The producers of The Simpsons have been mum on The Problem with Apu, a recent truTV documentary from comedian (and Simpsons fan) Hari Kondabolu that asserts that the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a problematic stereotype of South Asian people. But Hank Azaria, who voices the character, is indicating that the matter will be addressed, with possible changes to Apu.
“The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, or the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing, especially in post-9/11 America,” Azaria told reporters at the Television Critics Association in Pasadena during a panel for his IFC comedy Brockmire. “The idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally. It’s a character I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love, and joy, and pride. That certainly wasn’t the intent. The intent was to make people laugh and bring joy. For it to cause suffering or pain in any way, it’s disturbing, actually.”
What is the future of the character, who stands one of the most recognizable tertiary characters on the long-running animated Fox comedy? Azaria, who is not of South Asian descent, stresses that the decision is not just up to him. “I think it’s really important when people express themselves about racial issues, what they feel is unfair or upsetting or distressing or makes them angry, sad or hurt,” he says. “The most important thing to do is listen, try to understand, try to sympathize, which is what I’m doing. I know that The Simpsons guys are doing that too; they’re giving it a lot of thought, and we’ve discussed a little bit. They will definitely address — maybe publicly, certainly creatively within the context of the show — what they want to do, if anything, with the character.”
For the record, Azaria does not view Apu as a “one-dimensional” character. “I see him as having a lot of wonderful qualities and great assets,” said the actor, who spoke briefly about the documentary last month, “As far as The Simpsons is concerned, it’s often a fine line between what’s comedy and what’s offensive and insulting and upsetting. The Simpsons over the years have been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people — Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, Italians — and they take a lot of pride over there in not apologizing for any of that. I think they’ve done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.”
The Simpsons, which airs Sunday nights on Fox, is currently in its 29th season.