For a particular generation that came of age in the 90’s, The Simpsons might be the most important show of our lives. We quoted lines from the show incessantly, and in many ways it shaped the way our generation looked at comedy, culture and politics. Yet for how often the show claimed to be an equal opportunity dispenser of cultural stereotypes, the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart, has long been a source pain and embarrassment for many South Asians.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu was a huge fan of The Simpsons growing up, but started to look at the character of Apu in a new light following 9/11, when a hostile attitude against anyone considered “other” became more pervasive. As Kondabolu began to incorporate a critical look at systematic racism into his comedy, he turned his attention towards Apu, still by far the most recognizable South Asian American character in the mainstream consciousness.
In Kondabolu’s The Problem With Apu, which aired on TruTV on Sunday, he attempts to reckon with the fact that Apu is voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria, who has voiced dozens of characters on the show). Kondabolu is not alone in his anger towards Apu – the documentary also features interviews with Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Aparna Nancherla and Russell Peters, among others, who discuss how the character of Apu has shaped their lives growing up, and affected their careers in the entertainment industry.
As Kondabolu readily acknowledges, The Simpsons makes fun of everybody – every culture and class has been skewered over the course of the show’s 29 (!) seasons. What separates Apu from the pack is the fact that South Asian Americans are extremely underrepresented in popular culture — for many people, Apu is often the primary example of a South Asian American that they will come across.
As the film’s participants recount being bullied with Apu’s “Thank you come again,” catchphrase growing up, and recall how they would be asked to use a highly stereotypical “Indian” voice in auditions, it becomes clear that this one Simpsons character has had a massive ripple effect on our culture.
The central thrust of Kondabolu’s documentary is his attempt to meet with Hank Azaria on camera to discuss his grievances with Apu. While Azaria eventually declines to participate in the film, Kondabolu does manage to speak with long-time Simpsons writer Dana Gould, who attempts to balance the show’s comic license with Kondabolu’s grievances.
It’s a tense but thought-provoking discussion that highlights much of the chasm in comedy right now — the wish to be completely un-filtered and go for the biggest laugh, versus the desire to ensure equal representation both in front of and behind the camera while punching upwards, i.e. hitting at those with the most power, not the least. While the two are by no means mutually exclusive, as Kondabolu’s doc shows, the power structure behind most of pop culture is still run by white men, who then get to decide what is (or isn’t) culturally insensitive or offensive.
Towards the end of the film, Kondabolu meets with Whoopi Goldberg, who admits that Azaria’s portrayal of Apu is in line with minstrel shows, where white performers would don blackface for their depictions of black characters. It’s a hard-hitting accusation that hammers home that Azaria’s portrayal of Apu is not only culturally insensitive, but flat-out racist.
Kondabolu’s drive to rid the world of Apu is something every Simpsons fan should have to reckon with. Rather than a case of “PC hysteria” run amok (a notion the doc addresses early on), Kondabolu presents a compelling case that this simple animated convenience store owner has had a negative impact on our culture for decades now. You may not agree with Kondabolu’s belief that it’s beyond time to officially retire Apu, but you’ll definitely never look at The Simpsons the same way again after watching this compelling doc.