Comedian Hari Kondabolu is blowing up right now because of his documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” which aired on TruTV last weekend. In it, he raises the vital questions about famed “The Simpsons” character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Why does Apu exist? How did he become the face of South Asian-Americans on television? How do we get rid of him?
For the most part, “The Problem with Apu” is an excellent commentary not only by Kondabolu but also the many well-known South Asian-American faces he converses with over the course of 49 minutes. You’ll see actors you love like Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Sakina Jaffrey, Aasif Mandvi, Utkarsh Ambudkar. You’ll see his fellow comedians like Hasan Minhaj, Aparna Nancherla, Russell Peters. You’ll even see the 19th U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. He also snagged the EGOT winning legend, Whoopi Goldberg for her sage wisdom.
Plus, Kondabolu doesn’t forget to include important members of “The Simpsons” legacy so you’ll hear from Dana Gould, the writer and co-executive producer of the show, John Ortved, the author of “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History,” and you’ll see the voice of Apu, Hank Azaria. Okay, you won’t really see him, but you’ll see clips of various interviews by the actor and voiceover artist.
Azaria’s absence in the documentary is often addressed by Kondabolu himself. In fact, his goal was to bring Azaria on this film for an open conversation, which is what I thought the documentary was building up to. And I assumed, like a good ole’ TV episode often does, “The Problem with Apu” would end with a heartfelt twist. Spoiler alert: there was not an happy ending, though there is certainly a thoughtful one.
“My mission is to figure out how we ended up with Apu and how we can get rid of him,” Kondabolu announces in the documentary. He is earnest with this mission and it shows. There’s humor, of course, but it’s obviously grounded in reality. The film is much-needed today to increase awareness about Apu and the fact that most people don’t even know he is voiced by a white actor. It also comes at a time when South Asian-American portrayal in mainstream media is finally on the rise in the right way. It’s a bridge between what has been and the step forward in showing what we can be. What we are.
Kondabolu’s quest didn’t begin recently. He talks about how while growing up in Brooklyn, he always loved “The Simpsons.” At 17 and struggling, he milked his ethnicity for 4-5 years to get all the curry jokes out of his system as an upcoming stand-up artist. It was his only asset. Then 9/11 happened. He wanted to shift his comedy towards the way he wanted to be seen. This meant being real in the face of the many South Asian jokes he had been hearing and telling. His comedy career has been on the rise over the last few years for good reason. Recently, he was honored by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Diwali.
All of it led to “The Problem with Apu.”
In the film, Kal Penn (“Harold & Kumar,” “Designated Survivor”) is honest about his dislike for “The Simpsons.” He couldn’t divorce Apu and the show, unlike Kondabolu. Dr. Murthy opens up about being bullied when he was in seventh grade with the Apu accent. Ansari recalls an incident when he was driving with his father and someone rolled down the windows of their car, imitated and mocked them with Apu dialogues. Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock”) talks about going to 7/11’s as a kid and hoping it wasn’t a South Asian behind the counter because it would fuel his friends to endlessly make fun of him. Clearly, Apu haunted them all.
“The Mindy Project” actor Utkarsh Ambudkar joined the cast of “The Simpsons” last year for the episode “Much Apu About Something.” In it, he plays Jamshed aka Jay, Apu’s Indian-American nephew. He calls out his uncle for being the stereotypical desi, voicing what many have been feeling for 20+ years. Ambudkar brings up a good point: “The Simpsons” unabashedly stereotypes everything, every race. Chinese, Italians, Japanese. However, for South Asians, the FOX comedy is all we had for a very long time.
To top it all, Apu isn’t even voiced by a South Asian. Hank Azaria is obviously a talented actor and voiceover artist, even Kondabolu’s mother says so in the documentary. He’s won an Emmy for voicing Apu. That’s right, they gave an award to the white guy doing a fake desi accent. It’s hard not to take that personally. It’s worse that Apu is blatantly typecasted, which has caused audience perception to barrel down in one direction when it comes to seeing South Asians: store owners, filthy cheap, only arranged marriages, a really bad accent and more. It became so appealing to viewers who didn’t know any better, South Asian actors were asked to fake the accent, too.
Azaria doesn’t speak openly about this role he’s had for 27 years. In 2013, in a rare case, he spoke with Mallika Rao about it and she wrote an article called “Is It Time to Retire Apu?” Rao also appears in “The Problem with Apu” to remind all of us that up until that point, Azaria hadn’t even thought about the implications of any of it. “He hadn’t thought about what it meant for real-life Apu, a real-life Indian-American person,” she recalled.
Don’t worry, though, because Kondabolu gives a fair chance to those behind the scenes on “The Simpsons” to justify Apu’s one-sided depiction. He talks to Dana Gould, who is ready to fire back with every statement. He says matter-of-factly that certain accents are inherently funny to white Americans and their job as writers of the comedy show was to use this knowledge. Gould believes it’s not worth it for “The Simpsons” to change Apu’s whole narrative just for the sake of updating him to modern times. That speaks volumes because it raises the important question of whether success makes it okay to be racist?
Let’s just make it clear. What goes on in the writer’s room is what is reflected on-screen. Nancherla, who works as a writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” states in her chat with Kondabolu that if the writers are all white and all male, they will never get the inappropriateness of most of their jokes. She is spot on.
Hearing all these voices in the documentary makes one thing clear: there really is a problem with Apu. We now have shows like “The Mindy Project,” “Master of None,” “Community,” “The Good Place,” and more, which prominently features South Asian-Americans and their multi-faceted personalities. I mean, yes, Apu is beloved, funny and a favorite of many, but is he really? We have better inspirations. Inspirations who reflect us. Kondabolu makes it a point in his documentary to include many of them. This personal touch by so many people is what makes “The Problem with Apu” heartfelt. You sympathize with the stories you hear because they’re possibly your own stories, too.
A lot of the criticism he has received is based on some notion that Kondabolu is simply venting pent-up frustration. As a South Asian living in America and also as a human, I can tell you it’s deeper than that. All the people you hear from in the documentary is proof. Apu is visceral in many ways and not worthy of representing the diaspora all over the world.
My one hope for it was to hear from actor Kunal Nayyar, who has played Rajesh Koothrapali on “The Big Bang Theory” for ten years now. It’s one of the most-watched sitcoms today, so you would assume it shoulders some responsibility of doing good by Raj. Instead, he remains the least developed character. Most of the jokes about him continue to be somehow India-related and racist, even. As good as Nayyar is as an actor, there’s something amiss with Raj, who has had no growth. After Apu, Raj was one of the main South Asian characters to be prominently featured in an American show. It would’ve been interesting to hear his thoughts.
While “The Problem with Apu” is enjoyable and eye-opening, it doesn’t provide any real solution to end the Apu problem. Gould basically says Apu will probably remain as he is. Some of the ideas thrown around include Apu dropping the accent or just killing the Indian immigrant character off. Adding a little more focus here would make the documentary more well-rounded. I think another way to possibly make Apu a better character is to get rid of Azaria completely. As shown in “The Problem with Apu,” there are plenty of South Asian-American actors who can voice him. Due diligence, people. It’s time.
The crux of the whole thing comes towards the end. This is important because it’s the culmination of this back and forth between Kondabolu and Azaria about appearing in the documentary. It’s Kondabolu’s final few scenes that really bring out the essence of “The Problem with Apu” and why it was made in the first place, so the Indian stand-up comedian could have the platform of his choice to vocalize an important issue. Or so that he could punch a large cutout of Azaria. You watch and decide.