Hank Azaria has six Emmys, many for his work voicing characters on The Simpsons. In 1998, he won for playing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian immigrant who works at Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart convenience store.
Two decades after that win and 29 years after the show debuted, Mr. Azaria told Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night that it might be time for him to step out of his role as Apu.
The idea that Apu – with his hairy chest, eight children, and gross food-handling habits – has been used as fodder for bullies “makes me sad” and is “genuinely upsetting,” Mr. Azaria said to the late night talk show host.
I’m glad that he feels that way, even though the realization has taken him at least five years.
In 2013, the comic actor Hari Kondabolu began publicly airing his intense dislike of Apu. He started with a sketch comedy segment pointing out that the clerk was the only mainstream South Asian television character in the 1990s. A lack of representation meant a generation of brown kids had to deal with bad slushie jokes, the phrase “thank you, come again” parroted at them in overwrought accents.
That the character is written by white people as well as being voiced by one makes it a form of mockery, said Mr. Kondabolu, whose family is from India. Through Apu, brown people and our religions and families are being laughed at, not with.
Last November, Mr. Kondabolu followed up with The Problem With Apu, a tidy and amusing documentary in which he tries to discuss his issues with Mr. Azaria. In it, everyone from the actor Kal Penn to former U.S. surgeon-general Vivek Murthy recount having been faced with mean references to Apu in their childhoods.
Mr. Kondabolu imagines his critics telling him to “get over it,” and he has a quick reply. “I have been getting over it,” he says. “For 28 years.” As his film shows, while once South Asians had no choice but to grin and bear Apu, they’re now influencing the North American cultural landscape.
There are still so few Hollywood-famous brown actors that they regularly get mistaken for each other, but there’s also a slowly forming critical mass. Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling are leading shows, Kumail Nanjiani was nominated for an Oscar and Toronto’s own Lilly Singh is on the verge.
And, as Mr. Kondabolu’s mom points out, the children of immigrants are often less financially stressed than their parents, and usually less willing to be told what their own stories are. He doesn’t have to get over it any more.
But confident, unapologetic brown people are apparently unacceptable to original Simpson’s writer Al Jean, who delivered his own petty take on the Apu issue in early April. Now executive producer of the show, Mr. Jean got on Twitter one Sunday afternoon to promise an “explosion” following a new episode.
In it, Marge and Lisa worry over what to do about a historical novel that’s now seen as offensive. The shot pans to a picture of Apu, overlaid with a favourite saying of Bart’s: “don’t have a cow, man.”
In other words, get over it. That’s not an explosion, it’s a scratched record that keeps skipping.
Mr. Jean may be happy to be a dinosaur, but although The Simpsons has evolved from cheeky cultural transgressor to staid establishment player, it isn’t yet history. New episodes are still being written.
There’s plenty of chance for it to modernize, Mr. Jean just doesn’t want to. Mr. Azaria may finally see a need for inclusive writers’ rooms full of people of colour, as he told Mr. Colbert, but Mr. Jean isn’t into it. He’s too busy laughing at Apu to let him grow.
Some critics have called for Apu to retire, which is fair enough after three decades, but it’s not the only option. Maybe one of his kids wants to work alongside him – which would be true to life, since young people across North America are writing the next chapter of immigrant businesses.
In Toronto, that includes the wicked Vietnamese restaurant Pinky’s Ca Phe, with its cheeky design references to classic pho spots and Kim’s Convenience, the hit play-turned-TV-show that brings its working-class family into the 21st century.
Success used to mean leaving those nostalgic spaces behind, but now can include carrying them along. It’s not Apu who can’t evolve, but the white people who literally own him.