Is there really a problem with Apu?

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By Seth Tamarkin, Contributing Writer

As far as influence goes, The Simpsons is something like the bible to many comedians. The creators of Family GuyKing of the HillSouth Park, and Rick and Morty to name a few have all cited Simpsons as their main influence. Another uniting factor with all the shows is that they feature white people voicing non-white characters. Of course, the first example of this is none other than The Simpsons, and after 29 years they’re beginning to take a lot of heat over their resident Indian character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. 

Last year, Indian comedian Hari Kondablou made a documentary called The Problem with Apu addressing Apu’s offensiveness through interviews with other South Asian actors and many sharp critiques towards Hank Azaria, Apu’s white voice actor who Kondablou says is “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”.  

Months later, The Simpsons finally responded in last week’s episode No Good Read Goes Unpunished. The episode features Marge reading her favorite childhood book to Lisa but quickly realizes it’s entrenched in racist stereotypes. She decides to edit out any offensive parts but her and Lisa agree that the politically correct version has “lost its meaning”. 

Then, with a framed photo of Apu with the words “don’t have a cow” next to her, Lisa breaks the fourth wall and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” 

As it is apt to do, the internet erupted in anger. Op-eds raged about the show’s callous response and The Guardian even called for the show to end. But at the end of the day, maybe The Simpsons has a point? 

The AV Club used one clip of Kondablou’s documentary where a “Simpsons showrunner admit that the show is more interested in laughs than accuracy” as a key point, but where is the issue? If you look up ‘comedy’ in the dictionary, it says it is “intended to make the audience laugh” not intend to be extremely accurate. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “People think that it’s the census or something. It’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of America. Who cares?” 

One issue that bothered Kondablou is that Apu didn’t represent him well. However, a man named Amir Shah made a long twitter thread about how Apu was very accurate to his hardworking Indian parents who owned a convenience store and asked why no one ever interviewed Desi convenience store owners like him or his dad. Kondablou replied that he DID interview many Desi store owners, yet they were left on the “cutting room floor due to time”. So, the only people who would have legitimatized Apu were cut “due to time” yet he included multiple segments where he fought a Hank Azaria graphic Mortal Kombat-style. As far as accuracy goes, that seems like a glaring omission. 

Another one of Kondablou’s points is that Apu caused him to get bullied at school. In one scene with other prominent Indian comedians like Kal Penn and Hasan Minhaj, he asks them if they had ever been bullied in some way with an Apu taunt, and almost all said yes. Minutes later though, Penn shares a story with Kondablou how an Indian-American child told Penn people name-called him ‘Kumar’, as in from Penn’s film Harold & Kumar. This shows that, unsurprisingly, even if Apu didn’t exist or was voiced by an Indian, racists were going to make fun of Kondablou regardless. 

Finally, in Kondablou’s response to Shah’s twitter thread, he added “these stories should be told with the honesty & care that you showed.” Clearly, he missed Shah’s entire point that Simpsons told those stories in a caring way. He’s among the most fleshed-out characters in the entire Simpsons cast, getting no less than twenty episodes where he shares a starring role with the Simpsons. That amounts to a whole season’s worth of episodes that develop Apu past an admittedly insensitive stereotype. 

Kondablou offers important criticisms but lacks solutions. Ultimately, the only way for Apu to not become a problem is to have enough South Asian representation on television so South Asians don’t have to rely on The Simpsons. In 2018, with Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra, Hari Kondablou and others landing in starring roles, that realization may finally be coming true. 

Photo Courtesy: Village Voice

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