By Skyler Romero
“Thank you, come again!” There’s a strong chance that if you grew up within the last thirty years or so, you read that in your head with a very specific voice and a very particular accent. That voice belongs to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a classic character from the absurdly long-running animated sitcom “The Simpsons”. Since it first attained wild popularity in the early 90’s thanks to its irreverent humor and incisive wit, “The Simpsons” has remained a cornerstone of the Fox network’s programming schedule, and the character of Apu has been a part of it since the very first season, and continues to appear regularly.
Voiced by Caucasian American actor Hank Azaria, Apu is an Indian immigrant who runs a convenience store. Typical jokes surrounding the character have referenced his attachment to his convenience store, the shady routines he follows to conducts business and the comically high number of times he has been shot in robberies. He eventually enters an arranged marriage that he initially rejects but ultimately comes to accept, and the union results in the birth of octuplets.
While Apu is often portrayed as hardworking and somewhat more clever than many of his Springfield neighbors, the Indian stereotypes used to construct his backstory and identity are somewhat difficult to dismiss. Recent years have seen a surge in controversy surrounding the potentially offensive nature of the character, with one of his most vocal critics being comedian Hari Kondabolu. With his 2017 documentary film, “The Problem with Apu,” Kondabolu attempts to reconcile his complicated feelings toward Apu through interviews with entertainers including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Whoopi Goldberg. While Kondabolu considers himself a huge fan of “The Simpsons,” he doesn’t mince words about what he feels is the overall negative effect of a character like Apu. For instance, he repeatedly refers to the accent used by Azaria to voice Apu as, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Unfortunately, this description is not very far off from what the documentary uncovers about Apu’s origins, which vary depending on who you ask. According to Azaria himself, Apu was born when the producers of “The Simpsons,” directed him to do a stereotypical Indian accent, even going so far as to ask, “how offensive can you make it?” “Simpsons” producer Mike Reiss tells a different story, wherein Azaria ignored a request from the producers to not use an Indian accent for what was at the time an unnamed convenience store employee. Either way, it seems clear that the origins of Apu are rooted in the ostensible humor of Indian stereotypes.
Earlier this month, “The Simpsons” itself re-ignited the debate by addressing it in an episode of the show where Marge, the matriarch of the Simpsons clan, discovers that a book she loved as a child is actually filled with outdated racial stereotypes. When she asks in exasperation, “What am I supposed to do?,” her daughter Lisa turns directly to the camera and says, “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” In case the viewer can’t tell what all this fourth-wall breaking is all about, the camera pans out to reveal a portrait of Apu sitting on Lisa’s nightstand, before Marge assures the viewer that the issue will be handled at a later date, with Lisa blithely adding, “…if at all.”
This statement was widely seen as a dismissal of the legitimate concerns raised by Kondabolu’s documentary, with Kondabolu himself tweeting in response, “Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man I really loved this show. This is sad,” before continuing, “The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”
For his part, Hank Azaria also expressed dismay at the way the show handled the matter during an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” asserting that the views expressed in the episode are, “certainly not the way I feel about it.”
Azaria went on to advocate for more diversity in writers’ rooms throughout the television industry before telling Colbert that he would be, “perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what “The Simpsons” does; it not only makes sense but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”
The problem with Apu has proven to be a complex and divisive one, where even the creators of the show and the actor behind the character seem to have reached an impasse on how he should be handled moving forward. With the creators seemingly unwilling to engage with the debate, Azaria becoming more sensitive to the criticisms, and people sharing Kondabolu’s opinion refusing to let the matter rest, it seems that some sort of change must be forthcoming. The Apu portrait inexplicably sitting on Lisa’s nightstand may have read, “Don’t have a cow, man!,” but it seems unlikely that this debate will be settled in such a simple manner anytime soon.