Hari Kondabolu is not the only South Asian-American comedian who has a problem with Apu. While he tells The Daily Beast that he initially loved The Simpsons character growing up, he soon realized it was “probably the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
In The Problem with Apu — a new hour-long documentary premiering on truTV this Sunday night at 10 p.m. — Kondabolu is joined by Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aparna Nancherla and many more, each of whom speak out for the first time about how the man behind the counter of The Simpsons’ Kwik-E-Mart made their lives as children a living hell.
“I hate Apu,” Kal Penn says in the film. “And because of that, I hate The Simpsons.”
When Aziz Ansari was a kid, he remembers a car pulling up next to him and his dad, asking them where the Kwik-E-Mart is, shouting, “Thank you, come again!” in a bad Indian accent and then driving off.
“I just wonder how many Indian-American, South Asian-Americans, had to deal with this. This fucking guy, this Apu,” says Utkarsh Ambudkar, who ended up voicing Apu’s nephew on the show. “This one character created so many problems psychologically, emotionally, for so many people. They didn’t mean for it to happen, we were just underrepresented, so we struggled.”
Complicating all of this is the fact that Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria, who just happens to be a white guy. “I know it’s a touchy subject,” Azaria told the Huffington Post in a 2013 interview. “I really do love the character and do try to do right by him accent-wise and character-wise, and that goes for all the characters I do. But I do understand why people could have been offended or upset, and I’m sorry for that.”
Kondabolu, who also co-hosts the podcast Politically Re-Active with W. Kamau Bell, centers the documentary around his ultimately futile quest to get Azaria to speak to him on camera, a disappointing outcome that makes the film no less fascinating.
In a new interview just a few hours before he was set to make his Daily Show debut this past week, Kondabolu talked about how the documentary came together, his own views on The Simpsons, and what he would have asked Azaria on camera had he been given the chance.
The Daily Beast reached out to Azaria for comment and he declined to speak on the matter because he has not been able to view to documentary in advance of its premiere.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What are your earliest memories of Apu?
I remember really being excited when he became a regular character on the show, just because, you know, we didn’t have anything. And then all of a sudden, there’s something. I didn’t know or think about who was voicing it. I was a kid. I was probably eight or nine and I was just happy we existed. Even at a young age I knew that was a nice feeling. So initially, I loved it. I don’t think that it hit home that this might be a problem until you realize that this is the only thing you have. And that’s what people are going to call you and that’s the impression they’re going to do. And there’s nothing to counter it, you don’t have anything else, there are no other examples. That’s when you know there is a problem, and that was probably around middle school when I was like, OK, this is probably the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
You first spoke out publicly about the issue on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. How did that piece come together?
Mindy Kaling was coming out with her new show on Fox and it felt like a notable achievement, especially considering it was South Asian female creator and lead of a show. I wanted to give a historical context of why this is important and while I was writing it, it felt corny to me. I’m making fun of Apu and all these characters, Ben from Short Circuit, and this all feels like it’s been done to death. And I tell Kamau this and Kamau’s like, “No it hasn’t. Nobody has ever talked about this stuff. Most people probably don’t even know that Apu is voiced by a white guy.” He also threatened to fire me if I didn’t do it. And it ended up being something that took off and was shared online a bit. Knowing that even after [Totally Biased] was canceled it was shown in colleges and high school classes, I knew that there was something interesting in this topic, and especially the Apu piece. That’s the part that resonated with people the most, because it’s The Simpsons. You know, The Simpsons has a universal reach. Even if people don’t watch it, they’re familiar with it. And I knew that was a great entry point into a larger discussion.
What was the range of responses that you got from that original segment, either from fans of The Simpsons or people who felt the same way that you did?
There hadn’t been anyone who had stood up and spoke that way. The Aziz piece [Master of None’s “Indians on TV” episode], I think came out in 2015. So this was 2012. Imagine if you saw that piece and there was nothing before it. Even Aziz reached out, after the thing aired, and said how psyched he was that that piece existed. And he shared it and was excited, because this was a moment for us. We actually tackled something. And then on the other side of it, people were like, “You don’t get satire, they make fun of everybody, what don’t you get?” Now, there’s a lot more violence involved.
Oh, people saying what they would do to me. Basically, anytime there’s a discussion about any topic in America, it’s never really just about the topic. It brings up all these other issues regarding the ideas of free speech and political correctness and you know, white people feeling as though their rights are being taken away. I become a stand-in for everything else they hate about America. And then they move to the next thing. And it frustrates me, because I just want people to see it. That’s what frustrates me about America now. We react before really knowing the full context. We react without seeing the things we’re reacting to.
Ultimately, with the Apu character, I’m more passionate in the film about my anger about him than I am in my real life now. To me, what’s interesting about the character is because it’s all we had, that’s how people perceived us. Post-9/11, you had a cartoon character and terrorists representing all brown people. You had two very extreme types: A harmless, one-dimensional, voiced-by-a-white-guy convenience store owner cartoon character — and terrorists. There’s a large range of humanity between those two poles and they get lost. And that’s dangerous, because after 9/11, you saw what happened. People were beating up brown people left and right. It didn’t matter who they were or what they believed in. The logic was they’re brown, they probably sympathize with these people, let’s do something. That only exists if your representation sucks.
Once you started working on the documentary, what kind of pushback, if any, did you receive from either The Simpsons or Fox?
There was no pushback, just because to push back would be to give it more attention, right? So it was just a non-response. Nobody wanted to talk. Hank [Azaria] was open to a discussion. We talked on the phone and at the end of the day, he sent that email and he felt he couldn’t do it. He just didn’t feel comfortable. But I disagree with that. I think it is in your best interest to share your point of view, because people give you points for trying. People value people who are willing to come to the table and have a discussion, as opposed to avoiding it altogether. And plus, you get to control more of the narrative if it’s your words now. We have archival footage that is very clear. So that was frustrating. That’s why I think [The Simpsons writer] Dana Gould is amazing for doing it.
Were you satisfied with his defense of the character and its role on the show?
I wasn’t satisfied. I don’t like those reasons, but he told me what the reasons were, which I kind of knew, right? The world has been long established. That’s a famous setting, the Kwik-E-Mart, that’s a famous character. You take a character like that out after all these years, that’s a tricky thing to do. A lot of white Americans find the voice funny. He didn’t need to tell me that, I knew that already. That’s why we’re making the film, isn’t it? So I think he did a fantastic job of just being blunt. Was he supposed to be nice about it? I don’t need him to be nice about it. People are nice about things and then they say things behind your back. He was blunt. This is what it is. He didn’t say he liked it, he just said this is how it is.
As for Hank Azaria, if you had gotten an interview with him, what would you have asked?
I think I would have asked him a lot of the questions I ask in the documentary. Who created the character, in your opinion? Did you feel uncomfortable doing the character? To you, what justified it? Did you have any South Asian people at all during your years doing that character tell you they didn’t like the character, or did like the character? What was it like to see my piece on Totally Biased? What were your reactions and your feelings? Was it weird to do the voice after that? Why did you choose to keep doing it? The questions in the film, a lot of them could have been answered. People have told me, it’s kind of great that he didn’t say yes, because you get this really cool ending. But at the same time, I would have preferred to talk to him. Because I think that’s much more interesting. And it gives people an example of, you can have something that you disagree about in this country, and you can have different perspectives, and there is a way to have a conversation and reconcile those differences and move forward. And it’s a simple thing to have done. We’re not talking about Israel-Palestine here, we’re talking about a cartoon character. If you can do that with a cartoon character from a famous pop-cultural institution, that’s a good precedent to set.
Do you have a sense of why he’s so reluctant to engage in this?
I think his reluctance comes from not being able to control the image. He called me, which is not in the film, but he called me and he told me he was really thinking about being in the movie. He really liked my stand-up and the work that he had seen. And he thought it was cool that I was doing the film. But he felt uncomfortable with my controlling the edit, because he’d been part of documentaries and he knows how that works. So he proposed a compromise. And the compromise was, if we record this on Fresh Air with Terry Gross or WTF with Marc Maron, then I feel more comfortable doing it, because if you edit it in a way that makes me look bad, there’s evidence. Which I thought was a great idea, and I agreed to it. I thought it was a fair compromise, and it holds me accountable. And accountability is really a big part of the film. So if I can hold myself accountable, I don’t think that hurts me or the film. I think that again shows people how things can be done in a way that works for everybody and leads to a good conversation. And after agreeing to it, he took about a month or more and came back to me with a “no.” And that’s the no I read in the movie.
So the reason the interview didn’t happen is because he decided not to do it?
Yeah. I mean, I told him, if that’s what you want, we’ll figure out how to make it work and we’ll make it happen. This film didn’t necessarily need to take as long as it did. It took a long time, partly because I wanted to give him enough of a window to reply. With Hank, we didn’t film for a while just in case he said yes and in case we had to change our schedule to work to his schedule. We made that a priority.
The people that you do have in the movie are pretty incredible. It feels like you got every major South Asian-American comedian and actor of your generation in this film. When did you realize that so many people felt the same way you do about Apu and what did that mean to you?
You know, a lot of people in the film and I talked about, can you believe this is the era we’re in? Can you believe this is happening? Can you believe it’s not like it was 15 years ago when we were kids? Or talking to some of the older actors [who say], it wasn’t like this when I started. Like Aasif [Mandvi] or Ajay Naidu — these guys have been through a lot of crappy roles and crappy times and had to question whether this is what they wanted to do before this era. And also in my community, if you take non-actors and non-public figures, so many people have talked about this throughout my life, how annoying it is, that this is how they view us. When people come up to me and say it’s so important that you’re doing what you do, that you do stand-up, that we see succeed, that tells me that it’s not just me. In addition to knowing so many people cared, I had a feeling they would talk because it’s a shared experience.
What do you think it means for this next generation of kids growing up now that there is so much more representation on screen?
Well, one, it makes the possibilities so much more open. There are more kids who feel confident trying things and taking risks. I also think it means that we’re going to change our perspectives. People say this is this great new era with so many South Asians being represented. But it’s mostly, like, straight men of a certain age. Mindy [Kaling] is of course not just an exception but a big example, but there are so many other voices. It’s a very complex community. There are so many different stories to be told. And we haven’t even scratched the surface. So it just opens up the possibility of someone who felt like there was no way to do it, to feel like, no, there’s an opening now. I didn’t think I could be a professional stand-up comic. I never thought I could do it. I didn’t plan to do it. I gave up that hope after college. I went to Seattle and I started being an immigrant rights organizer. I gave up the dream. I did it at night as a hobby. Then I got discovered by the HBO Comedy Festival and I was on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and all these things started happening. And even then I didn’t trust it. Even then I went to the London School of Economics to get a master’s degree. I didn’t trust it, because where were the examples? People were showing me a door and I was like, “That’s not really open.” Because you’re so used to it not being open. And finally, I was like, what am I doing? There’s this window that’s open just for you. And now I feel like the window is open and there’s a lot more people that can get through. Within 10-15 years, a lot has changed. So I’m really excited about what this next generation is going to do with it.
One more question for you: If you were given the reigns of The Simpsons tomorrow, how would you solve the Apu problem?
I think one, if the idea is that a lot of South Asians own convenience stores, that’s a 30-year-old joke. So if you want to add any kind of accuracy, a lot of these people end up buying the store and then employing people and buying other stores. So why isn’t he moving up? I feel like he would be a good nemesis for Mr. Burns. Have another rich person in town. There are tons of stories of South Asian immigrants who come here and build their fortunes slowly. That would be one thing you can do. And another thing is, give his kids a voice. The Simpsons is funny, because it’s both trapped in 30 years ago, but they’re able to discuss current events. Things don’t always make sense. How are Bart and Lisa the same age but this person has gotten older? All of a sudden, Apu’s kids can be going to school with Bart and Lisa. They’ve changed characters before, people have died. It’s a cartoon. You have more freedom than any other kind of show because it’s animation. Also, it’s been 30 years, you could probably use a couple of new plots. I’ve seen The Simpsons recently. It’s a lot of similar ideas from before, not as well done. The writing isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. And part of it is, 30 years is a long time to have the same characters. Why don’t you just introduce certain new things? You don’t have to fundamentally change the show. That’s not a fundamental change, to have someone else run the Kwik-E-Mart.