The Simpsons are an indispensable part of my life. My sense of humor, so intricately entwined with Springfield lore, that when talking to me, people are often heard muttering through their frustration of being on the outside of the joke, “Is that a Simpsons quote?” Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. I’m not quoting out of nowhere; I’m referencing a relevant moment in the show while engaged in a discussion. The real joy, is a perfectly placed quote, with like-minded individuals, when you don’t need to explain the meaning. I cannot count on my hands the number of people I know who will implicitly recognize Simpsons knowledge and enjoy a good quote placement. The Simpsons are a part of our life, a joyful, playful yet cromulent place, that embiggens our lives despite every character being flawed, dangerous or wildly incompetent.
Hari Kondabolu came onto my radar earlier last week in the New York Times headline, “You Love ‘The Simpsons’, Then Let’s Talk About Apu.” He made a documentary, “The Problem with Apu”, for TruTV, about a fictional Indian character living in a fictional American town voiced by an actual white man. Kondabolu is a stand up, writer and apparently deeply hurt by Apu. He’s not the only one. He got almost all of today’s prominent South Asian actors to participate in the film to express their frustrations and, in some cases, hatred of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
Here are some things I learned while researching Apu as a troubling stereotype of Indian immigrants in America or from Kondabolu’s film:
- Apu’s name is taken from a famous film trilogy set in India from the 50’s about a young boy named Apu and his journey from adolescence to adulthood.
- Indians don’t like the accent.
- Some people didn’t know Apu was voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria).
- Some see Apu, as voiced by a white actor, equivalent to blackface minstrelsy.
- Whoopi Goldberg has an extensive collection of “negrobilia” that is, blackface dolls, statues and assorted memorabilia of a bygone era of black representation by white performers.
- The Indian guy in Short Circuit 2 was not actually Indian.
- A non-Indian person imitating an Indian accent is called “pantanking.”
- At least in the Spanish language dubbed Simpsons, Apu’s voice completely lacks any “pantanking.”
- Hank Azaria, the voice actor, was quoted as saying, when creating the sound, that he was told, “How racist can you make [the voice]?”
I’m glad to have learned these things. I’m sad that Kondabolu likes The Simpsons, but hates the only character from his ethnicity. Apu’s voice truly is, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy imitating [Kondabolu’s] dad.” For me, Apu’s voice was not what was funny. Apu was funny because of the situations he got into. He allowed Jasper to stay frozen in the ice cream cooler and charged admittance fees to see “Frostillicus.” He pretended to be married to Marge to avoid an arranged marriage, with sexy results. He sells expired meat to Homer. He lied to Homer through song. His penny candy is “surprisingly expensive.”
Apu’s voice is undeniably, albeit a broad stamp, but totally, Indian. I’ve had a few encounters with Indian people in my life. There was Sumanth—a guy at my high school, no accent, pretty funny, good dude. An Indian couple who were my doctors in Austin, TX—very lovely, smart and a full accent. The guys who ran the 7-11 in my hometown—accented, not funny and sour. A guy I met in Australia—wicked rich and bought me a sandwich, no accent, very funny, interesting stories about being in the high class of India. They were all different, and to none I thought to say, “Oh my god, you sound just like Apu.”
It’s hard to be too sympathetic with the idea that Apu led to bullying. Getting, “Thank you, come again” shouted at you doesn’t seem to be on par with the verbal weight behind an N-bomb or belittling Asian slurs. Apu being the only Indian on TV in 1990 makes sense since there were around 450,000 Indian immigrants in the entire U.S. at that time. The choice of a white actor to do his voice makes sense because Hank Azaria also does Moe, Frink, Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, Snake, Lenny & Carl, Dr. Nick, Wiseguy and the Sea Captain. Is it possible that of the half million Indians living in all of America in the late 80’s when the show was cast, that one of them was a voice work actor capable of the range and humor of Hank Azaria? Is it possible that Apu was made with a vocal stereotype of Indians? Is it possible that some young South Asian children were subjected to Kwik-E-Mart insults when they were young? Is it possible that The Simpsons are funny despite some short-sighted typecasting of the wide array of American people? If it is a discussion you want, we can ask those questions. But “The Problem with Apu” places too much blame on The Simpsons and not enough on the entertainment industry in general. Why pick on the one show that actually showed an (admittedly) fundamentally flawed yet intelligent, funny character of South Asian descent?
Hari bemoans the lack of Indians on TV, as does Aziz Ansari in Masters of None. I get it. You looked to TV to see yourself and it wasn’t there. But you were first generation! The TV was literally waiting for YOU! There actually wasn’t anyone there except you. Your parents were too busy being hard working role models for you.
Apu is funny because he doesn’t really understand Springfield, but totally fits into the craziness. He’s part of Homer’s bowling team, barbershop quartet, and the neighborhood watch. He’s not an outsider pushed to the perimeter of episodes only to jump in with a Squishee and make a joke about Ganesh. He took a bullet for James Woods. He was known as the “Fifth Beatle.” He can dance the robot. He once worked 96 straight hours and thought he was a hummingbird.
I get that there were no South Asians on the white dominated TV landscape of the early 90’s, mid-90’s, late 90’s, early 00’s, basically until Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show. But now, that’s changed; it’s shown to have changed in the documentary.
Apu is a cartoonish cartoon on a globally offensive show. The Australians hated their episode rife with Aussie accents, koalas and allegedly big beers. The Brazilians banned their episode that showed kidnapping and that Brazil nuts are simply called “nuts” there. The Japanese episode included over the top game shows, Godzilla attacks and origami in prison. Everything is a stereotype; does that mean we can’t laugh? Luckily, Judge Kondabolu says, “You’re allowed to like The Simpsons.” Just saying that means that I have to see each character and wonder, does this offend someone? I don’t want to hurt someone for my amusement. I didn’t know The Simpsons did that. For Kondabolu as a Simpsons fan, to bring this up, could be a good thing if we see Apu move in a direction that shows a positive arc. But it shouldn’t have to. He’s allowed to stay working at the Kwik-E-Mart overcharging “for meat, and milk, from 1984.” It’s not a real person. There are other South Asians on TV, so no young Indian kids will be bullied by “Thank you, come again” being chanted at them on the playground by some stereotypically dumb slack jawed yokel like Cletus types.
The main question: Is Apu racist? I think no, but it’s not my ethnicity or culture being parodied. Therefore, Kondabolu is entitled to feel that way. But imagine if all the satirized cultures, personalities, races or countries felt that way. There would be no Simpsons, and what a poorer world it would be.
Is Barney’s alcoholism triggering?
Is Fat Tony or the chef an accurate representation of Italians?
Is Groundskeeper Willie a true Scotsman?
Is Bumblebee Man’s clumsiness insulting to Mexicans?
Is the Sea Captain’s growl characteristic of all sailors?
Is Krusty’s miserly nature offensive to Jewish people?
Is Smithers’ homosexuality being expressed toward the man he serves homophobic?
Is Marge fulfilling outdated gender roles as a stay at home mom?
Is Nelson’s bullying a result of a distant single mother and a deadbeat dad?
Are these kinds of questions necessary when talking about the inarguably greatest show of our generation, Hari?
Do the writers need to discuss the sensitivities of all the microcosms of contemporary American society before deciding if something is funny? The old Aesop Fable of the Miller and his donkey taught that by trying to please everyone, you please none.
Thank you Hari Kondabolu for making me aware that this is a sensitive accent, that a fantasy show can have negative consequences in the real world. I’m glad to learn about you, your stand up and the opinions of the other South Asian actors’ in the movie. I’m happy to talk Simpsons with any of you anytime. I don’t consider this matter closed. It is a discussion. I just wanted to contribute my ideas. After all, “I’m a white male age 18-49, everyone listens to me.”