Hank Azaria, Longtime Voice Of 'The Simpsons' Apu, Says He's Willing To Step Aside
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Last night on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," voice actor Hank Azaria acknowledged that "The Simpsons" does have an Apu problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")
HANK AZARIA: (As Apu) Thank you. Come again.
CHANG: For those who don't know, Azaria voices Apu, an Indian character on the show. Azaria said his eyes had been opened by the criticism that Apu is an offensive caricature.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")
AZARIA: And I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people, in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character and what their American experience of it has been.
CHANG: He went on to say he would be willing to step aside from voicing the character. Comedian Hari Kondabolu has thought a lot about Apu. He joined us via Skype. And I asked him how he reacted to what Azaria said.
HARI KONDABOLU: I thought it was great. You know, I mean, I think it was difficult for him for a variety of reasons to be able to speak to me on camera for that documentary, "The Problem With Apu." And, you know, I don't think I need to get into what he might have been thinking at the time. But what I do know is he's done a lot of thinking during that process and since then. And for him to make that statement on national television on "Colbert" is huge. You know? Honestly, I think "The Simpsons" responded a few weeks ago with an episode. For a lot of people, it was less than satisfying.
CHANG: Yeah. Just to catch people up, that was an episode where Lisa and Marge were talking about an old book. And they were saying like, yeah, some things that were fine decades ago are suddenly politically incorrect now. And it was basically "The Simpsons'" way of saying, get over it, get over this Apu issue, right?
KONDABOLU: You know, what that showed me was a kind of white fragility, right? Like, somebody made a documentary criticizing "The Simpsons," which seemed uncriticizable up till now. It was on a cable network. And instead of ignoring it, they decided to respond really sharply that we heard you, and we don't care. Now, I didn't make a film to troll anybody. But if I was a troll, I just won.
KONDABOLU: What I love about Hank's response is he's taken a side and a stance on this, which is really impressive.
CHANG: Have you heard from Hank Azaria since last night?
KONDABOLU: No, I haven't. I haven't. Honestly, I don't think most of us - or at least I'll speak for me - I don't care what they do with the character. This was really the goal, for someone to acknowledge that and to acknowledge us and say that representation matters.
CHANG: What do you mean you don't care what "The Simpsons" does with the character? Because I know that you, in your film, advocated for South Asian writers to be in the room. I mean, what kind of difference do you think that would make?
KONDABOLU: It's been 29 years that - since this character has - you know, has been on the air. So at a certain point, there's been so much progress in so many other directions, I use this as an example to talk about representation at large. So to me, it doesn't matter all that much what they do now. However, if they were going to do something, I think it would be great to have South Asian writers in the room since you have a South Asian character that clearly hasn't been informed properly over many years.
CHANG: You know, sometimes I think there's kind of this unwritten rule among minorities. Like, I can make fun of us, but you guys can't make fun of us. I'll admit, like, I imitate my parents to get laughs sometimes. But when I see other people imitate my parents, it really, really bothers me. And I'm just wondering, do you think that's part of what's happening? Like, that explains what you're feeling when you see someone like Hank Azaria put on this accent? Is that what's going on?
KONDABOLU: Yeah, absolutely. Because that wasn't written with us in mind, right? So like, you know when you're being made fun of. I don't think that needs to really be analyzed. I know when I'm being made fun of. However, I think that if you include our stories, if you include our culture, if you make us part of the mainstream, you get access to that - those jokes, and you get more access to more sophisticated jokes. The jokes they do with Apu are hacky. Like, for...
KONDABOLU: ...For anyone who knows the cultural element, these are so old and hacky. But if you've never thought about this stuff before, it's, whoa, multiple...
CHANG: That's hilarious. Yeah.
CHANG: Yeah. So if there were South Asian writers in the room making fun of South Asians, but doing it in a (laughter) sophisticated way, you'd be cool with that.
KONDABOLU: It would be different. I mean, I don't know because I haven't seen it (laughter) because it's never happened before. So it's hard to say either way. But, you know - and if we got more authentic stories out there in general, people would have more to draw from. People can only laugh about what they can relate to. And they can only relate to things if the information is presented to them, and they learn from it. So the only way that can happen is if media in general changes, and we learn each other's stories. Then we get the better jokes.
CHANG: Thank you so much for joining us.
KONDABOLU: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
CHANG: That was actor Hari Kondabolu. He made the documentary "The Problem With Apu." And his new Netflix special is "Warn Your Relatives."
(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "PRICKS OF BRIGHTNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.