The Simpsons has faced criticism lately of one of its long-running, recurring characters, Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, voiced by Hank Azaria. Critics say the character is offensive for promoting racial stereotypes of Indians.
Now Azaria has spoken out about the controversy and even claims he’s willing to give up the role he’s voiced since 1990. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new,” he said during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“It really just makes me sad,” he said, commenting that his goal was to bring joy and laughter to people with the character. He claimed that learning his character had been used to marginalize people of Indian descent was “upsetting” to him, and hopes that South Asian writers will join The Simpsons to genuinely affect any new direction Apu’s character may take.
Azaria won an Emmy in 1998 for playing Apu, and has since gone on to win three additional Emmy Awards for his work on The Simpsons, where he voices a multitude of popular characters including Moe the bartender, Police Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, the Sea Captain and Disco Stu.
The backlash to Apu gained national prominence with the arrival of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. In the film, Kondabolu says he loves everything about The Simpsons except for Apu. Apu’s character is flat, unchanging and played for stereotypical laughs, he argues.
The documentary includes interviews with celebrities about racial stereotypes about South Asians that are repeated so much in pop culture staples such as The Simpsons that they’ve become ingrained into America’s consciousness.
Several actors interviewed in the documentary, including Harold and Kumar star Kal Penn, said that Apu was a common reference in episodes of school bullying they experienced. Comedian Aziz Ansari also recalled a time he was driving with his father only to be taunted by people referencing Apu. Noticeably absent from the documentary is an interview with Hank Azaria himself, although Kondabolu tried to get Azaria to appear in it.
The problem with Apu in Kondabolu’s mind it that he represents Hollywood’s blind spots. Kondabolu argues that the problem is not that Apu is now considered politically incorrect in 2018, but rather that Apu’s character has been offensive to many people for years with little access or opportunity for their objections to be heard.
Now in its 29th season, The Simpsons addressed the issue in its April 8 episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” in a manner that many felt was a slap in the face.
In a mother and daughter scene, Marge and Lisa discuss a story called The Princess in the Garden that had all the edgy or potentially offensive parts edited out to meet the “political correctness” standards of 2018.
The end of the scene featured a portrait of Apu on Lisa’s nightstand with the inscription “Don’t have a cow,” and Marge saying, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” Lisa replies, “If at all.”
Azaria commented on The Late Show that he had nothing to do with this response to the Apu controversy and doesn’t agree with how it was handled in the episode.
Facing backlash over the episode from fans, The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean commented on Twitter that he appreciated all of the responses and would “continue to try and find an answer that is popular and more important [sic] right.”
Meanwhile, The Problem with Apu documentarian Hari Kondabolu criticized The Simpsons for addressing his documentary at all. “You’re not supposed to respond to me, you’re The Simpsons! You’re supposed to just keep going, pretend nothing happened. The fact that they buckled like that, to me, is also an indication of, like, white fragility,” Kondabolu said in a podcast called Represent.