The pointed and poignant commentary offered by stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu in his truTV documentary, The Problem With Apu, has elicited varied responses from the makers and one of the stars of The Simpsons. In his film, Kondabolu impaneled other Indian-American actors and comedians to explore the reductive characterization of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and how it’s undermined an already underrepresented group. This was five years after he first called out the makers of the animated sitcom, as well as actor Hank Azaria, who’s voiced Apu for nearly three decades now, doing what Kondabolu has called “an impression of a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Though he declined to participate in the documentary, Azaria was the first person involved with the Simpsons to respond directly to the criticism—back in January, he said that while the exact course of action wasn’t “up to [him,” the show would eventually “definitely address, maybe publicly, certainly creatively within the context of the show what they want to do, if anything, with the character.” Okay, so maybe that wasn’t all that candid. But we didn’t have to wait long before The Simpsons aired “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” which didn’t address Kondabolu’s misgivings, or those of anyone else who believes the show could do better than this caricature, but did find a way to turn Lisa Simpson against her own characterization.
Setting aside the question of who the hell ever “applauded” Apu’s “thank you, come again”s, the episode, written by Jeff Westbrook, only succeeded in stoking Kondabolu’s ire further.
Showrunner Al Jean initially responded by retweeting Twitter users who think Kondabolu and the other prominent performers featured in the documentary—including Kal Penn, Aparna Nancherla, and Hasan Minhaj—are getting way too worked up about such inconsequential things as human dignity. Then, perhaps sensing that those endorsements weren’t going over well, Jean stated the show would “try to find an answer that is popular & more important right.” Given that this is what the show came up with on its second try (the first being “Much Apu About Something”), we’re not feeling too optimistic.
The latest person to weigh in on the debacle is none other than the show’s creator, Matt Groening. While discussing the show’s latest milestone (most episodes for a primetime scripted series) with USA Today, Groening was asked about the criticism that Apu’s an outdated stereotype. He briefly lamented that kids these days are just so sensitive, saying “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended,” which conveniently ignores the fact that Kondabolu and many other critics of Apu say they’ve always felt this way watching the show—it’s just that now, they have some standing from which to critique Groening and the other writers’ approach.
When asked if the series would follow up on the episode’s promise to maybe, one day tackle the subject again, Groening said, “We’ll let the show speak for itself.” For his part, Azaria said he felt let down by the show’s response, and that hiring writers of color and/or recasting Apu is “the right thing to do.” As for what the new Apu might look or sound like, producer Adi Shankar is currently crowdsourcing a “spec screenplay” that would introduce a more accurate and nuanced Mr. Nahasapeemapetilon. Speaking with Indiewire, Shankar says Apu isn’t even an accurate reflection of Indian-Americans; if there is a stereotype, it should be informed by the fact that they’re “smart people, leaders in tech, the CEO of Microsoft, CEO of Google. We’re high achievers and we are that because to immigrate here from India there were so many restrictions literally only the best of the best and the brightest of the brightest were allowed to come over to this land of opportunity.”
As Shankar puts it, “[Apu] is an inaccurate, fabricated archetype that was created by The Simpsons and carved into the American conscientiousness through blunt force over 30 years.” So he’s now taking submissions for a spec script that “in a clever way subverts [Apu], pivots him, writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a creation that was the byproduct of a predominately Harvard-educated white male writers’ room and transforms it into a fresh, funny and realistic portrayal of Indians in America.” Shankar says he’ll personally deliver the winning script to the Simpsons’ writers room; if the team rejects it, he’ll “finance the winning script and produce it as a fan film for his Bootleg Universe.”