Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu, whose little TV documentary about the Simpsons character Apu caused a wee bit of controversy back in 2017, finally got to have a chat with voice actor Hank Azaria in a joint interview aired on NPR Wednesday.
As you might recall, The Problem With Apu takes a critical look at the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a character Kondabolu blasts as a demeaning ethnic stereotype, and touches on the broader context of South Asian representation in Western media. The documentary is framed by his Michael Moore-like attempts to arrange an interview with Azaria, who (spoiler alert) politely declines.
Now it appears Hari and Hank are best buds. Azaria helped promote Kondabolu’s new comedy special in a video where he comes off like a captured prisoner of war, and the two sat down to discuss the Apu hullaballoo on NPR’s Code Switch.
Azaria, who last voiced Apu in 2017, reflected on the character’s legacy:
I – through my role in Apu and what I created in the Hollywood messaging – right? – which is a big deal in this country and around the world, I helped to create a pretty marginalizing, dehumanizing stereotype that makes it much easier – in fact, some moment during all this, I read a little news blurb where a guy was attacked. It was actually a Middle Eastern guy who was attacked in his store and was called Apu while he was being attacked. I think if I had any doubts at that point – there was also – there were certain key moments in that whole is-this-real question journey I was on where I got the answer. You know, Apu had become a slur, in other words. That – a lot of times I have conversations with my white friends and family or acquaintances or whoever, and that gets through.
Kondabolu shared the mixed feelings he has about the documentary:
I sometimes have thought to myself, I regret ever doing this. Like, it gets to a point where I’m like, I’m sick of this. And, you know, it’s – you get so frustrated as an artist and as a person. Like, the documentary is about how I hate being associated with this stereotype, and now I’m forever associated with it. Like, there’s a lot of, like, irony and frustration in that […] But at the same time, in the broad scheme of things, I think I did right. And I think I did right by my community even if they’re not all in agreement, by the way. It’s not universal. Definitely, I have a killjoy reputation amongst factions of my community as well.
In the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests, The Simpsons announced it would no longer have white actors play non-white characters. While characters like Dr. Hibbert, Bumblebee Man, and Comic Book Guy’s wife Kumiko have since been recast, Apu and the rest of the Nahasapeemapetilon clan have yet to speak. In March 2021, creator Matt Groening mentioned they had ambitious plans for Apu, but whether they’ll ever come to fruition is anyone’s guess.