Hank Azaria told Simpsons producers last year he was no longer comfortable voicing Apu
In a new interview with The New York Times, Azaria explained that his choice to step down from the role was a lengthy process, culminating in him telling Simpsons producers last year that he was no longer comfortable voicing Apu.
“When I expressed how uncomfortable I was doing the voice of the character, they were very sympathetic and supportive,” Azaria told the Times. “We were all in agreement.”
Controversy around Apu, the Indian owner of the convenience store Kwik-E-Mart on the long-running animated comedy, intensified after the truTV documentary The Problem With Apu aired in 2017. In the doc, comedian and Simpsons fan Hari Kondabolu explores why the character is an offensive stereotype of South Asian people. The Simpsons responded to the controversy in April 2018 with a scene that prompted further backlash: Marge and Lisa discuss a book that contains outdated stereotypes, prompting Lisa to remark to the camera, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She turns to a nearby picture of Apu, and Marge says, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” with Lisa adding, “If at all.”
“Whatever happens with the character, to me, is secondary,” Kondabolu told the Times. “I’m happy that Hank did the work that a lot of people wouldn’t have. I feel like he’s a really thoughtful person and he got the bigger picture.”
In the Times piece, Azaria, who is white, said that his initial reaction to the controversy “was to bristle.” However, as he continued to explore issues of representation, racism, and social consciousness, he began to grow uneasy about the impact the character had had. He also noted that he drew inspiration for Apu from the 1968 film The Party, in which Peter Sellers dons brownface to play an Indian actor.
“That represents a real blind spot I had,” Azaria said. “There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.”
During a 2018 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the wake of The Simpsons‘ controversial response, Azaria said he was “willing and happy to step aside” from voicing the character. “I’ve given this a lot of thought — really a lot of thought — and, as I say, my eyes have been opened,” he added. “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.”
In a statement to the Times, The Simpsons‘ producers said they have granted Azaria’s choice to longer voice the character, but did not indicate what the future holds for Apu on the show, saying only, “Apu is beloved worldwide. We love him too. Stay tuned.”