Fri. Jun 9th, 2023

Back in 2017, the comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called The Problem With Apu that criticized the simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — more specifically, how casting white actor Hank Azaria as an Indian character reinforced South Asian stereotypes. Kondabolu and Azaria had their first public conversation since then on a new episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast.

“I was about 22, 23 when I started doing voices on [The Simpsons],” Azaria told Kondabolu. “There was an Apu line, and it was just written as ‘clerk.’ The director I was working with at the time said, ‘can you do an Indian accent?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I can try,’ and did my version of an Indian accent and that was it. The only really Indian accent that I had context for, apart from guys who worked at the 7-Eleven that I was near in LA, was Peter Sellers in The Party. It was mostly an homage to that, one of my heroes.”

Following The Problem With Apu, The Simpsons smugly addressed the controversy in a 2018 episode that won at “political correctness.” Shortly thereafter, when creator Matt Groening was asked in an interview how he felt about the kerfuffle, he responded that he thought “it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” By 2020, Azaria confirmed he’d no longer be voicing Apu.

Azaria didn’t appear in The Problem With Apu, a choice Kondabolu said “upset” him: “I was afraid,” Azaria explained. “You’re a comedian. And some of your stuff is ‘gotcha.’ It has to bite it, as it should. It’s hilarious and it makes good points. But being on the other end of that really scared me. At the time, I didn’t feel safe to have the conversation privately, let alone recorded… although whatever I feel personally about it is a drop in the ocean compared to what your community has had to deal with.”

Azaria was ultimately compassionate towards Kondabolu and his gripes with Apu, adding that he was “grateful for [Kondabolu] dragging and pushing [him] into this conversation.”

“The documentary is about how I hate being associated with this stereotype and now I’m forever associated with it,” Kondabolu went on. “Representation has weight, but it’s not necessarily the act of violence in itself. But the person who was making [Apu] wanted a very specific effect out of the images and words that they used… In the broad scheme of things, I think I did right by my community. Even if they’re not all in agreement.”

Listen to Kondabolu and Azaria chat on Code Switch below.

Shortly after Azaria confirmed he’d no longer be voicing Apu, The Simpsons producers announced they’d no longer be casting white actors as non-white characters.

By cb2gp