Hank Azaria has said that producers of The Simpsons will “definitely address” his character Apu following a documentary which asserted that the character is an offensive stereotype of South Asian people.
Apu, who is voiced by Azaria, was the subject of comedian and Simpsons fan Hari Kondabolu’s film The Problem With Apu, which aired back in November. Speaking about the documentary, Kondabolu told the BBC: “Kids in the playground would always mimic the accent and say ‘Thank you, come again!’ or ‘Hello, Mr Homer!’ Sure, growing up in New York City everyone tries to be funny. If you grow up there you learn to make jokes and how to make comebacks, but it’s hard to counter an accent – what’s your comeback for an accent?
“The Simpsons is an important work of art that has influenced so many, including myself,” he continued. “Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid. And of course he’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.”
After Azaria admitted in December that it was “really upsetting that [Apu] was offensive or hurtful to anybody”, the actor has now given an update on his and The Simpsons’ producers’ current approach to the issue.
“The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, or the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing, especially in post-9/11 America,” Azaria told Entertainment Weekly at a Television Critics Association press tour stop in Pasadena.
“The idea that anybody was marginalised based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally. It’s a character I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love, and joy, and pride. That certainly wasn’t the intent. The intent was to make people laugh and bring joy. For it to cause suffering or pain in any way, it’s disturbing, actually.
“I think it’s really important when people express themselves about racial issues, what they feel is unfair or upsetting or distressing or makes them angry, sad or hurt,” Azaria continued.
“The most important thing to do is listen, try to understand, try to sympathise, which is what I’m doing. I know that The Simpsons guys are doing that too; they’re giving it a lot of thought, and we’ve discussed a little bit. They will definitely address — maybe publicly, certainly creatively within the context of the show — what they want to do, if anything, with the character.”
Speaking about the character, Azaria said that he saw Apu not as a “one-dimensional” character but as “having a lot of wonderful qualities and great assets”.
“As far as The Simpsons is concerned, it’s often a fine line between what’s comedy and what’s offensive and insulting and upsetting,” he remarked.
“The Simpsons over the years have been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people — Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, Italians — and they take a lot of pride over there in not apologising for any of that. I think they’ve done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.”