'Community' mourns the death of a character
If you look up in the sky tonight and notice a star shining oddly — like there was something just a little off about it — you can nod poignantly and know that he has gone to a better place. Alex Osbourne, or “Star-Burns” to those who knew him least, is no longer with us.
Last night, at the tail end of “Basic Lupine Urology,” Community’s shrewd Law & Order homage, that quirky, shady, lizard-toting, top-hatted, leather-vested student with funky facial hair seemed to have met his end when his car was rear-ended, causing the makeshift meth lab in his trunk to explode. We were spared the grisly visuals, instead watching Professor Kane (Michael K. Williams) receive a phone call with the tragic news. Next week’s episode allows proper space to mourn, as it picks up with his funeral.
Why was Star-Burns taken from Planet Greendale so soon? He had so many more reptiles to station on his body and drug deals to attempt to make! The reason is simple: He asked for it — literally. Dino Stamatopoulos, who plays Star-Burns, is actually a consulting producer and writer on Community, and he requested that his character meet his maker so he could focus on his main job. It’s hard to believe that a scribe who got to moonlight as a cult character on a beloved network TV comedy would ask to be written off, but Stamatopoulos just wasn’t itching to be in the semi-spotlight.
“I’m not an actor,” he explained to EW via email. “I don’t enjoy waiting around for hours on set, I hate when people touch my eyes and neck (make-up department!), I can’t learn lines quickly (yes, even the amount of lines I get), and I don’t need other actors (Joel McHale) asking me why I never got my teeth fixed. There are certain acting roles that I don’t mind doing because I’ll write them and I’ll know how a specific character is supposed to behave. So in those instances, I’m comfortable with performing. The Star-Burns character was basically a conduit for the joke-sideburns and the one-note attitude about not being happy when people called him ‘Star-Burns’. I didn’t have a character in mind so it’s always been an uphill battle for me to perform the part. Yes, he’s been given funny lines, and I suppose the writers made him more like me eventually, but playing yourself is very difficult as well. I really don’t know how people perceive me. Obviously it’s as a scumbag, which is fair because I am, but that doesn’t mean I can play one on TV.”
And he didn’t ask to in the first place — rather, the job found him. At the beginning of season 1, series creator Dan Harmon needed an actor to sit patiently in a chair for hours so the hair and make-up department could figure out a way to pull off those now-famous star-shaped sideburns that initially defined this extremely ancillary character. “To pay an actor to do that was going to be expensive — it was cheaper to make a writer do it,” he says. (Harmon, by the way, declined to comment on that feud with Chevy Chase.) “I called Dino and asked him if he’d do it and he said yes.”
He decided to throw Stamatopoulos on camera in this low-stakes role, and viewers quickly took an interest in Star-Burns. The writers did too: Not only was Star-Burns an amusing visual gag, he represented another point of view in the halls of Greendale. “What I always loved about him was that joke where Jeff (McHale) is ripping on him from afar,” says Community story editor Megan Ganz, the obsessive L&O fan who wrote last night’s episode. “And then you cut over to Star-Burns and Star-Burns is calling Jeff a douchebag. That was the first moment you’re telling the audience, ‘Hey, just because we particularly choose to focus on this group doesn’t make them heroes.'”
No one would call Star-Burns a hero. In fact, he was “the one-man seedy underbelly of Greendale,” as Ganz perfectly sums up, giving drugs to Pierce (Chase) in a Halloween episode (one of Stamatopoulos’ favorite moments), and getting kicked out of biology class after trying unsuccessfully to persuade Prof. Kane to “get a Breaking Bad type of thing going” and venture with him into the drug business. While brainstorming the L&O episode, the writers made the logical choice to make Star-Burns a suspect early on: He confesses to stealing supplies from the classroom for his meth lab. And as they were deciding to include a fatal phone call twist at the end of the episode à la L&O, one man who’d been lobbying to have his character killed off appeared in a lightbulb above their heads.
Not that there wasn’t some hesitation in ridding Greendale of one of its most colorful characters and formidable forces. “My first thought when we talked about killing Star-Burns was, ‘Oh no!’ because the whole point was that each year he was going to have a new affectation,” says Harmon. “I wanted the show to run forever and have the guy turn into this umber hulk covered in branches and monocles and roller blades, and unable to function as a human being because of all these things that identify him. But then I think of Daffy Duck being tiny and grabbing that big pearl and saying, ‘Mine, mine, mine!’ and the clam shell slowly closing, which is how I always perceive people who won’t let go of stuff in the moment. You need to be Bugs Bunny and not Daffy Duck. You took a left turn at Albuquerque, you’re in a genie’s cave, you have to deal with it on the fly. That’s where joy comes from… I keep finding on this show that plans are the antithesis of good TV.”
While Stamatopoulos was a bit disappointed that his demise wasn’t seen on camera (“That would have been cool, but expensive. I can see why they didn’t do it. But I did think it was funny”), he found a certain appeal in Star-Burns being offed as opposed to, say, transferring to an overseas community college. “I thought to myself, ‘If my character dies, I’d be in a very elite group of characters dying on a prime time network show,” he says. “So, that was definitely an attractive prospect for me. It would be me, Coach from Cheers (who really died, gulp) and that guy from Two and a Half Babies.”
He may be dead, but he’s not gone just yet. In next week’s episode, the study group attends his funeral, and we will see him in some sort of “video” form. And McHale wonders if the joke could live on: “My guess is Dan will find a way to make him a ghost and continue to torture him by making him stay on set. Who knows? His twin brother will show up and it’ll be like, ‘What the f—?'”
“His legacy in season 3 will be gigantic,” hints Harmon, noting that the study group gets kicked out of Greendale as an indirect result of his demise. “Star-Burns’ death triggers the rest of the entire season in a strange daisy chain of events. It’s not just thrown away.”
And that may be the way to say thank you to the man who lived on the edge — and on the edges of the show. “He was the first of the Muppets,” opines Harmon. “He was the first Community ‘character.’ Star-Burns demonstrated how much vitality can grow in the cracks. You don’t have to pitch a network or an audience or a focus group the idea of a character for that character to become real. Life just grows on your TV show, and that’s a force to be respected and harnessed.”
Asked how he would like Star-Burns to be remembered, Stamatopoulos humbly says: “With a memory. I’m not joking. Do you even think that guy will be remembered?”