and The Dana Carvey Show.
Stamatopoulos said he heard David Letterman would refer to him dismissively as “cartoon boy.”
In 1996, Stamatopoulos moved back to L.A. to write and act for Mr. Show, the sketch- comedy brainchild of Ben Stiller colleague Bob Odenkirk (’87) and comedian David Cross, for which Stamatopoulos produced some of his most acclaimed and enduring work. Mr. Show also reconnected Stamatopoulos with Jay Johnston (’93), whom Stamatopoulos first met in Chicago through Norm Holly.
Between 2001 and 2006, Stamatopoulos wrote sketch comedy for late-night shows including Jimmy Kimmel Live and MADtv. But he said this kind of work no longer inspired him like it used to: “I started to feel exhausted from just writing sketches.”
“Cartoon Boy”: Life in Stop-Motion Animation
Stamatopoulos’ foray into the colorful world of cartoons started in 2000, when he went to New York to work on the animated series TV Funhouse, created by Chicagoan and Dana Carvey Show colleague Robert Smigel. TV Funhouse began as shorts on Saturday Night Live and had since become its own show on Comedy Central.
Making cartoons had long been a dream for Stamatopoulos, and he always looked for ways to bring animation into his sketch-writing jobs, sometimes to the frustration of his bosses. He said he heard that David Letterman would refer to him dismissively as “cartoon boy.”
“Every show, I’ve always pitched a cartoon version of something. I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons—that was my childhood,” said Stamatopoulos. “When I was on Letterman, I would constantly, incessantly pitch animated bits which they didn’t want to do because they felt that it was too ‘Conan-y’... which was interesting because when we pitched stuff on Conan they called it too ‘Letterman-y.’”
Though sketch comedy writing was still paying his bills, in 2004, Stamatopoulos started meeting with representatives from Adult Swim—a programming block of adult- oriented cartoons on Cartoon Network—to pitch his own shows, including what would become his first animated series, Moral Orel.
With Moral Orel, Stamatopoulos wanted to create an inexpensive stop-motion parody of Leave It To Beaver and Davey and Goliath, chronicling the misadventures of the citizens of Moralton, a fictional, hyper-religious Midwestern small town.
Once Adult Swim green-lighted the project, Stamatopoulos started casting his friends and colleagues as writers, actors, directors, and producers. Scott Adsit became a producer and actor; so did Jay Johnston.
Stamatopoulos drew on the talents of his broad Columbia network, hiring recent Columbia alumni as directors, storyboard artists, and editors on projects such as a 2010 animated special episode of Community, and his new stop-motion Adult Swim series, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.
Joe Passarelli (BA ’03) is a cinematographer for Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Moral Orel’s prequel, Beforel Orel. He has also done cinematography for Duke Johnson’s short films Marrying God and Passport.
Scott Adsit (’89) voices both the Creature (pictured) and Professor Polidori on Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, but he is best known for playing Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock and for his background in improv theatre with The Second City. From Northbrook, Illinois, Adsit met Stamatopoulos while attending Columbia College Chicago, and has since collaborated as an actor on Mr. Show and as an executive producer, writer, and actor on Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. In the 2000s, director Barry Levinson enlisted him, Mike Stoyanov (’88), and Stamatopoulos (’87) to work on a 30 Rock-style television show that never aired.
Connecting With Columbia Alumni: The Next Generation
As Moral Orel was renewed for additional seasons, Stamatopoulos started to pull in more crew, including Columbia alumnus Chris McKay (BA ’91).
McKay, who also grew up in the Chicago area, came onboard after he ran into Stamatopoulos while editing for the stop-motion show Robot Chicken, which was sharing studio space with Moral Orel.
“[McKay] is a great editor and taught me a lot about how you can edit within a shot with animation, and he had some great ideas,” said Stamatopoulos. “Essentially, he became the fourth Beatle [with] me, Jay, and Scott.”
McKay credits Stamatopoulos as being generous with his time and resources: “He’s really willing to give someone a shot if they have respect for the show. He’s great at identifying what people are good at, then giving them love, attention, and ‘Atta boys!’”
Stamatopoulos says he never set out to build a studio full of Columbia College alumni; he just finds himself drawn to like-minded people who can contribute to his shows. His unique comedy and animation medium have a way of self-selecting for a certain sort of colleague.
Stamatopoulos met Duke Johnson (’95) in New York when Johnson was working as a waiter while attending film school. “I always found him smart and funny,” said Stamatopoulos. The two reconnected in L.A. a few years later after Johnson finished grad school, and Stamatopoulos offered him a chance to direct Moral Orel.
“In a way, he recycled his own comedy back to him. I owe him so much. The guy has fathered me into this industry.”
Johnson then introduced Stamatopoulos to Joe Passarelli (BA ’03), with whom he had attended grad school. Passarelli said that even though he didn’t have previous experience lighting and shooting animated shows, Stamatopoulos trusted his work and his sense of humor and knew Passarelli would fit in well with the team. So he made Passarelli his director of photography.
David Tuber (BA ’05) met Stamatopoulos while he was working as an intern on Robot Chicken. Tuber admired the voice actors from Moral Orel, who were some of his favorites from Mr. Show. Tuber was also fascinated by Moral Orel’s Claymation-esque animation style. He knew it was where he wanted to be.
“We had the same humor, because I had been admiring his comedy growing up,” said Tuber, now a director and storyboard artist on Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. “In a way, he recycled his own comedy back to him,” he said. “I owe him so much. The guy has fathered me into this industry.”
David Tuber (BA ’05) works for Starburns Industries, Stamatopoulos’ production company, as a director, storyboard artist, and animator. He worked for Shadowmachine Films, which produces Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Moral Orel, along with Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum. Tuber is the owner of the production company Chi-Town Toons.
Chris McKay (BA ’91) is the director of Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum, and he directed and produced Moral Orel. McKay also served as an editor for The Sarah Silverman Program and is working with production company Animal Logic, applying his stop-motion animation directing experience to a photo-real computer-generated Lego movie to be released in 2014. McKay says his animation appreciation started back at Columbia, when he took an animation class with Terry Miller.
Stamatopoulos got his own break from a friend when Community creator Dan Harmon texted in 2008 and told him to start growing out his facial hair: He’d be playing the strange, top-hat wearing, drug-dealing community college student, Star-Burns. Two years later, the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community, animated by Stamatopoulos and company, put Starburns Industries on the map.
So now, as the executive producer of his own production company, Stamatopoulos spends his days in a castle full of toys and cameras, creating cartoons, surrounded by friends. The job isn’t without challenges, but people close to Stamatopoulos say the man has a gift for creating a fun, collaborative environment and using people’s greatest talents to maximum artistic effect.
Stamatopoulos describes success like this: “It’s all about just being passionate about your work. ... Be ready to be poor, and happy, and creative—just love what you’re doing and meet like-minded people you can work with.”
Dino Stamatopoulos hosts a weekly podcast called Sorry About Everything on the Steve Dahl podcast network at dahl.com. Among his Columbia interviewees are Andy Richter, Duke Johnson, and Scott Adsit. To listen to the shows, you must be a subscriber.
Why Stop-Motion Animation?
L to R: Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Moral Orel, Community.
The puppet of Dr. Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, shown at larger-than-real-life size. “He’s about five inches tall--smaller than most puppets because he was modeled after [actor] Seth Green,” said Stamatopoulos.
Dino Stamatopoulos and company inject new life into an old medium
Even with the increasing prevalence of computer animation, stop-motion animation is Starburns Industries’ bread and butter.
“I’m just in love with stop motion,” said Dino Stamatopoulos (’87), co-founder and executive producer. “I did it as a kid. I’ve always been into model building, and I just [love] all these little sets and people. I’m obsessed with the idea of making them real people with feelings and having the audience laugh and cry at them.”
Stop-motion animation techniques have remained largely unchanged since they were first used in 1897’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus. Animators pose objects or puppets (often made of a wire skeleton covered with moldable foam, clay, or plastic), adjust positions incrementally, and then photograph them, frame by frame. Stop-motion animation is a laborious process—what actor and Moral Orel producer Jay Johnston (’93) describes as “one of the most tedious things possible on the planet,” because one 23-minute program consists of at least 16,560 shots—but it can be done relatively inexpensively because all the sets and puppets are miniatures.
For Moral Orel and the 2010 Community Christmas special, Starburns Industries animated the shows using clay puppets in the spirit of the 1960s “Claymation” Christmas programs Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Chris McKay (BA ’91), a Moral Orel director, said he thinks stop-motion animation evokes childhood memories and brings a refreshing innocence to the absurd and dark situations Stamatopoulos’ characters encounter.
The creative teams at Starburns Industries have also innovated ways of delivering stop-motion animated episodes of Stamatopoulos’ Cartoon Network series, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, on a tight schedule. Because celebrities and historical figures often make their way into Stamatopoulos’ scripts, puppet artists take pictures of the famous people and fold them, like origami, onto the faces of the puppets, creating the distinct texture and angular look of the comical characters populating the strange world surrounding Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
–Stephanie Ewing (’12)
More Columbia Alumni in Dino Stamatopoulos’ Wacky World
Throughout his prolific 25-year career, Dino Stamatopoulos (’87) has earned the admiration and respect of countless creative friends and collaborators in the film and TV industry, many of whom are fellow Columbia alumni. In addition to working regularly with Scott Adsit (’89), Duke Johnson (’95), Jay Johnston (’93), Chris McKay (BA ’91), Joe Passarelli (BA ’03), and David Tuber (BA ’05), Stamatopoulos has teamed up with many Columbia luminaries over the years. Here are just a few.
Peter Blood (’89) Peter Blood is a musician who composes music for Dino Stamatopoulos’ shows Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Moral Orel. Blood composed a song in honor of his friend called “Dino Stamatopoulos,” a happy hard-rock tune that rhymes “Stamatopoulos” with acropolis, animus, mischievous, esophagus, androgynous, and apocalypse, among other things. He also acted in two episodes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole as the voice of John Hancock and a reanimated corpse.
“David’s a very hands-on director. He didn’t really know much about stop animation ... but I thought that would be an interesting experiment.”
—Dino Stamatopoulos, on persuading David Cromer to direct an episode of Moral Orel
David Cromer (’89) David Cromer is an award-winning theatre director, best known for productions of Angels in America, The Cider House Rules, Our Town, and The House of Blue Leaves. Cromer met Stamatopoulos while attending Columbia College Chicago and worked with him as a guest director on Moral Orel in 2008. He taught theatre at Columbia before moving to New York in 2008. Cromer was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010 and a Columbia alumnus of the year in 2011.
D.V. DeVincentis (’91) D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink (’89), and actor John Cusack formed New Crime Productions, the company that produced Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, for which DeVincentis co-wrote. DeVincentis is a frequent collaborator of Pat O’Neill (’91) and Pink, through whom he met Stamatopoulos. The trio helped Stamatopoulos sell a script for a never-made sitcom pilot, “a sort of modern-day All in the Family about a Desert Storm vet living next to Muslims,” said Stamatopoulos.
Andy Dick (’89) Andy Dick acted on The Ben Stiller Show and Newsradio in the early ’90s. He also acted on Stamatopoulos’ Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and was a guest on Community. Dick met Stamatopoulos while attending Columbia. Also at Columbia, Dick earned an A on the final exam for Stage Combat class, choosing to spar with himself after his partner failed to show up.
K.K. Dodds (’89) K.K. Dodds has had a varied and successful television career, which includes recurring roles on FOX’s Prison Break, playing Susan Hollander, and The Shield, playing Kim Kelner. She did voice acting on Stamatopoulos’ Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, including roles as Gandhi’s date and Katharine Hepburn. Dodds also played Wendy in the film Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman, one of Stamatopoulos’ sketch comedy colleagues. She attended Columbia with Stamatopoulos.
Bob Odenkirk (’87) Bob Odenkirk is an actor and writer best known for his work with Stamatopoulos on Mr. Show, The Ben Stiller Show (for which the writers won an Emmy), and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He plays corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman on the AMC series Breaking Bad and has made guest appearances on The Sarah Silverman Program, The Andy Dick Show, TV Funhouse, and the Tenacious D series. He has written and developed shows for Adult Swim, including Tom Goes to the Mayor; Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; and Let’s Do This!
Pat O’Neill (’91) Pat O’Neill wrote the film Knight and Day, which was produced by Steve Pink (’89). He also acted in the film Grosse Pointe Blank, from the team of Pink and D.V. DeVincentis (’91), who were also two of the writers and producers for the John Cusack film High Fidelity. O’Neill also produced several episodes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.
Steve Pink (’89) Steve Pink is an Evanston native best known for co-writing and co-producing the John Cusack films High Fidelity with D.V. DeVincentis (’91) and Grosse Pointe Blank with DeVincentis and Pat O’Neill (’91). Pink also directed the comedy Hot Tub Time Machine and was a producer on O’Neill’s Knight and Day. Stamatopoulos said he met Pink and O’Neill through student comedy events at Columbia and they have periodically collaborated since then.
Steve Pink (’89), D.V. DeVincentis (’91), and Pat O’Neill (’91) helped Stamatopoulos sell a script for a sitcom pilot, “a sort of modern-day All in the Family about a Desert Storm vet living next to Muslims,” said Stamatopoulos. “We never made it.”
Andy Richter (’90) Andy Richter is best known as Conan O’Brien’s sidekick. He is also an actor and writer who has written for Late Night with Conan O’Brien alongside Stamatopoulos, and has appeared as a guest actor on 30 Rock, The Sarah Silverman Program, and Robot Chicken. From Yorkville, Illinois, Richter trained at The Second City.
Mike Stoyanov (’88) Mike Stoyanov is known for his role as Anthony on the 1990s’ NBC sitcom Blossom, and he also appeared in the Batman movie The Dark Knight. He met Stamatopoulos, Scott Adsit, and Andy Dick while attending Columbia College Chicago and wrote with Stamatopoulos for TV Funhouse, Mr. Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and The Dana Carvey Show. He also worked with Columbia TV students in the 2011 production of Freq Out.
Photos: Vladimir Zaytsev (’12) except Cromer (Steve Becker); Odenkirk (Mr. Show with Bob and David-HBO); and Stoyanov (courtesy of Stoyanov).
–Sean McEntee (’13) and Stephanie Ewing (’12)
Dino’s Top 6
David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (’87) on Mr. Show / Photo: Mr. Show with Bob and David-HBO
Over the course of his 25-year career, Dino Stamatopoulos (’87) has written for—and often acted in—a slew of cult comedies. Here are some of his favorite creations.
“Young People and Companions” (Mr. Show, 1997)
A parody of a bizarrely worded local newscast, this sketch riffs on the vague description of four missing 20-year-olds as “two young people and their companions.” Anchor Bob Odenkirk (’87) and reporter David Cross conduct interviews with parents, rescue workers, and community residents—always referring to “two young people” and “two companions.”
“The Audition” (Mr. Show, 1998)
In this sketch, actor David Cross auditions for an acting job and decides to perform a monologue from “a play titled The Audition,” which sparks confusion for the casting directors, Bob Odenkirk and Stamatopoulos, who are not sure if Cross is acting or actually speaking to them.
“Spite Marriage” (Mr. Show, 1998)
David Cross and Bob Odenkirk play two tough-guy types who get into a confrontation in a bar. As both refuse to leave the other alone until they admit fault, the two end up getting married to show their commitment to this standoff. The two spend the rest of their lives being hostile and aggressive until Cross’ character dies of old age.
Moral Orel (2005-2008)
Orel Puppington is the main character in Stamatopoulos’ stop-animation show. The 12-year-old protagonist is a devout Christian living in the hyper-religious town of Moralton, where his commitment to the church often leads him into absurd and disastrous situations.
Star-Burns on Community (2009-2012)
On NBC’s primetime comedy about community college, Stamatopoulos had a recurring role as Star-Burns, a middle-aged father, admitted drug dealer, and “cool study group” member who sports star-shaped sideburns.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole (2010-2012)
Stamatopoulos’ second stop-motion animation series stars Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his family. The plot revolves around Frankenstein’s knowledge of immortality and wormholes—or “Frankenholes”—that connect the Frankenstein family to people of the past and future who hope to benefit from Frankenstein’s services.
–Sean McEntee (’13)