The response of The Simpsons’ makers to the conversation surrounding the character of Apu was “petty and sad,” Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who has been at the forefront of the issue, said. It signaled “the downfall of a show I loved for so long,” Kondabolu, who first drew attention to the subject with his documentary The Problem with Apu, said to The Daily Beast on May 8.
Kondabolu went on to say that the decision to use Lisa, the most progressive character on The Simpsons, to dismiss the criticism surrounding Apu was a “punch to the gut.” Lisa Simpson, in the April 8 episode that addressed the controversy, had said in a fourth-wall-breaking moment to the audience: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The episode drew much criticism online.
“The punch to the gut was not to the Indian American part of me, oddly enough, it was to the Simpsons fan part. You just sacrificed Lisa? Lisa’s me, man,” Kondabolu said in the interview. “Lisa’s me and you’re telling me that Lisa would say that? As a Simpsons fan, they really had to go on a bit of a journey to justify that. They had to find some way for themselves to be like, ‘You know what? We’re just going to nip this in the bud by using this character to say something she would absolutely not say’.”
Saying that the “level of white fragility” displayed is “shocking, Kondabolu added: “Really? Some kid makes a movie on a cable network and you’re the biggest comedy of all time, and you get criticized really for the first time ever and you can’t handle it? We get made fun of three decades and I get this film out and you’ve been king for three decades and one criticism and you fold.”
Last month, The Simpsons finally acknowledged that the long-standing criticism that Apu, the heavily accented South Asian character voiced by Hank Azaria — a white actor — was little more than a caricature playing on racist stereotypes.
After the episode was aired, the show’s creator Matt Groening affirmed the episode’s sentiment. “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended,” Groening told USA Today.
“When we first started, we were part of the downfall of civilization,” he said in the interview. “Bart said he was ‘an underachiever and proud of it, man’.”
He then refused to discuss the issue further with the publication, saying, “We’ll let the show speak for itself.”
Kondabolu had tweeted his response to the interview.
He told The Daily Beast that Groening’s response “confused” him. “It was really confusing, because I had read all these great things about Matt Groening, that he would keep notes in the margins of scripts like, ‘That’s mean-spirited, that’s not what the show is about, we’re not doing that. We’re not making fun of people that way’,” Kondabolu said. “It’s a response that made me think he didn’t see the film. The Simpsons’ writers’ response is a response of people who didn’t see the film.”
Hank Azaria, the actor voicing the character, however said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad.” Azaria also expressed his willingness to step aside from the character.
While Kondabolu appreciated Azaria’s response, he said it’s “probably too late” to get a different voice for the character.
“I don’t think you do a different voice, what’s the point? The show is 29 years old. What good does that do? The thing that would benefit all parties would be for the show to be more creative,” he told the Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, Indian American producer-actor Adi Shankar has launched a screenwriting competition that asks people to submit scripts around Apu in a way that “subverts him, pivots him, intelligently writes him out, or evolves him in a way that takes a mean spirited mockery and transforms him into a kernel of truth wrapped in funny insight aka actual satire.”
Shankar plans to take the winner to Fox and The Simpsons writing room in a bid to make the winning script an actual episode on the show, the Verge reported.