Hank Azaria is speaking out about the Apu controversy — and he’s even willing to lose his voice over it.
One of the many characters that The Simpsons star voices is the Kwik-E-Mart owner, who was the subject of Hari Kondabolu’s recent TruTV documentary, The Problem With Apu, which asserts that Apu is a harmful stereotype of South Asian people. The Simpsons briefly addressed the issue in its April 8 episode, which involved an old book that Marge edited for Lisa to make it acceptable for current times. Switching from discussing the book to Apu, Lisa turned to the camera and said, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” While she delivered that last line, she looked at a picture of Apu that included Bart’s catchphrase, “Don’t have a cow!” Marge then said, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” to which Lisa added: “If it all.”
After the episode aired, social media filled up with reactions across the spectrum. Some were disappointed and hurt by the show’s shrugging dismissal of the issue, and couldn’t believe that the writers would have Lisa — The Simpsons‘ most progressive and sensitive character — voicing such a sentiment. Others bit back at the reaction and the controversy as a whole, calling it another example of political correctness run amok.
Simpsons showrunner Al Jean declined to comment on the controversy, only to say the next day that the episode “speaks for itself,” before tweeting later in the week: “I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right.”
Appearing on The Late Show to promote season 2 of his IFC comedy Brockmire, Azaria stressed to host Stephen Colbert that he was not involved in the decision making or execution of that scene.“I had nothing to do with the writing or voicing,” he said. “Apu doesn’t speak in that segment. It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time that everybody else in America did. So I didn’t know it was going to be in it until I saw it. I think that if anybody came away from that segment feeling that they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin or toughen up — yeah, that’s certainly not the way I feel about it. And that’s definitely not the message that I want to send.”
Asked by Colbert what should happen with this now-charged character moving forward, Azaria then offered a few solutions while pushing for inclusion in the writers’ room. “I’ve given this a lot of thought — really a lot of thought — and, as I say, my eyes have been opened,” he said. “And I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country, when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character, and what their American experience of it has been… Listening to voices means inclusion in the writers’ room. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers’ room, not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.”
He followed that up by volunteering to stop voicing the character — or taking part in some sort of character evolution. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside — or help transition it into something new,” he said. “I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does. It not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do, to me.”
Azaria had previously voiced concern that the character was problematic. “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,” he said in January, following the release of The Problem with Apu, which he did not participate in). “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.”