BROOKE GLADSTONE: In November, the comedian Hari Kondabolu put out a documentary called The Problem With Apu, Apu being the Indian character in The Simpsons and the problem being the fact that he is played by white actor Hank Azaria, complete with silly accent and stupid catchphrases.
HANK AZARIA AS APU: Thank you, come again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In this scene from his film, Hari addresses a room full of South Asian actors and comedians, including Aasif Mandvi and Aparna Nancherla.
HARI KONDABOLU: How many of you were bullied in any capacity as a child?
WOMAN: Are we raising hands?
HARI KONDABOLU: Yeah, raising hands? We’ll do the hands thing.
Yeah, okay. Now, how many had to deal with, like, being called “Apu” or that being referenced?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The room is a sea of raised hands. Ever since he first appeared behind the counter of the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart, they all agreed, Apu had been making life just a little bit worse for American children of South Asian descent. The documentary shows Kondabolu on a kind of “Roger and Me” odyssey, as he tries to get Hank Azaria to talk to him, to no avail. And that would seem to be that, until earlier this month when the writers of The Simpsons responded to his critique in the show and, just this Tuesday, Azaria responded on The Stephen Colbert Show. Hari, welcome.
HARI KONDABOLU: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this month, clearly in response to your film, the show tacitly addresses the issue you raise in an exchange between Marge and Lisa.
HARI KONDABOLU: Marge has issues with old books she used to love when she realizes how racist or oppressive the books are and is trying to read them in a way that avoids all these key things or rewrite them so they can actually still be relevant and, and not so upsetting.
MARGE SIMPSON: Well, what am I supposed to do?
LISA SIMPSON: It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?
MARGE: Some things will be dealt with at a later date.
LISA: If at all.
HARI KONDABOLU: Lisa would have taken my side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
HARI KONDABOLU: Anybody who’s been obsessed with that show knows that she is one of the first social justice warriors on American television.
She’s somebody who fought the good fight, always had the dissenting opinion. That dismissal is lazy and it's also kind of a, whether they meant it or not, a dog whistle, that we can’t say anything anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you make of the fact that although Apu isn’t in that scene, he is present as a framed picture on Lisa's nightstand?
HARI KONDABOLU: I mean, that was the wink at me and my community. “Don’t have a cow,” like, that's what it says on Apu’s picture, “Don’t have a cow, Apu.” You know, it was interesting seeing Hank Azaria speak on Colbert recently, he wasn’t part of that scene, and I think that’s really curious, how they wanted to find a way to get Apu in that moment without having Apu in that moment. And I don't think Hank, based on what I heard, I don't think he agrees with The Simpsons’ perspective on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By the end of your documentary, Hank Azaria politely praises your endeavor, even as he rejects your requests for an on-camera interview, in part because he didn't want to subject himself to potential misrepresentation in the editing.
HARI KONDABOLU: Which I say is a big irony, right, the idea the whole film is about how people can be portrayed without their input whatsoever, yet the end of the day he got to choose how he was going to be portrayed in it. But the fact that he did say that he appreciated what I was doing, I do think he meant that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. He’s not a show runner, he’s not a big shot exec, but he’s still a powerful entertainment figure --
HARI KONDABOLU: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- who, two years ago, as you show in the documentary, used his Apu voice in a commencement address.
HANK AZARIA, SPEAKING WITH EAST INDIAN ACCENT: Greetings to everybody here.
Remember, please children, that in life there is nothing that is not so disgusting that it cannot be sold on a heated roller at a nearly criminal markup.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, when a couple of days ago, he says this on Colbert --
STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, what do you think should happen with the character going forward?
HANK AZARIA: Yeah, I’ve given this lots of thought, really a lot of thought. And, as I say, my eyes have been opened, 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 about this character and what their American experience of it has been. And, as you know, in television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writer’s room, genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does that vindicate the mission of your film?
HARI KONDABOLU: Yes and no, right? I never expected The Simpsons to respond but to get that from Hank to me means the world, and I'm really appreciative of that. At the same time, like, the film to me isn’t about The Simpsons. It’s about these larger issues regarding representation. I want people of color and other marginalized communities to have their communities represented by them, and I think that's really the bigger victory, which, you know, we’re not gonna get overnight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So would you retire Apu or reinvent him? Can a fully-formed character of the sort that you’re hoping for even exist on a show like The Simpsons?
HARI KONDABOLU: They don’t need to kill him off. They don’t need to make Hank stop doing the voice. It could be as simple as just make the character more interesting, like, let him get out of the Kwik-E-Mart. Let him own Kwik-E-Marts, ‘cause if we’re saying that, like, the truth is in the stereotype, it's true that South Asians often end up working in convenience stores when they come to this country but then they end up often buying multiple convenience stores and being franchise owners and employing people. That's the part of the story that doesn't get told. They can certainly do something with that character. They’ve had the voice actors die. They got rid of one person because of a work dispute, so they can kill off a character not to pay an actor. I think they can make an adjustment when it comes to keeping a character that is popular on the show but just giving him a little bit more depth or a more complicated storyline.
And they could use it, to be honest. I mean, they’ve been repeating plots for the last decade. I don't think it would hurt them to change things up a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You said in the documentary that The Simpsons is like the beloved but hard-to-take grandfather.
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HARI KONDABOLU: You love your grandfather. He’s been there your whole life and has taught you so many valuable things, but he still does racist stuff regularly. So if he can’t change, maybe it’s time he dies.
HARI KONDABOLU: I also say you can remember the best things about your grandfather Seasons 1 through 10.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Some of the most devastatingly self-destructive bits of tape is the self-incriminating interview that Dana Gould gave you, who is an executive and writer for The Simpsons.
HARI KONDABOLU: I mean, it's, it's the most honest stuff.
DANA GOULD: Yeah, well there are accents that, by their nature to white Americans -- I can only speak from experience -- sound funny.
HARI KONDABOLU: I knew that. I remember being teased. I get it. I think he made a, a little bit of a faux pas when he tried to catch me and he said, well, isn’t Mr. Burns a caricature? When he said that, it was like -- and it’s not even throwing me a pitch right down the middle, he just left it on the tee for me to swing at.
DANA GOULD: Do you think Mr. Burns is one dimensional?
HARI KONDABOLU: I think Mr. Burns is one dimensional but he is a one-dimensional caricature of a rich maniac, which there are many and who have power.
DANA GOULD: Mm-hmm.
HARI KONDABOLU: I think a, an Indian convenience store owner whose accented doesn’t have power, especially in that situation. And if I believe that, like, we should go after people with, with more power as much as we can, which The Simpsons certainly does brilliantly --
DANA GOULD: Right. To the writers, there’s no difference, that Mr. Burns is funny in these four ways, Apu is funny in these four ways.
HARI KONDABOLU: It’s about power. When you’re talking about somebody with money and who has power, you’re, you’re punching upwards. You’re going after the person who has the ability to oppress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
HARI KONDABOLU: When you go after somebody like an immigrant who has a limited number of representations and who doesn’t have much power, it’s weak, in my opinion. It’s bullying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about your latest standup special coming out on Netflix on May 8th, “Warn Your Relatives.”
HARI KONDABOLU: Yes, “Warn Your Relatives” on Netflix. This past year, I’ve talked a lot about representation and what that means and I'm, I'm really happy with the special ‘cause I get to represent myself and not just talk about [LAUGHS] Apu anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it funny?
HARI KONDABOLU: Oh yeah! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hari, thank you very much.
HARI KONDABOLU: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hari Kondabolu is a comedian. His documentary is called The Problem with Apu, and you can find it on truTV. His standup special “Warn Your Relatives” will be available on Netflix on May 8th.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Calling all citizens! A new podcast enlists its audience to help dig for documents.