South Asians tend to have a complicated relationship to The Simpsons, especially those who’ve either grown up or lived in the West. The reason, as I’m sure will come as no surprise, is the character of Apu, who despite being a well-rounded and even lovable fixture of the American classic, ended up burrowing into the collective Western consciousness as one of (if not the) only major visible representations of, well, us, back in the 1990s, influencing how we’re seen and treated even today. Pointing out the problems with relics isn’t always productive, but given that Apu is still around, and still voiced by a white guy doing an impression that has little basis in reality, Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem With Apu comes as a welcome inquiry alongside a who’s who of successful South Asians who grew up in Apu’s shadow.
Take a look:
I’ve been waiting for this for a couple of years now, ever since Hari was trying to get Hank Azaria to sit down for an interview. That seemingly never came together – I’m sure Hank, a kindly gentleman who exists at a fascinating nexus of self-aware sympathy and continued perpetuation, would have interesting things to say – but Hari did manage to sit down with The Simpsons writer/executive producer Dana Gould, and I’m dying to see that trailer clip in its full context.
I love The Simpsons. Some of the Apu material during the show’s golden years (“Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? IIIIIII doooooooo”) remains some of my favourite, and I know for a fact that Hari loves The Simpsons as well. I’m almost certain the Desi Americans being interviewed outside of Kal Penn, i.e. Aparna Nancherla, Sakina Jaffrey, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar etc., have at least some kind of affinity for the show despite it being a thorn in their side. People are complicated! The documentary seems to ask an interesting question in the form of “Is Apu a minstrel?” and that’s also a valid point, one that doesn’t seem to come up enough for a character who still shows up in newly produced episodes on TV screens across the globe.
Where do we go from here with a ’90s character who’s ’80s racist, but a continued fixture of American culture in 2017? There’s no easy answer, but it’s a conversation worth having.
It’s easy to dismiss something like this at first. I get it. Outrage over media can seem selective and selfish, and as the trailer points out, The Simpsons has an Apu for every culture (which I’m sure will also be explored), but here’s the thing about Hari’s comedy, at least from where I’m standing. While he’s the one and perhaps only recognizable comedian whose work feels perfectly tailored to me, a member of his Tumblr choir (his own words!) who eats up jokes that skew the absurdity of the given social malfeasance of the day with a strong focus on race and biculturalism, he never settles for easy, black & white answers. Being told exactly what you believe ad nauseam gets boring after a while (see also: most late night news comedy shows), but Hari’s thoughtful approach with a focus on precision of language means avoiding that outcome, which is why I’m certain The Problem With Apu will be an interesting, perhaps even challenging watch regardless of where you land on the subject. Besides, with that many great comedic personalities on board, there’s no way it won’t be a good time.
The feature-length doc will air on truTV. It doesn’t have a release date just yet, but we’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here’s my favourite Hari clip: