Meet The Comedian Who Has A Problem With Apu

Image Source: truTV

In the middle of talking to me about his upcoming documentary on The Simpsons, comic Hari Kondabolu described watching the show with his brother. It was a Treehouse of Horror episode, a Halloween-themed series of vignettes that The Simpsons does every year.

In this episode, parodying The Most Dangerous Game, Mr. Burns hunts humans and says, "I smell fear ... and curry." Of course, he then shoots Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian convenience store owner from the show.

"That's not even clever," Kondabolu said to me over the phone. "And it's un-Simpsons-like."

Kondabolu is the producer and star of the The Problem With Apu documentary. It's about the character, Kondabolu's own relationship to The Simpsons, and the character's impact on Indian Americans.

Kondabolu interviews Indian American actors and entertainers about how their careers have been waylaid by stereotypes and the racism they have experienced in Hollywood and beyond.

It's also about his futile attempt to talk to Hank Azaria, the white man who voices Apu, who we learn at the beginning of the documentary has declined Kondabolu's interview request.

In 2012, Kondabolu was writing for Totally Biased with Kamau Bell. He wrote a short comedy segment about the premiere of Mindy Kaling's then-new show, The Mindy Project, the first ever sitcom starring an Indian American.

While the segment was mostly about South Asian representation, Kondabolu included a joke about The Simpsons. At one point, Kondabolu says, "There are now enough Indians that I don't have to like you just because you're Indian. Growing up, I had no choice but to like this."

Next to him, a picture of Apu pops up.

The skit resonated with viewers. "It did really well, and it was something that people passed around even after the show got canceled," Kondabolu said. "The fact that it was still seen as relevant made me think that there's something deeper here."

The skit's continued relevance inspired him to make The Problem With Apu. In one part of the documentary, Kondabolu interviews people on the street to ask whether or not they knew Apu is voiced by a white guy.

One person, upon learning this, asks Kondabolu how he feels about it. He replies, "Oh, I'm making a movie about how much I dislike it." Many people in the documentary seem exasperated that no one has talked about Apu in this way before.

It's not that Apu is an entirely bad character, or that The Simpsons is a bad show. Kondobulu describes himself as a lifelong fan of The Simpsons.

In The Problem With Apu, Kondabolu explains how Apu is often propped up as a nice, naive immigrant foil to the more white bread characters' narcissism and stupidity. But this conflicts with Azaria's somewhat mocking vocal delivery.

In fact, in Kondabolu's documentary, we learn that Azaria was specifically told not to play the one off convenience store clerk who would become Apu as Indian, but did it anyway. In an interview with the Archive Of American Television, Azaria describes the genesis of the voice as an impersonation of a convenience store clerk who irritated him.

"It's a way of working out aggression," he said. "I'm describing how annoying you are, this is what you sound like."

This voice, and the Indian American stereotypes that come with it, have plagued Kondabolu for years. In the segment for Totally Biased, Kondabolu says Apu sounded like "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father."

He described being a fan of a show with a character he finds so demeaning being like eating something that's partially rotten, trying to avoid the spoiled parts. "That episode I was watching with my brother was hilarious!" he said.

"Then it's like, really? We're gonna do this now? It takes you out of it, and it reminds you that you don't belong with us."

"Initially when Apu came out when I was a kid, I was happy we existed," Kondabolu told me. "It was like, holy shit, people actually recognise us. We exist. After a while, I was like, that's not enough, I don't want to exist like this. I'd rather not exist than if it's just this one thing."

As Kondabolu explains in his documentary, the problem with Apu isn't just the character — it's that the character is one of the few ways Indian Americans can exist on screen.

In conversation with other Indian American actors and entertainers, they describe long careers of playing cabbies, terrorists and convenience store owners. Many say they took these roles because they had no other choice.

Actress Sakina Jaffrey, who plays Antara Nayar on Mr. Robot, describes to Kondabolu "patanking," which is the act of performing a broad, stereotypical Indian accent, saying she is expected to do it "like a monkey."

Kondabolu was very aware that making a documentary that's critical of a beloved television show would catch him some heat. Even before the documentary has aired, he's faced criticism online for being "too sensitive" or "politically correct."

For Kondabolu, criticising Apu isn't about telling people what art they can or cannot make. "It's just, especially with Hollywood shit, you have to be more careful, more thoughtful, and wonder whether it's worth it," he said.

"Is this joke funny enough, or interesting enough?" It's not something that has an easy answer, and The Problem With Apu doesn't present one way to fix or change the character.

"One thing would be to develop the characters of his children," Kondabolu told me when I asked if there was something they could change about Apu that would feel satisfying. "At least then you would have some depth."

He suggested bringing in more South Asian writers, or even letting Apu get another job. "People say to me that you can't change this beloved thing," he said.

"It's like, Maude Flanders is dead, Krabappel is gone. They make changes, things happen and you adjust to it."


    i'm really interested in this documentary as it's obviously something i don't have a view point of.

    The guy clearly loves the Simpsons and i think the people getting angry at him are over reacting, it's something that is important to him and i think it's a conversation that needs to be had.

    If you want another interesting look into Indian people in TV and Movie's check out Master of None with Aziz Ansari, there's a few episodes that draw on this but there's a great episode about Indian stereotypes and the options that Indian actor's have.

      Your post covers the exact points I was going to write, including the shoutout to Indians on TV.

        For all the shit Neighbours gets. The do have a Indian family in the main cast who aren't stereotypical Indian

          Remember 'The Kumars at No. 42'? ... the guests' appearance fees were paid in chutney.

          While I don't have anything against this comedian, I do disagree with him. The Simpsons does parodies of many stereotypes. What about Cletus the slack-jawed yokel, or Barney Gumble or Fat Tony? The way Apu is portrayed is no different to the way other characters are mocked.

            Cletus, Barney and Fat Tony are all Caucasian, and are joined by a bunch of other Caucasians, some stereotypical and some not. Apu and his family are the only South East Asians you ever see, and that's part of the problem. They are walking stereotypes, and they are not balanced out, either by other stereotypes or by more nuanced characters.

            The Kumars at number 42 is a whole 'nother kettle of fish; it was written by a woman of South East Asian heritage, and poked fun at a particular group of aspirational British-Indians. A member of a group poking fun at that group is different from a non-member of the group poking fun. (Only a ginger can call another ginger 'ginger.') And ethnicity as performance was the whole point of the show.

              Completely disagree.

              So what if Apu is the only Indian in the show? That has nothing to do with whether the writers are 'allowed' to make fun of him. Pretty much every single character on the Simpsons (except possibly Lisa, who is 'the straight man') is mocked in some way. The only difference between Fat Tony and Apu is the colour of their skin. Fat Tony is 'a walking stereotype' as you put it. What about Groundskeeper Willie? They are not 'balanced out' by 'more nuanced characters'. If you are going to quibble with Apu because he is dark-skinned, I don't know what else to say.

              Secondly, you say only members of a certain culture or ethnicity can make fun of other members of that culture or ethnicity. It might be a lot tougher for non-members of a culture or ethnicity to hit the right comedic notes when mocking that culture or ethnicity, but it's not impossible. You see it all the time where second- or third-generation Australians of foreign extraction make fun of their parents' or grandparents' generation. The cornerstone for comedy is relatability, which has little to do with the colour of your skin and more to do with empathy.

              What you are saying is that humour can be a form of cultural appropriation. I think that's a rather superficial approach to take.

                Whoa there. "Allowed"?

                I'm not advocating censorship here; the writers and performers can do any damned thing they want. But when they do something problematic, they get to be called out on it. The many Caucasian stereotypes on the Simpsons are balanced out by other Caucasian stereotypes; a Caucasian character is not automatically assumed to be representative of all Caucasians, or restricted by their ethnicity. But because Apu is the only South Asian we see, he becomes an avatar of his entire culture. If you can't see that, then *I* don't know what to say.

                My point about the Kumars is that someone poking fun at a performance of culture or ethnicity from inside the group is different to someone outside the group doing so. Australians of, say, Greek heritage making Acropolis Now (gods, I'm showing my age), or Asian heritage making The Family Law do so from an insider perspective, and riff on their Greekness or Asianess as well as their Australianess.

                Caucasian me, telling a joke about, say, Vietnamese drivers or Greeks rorting workers compo? Very different thing. My jokes would be racist, pandering to base stereotypes and punching down. I'd deserve to be called out on them.

                  You can't parody a stereotype unless you have OTHER stereotypes to 'balance' them? Don't you think that, given the nature of The Simpsons, people would assume that ALL characters are parodies of stereotypes? I certainly don't expect all Indians to be like Apu!

                  And with the jokes, obviously you need your audience to 'get' the joke. If you are talking to an audience of people who have a knowledge of a culture (whether or not they are members of the culture) they are going to be more likely to 'get' the joke. If you talk to others with no knowledge of the culture, but with knowledge of the stereotype, any amusement they feel will be because of that stereotype (which could quite possibly be racist). Don't assume an outsider can't participate in humour simply because of race. I make jokes about Chinese peculiarities all the time (mostly to Chinese people or people who like me have lived in China) and no-one gets offended. The most common response is that the listener will relate their own humorous story about Chinese peculiarities. Now, you might think I'm racist and have no right to tell those jokes, but I would bet my life that those listening to me don't think so. Racism has an ugliness to it that is, most of the time, readily apparent. You shouldn't tar everyone with the same brush.

    Probably an unpopular opinion here but this does feel like he is taking it personally. A comedian who can't take a joke should think about another profession.

    The Simpsons is a parody of stereotypes. Australia was made fun of yet we embraced it. Just look at how popular the Aussie Simpsons characters are on that Four Finger Discount Facebook page.

      Watch the doco and maybe listen to him on the current Nerdist podcast and then see what you think.
      He loves the Simpsons, absolutely adores it, and is very funny, as is the documentary. His take is really reasonable, balanced and well presented. Well worth a watch.

      I guess the difference here is that Australian characters on the show for the most part are one-offs - they'll be in one episode then disappear - you'll very rarely if ever see them again. Australian characters in general are also pretty rare on the show.

      Apu on the other hand is a regular character that makes an appearance in the vast majority of episodes. He's a lot more prominent and a lot more front-and-centre than any Australian character...or for that matter, any other non-American character. The only other characters I can think of that would even be in the same ballpark of regulars are Fat Tony, Rainier Wolfcastle and Dr Nick. Maybe the chef of the Italian restaurant at a stretch. So Apu is a pretty unique character in this respect.

        Groundskeeper Willie is a frequent character and he's a walking stereotype too.

          "There's nary an animal alive that can outrun a greased Scotsman!"

          Ah yes I forgot about groundskeeper Willie, good call. He's about the only non-American who is as prominent throughout the series as Apu.

        "What happened to that poor dingo back there?"
        "It was probably just a wallaby!"

      Hank Azaria specifically said he based Apu's voice on the annoying nature of a particular convenience store clerk he knew, not on stereotypes. Given that it's not based on stereotypes, it's kind of hard to say it's a parody of them.

        True, but the writing is where the parodies are made. Hank Azaria might ad-lib a bit I guess.

          Yeah I suppose so, but if it's the delivery that's offensive in this instance, the content of the jokes or the intent of the writers isn't going to make it any less offensive.

      yeah 100% agree.

      Also....its a cartoon. More important things to worry about really.

      For the record, when Bart Simpson vs Australia came out, apparently our fair country hated it.

      I'm glad that in the intervening years we've not only come to love it, but embraced just about every aspect of the episode.

      Not sure why my original message has been deemed inappropriate and deleted? seriously wtf Kotaku?

      "He cant be taking it seriously because he complains about the Indian stereotypes (in an hilarious way) then he is directly racist towards white people (which is also hilarious). If he is, he clearly has MASSIVE double standards"

    To play Devil's advocate, this isn't a fair comparison. Simpson's mocking of Australia was a cultural jab whereas Apu's could be construed as more of a racial jab.

      To further play Devil's advocate, what's the difference?

        I suppose cultural supremacy is a matter of interpretation. Differences in culture are more nuanced and complex than colour. Further, culture is learned depending on your environment. It's not a core attribute of an individual in the sense of tangible differences like age, height, sex, colour, etc. Racial discrimination is black and white (pun intended).

          To be clear, I don't think the Australian Simpsons episode what even remotely close to and exhibition of 'cultural supremacy'. I simply use the term to illustrate the inhenrent difference between race and culture.

    If Apu was a once off character then I could understand some of the counter-arguments. The thing is, Apu has been a part of the story since the start and he is MOSTLY portrayed the same way (stereo-typical Indian).
    People comparing this to the Australian episode seem to forget that it was only a one-off. That viewers aren't reminded every episode what the stereo-typical Australian is like.
    I don't have a solution, I just want to help people understand how this can have a trickle down effect on minorities.

      I guess The Simpsons were pretty careful when it came to mocking blacks. I mean, you've got Carl and you've got Dr Hibbert, but the amount of mockery is a lot less than with more stereotypical characters (as far as I remember).

    I feel Kondabolu is missing an important point here, that he has himself said.

    "Initially when Apu came out when I was a kid, I was happy we existed," Kondabolu told me. "It was like, holy shit, people actually recognise us. We exist. After a while, I was like, that's not enough, I don't want to exist like this. I'd rather not exist than if it's just this one thing."

    Why is Apu the problem, when the character was the forerunner for a number of Indian roles in mainstream media? I'm certain it was many people's first introduction to Indian culture in mainstream media, and I feel gave rise to the success of people like Aziz Ansari, Mindi Kailing, Kal Penn and Padma Lakshmi. Apu is presented in so many positive ways (legendary work ethic, is intelligent and thoughtfully romantic) and is juxtaposed by some character flaws (a womanizer, manipulative of customers, etc.) which I feel just show's he's an ordinary guy who's just trying to do his best to get by.

    So many times have shows had a token character from a religious, ethnic, minority, etc. group when nobody else would take a chance on them... only for those same characters to be better represented in other forms of media in the future.

    I would say Kondabolu's issue is not so much with Apu, then it is with his own perceived malignment of Indian people in other forms of media today.

      You could also ask, why is Mickey Rooney's depiction of an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffanys a problem, when the character was the forerunner for a number of Asian roles in mainstream media?

      Perhaps the problem is less about the character himself and more about the fact that we know it's actually a white man putting on a stereotypical impression of a South-Asian man...perhaps it's seen as an animated version of brown-facing...I don't know, I haven't seen the doco yet

    Krabappel is gone? Never knew that

      Yeah, voice actress passed away. They decided to can the character rather than have someone else voice her. I didn't know either cause who really watches The Simpsons these days? It hasn't been very good for a long time.

    BREAKING NEWS - American show contains mostly american characters, and makes fun of every single character relentlessly (bar Lisa).

    FURTHER NEWS AT SIX - Scores of American Russians dont give a shit that they are terrorists in every single movie. They are partying with the nerdy Asians.

    jeebus, someone needs to tell this guy the simpsons contain satire and parody of...everyone, jews, asian, scotts, kids, adults, eldely, aliens, cops, politicians, teacher...and most of all the main character Homer who is white.

      If you actually watched his documentary, or listened to his interviews, you would see that he is well aware of that. The guy is himself a professional comedian, he knows how comedy workd. That isn't his point, it is entirely different. Give the doco a watch, it is funny and very good.

    Sounds like a lot of people above don't understand that some cultures are more marginalised than others and when there are so few examples of a culture on TV and the ones depicted are shown as parodies and stereotypes then it feeds into people's prejudices and assumptions about that culture, which of course would be disturbing to people of that culture. Also, it's a white guy doing a stereotypical version of an Indian accent, the sort of accent your racist drunk uncle would put on. None of the other characters in The Simpsons have such a small representation in pop culture and entertainment as the South-Asians do, so of course this is going to be important to a South-Asian man. I don't understand how this is so hard to get for so many people here.

    What I'd like to know is how do those of us in Australia get to watch this doco? It sounds really interesting but TruTV seems to only service US customers...

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now