Is There A Problem With Apu?

"Thank You, Come Again."

The four words that have plagued the lives of South Asians living in the West. Those four words have only ever been said eight times in the 30 year history of the Simpsons but have transcended their context to become the embodiment of the character of Apu and, by default, South Asians.

Since Hari Kondabolu's documentary entitled The Problem with Apu aired, many South Asian celebrities have spoken out about their own views and experiences with the fictional character. "I hate Apu", states comedian Kal Penn, "and because of that I hate the whole series". Actress and model Priyanka Chopra told The View that Apu was "the bane of [her] life" growing up.

So what exactly is so offensive about these words?

The Problem with Apu explains the issue many South Asians have with these words. Often said with a fake, over-the-top Indian accent and a slight head shake, it is the delivery that is offensive rather than the words themselves. While Hank Azaria, the actor behind Apu, has argued that the production team asked him to make the accent offensive, the producers of the show argue that despite being told not to, Azaria said his opening line with a thick Indian accent that made the whole room burst into laughter. Whichever one is the true story of Apu's accent's conception, it is the accent itself which has been used as the comedy gag. Apu is the embodiment of the western stereotype of South Asian people. Throughout Kondabolu's documentary many South Asian actors and actresses describe the ways in which they have had to embody these stereotypes in order to be cast in Hollywood and television. While for some Apu is just a character, for many South Asians he is someone they are constantly held up against and compared to.

Another issue Kondabolu takes with Apu is that Hank Azaria is a "white man playing a white man making fun of my father". Within recent years there has been various controversies surrounding the hiring of white people or light-skinned individuals for characters of a different colour, from Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange to the mixed race Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Can this argument be extended to animated characters? Whoopi Goldberg believes so, likening the characterisation of Apu to blackface since it is still a white man presenting as a person of colour, exaggerating racial stereotypes and making jokes at the expense of the presented race. Azaria has even stated that the character is based on Peter Sellers' work in The Party, a film where the white actor is made up to appear South Asian.

Since the documentary, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, has dismissed the issue and the documentary as being a product of "a time in our culture where people love to be offended". Additionally, an episode of the show had the usually liberal and politically active character Lisa state, "something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" She then looks towards a picture of Apu captioned "Don't have a cow" that has appeared next to her bed.

Many have come out in support of The Simpsons. Like the show, some have questioned why after 30 years of the character, is he only being considered a problem now. For years Apu has been a fan favourite. Azaria has won three Emmys for his portrayal and the character is widely licensed for advertising and promotion. However, Priyanka Chopra argues that the changing reaction is due to the number of South Asians living in the west growing dramatically since Apu first aired and thus the "voice is louder, the representation and the demand for representation of people of colour is also louder". Additionally, a new growing generation of South Asians born in the West do not relate to Apu yet still find those stereotypes he represents enforced upon them. To them Apu is a joke at the expense of their parents and relatives. A joke that lives on one of the most popular and loved TV shows out there.

Other arguments supporting the Simpsons insist that the show makes fun of everyone and thus it is not at the expense of any one culture. No one is safe and that makes great comedy. Ryan Murphy's Scream Queens was brutal in its execution of jokes about minorities and rich, white girls alike. The difference, however, is Murphy's emphasis on diversity within the production of his shows. Not only does his vast array of anthology shows give voice to multiple communities and stories, but they are written and produced with input from the people of those communities. Murphy's HALF foundation has worked to increase the number of female, people of colour and LGBTQ individuals directing his shows and working within the FX network.

Murphy was recently quoted as saying that he was proud to "see that more than half of the people sitting at the [production table] were women and minorities. That’s the way it should be". Indeed, if the Simpson's writing table had been diversified, then the joke of a white man doing a fake Indian accent would not have got the uproar that Azaria notes it did. Instead, Apu's character would have been written by comedians who understood the nuances of being a South Asian living in the West and created clever and witty content that does not rely on the Indian accent constantly being the butt of the joke.