When I first heard the premise of the documentary “The Problem With Apu,” I snorted derisively. What? “The Simpsons” is racist? Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a stereotype that strays into minstrel-show territory? I was not buying it.
Then I watched comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, which airs Sunday night on truTV … and I was convinced. “The Simpsons” is racist. Apu — a South Asian voiced/mocked by a white guy — is offensive.
Kondabolu, the son of immigrants from India, makes those points very clearly in “The Problem With Apu,” which is thought-provoking and entertaining.
For almost 28 years, every American kid of South Asian descent has been called “Apu.” Has repeatedly heard the phrase “Thank you, come again,” done in a bad Indian accent. Has been “haunted” by Apu, Kondabolu says in the documentary. “Why? It’s funny because it’s racist.”
And Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father,” Kondabolu adds.
At times, he lets his genuine annoyance show. But, for the most part, it’s done with a sense of humor.
“Look man, I don’t hate ‘The Simpsons,’” Kondabolu says. But not everyone agrees.
“I hate Apu,” says actor Kal Penn, saying Apu is a “brownface” insult.
Part of “The Problem With Apu” is that there were so few South Asians in the media when the show premiered, so Apu took on outsized importance. And, as a result, the excuse that “The Simpsons” makes fun of everyone doesn’t hold up.
While Police Chief Wiggum is a blundering fool, there are hundreds of other, varied representations of police in the media. Apu was pretty much it for South Asians.
• “The Problem With Apu” premieres Sunday on truTV — 8 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 11 p.m. on Comcast.
“This one character created so many problems — psychologically, emotionally — for so many people,” says Utkarsh Ambudkar (“Pitch Perfect”). “They didn’t mean for it to happen, we just were underrepresented.”
Kondabolu interviews Aziz Ansari, Sakina Jaffrey, Aasif Mandvi, Ajay Naidu, Maulik Pancholy, comedian Russell Peters and former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and they’ve all had bad experiences involving Apu.
Azaria doesn’t comes out of this looking good. He refused to do an interview for the documentary. And there’s a clip of him claiming that the show’s producers asked him, “Can you do an Indian voice and how offensive can you make it?”
But the first time Apu appeared in a script he was listed as just “Clerk,” and the writer insists he specified the character was not South Asian. Azaria did the funny voice; the (non-Asian) writers and producers laughed; and Apu was born.
Kondabolu interviews Dana Gould, a “Simpsons” writer/co-executive producer from 2001-08, who argues the writers just go for laughs. He says that humor “comes out of conflict” and “aspects of our personalities that we’re maybe not so proud of.”
But you can see in his eyes he knows he’s made a mistake when Kondabolu asks what Apu’s flaw is.
“I wouldn’t say he was flawed,” Gould backtracks, “but he was a first-generation immigrant.”
”Mocking first-generation immigrants is funny/racist” is the obvious implication.
“One thing people don’t understand is that something can be really funny, and still wrong,” Kondabolu says. “Or morally questionable.”
At this point, what can you do? Apu has appeared in more than 60 episodes, and Fox is not going to pull those out of circulation.
Should Apu be retired? Should he be changed? Would he be less funny if he is?
Kondabolu raises some troubling questions. I’ll never be able to watch “The Simpsons” without thinking about this again.