Comedian Hari Kondabolu on Making ‘The Problem With Apu’

A new documentary on truTV takes on the subtext of its long-running but troubling character on "The Simpsons"

On Sunday night, Comedian Hari Kondabolu hosts an one-hour special on TruTV about Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, “The Simpsons'” neighborhood convenience store owner and operator who’s been voiced by Hank Azaria for nearly 30 years.

The Problem with Apu” interviews South Asian-Americans in the media about their experience of growing up with Apu as the only representative of their culture on American television. Kondabolu’s mission to dissect the subtext of Apu comes from his own love for “The Simpsons,” which was always marred by Azaria’s character; he was bullied with the character’s signature line, “Thank you come again,” and credits his frustration with Apu as one of the reasons he pursued comedy.

“The Problem with Apu” features conversations with comedians and actors Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Sakina Jaffrey, and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as an interview with Kondabolu’s parents, “The Simpsons” writer and producer Dana Gould — and several thwarted attempts to track down Azaria. Variety spoke to Kondabolu about making the documentary and what to do with the character of Apu after nearly 30 years.

There are conflicting reports in the documentary about Apu’s creation. What do you think happened in “The Simpsons’” writers’ room on the day Apu was introduced?

I think that they started laughing hysterically, and they said, “Yes, put that in.” Part of the question the documentary asks is, did Hank [Azaria] come up with the character and did he say it in that accent? According to Mike Reiss, a “The Simpsons” writer, it wasn’t supposed to be an Indian character. It was supposed to be just a clerk, and he specifically said, “It’s a cliché if you make him Indian. Don’t make him Indian.” [In the documentary, Azaria tells an interviewer that he was asked to make Apu Indian.]

The one thing I know for sure, regardless of how it got there: Those writers laughed and they thought the character was funny, and that’s why it stayed in there. That’s the only reason why things stay in the script like that — because they made people laugh, and they were convinced other people would laugh, too.

You must think about this a lot as a comedian: What do you do with the fact that people are going to laugh? So many people in your documentary talk about why Apu is flawed. And then on the other hand, as you point out yourself, people like it. People think it’s funny.

Yeah. I think funny and right are not the same thing. How often do you hear people say, that’s not funny, it’s offensive, as if those two things can’t exist in the same space. If anything, something can be wrong and funny. And if it’s funny, it’s actually better — people are going to ignore the meaning of it because it made them laugh. When you don’t laugh, you have to confront it for what it is.

So that’s the struggle. I don’t like the idea that the laugh justifies everything. I don’t believe that, because I think there’s different kinds of laughs. That’s the famous [comedian Dave] Chappelle quandary, right? Are you laughing at me or are you laughing with me? Am I making things better or am I making things worse? I don’t think all laughs are equal, because if that is the case, you could probably put the most racist stuff in the world constantly in things — like the old days — and people would still laugh. People stopped doing it because it was seen as less funny or uncomfortable, and there wasn’t a net gain out of it. But there was still a net gain out that accent.

You pursue an interview with Azaria for so much of the piece, and then it’s sort of like a “Waiting for Godot” thing — he never shows up.

The only reason I don’t like that analogy is Godot, I think, is interpreted usually as God. [Laughs.] I don’t want to give Hank that power. If it was Matt Groening, maybe I’d be a little more into that.

Did you try to talk to Groening?

Of course. Because I think Matt, in addition to being the creator of the show — I’ve read about how there were certain portrayals he didn’t want, certain jokes he didn’t want on the show. Like, we’re not going to make fun of people with disabilities. We’re not going to do this or that. There was some kind of ethos. I’d like to know what his ethos was and how he felt about it after a while, about some of the choices that were made. And what he decided to do with “Futurama,” which he didn’t want to repeat from “The Simpsons.” So, certainly, a lot of questions for Matt.

With Hank, it’s like, he’s the most direct to the character. If he says, “I don’t want to do it anymore,” that’s an issue. If he says, “I don’t think this is right. We need to stop,” that’s an issue.

I’m asking someone to rock the boat. Is that fair when it’s someone’s job? If this was year one, that’s one thing. This is year, what, 29? 28? You’ve made your money and you’ve gotten your Emmy nominations. Maybe it’s time to say something. Maybe it’s time to think about changing how it’s done. At the end of the day, him doing the voice or not is just kind of irrelevant. It’s been 30 years.

What do you hope “The Simpsons” might do differently?

To me, what can we do to salvage that character and at least create some positive spin? People say there’s truth in the stereotype — and a lot of South Asians are convenience store owners or work in convenience stores, that’s true, I suppose. But, if you want the full stereotype, it’s that a lot of the South Asians work in convenience stores — and then buy the stores, and then buy other stores, and then employ other people. Why don’t we give [Apu] upward mobility? There’s a bunch of different ways to make this still in the spirit, I suppose, of what you wanted while still moving him up. It’s a cartoon. You can do anything! Characters have died, they’ve changed. There are creative solutions to this that don’t erode the show. It’s 30 years in. Plots are repeating. I don’t think it hurts to have a few new angles.

The interview you did with Dana Gould was so revealing in a kind of unintentional way. I think he genuinely didn’t understand why you didn’t understand, if that makes sense.

I give Dana a lot of credit for doing the interview, because everyone else refused. They didn’t have the guts to be like, “I’ll do it.” And not only that, he was blunt. He was being extremely honest.

I know that many white Americans find that accent funny. That’s kind of the issue, isn’t it? I also know the systematic nature of writing a show and what gets lost in the creation of a product, so that wasn’t shocking. All that was very consistent with what I thought.

I got thrown, I think, when he said, “Can I call you out on something? Do you think Mr. Burns is one-dimensional?” When he said that, my mouth started salivating. Like, you do realize what you just stepped into?

That shocked me, too.

If there’s one thing I can explain, it’s exactly that. In my belief, you should be going after people with more power, not people with less, who can’t fight back. That’s the difference between Burns and going after an immigrant who works at a convenience store. That actual figure in the world has very little power, very little say.

So when he said that, I was like: Is that all the writers on “The Simpsons”? Because he was a producer and a key writer. Was he the only one who had that blind spot? Again, I’m grateful that he did the interview, and again, it means a lot that someone had guts. But it was telling. It did tell me a lot.

You joke a bit in the documentary: If I don’t get this character taken off the show, then what was the point of doing this? Do you still feel that way now?

No. Because at the end of the day, this wasn’t really about Apu and “The Simpsons.” This was about the bigger issues. I found a very accessible way to talk about representation — the impact of representation — using my journey as an example of one person of color’s journey, when you have limited options in how you’re represented.

Whatever happens with Apu, to be perfectly honest, I don’t care. It’s been there 30 years. I’m filling a gap. Nobody talked about it all those years. If this is a show that’s one of the most important shows of all time, it has certainly influenced and informed other people. This, to me, is to acknowledge where we were and where we need to be. But whether or not they change the character, whether [Azaria’s] willing to drop the accent or not, that’s not really the issue.

It was interesting to learn that Azaria had not thought about what actual Indian people might think of Apu’s accent until, apparently, 2013, when he did that interview with the Huffington Post.

Yeah. Also, because he grew up in Queens! I’m like, what part of Queens did you grow up in? The whole thing was so strange to me. And then that Tufts speech after the fact was just, like, come on. There’s a difference between hiding behind the cartoon and seeing him do it. When you see him do it, it feels like every bully you grew up with. It feels like everybody who made fun of your parents. You see it for what it is, because that’s exactly what it is. It’s shocking.

The through-line of interviewees discussing how Apu diminished their parents’ experiences — and your decision to interview your own parents about him — was very moving.

Yeah. Because it’s not really about us. It was really an impression of our parents. He was the stand-in for their lives — and when you hear about how complicated and hard their lives are, you’re going to make fun of that? When you see that interview with Hank [in the documentary], he’s frustrated with the convenience store owner. [Azaria tells a story about an Indian man behind the counter repeatedly telling him not to drink his Gatorade before he’s purchased it.] But it’s like, maybe people have drank the Gatorade and spilled it. Maybe it makes his life harder. There’s no empathy, just annoyance. That comes through in the character. It’s like a lack of understanding and care, [directed toward] folks you don’t get to hear because our parents didn’t want to make a scene, they didn’t want to make noise. They just wanted to have their kids be safe and educated. They wanted their lives to be easier.

The other cost of it, in addition to that ugliness and insult, is that a lot of us — and I’ll admit this — were insecure about our parents and their accents because it was seen as a joke. I didn’t want people to come over to my house to hear them talk and see what we ate. I didn’t want to give them any more ammunition. It made me feel less American. It made me feel not like an equal. That’s an awful feeling, especially because I’m growing up in Queens. That’s absurd, to feel that in a place like that, but that’s what happens when you’re made to feel like you’re the one that’s not normal. You’re the one that’s the freak.

These are white writers, and a white voice actor’s impression of a South Asian person. This is who they think we are. The jokes are not for us to laugh at. Whenever Apu would come on and I would hear something corny — or clearly it’s just the accent that’s the joke — those are the moments I was taken out of the show because I knew this wasn’t for me. This was written for another audience, and I stumbled upon the show, and all of a sudden, I have to wait a second to get back into it. It was very weird. 

The constant renegotiation.

Yes, absolutely, Somebody asked me today, How does it make you feel knowing that people are going to be uncomfortable with Apu? It’ll change how they see the show. I’m like: “Oh, you mean they’re going to watch the show like I did? They’re going to feel a little weird about it, and question why that decision was made in almost every episode — while also feeling ambivalent because it’s a funny character? Yes. That’s okay. I’m OK with that.”

Was there anything that you discovered while making the documentary that really surprised you?

Yes. There’s something that we left out of the movie that drives me nuts. It speaks a lot about the nature of racism.

We talk about how [director] Satyajit Ray, his Apu trilogy is the basis of the name Apu, and how Peter Sellers’ voice is the basis of Hank Azaria’s voice. He acknowledged that. Doing research we found out that Peter Sellers and Satyajit Ray knew each other, and Ray actually tried to make a movie called “The Alien.” It was his first attempt at a Hollywood film. He liked Peter Sellers’ work, and he asked Peter Sellers to be in the movie. They met each other, they became friends, and Sellers saw some of his work and agreed to be in the movie.

Then, some time passed, and Satyajit Ray saw “The Party” with Peter Sellers, and he saw that accent. And he was horrified. He said, it’s brown-face, the whole thing. And he’s like, this is the guy I wanted in the film? This is the guy? This is how he disrespects my people? And Sellers’ character has a pet monkey in the movie, and the monkey’s name is Apu. Like a direct slap in the face.

So when you see Apu, the character in “The Simpsons,” in the context of that — it’s even uglier. It tells you that if you don’t squash racism at the source, it mutates and it shows up in ways you don’t expect. It doesn’t show up in brown-face the way we used to see it. It shows up in a cartoon. It shows up in the name. It shows up in a voice and how he’s portrayed. It’s the same basic idea.

Peter Sellers was a comedian who built his career on doing accents, and Azaria is to some degree, too. Maybe that’s not such a good idea anymore.

It depends on context. Russell Peters’ audience, it’s heavily South Asian and East Asian. There’s a context there, and he’s very much a community figure. Like Aasif [Maandvi] says, we should be able to control our voices and our experiences. That belongs to us, and I don’t think we should shy away.

People have parents, you know what I mean? That’s part of the experience of all of this, and there’s a history of Jewish comedians talking about their parents. That’s all part of it. But it’s not done with the, look at this outsider. It’s done with love. This is my family. The intent is completely different and the audience knows that.

I don’t think there’s any absolutes with how this was done. But I think who does it and who gets paid to do it and the context it comes in is very important.

I think “The Simpsons” audience knows that Apu isn’t a sensitive portrayal. That’s one of the reasons it’s so frustrating.

Especially when they know it’s not a South Asian that does the voice. Not everybody knows that. That’s huge. Does it make it better if a South Asian did it? No. The character would still have sucked! But at least I would know a brown person was getting paid.

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