When comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu was released last year, looking at the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the long-standing Simpsons character, it struck a chord with millions of people.
It claimed that the character, fully named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, made racism more appealing, and generally did no favours whatsoever to the Indian-American community. Kondabolu refers to Hank Azaria, Apu’s voice actor, as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”, while Azaria himself has freely described the accent as “offensive”.
It isn’t just America, of course - this great piece by Hussein Kesvani reflects on Apu’s influence from the perspective of the son of a British Indian shopkeeper.
When the show responded to the documentary, it did so in a way that disappointed a lot of people. Creator Matt Groening was very dismissive of the film, stating in an interview that he had “no thoughts” on Apu and stereotypes, and that he thought it was “a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.”
The fifteenth episode of season twenty-three, ’No Good Read Goes Unpunished’, alluded to the controversy - in it, Marge and Lisa remove the offensive content from an old, at-the-time-acceptable book and find they’ve taken out everything that makes it good. As a framed image of Apu sits in the foreground, Lisa directly addresses the audience, saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
Kondabolu expressed disappointment that the larger, more nuanced point he was trying to make about the offensive nature of the character was reduced to it being “politically incorrect”.
And now, it seems, rather than try to improve the character, re-think how he is represented or in any way address the criticisms aimed at him, The Simpsons is simply going to quietly retire Apu.
Producer Adi Shankar told IndieWire: “I got some disheartening news back, that I’ve verified from multiple sources now: They’re going to drop the Apu character altogether. They aren’t going to make a big deal out of it, or anything like that, but they’ll drop him altogether just to avoid the controversy.”
Responding to criticism that a character is racist by removing it from the show seems particularly crappy - going from poor representation to a total lack of it.
Shankar, the producer behind, among other things, that amazing Joseph Khan-directed Power Rangers fan film from a while ago, runs a YouTube channel called Bootleg Universe, and has recently run a competition for Simpsons fans to submit scripts that go some way towards solving the problem with Apu. The winning script, by Maryland doctor Vishaal Buch, will be offered to 20th Century Fox first, and made by the channel to resemble a real Simpsons episode as much as possible if they don’t go for it (which, realistically, they probably won’t).
Because this is the internet and some people are completely horrible, Hari Kondabolu is now being targeted with horrific racist abuse for Apu being written out of the show (not something Kondabolu ever called for) - abuse which really makes the idea that the show “only being slightly racist” is anything other than extraordinarily harmful. Aggressively racist idiots seem to have decided that any criticism of the character is a criticism of, somehow, the idea of comedy?
Hope springs eternal that The Simpsons will at some point think about how influential it is, think about the millions of kids who have grown up with “Thank you, come again” shouted at them by dickheads, and try to redress some sort of balance.
Merely erasing the character from the show seems cowardly at best. Surely we can expect more from the greatest TV show ever made?
UPDATE: Long-serving Simpsons producer Al Jean has weighed in, commenting that whatever Shankar might be saying, as he did not work for The Simpsons he couldn’t speak for it.
Shankar has replied, and who knows, the two may end up discussing the future of Apu and coming to a conclusion that pleases everyone.
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(Pics: 20th Century Fox)