‘The Problem with Apu’ Expertly Explores the Biggest Flaw of ‘The Simpsons’
In 2012, Hari Kondabolu — then a writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell — went on a rant that had been long overdue. In a clip that quickly became viral, he expressed his anger at Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, The Simpsons’ Indian convenience store clerk voiced by Hank Azaria. Kondabolu spoke of the bullying he experienced as a result of Apu as well his frustration at a white actor doing such a broad Indian accent. The clip started a conversation about representation and whether or not we were wrong for laughing along with Apu for all those years. Now, Kondabolu has expounded on his feelings on the issue with The Probloem with Apu, a truTV documentary that takes a detailed look at a complex situation.
Kondabolu makes it clear that he doesn’t hate The Simpsons and is, in fact, a big fan. Not everyone he speaks to is quite as generous, however. Kal Penn — one of many Indian and Indian-American actors who appear in the documentary — says that the presence of Apu single-handedly prevents him from enjoying the show, and when he suggests that Hari’s love of The Simpsons could be a result of a self-hatred, he’s only half-joking. Later, he comments that after his breakout role in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, an Indian-American man told him that thanks to him, everyone calls him Kumar. He responds by saying “Isn’t that better than being called Apu?” and he can’t help but agree. The point that Kondabolu makes sure we understand is that for a long time, Apu was the only representation of Indians on television, and that caused more harm than anyone involved with the show might have realized.
What The Problem with Apu does a great job of exploring is the disconnect between the idea of The Simpsons as an innovative, transgressive show that nonetheless perpetuated such an obvious, outdated stereotype. When Hari and Whoopi Goldberg discuss the idea that Apu is an example of minstrelsy, it seems odd to think that something nearly universally praised as one of the greatest television shows of all time could be guilty of the same thing as Amos ‘n’ Andy, and yet, when you consider the evidence, it’s pretty hard to think of it any other way. In one of the film’s most interesting moments, Goldberg mentions her collection of “negrobilia,” i.e. extremely racist advertisements and paraphernalia from the time when blackface was considered socially acceptable. When Kondabolu gives her an Apu action figure to add the collection, it hardly feels out of place.
This leads to the main source of conflict: Hari attempting to call out The Simpsons — and Azaria, in particular — on the mess they made. The suspense comes from whether or not he’ll actually get to talk to Azaria. Unfortunately he backs out, saying he’s wary of how he’ll be made to look in the film’s final edits. Kondabolu doesn’t let him off the hook here, noting that Azaria being able to choose how he’d be represented is a perfect example of the privilege he didn’t have when watching Apu for all those years. As someone who not only likes Azaria’s work but has always thought of him as one of the good guys, I found his his cowardice disappointing, if not entirely surprising.
Thankfully, Dana Gould — who already had a great comedy career before joining the Simpsons writing staff — is more game, and gives one of the more revealing interviews of the documentary. When he argues that Mr. Burns is no more one-dimensional than Apu is, Kondabolu calls him out on this, noting that as a powerful white man, a character like Burns challenges the status quo, while Apu perpetuates it. At this point, we see a comedic blind spot revealed within the writer’s room. They tend to view things as just being funny, without considering the ramifications behind it. For a show that so often critiqued the most toxic elements of society, it was surprising to realize they fall into the same “..but we make fun of everyone” trap that has defined some of South Park’s more regrettable moments. Both shows are quite funny and have left a lasting legacy, but in each case, chasing the punchline over anything else has left some blemishes on their records.
Of course, The Simpsons did try to remedy The Apu Problem in 2016, with “Much Apu About Something,” an episode where Apu’s millennial nephew (played by The Mindy Project’s Utkarsh Ambudkar) lashes out at Apu for being an Indian stereotype. Ambudkar appears in the documentary and expresses some regret about appearing in the episode. He feels as though what could have been an attempt to address the problem was really just the writers attempting to give themselves a pass. Considering that shortly after the scene where Apu is confronted, Italian stereotype Luigi appears to bring home the “hey, we do this to everybody” point, it’s a perfectly fair critique. Much like Azaria, the writers are willing to briefly engage with the notion that Apu might be a problem, but they don’t quite have the guts to face it head-on.
The documentary concludes with Kondabolu suggesting that if the writers can’t competently grapple with Apu, perhaps the show should just be canceled. A lot of fans feel this way, regardless of where they stand on the Apu question. It’s frustrating, though, because it feels like a show as thoughtful as The Simpsons was in its golden years would have been willing to address and correct its mistake in a way that would be intriguing and funny. Instead, the staff just wants to rest on its laurels, and it’s yet another reminder of how much more fearless and imaginative the show used to be. The problematic conception of Apu has been the elephant in the room on The Simpsons for a long time, and Kondabolu does a great job bringing the issue into the light. It’s just a shame that Azaria and the writers are so unwilling to address in a meaningful way.