Why Community Killed Off Beloved Side Character Star-Burns

The notion of an actor on a long running television show wanting to leave is nothing new, and they do it for a favorite of reasons. Shelley Long left "Cheers" to pursue a career in film at a time when small to big screen crossover was enormously difficult. Paul Schneider left "Parks & Recreation" because he was unhappy with the direction they took his character. How the writers figure out how to adhere to the actor's wishes and find a way to get them off the show can be tricky. The obvious choice would be to kill them off, but then that basically cuts off any chance of a potential reunion of the actor and show in the future. If they aren't dying, constructing a reason for them to move away from the setting of the show but still exist in the universe can often feel forced and unearned. Finding the right balance is enormously tricky.

"Community" lost three of its main cast members over the course of its six-season run. First to go was Chevy Chase, who had a fraught relationship with everyone who worked on that show (to put it mildly). Next was Donald Glover, who was blossoming into a big star as a musician and was about to create his own show "Atlanta." Third was Yvette Nicole Brown. After the first cancellation of "Community," Brown scored a part on the CBS reboot of "The Odd Couple," a move that allotted more time to care for her father. As far as how they dispatched of their cast members, Chase's Pierce Hawthorne was killed off — they knew they didn't want him around anymore. Glover's Troy Barnes got sent on a sailing trip around the world with LeVar Burton, and Brown's Shirley got the meta treatment of moving to Atlanta to take care of her father (along with becoming a chef to wheelchair-bound private investigator).

While these were the main cast members who left the show, they were not the only ones on the show who needed to bow out of their characters. Dino Stamatopoulos, a writer and producer for the show, had been inserted into the show to play the character of Star-Burns, named for his star-shaped sideburns. About two-thirds of the way through the third season, Star-Burns met a fatal end, and Stamatopoulos could not have been happier.

The birth of Star-Burns

Dino Stamatopoulos has been around the television comedy scene for a long, long time, mostly working in sketch comedy. He worked as a writer on some of the preeminent sketch comedy shows of the last 30 years, including "The Ben Stiller Show," "The Dana Carvey Show," "Mr. Show with Bob and David," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," and even a little "Saturday Night Live." Being from the sketch world, it is not uncommon for a writer to be thrown into a bit part for a gag. They put on a funny wig, have a weird voice, or just have an unusual presence because they are not performing all that often; but acting is not his stock and trade.

Then he gets hired for "Community" as a writer. There was no plan for him to play any character on the show. However, the second episode of the show introduced two characters — most importantly was Señor Chang, played by Ken Jeong, the tyrannical, insane community college Spanish teacher that our core seven students would endure the wrath of. In that episode, they wrote a throwaway gag about one of the students having sideburns in the shape of stars, a person who insisted his name was Alex and wanted to be known for who he is rather than his looks. In order for the hair and makeup department to properly design these star-burns, someone needed to be in the chair for it, and according to Entertainment Weekly, creator Dan Harmon looked to the writers' room for a guinea pig:

"To pay an actor to do that was going to be expensive — it was cheaper to make a writer do it ... I called Dino and asked him if he'd do it and he said yes."

After the hair tests were done, Harmon made the decision to put Stamatopoulos on-camera for the bit. He was uncredited for the part. This was just like him coming on for a bit on any of the sketch shows he worked on. However, the sight of this guy in his mid-40s with stars on his face sitting in a community college classroom was just too good to pass up. The writers spent the next three years finding ways for people to make fun of this guy's visual gimmicks, which escalated as the seasons went on to include a top hat and a lizard on his shoulder, as well as develop as one of the school's grimiest sleaze bags. The writers enjoyed it. The audiences enjoyed it. But Stamatopoulos did not enjoy it.

His name was Alex

Stamatopoulos had never signed up to be an actor. He was a writer. Now, he was appearing in almost every episode, sometimes just in the background of scenes. And he did not like doing any of it. Stamatopoulos told EW of his experience as an actor on the show:

"I'm not an actor. 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."

So in season 3, he asked if Star-Burns could finally get the boot off the show, and the writers agreed. At the end of the 17th episode of the season, "Basic Lupine Urology" (aka the "Law & Order" yam episode), we learn that Alex "Star-Burns" Osbourne died in a car crash. The following episode serves as the memorial to Star-Burns but quickly turns into a full blown riot against the school about how Greendale Community College fails its students. We may have lost a fun side character always good for a couple of laughs in any given episode, but Dino Stamatopoulos got to focus on what he had been hired to do: write for "Community."

However, the book was not entirely closed on Star-Burns, as the season 3 finale reveals Star-Burns dying his hair blonde in a gas station bathroom along with a copy of the book "The Science of Death Faking." There was always the hope that Stamatopoulos could, at some point, don the stars once again. That hope did not last long because the next season was season 4. And for those who know "Community" know that season 4 is when everything went haywire. Creator and show runner Dan Harmon was fired from the show, and some of the writers decided to hop ship along with him, including Stamatopoulos. In an interview with Huffington Post Live, he said of his leaving, "I quit as soon as Dan Harmon was let go as the showrunner ... I left in solidarity, which was a very brave thing to do."

Season 4 ended up being a calamity. The show had always been on the verge on cancellation anyway, so it looked like it was to be the end of the show. However, in a rare case of a company actually making a smart decision for once, NBC to bring back Dan Harmon and renew the show for season 5, and Stamatopoulos came back aboard as a writer for the fifth season.

You can't kill Star-Burns

Nobody thought Dan Harmon would ever get to work on "Community" ever again. People don't just get rehired after being fired. But he did, and perhaps in a show of support for his buddy Dan, Stamatopoulos somehow agreed to play the role of Star-Burns once again, making his re-entry to the series in the season's third episode. In the search for the campus menace that is the Ass Crack Bandit (a notorious person who slides quarters down people's cracks when they are bent over), the character is revealed to be living in the inexplicable stables behind Greendale where he is building a cat sled. (I sound absolutely deranged explaining this show.) After being exonerated of the suspicion that he was the Bandit, Star-Burns returns to his rightful place as a guy who occasionally shows up in a "Community" episode to do something funny.

Star-Burns is just one of many recurring cast members that give Greendale a true sense of place and, well, community. You have Garrett, Leonard, Vicki, Magnitude (Pop! Pop!), Fat Neil, Officer Cacowski, and more. If any of them were not walking up and down the hallways or filling the classrooms, you could sense something was missing. Star-Burns was part of the show's fabric, whether Dino Stamatopoulos liked it or not. Thankfully, he agreed to relinquish his character's death and return, because the full ecosystem of the school needed him, especially as the main cast members were falling away in those last two seasons. He weirdly was a grounding force, even when he shows up in the red underwear from "Zardoz." He may have hated doing it, but we loved him for doing it.

Also, Dino Stamatopoulos formed an animation production company along with Dan Harmon, Joe Russo, James Fino, and "Anomalisa" co-director Duke Johnson that they called Starburns Industries. So, he must have embraced it at least a little bit to warrant that.