Breakout animated sitcom hits like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Family Guy helped ’90s TV audiences relearn what their Flintstones-watching forebears already knew: Cartoons aren’t just for kids. With the stigma of watching animated shows as a grown-up gradually fading into nonexistence, animated television spent the ensuing decades experimenting with increasingly convoluted, hyperviolent, and melancholy comedic projects.
Today, viewers and networks seem to be in agreement that, when it comes to animated programming, the more adult the themes explored, the better. This trend is best exemplified by BoJack Horseman and Rick & Morty, two critically acclaimed shows that use the absurdity of their fantastical universes as Trojan horses to sneak in examinations of the myriad tragedies that come with being a human. These ultra-bleak toons of today stand on the shoulders of many comedic giants, but one show in particular seems to have laid an inordinate deal of the groundwork for our current era of depressing comedy animation.
At first blush, Moral Orel, the mid-aughts Claymation show about a good Christian boy named Orel Puppington misinterpreting sermons to comedic effect, appears to be a cut-and-dry send-up of Davey and Goliath. But its creator, Dino Stamatopoulos, will be the first to tell you that he’d always had larger satirical ambitions for Orel than simply parodying some Lutheran Church–produced kids show. In fact, his conception of the series was almost nothing like the final product.
“When I wrote the pilot to Moral Orel it wasn’t going to be stop-motion,” Stamatopoulos told me at Starburns Industries, his animation studio. “I thought because of the Bush administration and everything happening at the time, I could take this script I’d already wrote about a sort of Leave It to Beaver kid and just add Christianity to it and maybe we could do it with marionette puppets.”
Ultimately, Stamatopoulos’s lifelong love for stop-motion animation — he also produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Anomalisa — won out and he sold the show to Mike Lazzo and the suits at Adult Swim as an episodic TV-MA subversion of the wholesome ’60s clay show.
“I knew they were all very formulaic, but I grew up on cartoons that were formulaic,” says Stamatopoulos of the first season that he churned out in a month. “It wasn’t like now where characters have to change.”
Moral Orel’s first-season episode arcs did indeed follow a template wherein the pure-hearted titular character takes a lesson on virtue to extreme (e.g., avoiding wasting to the point of selling his own urine as a sports drink) before ultimately facing corporal punishment for his goof at the hands of his alcoholic father. “They were letting us have a 10-year-old masturbate over sleeping women,” recalls Scott Adsit, the voice of Orel’s father as well as a writer on the show.
It may come as a surprise that, despite the adult nature of the show and though the role was originally written with Iggy Pop in mind, Orel was voiced by Carolyn Lawrence, an actress best known for her voice work on children’s cartoons, chief among them her role as Sandy the squirrel on SpongeBob SquarePants.
“Dino and I go way back. I knew him in Chicago when we were all youngsters,” recalls Lawrence when asked how she got involved in a project so disparate from her usual work. “He was writing for a live-action sketch comedy show out here and they had used a little boy for a skit, and his speech was unintelligible, so he called me in to ADR for that boy. I guess years later, when he was writing the show, he remembered that I did that character. It meant so much to me that he cared and called me.”
Stamatopoulos, already growing bored with the production template he’d created for season one, decided to take Moral Orel’s Christmas-themed finale in a dark direction. In “The Best Christmas Ever,” our pious protagonist is painted as a pitiful rube, fruitlessly waiting for divine intervention while surrounded by an awful family and community too mired in their own moral failings to care for our sweet boy. But in a bizarre move that left most viewers confused if not tuned out, Adult Swim chose to premiere the show with this episode, pegging its holiday themes to the December 13 air date. Stamatopoulos, recognizing the leeway this afforded him, found a way to spin the blunder into a permission slip when the show was picked up for another season.
“Lazzo loved the Christmas ep, so I figured I could do more of that,” says Stamatopoulos of his approach to writing the second season. “He came back to me after [I wrote it] and said, ‘I wish it was more like season one. We need more sperm and piss.’ I was like, ‘Well, we kind of did that already and now I’m just exploring the characters.’ To be perfectly honest, I sold him this show and then I changed it on him. But I felt like it was the honest place to go. I get bored too easily.”
Stamatopoulos’s impulse to ditch the lowbrow humor of the first season would ultimately be what carried Orel to greatness and critical acclaim, but following that path took the show to heartbreaking places that made “The Best Christmas Ever” look like a Hallmark channel movie. Season two’s pitch-black two-part finale, “Nature,” takes Orel on a hunting trip that results in him getting shot by the drunken father he gradually realizes he hates.
“We were initially hoping it would be edgy and forward-thinking and a critique of hypocrisy,” says Adsit. “It didn’t become depressing until we really started writing the characters as human beings and exploring the human condition when it comes to devoting yourself to something that might be a lie.”
Again, Lazzo gushed over the “Nature” finale, even going so far as to call it “the best show [he’d] ever seen on TV,” according to Stamatopoulos.
“He’s feeding me the wrong information again, so season three became more of that,” chuckles Stamatopoulos. “You can’t really go back to status quo after that hunting trip.”
Season three somehow managed to up the depression ante, with each episode exploring the wretched existence of a different resident of Moralton, Orel’s hometown. The topics of rape, abortion, repressed homosexuality, and suicide were broached, but at this point in the series, they weren’t really played for laughs. The writers now treated their once purely spoof characters with dignity and empathy.
“There are moments where my heart broke for Orel while I was playing him,” recalls Lawrence. “He touched me emotionally more than any character I’ve ever played.”
Over the course of its three-season run, the show made no effort to hide its contempt for the hypocrisy of traditional religious institutions and the hateful, hypocritical creatures that glom onto them. Moralton’s reverend beds prostitutes, its puritanical librarian seduces Orel’s father, and all the other adults in town are gradually revealed to have a skeleton or two in their closet that flies in the face of scripture. Nonetheless, whether due to the writers’ compassionate, fair-minded approach to telling Orel & Co.’s stories or perhaps because Adult Swim didn’t promote the show much, Moral Orel was never really branded as an outright attack on Christianity. In fact, some Christians even came to appreciate the show’s nuanced take on religion. Adsit recalls that his own sister, who’d initially been offended at what she’d perceived as an attack on her faith, eventually came around.
“After the second season, she actually sat down and watched all of it,” Adsit says. “She said she spoke too soon and was too dismissive and she now got it and understood it wasn’t just an attack on Christianity, but on human behavior in general and the power of influence. And she told me, ‘I really liked it and thought it was really good and was surprised at how funny it was and I’m proud of you.’”
While the normie public may not have taken umbrage with Orel’s Christianity-skewering themes, Stamatopoulos recalls its Atlanta-based network blanching at some of those jokes more than others. “Because Adult Swim is [based] in the South, they didn’t mind racial humor as much,” says Stamatopoulos. “Religious humor, oddly enough, because it was a religious show, was different. I think we had an abortion joke that I had to take out and I replaced it with a race joke and it went. It was making fun of racists more than anything. And the abortion joke was making fun of Christians.”
Though Stamatopoulos had a five-season redemptive arc planned for Orel, season three proved too bleak for Adult Swim and the show was canceled mid-season, its episode order cut to 13. The execs apparently thought the content was just too dark for the late-night stoner audience that would soon come to worship the nihilistic worldview of Rick Sanchez.
“No criticism to the network, but I feel like when you have a creator like [Dino], you either trust him to finish his journey or you don’t, and I feel like they didn’t let him find a redemption,” says Lawrence. “He had a very clear path he was going on, and it was going to free up. It’s like in a feature film. You get to the crisis point and then you recover. But they didn’t let him recover.”
Four years after the 2008 series finale, Stamatopoulos claims he got a text from Lazzo stating that the network exec “may have been a bit premature in canceling [Moral Orel]” and was given the opportunity to return to Moralton. He pitched Before Orel, a prequel of sorts, to the network. Though it didn’t go, Adult Swim did agree to air the pilot as a half-hour special, and a backhanded compliment from Lazzo — “smart, amusing, but not really funny” — was even used in a mock-up promotional poster for the episode.
Though the network is now ostensibly done with the show, Lawrence hopes that we haven’t seen the last of Orel. “I miss playing him and would like to revisit it,” she says. “I’ve tried to convince [Dino] to take that journey to a feature film, because I feel it would be a great format for the bigger picture. Can we make this happen?”
But would Moral Orel even fit into the dark comedic landscape of today? Stamatopoulos thinks his creation might still be too grounded to connect with audiences were it airing today.
“People want happier things,” he suggests. “Monster movies started in the ’30s during the Depression and they were very dark. But once the real monsters came out, the ’40s monster movies were cleaned up. People don’t like dark things in dark times. Dark humor has to be couched in something silly and fanciful like BoJack Horseman or Rick & Morty. Anomalisa did not do well because that was dark on top of dark. It’s gotta have some kind of fun to it, too.”