Sunday night, the East Asian comedian explores the impact of the stereotyped Simpsons character on "The Problem with Apu."
Will Hari Kondabolu get satisfaction? That’s the story behind The Problem with Apu, the comedian’s documentary that premieres Sunday on Tru TV. Kondabolu credits The Simpsons for helping him realize that comedy could be smart, subversive and funny, but he has a big problem with the show’s convenience store clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. For an hour, Kondabolu walks through the issues that come with having a stereotype be one of the few East Asians on television as he searches for justice, which he sees as inextricably tied to the white actor Hank Azaria, who voices the character.
Kondabolu will return to New Orleans to do stand-up at The Joy Theater December 10, and for much of The Simpsons’ 28-year run, Apu’s “Thank you, come again” was the voice of a people on television. The show had been on the air for 20 years before Aziz Ansari appeared on Parks & Recreation and 23 years before Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project debuted. In that interim, Kal Penn played Kumar in the Harold and Kumar series and a resident on House, and Asif Mandvi was featured on The Daily Show, but they hardly had the kind of cultural presence as Apu. Kondabolu talks to these and other Indian actors, his parents, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about the frustrations that accompany being spoken for by a character whose accent doesn’t exist, and how his clichéd role as a convenience store owner affected how they were perceived when there were few other characters that offered a counter-narrative.
Kondabolu’s quest for justice gets him as far as comedian Dana Gould, who worked in The Simpsons’ writers room for almost a decade, and Gould offers some interesting insights into the mental calculus of the show’s writers. It’s a calculation that might be different if there were women and people of color in that writers room, comedian Aparna Nancherla contends, but Kondabolu’s big fish is Azaria, who has been reluctant to talk about Apu and the issues connected to his representation. Aside from a 2013 interview he gave Huffington Post, he has stayed quiet on the subject. The interview didn’t do Azaria’s cause any favors when he identified one his inspirations for the voice as white British actor Peter Sellers when he played an East Asian in the 1968 film, The Party.
In the interview, Azaria explains that he was asked by the writers to find an Indian accent for Apu, and when he quickly threw out the Sellers-inspired voice, they loved it. Writers from The Simpsons pass the potato back to Azaria and claim that the character only had one line and no name in the first episode, and that they specifically thought that the character shouldn’t be Indian because it would be too much of a cliché. When Azaria gave the line a mock-Indian reading though, they supposedly heard comedy magic, and the rest is history.
Regardless of what actually happened, The Problem with Apu presents a lot of funny people talking personally and intelligently about issues connected with representation. At a time when we’re ripping off a number of Band-aids and reexamining old wounds, the documentary feels right on time, and one sequence backs up the importance of these conversations. When Kondabolu tells people on the street that Apu is voiced by a white guy, they’re shocked. That means that for more than 20 years, these people and likely many, many more with little other experience with Indians have believed that Apu’s accent is—or could be—real, and that there is some reality under those layers of stereotype.
The documentary was inspired by one of Kondabolu’s stand-up routines, and because he deals with real and complex issues in comedy, it’s easy to make his work sound like work. When I interviewed him by email after the release of his Waiting for 2042 comedy album, he stopped at one point to announce, "In case any of you have read this far - MY NAME IS HARI KONDABOLU AND I AM A STANDUP COMEDIAN. I KNOW I DON'T SEEM FUNNY, BUT MY ALBUM IS HILARIOUS." Kondabolu’s comedic voice is similarly very present in The Problem with Apu down to the meta nature of its payoff. He’s outraged, but he’s never simply outraged, and he’s funny but never simply funny.