In the new TruTV documentary The Problem With Apu, comedian Hari Kondabolu confronts a beloved character that has been a source of anguish for him and an untold number of other Indian Americans for nearly 30 years: The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Through a series of interviews with prominent entertainment and political figures, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, he explores how the famous Kwik-E-Mart worker has promoted racist stereotypes about South Asians and contextualizes him within the checkered lineage of Indian representation in film and TV.
In the film, he also attempts to interview Hank Azaria (who has voiced Apu since the beginning) in hopes of better understanding how the character came to be. In this edited and condensed excerpt from a conversation between Kondabolu and Slate’s Aisha Harris on the podcast Represent, he talked about Azaria, how he would like to see The Simpsons handle Apu today, and more. You can check out the full interview in the audio player below.
On this show, we’ve actually talked about the idea of cross-racial voice casting in animation before. It happens way more often, I think, than white people being cast in nonwhite roles in front of the camera. But here’s a little thought experiment: If [Apu] were played by a brown actor from the beginning, do you think you would feel more OK with it?
No, it’s still about character.
It would feel different. It would be one level less, but it’s still not a great character. It’s the writing. You know, Hank Azaria, whether or not he created the character, or whether it was given to him … That’s going to always be up for debate. Probably the truth is in between.
You know, at the end of the day, he’s not the writer. He’s not one of the writers. He’s not the creator. He’s not the one who makes the call. But there is something to be said about having some degree of control, because you are the voice, and deciding to continue to do it publicly. If you do it as a voice on a cartoon, that’s one thing. It’s like it’s already annoying. But to have to see you do it publicly, means you don’t see anything really wrong with it. It’s just one of your arsenal of characters.
Ultimately, I don’t want them to kill the character, just because I think that’s really lazy writing.
Yeah. And also, let’s not kill the one Indian character in the show.
Right. Right, exactly. No, it’s a cop out. What you need to do, in my opinion—I mean, at the end of the day, it’s The Simpsons, and it’s 30 years in, it doesn’t really matter. I mean the film, ultimately, as much as it’s about Apu and The Simpsons, and as much as I’m passionate in the film, in real life, if you really want to know: I don’t really care what happens to Apu. I don’t really care what happens to that plot line, because at the end of the day, it’s been 30 years.
I’m 35 years old, I’m an adult, I make art. To me, it’s important where we go from here, but we need to acknowledge where we were, and also the mechanisms in play that allowed for that show. There’s a part in the [doc] where we talk about—Rohitash Rao had a cartoon, about an Indian family, with Fox. And he talked about how he was the only brown person there, in the room, trying to develop a show about Indian people. I mean, those are the problems you often get. That’s the stuff that’s the bigger issue. The Simpsons is just a way to get to that discussion.
Instead of killing him, they could like, I don’t know, let him own Kwik-E-Mart, which often happens with members of our community. They end up starting in these low-level positions, and then they work up and they buy the property, and then they employ other people, potentially from the community, and so forth. That’s what it means to work in a business, but they don’t make that character, because the character’s created with the lens of a white person. This is how a white person sees brown people. This is how a white person sees a brown person working at a convenience store. This is somebody that cheats them. This is somebody who annoys them. This is somebody who complains and yells … When he loses his job at the Kwik-E-Mart, who starts crying over it? Not crying because he can’t feed himself, crying because everything he knows is around serving white people at a Kwik-E-Mart. I mean, that’s white people talking about it. That’s ridiculous.
You did get one of the writers—he wasn’t a creator of the show—but you got Dana Gould—
Who’s not a current writer—
Yeah, he’s a former writer … He wrote, I think, from around ’98 until the mid-’00s.
The show was well established, at that point.
Yeah. And you did get him to talk to you, and one of you compared Apu to Mr. Burns, and how … every character on The Simpsons is kind of a one note character. “Does he represent all rich people, versus Apu representing all Indian people?” I found his answer very—
So unsatisfying. I mean, how frustrating, for you, was that? Or did you expect that?
Well, I’ll say there’s two pieces to that conversation. Most of that conversation, as frustrated as I was, I respected, because he had guts. Nobody else stepped up. Dana Gould, to me, in this movie, people might see him as, “Oh, he’s saying all this stuff, and it’s so mean.” It’s like, no, he’s telling the truth. He didn’t say anything there that I didn’t know already.
[His response was], “A lot of white people think the voice is funny.” Oh, I know. I’m well aware. He’s owning up to that, you know. He’s not saying he created it, because he didn’t create the character. He’s like, “Well, you know, when you’re writing a show, you have a limited number of moves with each character that are going to work, and you just have to use them.” It’s cut and dry to some degree. To some degree, it’s a factory, it’s an art. To some degree it’s like, we got to get the episode written, this is the stuff we can do with this character. The character’s long established and has certain constraints, until we’re told otherwise.
He was really blunt and honest, and people are like, “Can you believe he said that?” Do you want him to be nice? I think people are not used to hearing mean things, but you got to hear mean things sometimes, because that’s where the truth is. Truth isn’t nice.
So I very much appreciated Dana just being blunt with me. I mean, that one moment was funny, because he wanted to try to catch me. He’s like, “Well, do you think Mr Burns is one dimensional?” You know, when he said that, I’m like, “Oh, dude … You’re one of my writing heroes, you’re a brilliant comic, but you just threw me a pitch right down the middle and you tipped your pitch.” I knew exactly what was about to happen. You know, I was salivating when [he] said that.
Yeah, they’re different: Mr Burns is a one-dimensional character, but it’s a parody of a rich person. It’s about somebody with power, who does absurd things. Humans are his playthings. That is what we should be mocking, in my opinion—people with power. Apu is a one-dimensional immigrant, and immigrants don’t have power, often. Especially in his position, who are working, lower-middle class immigrants. And as a community that’s all we had.
I also appreciated his honesty, and it’s unfortunate that you weren’t able to get Hank to actually talk to you about it … I think, in a way, that not having him there also, in a way, makes it even more telling and powerful. And perhaps everything he would have said would have either been kind of the same thing Dana said. In a way, I think it makes him look not as great in that light.
I mean, there’s two ways it could have gone—or more than that—but at least two ways. It’s hard to compare those two things, because the other thing definitely didn’t happen.
There are two different documentaries, I’ll say that. There’re two different documentaries, if he’s in and if he’s not in it. I, personally, I would have preferred him being in it. Because, at the end of the day, I want him to have a conversation with me. We have archival stuff. If he felt it wasn’t in his best interests to be in this film, that seems foolish, because we’re going to make the film, regardless, and there’s enough things you’ve said on camera [already]. To me, it’s like, if you want to control the narrative, you need to say your piece now.
Not only that, I think it shows guts to speak. That’s why I appreciate Dana. It’s like, no, it takes guts to speak to the person, to figure out where we are, where we were. Whether it’s Fox’s decision to not let him speak, or his, it’s like, I think that’s doing everybody a disservice.
The better film, to me, is a film where a real conversation happens and you can model what real conversations can look like, especially in a country where we’re so divided … This is a small thing, but the ability to talk about it as adults, and address it, and go over the past, and see where we’re at now … That could have been really funny. That could have been really thoughtful.
I mean, at the end of it, we made an ending. We dealt with it. We found a way that I felt addressed the thing and was hopeful, but at the same time it’s like … It wasn’t satisfying. I wanted the film to be like Roger and Me, except with a happy ending where we actually talk to the guy. I mean, it worked out. It’s a great film. But if Hank wanted to talk now, I would still say yes.
… I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I don’t think he’s an evil person. I’m still a fan of his. He does incredible voices … I question this choice and I’m curious as to how it was made and what the decision making is. I think that’s interesting. Like I said in the film, there’s something about saying, “No, I don’t want to talk about this,” that is very privileged. And I’m frustrated, too. You know, this isn’t in the film, but we had a phone conversation, actually.
After the fact, or during?
No, during the taping, except it, you know, wasn’t on camera. I was at home and he wanted to talk. We’d been exchanging emails … and we talked and he was very kind. Of course, I was turning into a bit of a fanboy. It’s like, “Oh, my God, it’s [the voice of] Moe!”
He talked about how much he liked my original piece on Totally Biased, how he’d seen a ton of my standup online and really liked what I do, and he thought the film was a great project, and he just didn’t know if he felt comfortable talking because I was in control of the edit, and he knows how these things go. He offered a compromise. His compromise was, we can do this, if you have it on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, or WTF with Marc Maron, so there’s a record of it. Which is fair, because I can’t screw with the edit if someone else has the full interview. It holds me accountable. I said yes to it, pretty immediately, because the film was about accountability, and the film was about reconciliation. The film is about, in a small way, how do we show how these kinds of things can work. We’re not talking about the history of slavery. We’re not talking about detention, deportation. We’re not talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act. We’re talking about a cartoon character.
If we can make peace with a little character like this, I think it’s a small thing in pop culture that can prove to be a bigger example.
I agreed to it, and then we waited for his reply. Then, at the end of the day … You know, at the end of the film, there’s an email where he says, no. To me it’s, what else do you want? If you’re really serious about being in it, then we’re giving you what you want, which is giving up a degree of control, because we respect you, and we respect the idea of truth telling, and the idea that the truth is not as simple. It’s not black and white.