The Simpsons has been on the air for almost 30 years. It’s still a beloved series with a huge fan base. Yet, Apu is a problematic character that needs to be addressed. Comedian Hari Kondabolu first addressed his concerns with the character of Apu with a segment he produced for W. Kamau Bell’s show Totally Biased. It detailed the Indian American’s issue with the character of Apu. In 2017, Kondabolu took his argument to the next level and produced a short documentary called The Problem With Apu. The doc, which airs on TruTV, outlines why Apu is a problem for the Indian American community.
Kondabolu talks with several successful South Asian American celebrities like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling. Those actors have had the opportunity to play three-dimensional characters that are not just an amalgamation of Indian stereotypes. And while the landscape may be changing and better roles are now cropping up for South Asian actors, Apu on The Simpsons is stuck in the past and continues to promote racist stereotypes.
Perhaps it is time for a change? We wouldn't accept these stereotypes on TV today if they surrounded an African American or gay character. The portrayal of Apu goes past the dark humor for which The Simpsons is known.
Yes, it's true that many Indian Americans hate Apu. They had to experience racial bias and hear taunting things like, "Thank you, come again" repeatedly throughout their childhood. Yet, for many, Apu is a beloved character.
Kondabolu's doc does not provide answers on what the writers should do with Apu. The comedian does not even think that the character should just be killed off the series. However, Kondabolu argues that characters like Ned Flanders and Mr. Burns' right-hand man Smithers have evolved over the near 30 year run of the show, so why not Apu? Just because it's a cartoon, doesn't mean that a character cannot learn and grow.
The Simpsons has been on the air for almost three decades. Although we can all agree that the accent is not authentic and offensive, Azaria cannot just start voicing Apu with a more precise dialect. If the show can't change the accent, then perhaps it should find a way to write Apu out of the series?
The cultural and political landscape has changed a lot since The Simpsons first hit the air in 1989. We are a more sensitive and aware society. "He’s an example of a character who would never have been written if the show started today,” argues Kondabolu.
The exaggerated accent of Apu makes him hard to understand. He is voiced not by an Indian actor, but by Hank Azaria, a white male who voices several characters on the show. Kondabolu has said that Apu's voice reminds him of a "white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father."
Azaria has thought about Apu's ethnic significance on popular culture. "I’ve never really talked about it. I know it’s a touchy subject," says the voice actor. "I really do love the character and do try to do right by him accent-wise and character-wise, and that goes for all the characters I do. But I do understand why people could have been offended or upset, and I’m sorry for that."