'Moral Orel' Is the Most Depressing Adult Swim Show of All-Time

On the tenth anniversary of the satirical stop-motion show, we talked to creator Dino Stamatopoulos about how it depicted the American family in a way <i>The Simpsons</i> never could.

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Dec 26 2015, 3:00pm

Images courtesy of Dino Stamatopolous

Moral Orel was originally supposed to be a 1950s-style live action sitcom featuring Iggy Pop, but the rock star didn't read the script. Instead, it became a satirical stop-motion show that started weird and ended bleak.

When the now-cult classic originally aired on Adult Swim in December 2005, the network intentionally ran the premier season's final episode first, confusing and alienating viewers. But to those who stuck around for three seasons, the program revealed itself to be a rare gem that inverted what to expect from Adult Swim, especially since it evolved into something that was anything but funny. A decade after its cancellation, the show's final moments involving a literal light at the end of a tunnel are still ingrained in the psyches of many of its diehard fans.

Created by Dino Stamatopolous (Mr. Show, MAD TV, Community), Moral Orel was a black comedy about a fundamentalist Protestant Christian town called Moralton in the direct center of the Bible Belt. It follows a kid named Orel Puppington, whose commitment to doing right by God ends up getting him into situations that would give any holy person anxiety, from getting a Prince Albert piercing and becoming an alcoholic, to selling his urine.

It was inappropriate, biting, and funny, sort of like a Davey & Goliath for stoners. But as the series progressed, the tone skirted further from being haha funny and delved into something where you weren't sure whether to laugh or cry. The humor was replaced with character studies, often dealing with subjects like child abuse, realistic dysfunctional families, and death. And Adult Swim did not like it. The third season was cut from 20 episodes to 13, and it opened, maybe tellingly, with the Mountain Goats song "No Children." But to many, the third season's dreary, sincere exploration of big concepts like morality and mortality was what made it so memorable.

For Moral Orel's tenth anniversary, I got ahold of Dino Stamatopoulos on Skype after a marathon binge of all its 43 episodes and its one prequel special. After telling him this, he said, "I hope you aren't too depressed."

VICE: Can you tell me about how the show came about?
Dino Stamatopolous: I had written a script about ten years earlier for Iggy Pop because I had just seen him in concert. I wanted him to play a kid in a live action show, so I wrote a script where he was a good kid who just fucked up a lot. The first episode I wrote ended up becoming the urine episode of Moral Orel in season one called "Waste." I met with Iggy and gave him a copy of the script and he seemed very distracted at the time. We were at Life Cafe in New York and he kept being like, "Sorry, man, there's just so much pussy." I don't think he ever read it.

What was it about older programs like Davey & Goliath that made you want to create a parody show?
I hesitate to use the word "parody" because I don't even remember [ Davey & Goliath]. I knew it was a stop motion thing about religion. When I finally went back and looked at the show, it was nothing like Moral Orel, really. It was about this kid who did bad things and got lectured by his parents about how God would react to what Davey did. Orel and Davey are very different characters. Davey knows he's bad. He's not trying to do good all the time. He's a normal kid living in a Christian society. Orel is superhuman when it comes to his love of God.

So why exactly did you want to explore religion in a TV show?
I just thought it was perfect timing. They wanted me to do the show in stop motion, Bush was in the White House, and the religious right was out of control. They still are, but 2005 was sort of the scary beginning of it, I feel. It was just the perfect storm for this show.

There are moments throughout the first season that stand out as particularly sad compared to the rest of the episode they appear in, like at the end of the Halloween episode when Putty is eating alone at church, in silence, as his window gets egged. How did the depressing tone start to emerge?
I had to write season one very quickly. Adult Swim wanted the scripts very fast, and they wanted the show to happen right after Robot Chicken. I was brought in to the Robot Chicken studio, Shadow Machine, and I wrote those first ten scripts in about a month. I used a very basic template. I didn't think much of it, but I knew I wanted this family to be very real. I realize I'm in the minority here, but the first season of The Simpsons was the best season because it was about the most real family on TV. I wanted Moral Orel to have the opposite of the progression that happened in The Simpsons, which went from being a real family into a very cartoony family.

Adult Swim, of course, wanted the funniest show possible. [Adult Swim creative director] Mike Lazzo still swears that season one of Moral Orel is the best one, and I disagree completely. At first, I just gave him what he wanted—a funny show. But as I was writing, I began understanding who the characters were more and more, so as we got deeper into season one, it started to become darker and more interesting.

Why did Adult Swim decide to air the Christmas episode, the first season's finale, as the pilot?
Adult Swim loves bad decisions. I don't mean that in a derogatory way, I mean they literally love bad decisions. They thought this was the funniest thing that we could do: Air this serious Christmas episode that ends in a cliffhanger and confuses everyone. They love [stuff like] that as much as they love April Fools Day.

So it's 2005, and season one isn't starting because Standards & Practices is too afraid to put this show out. December [came] and they said, "It's almost Christmas now. Let's have that episode be our debut. This is one of the strongest episodes in terms of blasphemy. If we can air this episode and show S&P that no one is going to picket us, then you got a better chance to air all the episodes."

I really wanted the shows to air in order, or else we'd be fucked. But by then, I was fucked anyway. So I agreed to just do it. I had an inkling that people were going to be confused and angered, and I don't think we ever got our footing after that. A lot of people wrote off Moral Orel forever.

Going into season two, what did you want to do differently?
I wanted to learn more about the entire town, so the focus changed to another character in every episode. You'd have an episode with Reverend Putty, an episode with Coach Stopframe, and I used season one as sort of a workbook. I would find non sequitur jokes and build whole episodes around them.

If Adult Swim liked the really depressing Christmas episode, why didn't they like some of the darker aspects of the third, final season?
I don't think Lazzo wanted to get that serious all the time. In some ways, I sabotaged [the show]. I did season two and tried to make it as funny as season one, and it turned out that Lazzo loved the two-part episode "Nature" and said it was the best episode of TV that was ever on at that point. I felt that was a green light to go ahead with my plan and make season three serious.

So, in some ways, they were getting what they wished for?
Yeah, but Lazzo realized I had killed his favorite character, Orel, as an innocent. He's right. I fucked up. I fucked up [Orel]. I love season three and I feel like I could still go three or four more seasons and get into Moralton as a town.

I think Lazzo felt personally affronted by what I did to Orel and cancelled it a little bit out of spite. I like Lazzo, I still talk to him, we're still friends. He wants to do another Moral Orel special, but he said, "It better be hilarious. I know you got it in you." I don't know how to make Moral Orel hilarious anymore. To me, the seriousness has humor in it.

Why do you think they cancelled the show?
Lazzo wrote me after reading the episode "Numb" and said, "There's only one joke in this script." I wrote him back, tongue-in-cheek, and said "Well, tell me where the joke is and I'll take it out." He said, "Well, I hope they get funnier." And they do.

But then I delivered a rough cut of "Alone" [in which the character Bloberta mutilates herself] and then delivered him a follow-up script called "Raped." He read it and said, "That's it; I gotta pull the plug." It was really a one-two-three punch, but "Alone" is what did it.

Clay Puppington is the most miserable character I've ever seen on TV. What about him comes from you?
I think he's who I would be if I didn't get a divorce. Clay is like what things would be like if I didn't even have the option to end my own marriage, which I think evangelism forces upon you. I would've had no one to blame but myself. I'm just not that good in a relationship. For the record, I didn't have a bad divorce and I still see my kid as often as a 16-year-old wants to see me.

What were the deleted story threads that would've been included in season three if it wasn't cut shorter?
Orel's grandfather was supposed to move back with the family because he's dying. Clay would have thrown him into Orel's room, so he'd be sharing his bed with a dying man who is no longer religious and more pragmatic.

Was Orel going to have a crisis of faith?
After his grandfather died, he would've become more of a goth kid, and gotten into "death rock," but not the Christian kind.

How do you think Orel grew up over the course of the show?
I think he's always had a good heart. He saw that his dad was corrupt, but he got enough nurturing from certain people in town and became a good person at the end, anyway. I wanted him to stay with religion because I don't think he'd ever get angry with God, but rather just the way that God was interpreted, which is what the show is about: interpretation.

Now that ten years have passed, are you happy with the show as-is?
I'm happy with the last episode. I would've loved to finish it off the way I wanted to, but who is to say I wouldn't have fucked up in some way? It certainly ended on a positive note, and people responded to it in a good way.

Lazzo wants more specials and I don't know if I can write another piece of Moral Orel that's just plain humorous. I have the poster here from when we did [the special episode] Beforel Orel , and there's a quote from him that says, "Smart, amusing, but not really funny."

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