Is There a Problem with Apu?

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.”

 

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Everybody Is a Winner

George Costanza once sold his “show about NOTHING” to a bunch of cold NBC execs, including his doomed fiancée Susan, by answering why the couch potatoes of America would watch a show without a purpose; “Because it’s on TV.” It’s on TV used to be a plausible reason to watch TV. When the show aired in 1992, before the limitless possibilities of DVR, DVD’s, podcasts, Kindle, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBOnow, and the endless variety of entertainment available via streaming internet channels, what was “on TV” was a good enough reason to watch it as any. We used to ask, “What’s on TV?” Now, we ask, “What should we watch?” The former reveals our passive helplessness to the TV gods; while the latter gives a power punctuated with the anxiety of too many options. We are the catalyst of our entertainment. We see the next two hours of our lives determined from algorithms selected to help us make the click. We stand astride the abundant mountain of mirth, murder or mystery. We sit in Plato’s cave with shadows so enjoyable, so personalized and so dynamic, there may never be any reason to turn around.

Yet within the immensity of amusement available to us, it appears some have sunk into a morass of moronic distraction. I’m aware of tastes and preferences. I’m aware of age differences, motivations and political affiliations. I’m aware that RuPaul’s Drag Race and Real Housewives are as (if not more) popular as what I’d consider quality programming like House of Cards or Game of Thrones. Reality TV finds the untamed characters from Rodeo Dr. to Main St. to MLK Blvd. and puts their faults and charms on display. They are, ostensibly, real people “acting” like themselves. The episodic shows mentioned above find actors acting. But the aims of all producers remain the same—make it watchable, make it interesting, make it dramatic. Whatever you choose to watch, there is a reason to watch—namely, some story or problem that must be solved in a predetermined amount of time. Thought was given, production values were managed, behavior was defined in a way to help the viewer enjoy their valuable time spent inside the magic screen.

Here, we find the younger generation who have come of age with closets full of plastic participation medals, teachers offering safe spaces for reflection on Mark Twain’s language and a siren calling smartphone in the pocket since 12 years old. James, my 14-year-old stepson, godson, protégé, mentee, ball of irrepressible energy and general frustration factory, has hipped me to the videos he likes these days. He likes watching people destroying iPhones, computers and electronics in various ways. He also likes watching people eat various foodstuffs, piano tutorials and the ever-present animal videos of the internet. The bulk of his YouTube time is watching videos of other people watching themselves playing video games, commenting and cursing profusely. I watched one where a guy with a heavy Cockney accent cursed an impressive nimbus cloud of ‘f’ words around his first-person shooter character. It was objectively unwatchable; however, 1,650,423 people disagree with me as that was his watched count. I asked James why he likes it. “Because it’s on, and it relaxes me.” He said as a giant robot was disintegrated in a hail of lightning fast bullets, action darting across the screen in a rapidly rotating dizzying display. Yeah, looks relaxing.

There may be quite a bit more that James doesn’t show me, doesn’t know about or doesn’t watch. The internet is like our hive mind buzzing with relentless diligence to satisfy the unique queen bees inside all our heads. Why produce a show when people will watch a cell phone crushed in a vice? Why work hard on a story when people will watch you curse while playing Bonestorm? Why create dialogue when millions will watch you putting on makeup? So, who am I to judge why one thing is quality and another is crap? Who am I? I’m not the universal judge. I’m from the generation between sit-com and webcam. I’m from the generation between pay-phones and smart phones. I am from the generation where the wave broke on the championship trophy, cascaded back in sullen pieces and reformed into those terrifying “awards” for participation.

I’m old enough to remember ribbons only for first, second, third and in the case of middling talent but above average achievement in effort, honorable mention. Hundreds of us plebs used to go home empty handed after elementary “field day.” I remember such enormous friggin’ pride when I finally won third place in the 50-yard dash in 5th grade. I was like, “Okay, I’m not Rich Luckowski, but I am third fastest and also not a jerk.” It was a bronze, but felt good. Everyone tried, but I tried better. It seems natural. Who wants to go home and show their parents a ribbon for existence?

fun=won

The transferred disappointment can lead losers to greatness through determination (as well as the possibility of mental turmoil, lifelong anxiety, personality disorders, or unstable relationships). Contrasted with the current crop of kids who attain an award for participation or certificate of achievement by not crying and kicking the winner and taking his blue ribbon (which in less moral, less evolved days might have been the Darwinian winner) it appears we merely switched one undesirable result for another.

From the age of four, when personality is established, humans know winning is everything. It is the basis of evolution, conflict and survival. Our enlightened minds may try to jam inclusion into the equation of a solo victory, but that just skews the results, creating a domino effect that leads to confusing trophy ceremonies, such as the one I saw in my kindergarten spelling bee yesterday.

We passed out 24 Spelling Bee Champion certificates to all 24 participants. Not everyone acted like a Champion. The kids who won jumped for joy. The losers hung their heads in discontent. This is as it should be. The teachers cheer the winners, console the losers and assure everyone that life goes on and we will all enjoy the pizza party. The feeling of, and getting over loss, without hostility, is as important as being a congratulatory and appreciative winner.

I was in 3rd or 4th grade when they piled all the kids into our tiny auditorium for a spelling bee. I was a great speller and stile 😉 am. Earlier in the year, the teacher asked me how to spell school, and I flubbed it. The children all laughed at me, and eager to explain how I could misspell something that hangs above the entrance of which I see every day, I exclaimed, “I had a fun summer!” I guess the carefree memories of a ten-year old’s summer vacation of night swimming and ice cream had pushed out all the practical knowledge of addition and grammar. So, I was hyped up to prove my spelling acumen to my class of ball-breaking chums. I made it through round after round with easy words until I got a stumper: cushion. I’m pretty sure I spelled it with a ‘u’. I finished in 9th place, which is decent, but there can be only one winner, only one champion; lest we engage in “excellence bias.” In the never-ending lesson of “Simpsons Did It!” This season The Simpsons tackled the issue…”with sexy results.” Lisa won and got the smallest trophy. When she complained, poor Ralph Wiggum cried that she was “loser shaming” him.

simpson_0

Thank you Simpsons (Season 28 Episode 18)

That idea, a zero-sum game of a winner and a loser is usually applied to sports or contests, not to modern politics. Our president, who dominates headlines with his special brand of idiosyncratic vulgarity, conforms to the zero-sum idea. “So much winning.” “[Other countries] won’t be laughing at us anymore.” The “Benito Cheeto” (thanks @GregProops) shows his commitment to America first by making the world last. Pulling out of a voluntary agreement to decrease carbon emissions (which might not even be enough to stop the destructive forces of climate change) leaves U.S.A. alone, but “winning” by being the first to quit. The global embarrassment that “Sweet Potato Stalin” (@GregProops) has become, won’t result in a natural win or loss scenario, because 21st century political ideas are blended; Trump’s are welded shut. Personality is formed at a young age, and we must ask ourselves, was Trump a habitual winner, timid loser or a cautious participator? What made him Trump? Did he love to win or hate to lose more? Would a participation trophy from his 2nd grade science fair stopped the cackling monsters in his head from laughing at him and insulting his smallish inept hands? If his mother had shared the vanilla ice cream (because of course the Trumps ate vanilla) evenly when he was a boy, would he still be proving triumph over others with a second scoop at dessert?

It’s admirable that our society has tried to find a place for everyone on the victory platform. But, there’s simply no room for seven billion people on the podium. For millennia, there have been evolutionary winners and losers. Homo sapiens are the indisputable winners. We live on all seven continents and in space. We are the apex predator and the pinnacle of organic creativity. Couldn’t we all be participants, equal parts winning (birth) and loss (death) in this experiment of being? As humans cultivate our android world of Google blood cells, gene editing, neural uploads and artificial organs, will we worry about rewards, equality and doing our best if everyone thinks on the same software program? Perhaps, “Who is the best ______” will be an irrelevant concept as we become a singular mind—a non-competitive human union.

 

Love and the Jersey Shore

Love is all around us on Valentine’s Day; and not the love that most of us experience. Not the absolute love from family; not the productive love of a partner; not even the dependable love of a pet. We are exposed to the Hallmark version of love. The version of love that can be quantified through expensive jewelry, fancy chocolates, and effusive gift cards. It’s another great idea destroyed by commercialism. Valentine’s probably began with one caveman bringing his wife a big rabbit followed by a hug and kiss. Then Dr. Showoff caveman brought home a deer and flowers, and the competition of gossiping girlfriends began. Christmas—a day of family gatherings turned into must-have items; Thanksgiving—a day of gratefulness warped into a giant carb feast to prepare for the insanity of the approaching Black Friday. Although these holidays of excess and spending money give a modicum of order and idealized sequences to the festivals, it doesn’t change the loss of purpose. St. Valentine paid his life to marry young Christian couples in a pagan world. He believed in uniting the love that finds a way to be together. He believed in the love that those Valentine’s cards aspire to bestow, but fall short mumbling in smarm and stumbling in schmaltz.

While people are falling in love all the time, love is also falling apart somewhere at the same time. It’s the cycle. We all have felt different types of love at different times in our lives. It has been asked if it’s better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all.  Hopefully, we have all both had and lost love to be able to answer the question for ourselves. But love is a heavy word—so, “What’s in a name?” Did we lose the lover we had, did we lose the happy times spent together, or did we lose something intangible inside ourselves. Love is only an idea, an idea that makes us act insane sometimes. Is love a necessary part of life? Must one love oneself before loving others? Does anyone admit to loving another, but loving themselves more? Is true love possible—and what is true love? Those questions are simply rhetorical, and must be answered inside your own heart.

Another bit of rhetoric from the modern world, albeit far removed from Shakespeare’s classic monologue of Juliet questioning semantics’ role in our life, is the ever so crucial knowledge of “Never fall in love at the Jersey Shore.” That was the best piece of advice those guidos and guidettes could give us; and yet three of them did fall in love and maintained the relationship throughout many of the seasons. Snooki found a docile gorilla in Jionni, J-Woww found the walking tattooed colossus of Roger, and possibly the most dysfunctional couple of all—Sammy and Ronnie, found each other the first week in the house. Those couplings left Vinnie and Pauly’s bromance to swell with their expanding biceps each week, Deena to flaunt her shoddily airbrushed tan assets and the eternally hopeless Mike “The Situation” to flounder in his own fatuity and arrogance.

I was dating a girl in 2008 (when “Jersey Shore” premiered) that hated all things and people from the Northeastern parts of the U.S. At the time, it didn’t register that if she hated everything from that area, and I came from there, that it stands to reason she hated me too. As I said, love turns you into a crazy person. She enjoyed reality TV, and I thought it looked like a hilarious way to show her the charm of New Jersey’s insouciant and ridiculous attitude. I’ve seen every episode since then. I was fascinated by the similarities of Sammy and Ronnie’s relationship to my own alternatingly adoring and unbearable one. I liked how unapologetic they were about the GTL lifestyle, and finding girls who are DTF. I went to university with guidos before that name was widely acceptable and now, perhaps complimentary. They did gel their hair to excess, wear tight t-shirts and fist pump in crowded, steamy nightclubs, but they were also intelligent, comical and sensible (mostly).

This show hit the zeitgeist of America right where it hurts, in the guilty pleasure genitals. Fans latched onto the show and therefore, it brought a hailstorm of vitriol from Italian-Americans, New Jerseyans and concerned mothers nationwide. Their anger only brought more attention to the cast and their antics and the show became MTV’s biggest hit. It was fun to watch them grow together, whereas “The Real World” got to leave after 4 strained months together. These strangers, picked to live in house, and have their lives taped, had to do it for four months, six different times. Of course, there were plenty of fights, sabotaging, backstabbing, C-blocking, clubbing, hooking up, working out and tanning. But, the reason I stayed with the show, besides being able to stare at a train wreck for 45 minutes every week, was how they actually matured throughout the run. Snooki became a responsible, sober mother-to-be, Mike became a successful recovering addict, Vinnie conquered his panic attacks, and the others all worked on their own shortcomings and problems to end the show with completely different attitudes than when they began. It turned out to be a fairly decent example of how my generation sees the world. Many of us experience the freedom and debauchery of university and are then expected to cut it cold turkey while working the 9-5 napless and without buffet dining hall meals. Some of us find our life-long lovers in college, like Sam and Ron and some find best friends, like Vin and Pauly. We all come out different people than when we entered and with memories that will never be forgotten (if they were remembered in the first place).

This show wasn’t labeled as a love show, but that’s what we saw in many episodes. We saw Ron and Sam almost kill each other, but ultimately fight through, learn to communicate and stay together. We saw two grown men able to say they love each other (with only a pinch of sarcasm). We saw a rather shallow, marginally alcoholic girl, find a man who loves her and learns to accept her wild behavior while she adjusts to life as a mature mother. Hell, even Mike found a girl who loved him, but she wanted him to love her back, and that wasn’t ever going to happen, so they broke up with benefits. It seems falling in love at the Jersey Shore isn’t so much something to avoid, but rather, something that is inevitable.

My parents met at the Jersey Shore, and they are still together after 35 years. Love finds you. Sometimes love leaves heart holes only fixed by love. Love is working together and working on being a better person and partner. Love isn’t easy, and because of that, it’s hard to say it or admit to others. Can you lose a part of yourself to be replaced by another? Would you prefer to be lucky in life and unlucky in love or vice versa? To me, love isn’t the grand gestures of candlelit dinners, lavish gifts and rote romantic motions given once a year; love is more perfectly expressed in the intricacies of accidentally holding hands, surprises based on listening and sharing selflessly. Love is subjective, incomprehensible, profound, and completely incapable of being written by strangers on a decorated card. Show love in your own way, everyday.