Spoilers for The Problem with Apu follow
There’s a new documentary on TruTV called The Problem With Apu. If you subscribe to a cable network that carries TruTV, you can watch the show here. It’s by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu and shows how Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on long-running cartoon sitcom The Simpsons is a ridiculous stereotype. Of course so many characters on The Simpsons are stereotypes, but Kondabolu and the other prominent Indian-Americans he interviews convincingly break down why that character is so problematic and stigmatizing.
Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect) explained it best.
The Simpsons stereotype all races, the problem is we didn’t have any other representation in this country. [Voiceover by Kondabolu: There was no Aziz, no Mindy, no Kal (in the late 80s/90s)... Apu reflected how America viewed us, servile, devious, goofy] and that creates a problem when the most popular show on television is showing mainstream Americans what an Indian is and it’s a potbellied dude who can’t speak English [and] is an idiot basically.
(Ambudkar actually played Apu’s American nephew on The Simpsons in 2016 in an episode that half addressed the issue of Apu as a racist stereotype and then dismissed it. A clip from that is below.)
Kondabolu asked a room full of South Asian actors and comedians how many of them have been called “Apu” or otherwise mocked using Apu’s trademark phrases and almost everyone raised their hand. The former Surgeon General from 2014 – 2017 under President Obama, Vivek Murthy, shared a story about his seventh grade bully using Apu’s accent to taunt him. Aziz Ansari (Master of None) has a similar story about a guy pulling up beside his car and using Apu’s accent to mock him and his father.
As for why the accent is offensive, several South Asians explained that it’s usurping their culture when a white person does it. Noureen DeWulf (Anger Management) broke it down. “There’s nothing wrong with doing an accent. An accent is a crucial part of a character. It’s when the accent lends itself to being part of a joke about the person, it’s a racist dig. That’s when the accent is problematic.”
Kondabolu describes Hank Azaria’s depiction of Apu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” Azaria has claimed it was the producers’ idea to make Apu Indian, but producers claim they only made Apu Indian after Azaria read the lines that way. Azaria is well aware of Kondabolu and of the issues around Apu being a racist stereotype. He did an interview with The Huffington Post in 2013, for an article titled “Is it Time To Retire Apu?” acknowledging Kondabolu’s argument against the character. “If the only representation of Jews in our culture was Robin Williams’ impression of a Yiddish guy [from “The Birdcage,” starring both Williams and Azaria], I guess I might be upset with that too.”
However when Kondabolu tried repeatedly to get Azaria to sit for an interview for his documentary he declined, ultimately sending a polite email stating he would be interviewed only when the documentary wrapped as he wanted to control how he was portrayed. The irony of this was not lost on Kondabolu. Now that The Problem about Apu is out, Azaria has deigned to comment. He talked to a TMZ paparazzo at the airport about it:
“I think the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot to think about and we really are thinking about it.
“Definitely anybody that was hurt or offended by it, or by any character or vocal performance, it’s really upsetting that it was offensive or hurtful to anybody.
“I think it’s an important conversation worth having. We’re still thinking about it. It’s a lot to digest.”
This is the classic “I’m sorry you were offended” response. As Kondabolu states this isn’t on Azaria, he’s an actor playing a part. The fact that Azaria has worked on the show for nearly 30 years gives him enough clout to request changes, however.
Dana Gould, a writer and producer on The Simpsons from 2001 to 2008, basically told Kondabolu that Apu wouldn’t be funny if he didn’t have an accent “Sober Barney, not funny, out Smithers, not as funny. Humor comes out of conflict.”
There goes the argument I was forming in my head that if Barney got sober, Apu could lose the accent. I’m a longterm Simpsons fan although I have only caught it occasionally over the past few seasons. The show has lost its luster. That could be due in large part to its inability to modernize its characters, however many people claim that’s part of its charm and staying power. When a show refuses to change and clings to characters that are patently offensive, it’s a problem, which Kondabolu has decisively shown.
Here’s the episode of The Simpsons from January, 2016, “Much Apu about Something,” that addressed and then dismissed Apu as a stereotype, making a comparison to another stereotypical Italian character. The video starts at the relevant part.
photos credit: WENN, Fox