The voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, white actor Hank Azaria is finally openly addressing the famed yet vexing Indian-American “The Simpsons” character he’s been playing for 29 years. Although always problematic, Apu’s stereotypical persona came into question more publicly than ever before thanks to comedian Hari Kondabolu’s excellent documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” which aired in November 2017.
In this documentary, Kondabolu shared his personal experiences of growing up in Queens, working in comedy, and how Apu influenced it all. He also spoke with other members of the industry like Aasif Mandvi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aparna Nancherla, Sakina Jaffrey about their own journeys. Months after it premiered, Azaria is talking about the impact Apu had in the South Asian community in America. This fact is even more special because in “The Problem with Apu,” Kondabolu essentially goes on a quest to speak with Azaria to no avail.
As much as I wish Azaria had the courage to sit down with Kondabolu and talk about this, I appreciate that he not only addressed the situation but did it well. Yes, the same Azaria who, until now, was conspicuously and fairly silent about voicing the role. For years, he’s technically played an Indian immigrant with a thick (fake) accent, perpetuating stereotypes like he’s paid to do it (oh, that’s right, he is) but hasn’t honestly discussed it. Serious kudos to Kondabolu for doing what he did with this documentary; for highlighting the problem with Apu and finally make the South Asian community feel heard.
Azaria was a guest on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” last night to talk about the new season of his IFC comedy “Brockmire.” Before getting to it, however, Colbert took the opportunity to ask him about the ongoing Apu situation. Azaria said that in the beginning, the outrage surprised him but not anymore, especially because it has sparked an important conversation.
“The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad. It wasn’t my intention. I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character. The idea that it brought pain and suffering, the idea that Apu was used to marginalize people is genuinely upsetting.”
When questioned about “The Simpsons” weak comeback in a recent episode, in which they used Lisa Simpson, the biggest proponent of social justice, to shut down the conversation, Azaria said he had nothing to do with the writing or voicing of it. He saw it pretty much with the rest of the country. The show’s take was certainly not the way he felt or the message he wanted to send.
So, what is the message he wants to send? Azaria gave an eloquent, heartfelt reply, one that I’m sure we’ve longed to hear for a while now:
“I’ve given this a lot of thought, really, a lot of thought. As I said, my eyes have been opened. The most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character and what their American experience has been. As you know, in TV terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writer’s room. I really want to see Indian/South Asian writers in the room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced. I am perfectly willing and happy to step aside and help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what “The Simpsons” does. Not only does it make sense, it feels like the right thing to do.”
This is the response we’ve been waiting for. It’s the response we deserve. It’s the response Kondabolu deserves for months of working hard on the documentary to shed a light on a forgotten situation. It’s unfortunate that it took him 29 years to come to this realization and then acknowledge it, directly speaking to the need for more inclusivity off-screen and not just on-screen.
Here’s hoping “The Simpsons” take the hint.