‘Is The Simpsons Racist?’ Has Become One of the Year’s Biggest Pop Culture Questions
In its 29th season with more than 600 episodes, The Simpsons is the longest-running scripted TV show in primetime ever. Outside of having made it all the way to the silver screen in 2007 (with Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations to boot), the beloved American animated sitcom has capitalized its success in many forms beyond the usual t-shirts and coffee mugs. The show has inspired its own beer and even a theme park at Universal Studios in Hollywood. According to Variety, The Simpsonsexceeded $4.6 billion from consumer products in 2013 alone. As once portrayed inPortlandia, there’s even an underground market for The Simpsons merchandise, including a water bong based off the superfluous character Otto.
Aside from one of the longest running, The Simpsons also happens to be one of TV’s most critically acclaimed. With nearly 30 years of commercial success and 32 Emmys, very few, especially within the entertainment industry, have criticized Matt Groening’s creation. That is, until now. It may be a surprise—or perhaps in the age of social justice warriors, perpetual triggering on Twitter and overall constant chaos, it may not be—but comedian Hari Kondabolu wants you to know he has a problem with The Simpsons.More specifically, he has a problem with the Indian immigrant Kwik-E-Mart convenience store owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. His new documentary, The Problem With Apu,addresses his grievances.
Kondabolu first publicly declared war against Apu in a 2012 skit on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell when he discussed Indian representation in American television leading up to the premiere of The Mindy Project. For Kondabolu, Mindy Kaling’s sitcom on Fox, which airs The Simpsons, represented “progress in real time.” There were “now enough Indian people that I don’t have to like you just because you’re Indian,” he said.
As Kondabolu tells it, the cartoon character, known for reciting “thank you, come again” in an exaggerated accent despite only having said the phrase eight times in the series’ 27-year run—has haunted him since his youth because growing up, he “had no choice but to like” this lone, incredibly inaccurate representation of his race. In his Totally Biased segment, he also mentions that Apu is narrated by actor Hank Azaria—“a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” The four-minute rant went viral, getting coverage from Slate and Huffington Post, and soon circulated back to Azaria. Although Azaria declined to be interviewed on-camera for The Problem With Apu, he did sit down with Huffington Post’s arts reporter Mallika Rao in 2013 to explain that until then, he had never considered how the Indian community perceived his accent.
Kondabolu isn’t the only South Asian frustrated with Apu, especially in the entertainment industry. His hour-long film includes interviews with prominent Indian comedians and actors like former Late Night With Seth Meyers writer Aparna Nancherla, House of Cards actress Sakina Jaffrey, The Daily Show Senior Correspondent Hasan Minhaj and The Mindy Project actor Utkarsh Ambudkar. Ahead of The Problem With Apu’s November 19th worldwide premiere on truTV (the doc previously debuted at film fest DOC NYC on November 14th), Playboy chatted with Kondabolu about the evolution of his rant about racism into a highly anticipated film that has the country reconsidering one of America’s greatest TV shows.
It’s been five years since you discussed Indian representation in media and the character of Apu on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, but 2012 wasn’t the first time you’ve dealt with this issue. When did the idea for a larger project come about?
I had been talking about Apu jokingly for awhile, but Totally Biased was the first time I talked about it publicly, which I was kind of reluctant to do because it felt corny to me. It was Kamau who explained to me, “You think it’s corny, because you and your community have talked about Apu for 20 years [about] how much you hate the character, but no one else has really thought about this.”
The Simpsons is an institution and Apu is a character everyone seems to know. I met kids who didn’t even watch the show, who knew who Apu was, because they’ve been called it. Here is something universal about it. Even if you don’t connect necessarily with the racial politics, or discussion of representation, it’s a Simpsons movie.
Initially, what was your goal in making this film?
The goal of the film to me was to discuss this topic with a broad range of people and share people’s experiences, why I feel it’s important and what the history of minstrelsy is. I most enjoyed filming the interviews. I was talking to a bunch of people with similar experiences and we were joking about the same thing. There were some cringe-worthy moments, like, “I can’t believe they asked you to play that character” or “I can’t believe your dad went through that,” but at the same time, there was a lot of laughter. It was a bonding with other South Asians.
To me, Apu is a mistral character. But we needed a narrative vehicle. Can we get Matt Groening or Hank Azaria? That makes the movie have a direction. We couldn’t get Matt. We reached out and were able to speak to Hank off-camera, and ultimately, he chose not to be in the movie. That was a goal for the film, but not necessarily, the goal for what I wanted people to get out of it.
Once we couldn’t get the interview, I was bummed. It was a big question. How does this end? I expressed that in the film, but there was a lot of truth in that. I was like, “Crap, now, what?”
You didn’t get to interview Azaria on-camera. Have you heard from him since? Do you expect to hear from him after this airs?
I honestly don’t know. [When we had a] conversation with over the phone, he said he liked my work and followed my work since that [initial Totally Biased] piece. He was happy I was making the film and thought it was really interesting. He’s done documentaries before and he knows how the editing process works. He gave a compromise. The compromise was we can do the interview, but it had to be in a public forum. It had to be something where I was held accountable.
I agreed to it. The film is about accountability. There’s something to be said about acknowledging something, apologizing for it and discussing it. That is important in art. I was all for it and he said he’d think about it, and ultimately, he said no. I would still love to have a public conversation. I think it would be really informative.
For all the arguments of ‘nothing changes on The Simpsons,’ that’s clearly bullshit. Things happen.
The film mentions how great it would be if Apu suddenly stopped using the accent. Are you hoping this film will have any influence in The Simpsons’s writer’s room?
I didn’t make it for the influence. I don’t expect anything to change nor do I really care to some degree. At the end of the day, it wasn’t really about the character. This is about a larger issue of representation and having control of your image and the importance of honest, genuine storytelling. The Simpsons has been on 30 years. What’s the point?
If you asked me what I wanted, I’d like his kids to have a voice on the show. It’d be cool to have Indian American kids at least be fuller. It’d be cool if he had to stop working at the Kwik-E-Mart, maybe he moved up somehow and got a degree, whatever. For all the arguments of “nothing changes on The Simpsons,” that’s clearly bullshit. Things happen. They introduce characters. They get rid of characters. It’s a brilliant show. It’s groundbreaking and so creative and funny, but Apu is so basic. It’s so tacky and beneath the show in so many ways. It’s racist. Racism is tacky. When people say, “Well, you can’t say anything anymore to be politically correct,” that’s intellectually lazy.
One of the show’s writers, Dana Gould, asked if you thought Mr. Burns was a one-dimensional character. You argued Apu doesn’t have power like a white, rich guy does. Why is it important to emphasize which characters, like Mr. Burns, have social power in the show?
That, to me, is how I approach comedy. The best comedy is the comedy that goes after people with power, the ones who have control, the ones who actually dictate how the rest of us have to live. Mr. Burns is there because they’re making fun of the Howard Hughes that has all the money in the world and no perspective in the world. They are doing the thing I love. You can be funny going after people with less power, but it’s also bullying. That doesn’t appeal to me.
Are you hoping this film will help you land your own show?
[Laughs] Ha! Look, that’s not in my control. I just make stuff and if people want me to make more stuff, I will. I have no clue. If people give me a chance, I feel like I’d do it pretty well. Would I like a TV show? Hell yeah, I’d like a TV show, but all I can do is work with what I have. I was lucky enough to be able to make this film.