In his new documentary, comedian Hari Kondabolu undertakes the important task of standing up to a life-long enemy: Simpsons character Apu, and Kondabolu holds his own.
Some people claim the first ten as “the only good seasons”. Others will insist that there are gems later on. Still others have never even seen a single episode. When you’re talking about a show with as long a history as The Simpsons, you’re going to find someone with any and all opinions. You’ll even find some hatred. In his documentary The Problem With Apu, Hari Kondabolu expresses his own displeasure, not at the show as a whole, but at a specific character: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
Apu, in a move that today would hopefully never fly, is a stereotypical Indian character voiced by a white actor. In 1989 though, the idea went unexamined. It was nothing more than a funny voice and Hank Azaria birthed an iconic role in a season one episode titled “The Telltale Head.” From there, Apu joined the Simpson family in their tremendous skyrocket to fame, catapulting the Kwik-E-Mart employee into the public consciousness for the last twenty nine seasons.
For so many of us, we can easily just consume a piece of media like The Simpsons, laugh, enjoy it, and move on without really thinking about it. For Kondabolu though, Apu wasn’t just a beloved support character in popular show. Instead, Apu represents the complex relationship he has with himself, his culture, and, as a kid growing up in the height of Simpson-mania, how people perceive those things about him. So in an attempt to make sense of it all, he interviewed multiple southeast Asian actors, as well as a some Simpson authorities, to hear their thoughts and feelings on the question: What’s the deal with Apu?
The resulting conversations are quite interesting. As much as anyone who watches the show “knows” that a white guy does his voice, what can you do? At this point, Apu is an institution. That makes it all the more thought provoking to hear Whoopi Goldberg confirm that, yes, he’s qualifies as a minstrel figure. There’s a real weight and gravity when the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, talks about the racial discrimination he’s faced. When actors like Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn say that they don’t like Apu, and Simpsons creator Dana Gould can only shrug his shoulders and admit that the character is a stereotype, one understands more clearly just how big a problem Apu can be for some people.
Don’t worry though, it’s still funny. Kondabolu is a talented comedian and knows that he’s fighting an uphill battle by picking a fight with such a beloved character. At no point does he attempt to make anyone feel bad for liking Apu. He doesn’t insist that The Simpsons ought to burn down everything to do with Apu. Instead, he merely presents his own feelings, the feelings of those he interviews, and examines why he feels them.
In fact, I actually think that one of the weaknesses of the documentary is that he stays pretty surface level for most of it. I know this is being aired on the relatively uncontroversial station TruTV, and he undoubtedly felt pressure to not piss off the Simpsons fanboys too much. That said, much of the hour-long runtime was dedicated to either explaining who Apu is, or confirming with various people that, yes, they don’t like the character. Consequently, it wound up feeling like Kondabolu was going for breadth rather than depth, and I wanted the reverse. As much as I love seeing all of the actors he was able to get for this, I think I would have enjoyed half as many people for twice as long if that meant they would really dig into the topic of southeastern representation in media.
Full disclosure though, I’m a millennial and I actively seek out these conversations. I’m also a passionate Simpsons fan since childhood, but I love dissecting media any time I can. So, when I heard the premise of “a documentary talking about how racist Apu is,” I was immediately “yeah, duh. Of course. Let’s dig in as far as forty nine minutes can take us.” Your mileage may vary, as will your need for Simpsons context. That said, if your knee-jerk response to this is to dismiss this movie out of hand based on premise alone, I think you might gain some insight from giving Kondabolu a chance and hear him talk about his side of the story.
Regardless of how you approach it, The Problem With Apu is a valuable piece in the larger conversation about how we handle representation in our media. At this point, there isn’t much we can do about Apu, and Kondabolu isn’t asking us to start a letter writing campaign to take him off the air. But if we as a culture are attempting to be more inclusive and more empathetic, it’s as crucial to look back at what we’ve made as we look forward towards what we’re making. The Problem With Apu helps us do that, helps us understand our previous mistakes, and helps us know how we ought to proceed in the future. Plus, Hari Kondabolu is pretty funny, which always helps.