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DocumentaryIdeas/Commentary

There’s A Problem With Apu – And Now There’s A Film About It

Is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons a racial stereotype?

That’s the question with a rather obvious answer that comedian Hari Kondabolu tackles in his new feature-length documentary, The Problem With Apu. In the film, Kondabolu looks at “how this controversial caricature was created, burrowed its way into the hearts and minds of Americans, and continues to exist – intact – twenty-eight years later.”

The documentary adds the perspectives of numerous South Asians in the entertainment industry, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, and Aparna Nancherla, as well as others like Whoopi Goldberg, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Simpsons writer/producer Dana Gould, and W. Kamau Bell, who tweeted the following last night:

One of the documentary’s key points is that Apu was among the very few representations of a person of South Asian background on American television in the late-’80s and early-’90s:

While The Simpsons isn’t at fault for being the only piece of American entertainment to include a “South Asian” in their cast, they are at fault for consciously designing the character to be insulting. Hank Azaria, the white man who performs Apu – or as Kondabolu puts it, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father” – has said that when he was offered the role, the show’s entirely white writing staff asked him: “Can you do an Indian accent and how offensive can you make it?” (Azaria declined to participate in the documentary despite repeated requests.)

From that perspective, The Simpsons is part of a long tradition of mainstream American entertainment that uses stereotypes and racial humor for cheap comedic effect. Only now is that outdated tradition being scrutinized anew as more and more people of color assert their position in the entertainment world hierarchy.

The place of The Simpsons in animation history is undeniable. It was a groundbreaking show in its time, and its positive qualities outweighed its, at times, antiquated approach to comedy. But it is also a time capsule from another era – an era when a homogeneous group of white men from similar backgrounds could sit around and make fun of everyone who was not them under the guise of being equal opportunity offenders. Unquestioned were the dynamics that allowed them into that role in the first place, while denying it to so many others.

In truth, there is no such thing as timeless comedy. Any comedic effort will be perceived differently in subsequent generations than the time in which it was made. That’s the sign of a healthy and evolving society. The complicating – and fascinating – twist of The Simpsons is that new episodes continue to be produced a generation later, using the archaic framework of an earlier era. It’s that incongruous clash of older values and contemporary “wokeness” that has led to a documentary like this.

Directed by Michael Melamedoff, The Problem with Apu will premiere on TruTV next Sunday, November 19, at 10 ET/PT.

  • Lazer-Lion

    I agree with the documentary, Apu is really problematic.

    But still, I think “Much Apu About Nothing” is one of the best Simpsons episodes they ever made for how relevant it was back then and now.

    • There are a few Apu highlights the series did over the years that at least validated the character for me.

  • Mister_Munchie

    Bra-fucking-vo! It’s about time someone took down this totally inappropriate character, which does indeed RUIN the entire show, as Kal Penn points out in the clip.

    As a very comedy-aware kid, I loved the Simpsons. At the time, I took Apu as a satire on the “shifty Asian store owner” trope, which was already very lazy, very hackneyed even by the mid 80’s. And spoofing hackneyed tropes was something the early Simpson’s did very well.

    But this clearly far too generous to the all white, all male writing staff. It’s very clear after 30 years that Apu was ALWAYS a lazy, racist caricature that has merely replaced the now mostly forgotten Asian stereotypes of the past. And even worse, the racism has been disgracefully woven into the fabric of the Simpsons. It’d be easy to say they need to get rid of Apu, but really – they need to get rid of all of Springfield and cancel the whole damn show already.

  • Charlie Meadows

    “From that perspective, The Simpsons is part of a long tradition of mainstream American entertainment that uses stereotypes and racial humor for cheap comedic effect.”

    Please, provide the world with “politically correct comedy” so the world en masse can reject it. If you like comedy, well then you signed up to take a couple lumps.

    This movement to vilify a BELOVED character with humorous shortcomings is from such a whiney, entitled, post modernist perspective, its telling that those who further it can’t even see how self defeating it is. Comedy takes risks. Comedy steps on the sensibilities of its audiences. Maligning Apu as a negative racial stereotype is consummately misguided.

    I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’m wondering if it includes the empirical data that Asian Americans(“south Asians” included) have the highest median income in the united states. Their children also have the highest SAT scores and highest levels of college completion. I think they can endure a cartoon character. If thats the ghastly oppression that they face, there are dozens of more pressing issues in our society to fix.

    • AmidAmidi
    • Netko

      You seem to be torn between defending Apu as an intentionally offensive character and saying that he isn’t offensive at all.

      “Please, provide the world with “politically correct comedy” so the world en masse can reject it. If you like comedy, well then you signed up to take a couple lumps.”

      There is SO much politically correct comedy in the world, so much comedy that isn’t hateful and obsessed with stereotyping groups different from you who have suffered for years because of that kind of thinking. How bad does someone’s sense of humor need to be to think something can only be funny when it’s offensive to marginalised groups? How pathetic do you need to be to reject all humor outside of that? Is this why people like Adam Sandler get to keep making movies? Because that’s how low our standards for comedy are?

      “Comedy takes risks. Comedy steps on the sensibilities of its audiences.”

      Comedy that seeks to make fun of certain groups with stereotypes is not “taking risks”, in fact it’s doing the opposite of that, it is playing into the audiences’ expectations. But it’s interesting when the groups who enjoy this kind of non-pc comedy the most (white guys) get so pissy once that comedy turns against them and suddenly you get a slew of complains about feminists and sjw’s and political correctness. In the past, when a joke making fun of their specific group was just some weirdo’s voice in an ocean that could be written off as crazy talk, it was easy to pretend to have such thick skin, so much thicker than all the other groups of people, but now that these guys fear this discrimination could become a part of real life for them and not just a variation on the “welp boys will be boys lol” narrative, suddenly that’s not playing fair. Okay, maybe there is some comedy in that.

  • @SpitAndSpite

    I can see why Apu is problematic. Weirdly, in the Simpsons commentary tracks on one of their early seasons, the subject of Apu is brought up and the writer in the room w/ Groening on the commentary track specifically states he asked Hank to do anything but a stereotypical Indian convenience store sort of character/voice and Hank Azaria came back w/ exactly that and only that then in interviews later on would say the writers requested it which irked the writer on the track. The character kept going obviously but the writer seemed to say it was not at all the intention/direction Apu was meant to go in.

  • Charlie Meadows

    I would argue that accomplishments of a segment of a society weigh heavily on the bearing of their portrayal in the media.
    Indian households have the highest median income in our country.
    Their children have the highest SAT scores of all races in our country.
    They have the highest college completion rate of any race in our country.
    They are younger, richer and more likely to be married and supremely well educated.
    There is even a film about this incredible feat by one people titled “The Other One Percent”. It is well documented and easily researched.

    Ergo, if your assessment that Apu as a comedic character is “punching down” then you are wholly wrong and uninformed. (Unless you think people with dark skin need your sympathy). Through hard work and integrity they are a people that have achieved a privileged position in the richest country in the world.
    You don’t get to have that much privilege AND the victimhood.

    • Mister_Munchie

      “You don’t get to have that much privilege AND the victimhood.”
      That’s what you’re trying to do.

  • megadrivesonic

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • I wish more twentysomething’s could learn from this.

  • Mister_Munchie

    If you knew what SATIRE really is, you’d realize no one is trying to “sensor” it.

    Satire is meant to coldly, but humorously, illustrate the hypocrisies in our society, its power structures and even ourselves. Satire is not lazy ethnic jokes created “because that’s the only way the show makes money.”

    The Simpsons succeeds when it satirizes our society. Sadly, 28 years of Apu jokes do nothing to satirize the status quo. There IS no satire there – it’s merely making fun of brown people who “talk funny.”

    Is it asking too much for the Simpsons writers to try harder? Like way, WAY harder?

    • Pedro Nakama

      Thank you!

    • Auxesia

      It’s also making fun of white trash who drink too much, white nerds, religious types, housewives, Mexicans, the entertainment industry… the list is endless. It’s all about making fun of stereotypes.

      • Mister_Munchie

        Bad rebuttal. There’s endless positive white portrayals in media. At the time of Apu’s debut, almost nonexistent representation for Indian Americans.

        Also “It’s all about making fun of stereotypes” — well, if that were true The Simpsons wouldn’t be the cultural touchstone it has been. The Simpsons at its best – the satire is untouchable, especially for television. These are smart people, they can do better.

        • Auxesia

          We are talking about a cartoon, a comedic cartoon..and if you want to get into it, there are plenty of non-positive white portrayals too across various platforms.. Or are we watching different shows??? The difference is that white trash are a stereotype that’s allowed to be made fun of, apparently, or they don’t give a shit.

          I don’t see why you believe it couldn’t be a cultural touchstone if it attacks various stereotypes… Some people, myself included, enjoy laughing at themselves, and a show in which characters are painful, yet humorous portrayals of stereotypical humans is fine by me, however I don’t take myself so seriously.

          Here in Australia it’s customary to make fun of people you like, that’s just what we do, strangely enough, and it does irk some people when they first come across it. My point being that different things are acceptable to different cultures.

          You aren’t going to get a bunch of white trash making a documentary about Cletus, or the MANY shows, cartoons or mockumentaries that are derogatory.

          • Mister_Munchie

            Oh boy – you are REALLY missing the point here. I’ll say this one last time. Of course there are positive AND negative portrayals of whites! It’s 90% white representation in the media!
            But for Indians in 1989 til only a few years ago – there’s Apu, and that’s pretty much it. Apu, a lazy racial stereotype, is all they get in western media. It’s not JUST about being offensive.

  • Cameron Ward

    I wish I had Tru TV to watch this. I would love to see how in depth they go with this topic. Plus, the trailers I have seen of it look great.

  • George Simian

    Thank you for this article. I have to admit, I didn’t realize how offensive Apu is, or was, as I haven’t watched the Simpsons for years. I could have realized it, though, if I was close enough to someone who is South Asian. I at least had the sense enough not to do an Apu impression in front of friends who are South Asian. Because it is pretty obvious it would offend them. And as a white guy with a Native American family, Japanese relatives, African American friends, Middle Eastern friends, heck friends from all over the globe, well it makes a lot of sense. The thing is people grew up with the Simpsons, and for all his clownishness Apu had charm, and so out of nostalgia they treat this character as a person they feel they need to defend. But just like you realized that the old Bugs Bunny cartoons with the stereotypes of African Americans were offensive, or the Asian stereotypes went a little (or a lot) too far, there comes a time when you need to grow up and see how these characters affect other people. Sometimes you realize what you thought was funny isn’t really all that funny. Good to see Evan Dorkin commenting, BTW, check out this cartoon, now that’s comedy! Lol!

    http://www.gearfuse.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/anywhere_dorkin.jpg

    • Ben

      So, I never watched the Simpsons as a kid and thought, all Indians must be like Apu. I just assumed he was a goofy character in a sea of goofy characters.
      Homer is a dumbass, middle class worker. Skinner is a mamas boy. Marge is uptight. Chief Wiggum is a fat, donut eating incompetent cop. Ned is an overly religious goofball. Barney is a boozer. Lisa is an overachieving nerd. Bart is a wiseass Dennis the Menace. Nelson is an ignorant, white trash bully. Monty Burns is a greedy old billionaire.

      All Simpons characters are caricatures, because its a cartoon.

      • Polecat

        Or, as the show went on, not exactly caricatures but rather flawed yet loveable characters who aren’t always as two-dimensional as they initially seem. Apu is, for example, a better and more reliable father than Homer by a long shot.

  • You know that joke from southpark where they can’t come up with anything new cause ‘simpsons did it first’

    Cause uh yeah… Simpsons did it.

    There’s an episode where Sanjay’s nephew comes back (Confusingly aged to an adult while bart/lisa etc haven’t) and is played by Utkarsh Ambudkar from the second video that is basically entirely about this concept.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Much_Apu_About_Something

  • GIJ

    “One of the documentary’s key points is that Apu was the only representation of a person of South Asian background on American television in the late-’80s and early-’90s”

    This is simply not true, and yet this lie is being repeated nonstop in the days leading up to the broadcast of Kondabolu’s documentary. For the record, there was a sitcom called “Head of the Class” that aired on ABC from 1986 to 1991 and one of the characters on the program during the first three seasons (1986-1989) was a man of Indian background named Jawaharlal. He was played by actor Jory Husain, who has a white mother but a Pakistani father so he does all right in the authenticity category.

    There was nothing overtly offensive about the portrayal of Jawaharlal on “Head of the Class.” He was one among several students in a class for gifted students, and virtually all of them were depicted as being super awkward and socially inept.

    • AmidAmidi

      Thanks for pointing out. Have updated the post from “only” to “among the very few” to include your “Head of the Class” example and any other potential characters.

    • SnicksterFace

      All that is well and good, but as someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s it doesn’t change how I was treated. I absolutely identify with some of the comments in these clips.

      I do vaguely remember Head of the Class, but it was hardly the cultural icon The Simpsons was at the time. Additionally, the character was just another in a list of characters that still didn’t represent who I was or who these other comedians were when they were growing up.

      All this documentary is trying to say is that comedy is one thing, but when there is no other representation, it’s harmful. Had The Simpsons had even one other Indian character on the show without an accent and leading a successful American life in Springfield outside of filling the stereotype of cabbie/minimart/gas station attendant with a bad accent, Apu would be forgiven. But not only was there none 25 years ago… but there still isn’t one today.

      Like Kondabolu, I’m a big fan of The Simpsons. I still watch to this day. And to this day, every time Apu comes on the screen, I cringe and fear going into school then next day (I’m an adult! I don’t even go to school!).

      • Charlie Meadows

        First off, let me say that I LOVE this conversation because so many posters disagree and bring so much information to the table. Its really one of the best topics posted on the Brew this year and though I don’t agree with the aspersions of the man who made the documentary I appreciate the documentary for starting the discussion. What I can’t understand is this: What is wrong with an Indian accent?
        If it was coupled with ignorance or an inability to understand fellow Americans then I would cite that as an Indian character that is framed as a buffoon and therefore insulting. Yet Apuy is not ignorant. He is not lazy. He isn’t mean or scurrilous. He’s one of my favorite characters on the show because he has a different perspective than the cookie cutter american fare. Which is why Paul and Linda McCartney’s cameo landed them hanging out with Apu on his roof and playing his sitar. He’s a cool character who seems to be disliked by Indian Americans because they are ashamed of an Indian accent.
        Indian accents are endearing for the same reason that Australian accents are. They play back the same meaning in a different form. Its entertaining to people from ALL cultures. Its why Monty Python had Michael Palin and John Cleese do their American accents in “The Meaning Of Life”. That was a hugely entertaining for every european audience member. Sasha Baron Cohen brutalizes numerous accents in the many characters he does – one of which who is supposed to be black. If the issue is that a white man took away an Indian man’s job at doing an Indian accent then I can see the point. But if the solution is to replace Apu’s accent or to replace Apuy with an Indian character that doesn’t have a pronounced Indian accent then the Indian Americans upset by Apu need to look in the mirror for the source of their problems. Accents aren’t insulting and they aren’t something that people from other countries should be ashamed of. I consider us a melting pot that celebrates diversity – even in pronunciation.

        • SnicksterFace

          I think you’re missing the point of the discussion though. The accent isn’t the problem, it’s just the face (or sound) of the problem.

          When there is a mockery of American accents in Monty Python, there is more than enough other representation of Americans in British media of all kinds to go with it.

          The problem with Apu is the lack of other representation. Anytime someone brings up this conversation if it’s not in defense of the lazy accent just being an accent, it’s that The Simpsons makes fun of everyone, like fat lazy white Americans. Well there are enough non-lazy intelligent successful white Americans represented on the show.

          As I said before, in the 80s and 90s, when Apu appeared, there wasn’t really any representation of Indian Americans on TV. So when a white American 10 year old is watching The Simpsons, that’s what s/he is seeing of Indian Americans. And then I show up in school and they use the accent and his subservient nature to mock me. There is no other cultural significance for that 10 year old to relate me to.

          That’s where the problem lies. It’s easy for you to say I should look in the mirror, because for you, it’s that easy. I assume you’re well represented in American TV. Until 2005 with Harold & Kumar… I was not. I implore you to watch that movie again. It’s groundbreaking for the Indian American community… and that is sad.

          • Charlie Meadows

            Pardon me, but how do you know what is easy for anyone else? Please stay in your lane. There are handicapped kids who are made fun of. There are kids with bad acne. There are kids who were overweight. Millions and millions of children are bullied every waking minute of every day in this country so your experience, while unfortunate, is not exceptional.

            What about Hadji on Johnny Quest?

            Not only was that an epic cornerstone kids show from 20 years before the Simpsons, but Hadji was one of the MAIN cast members! He was a hero that audiences rooted for (and he didn’t have an Indian accent). So the problem you are illustrating here really isn’t as bad as you are making it out to be.
            And Apu was a more socially redeeming character than any of the featured players on the Simpsons. We can go round and round on that one and the facts don’t line up with your assessment that he was a buffoon. He was comedic plain and simple like each and every single character on that comedic show.

  • BlueMaxwell

    If ya’ll gonna harass him and try to ruin all his 20+ years of hard work, over this one thing, then naaah, He isn’t a coward, I would had done the same thing

  • Marc Hendry

    I don’t think it’s right for us to go “it’s just a cartoon” and at the same time complain about animation not being respected.
    However, this trailer didn’t really hook me into a feature-length documentary

  • SnicksterFace

    The argument that “The Simpsons offends everyone” is not good enough.

    There is no attempt at trying to censor (or “sensor” as you put it) here. It is just a viewpoint of a comedian pointing out something.

    I can stop watching The Simpsons all I want, but the harmful effect of the character comes outside in the real world, not what I see on the screen. Like Kondabolu, I actually am a fan of The Simpsons. However, when Apu appeared, like the other comedians in these clips, I had to endure the same mockery and ridicule. I actually did stop watching the show in the 90s because of this. Ask me if that stopped the mockery. Does it matter that I didn’t watch the show? No, because everyone else did.

    What you are saying comes from a place of misunderstanding. And I can forgive you for saying it because your experiences are different than mine. But try to remain open to the idea that everyone does experience life differently. And my childhood was negatively affected by this portrayal. Turning the TV off didn’t change it. Other 10 year olds didn’t get to see what my culture has to offer, simply because there were no other characters showing off the positive sides of my culture. And hear me on this: elementary kids are inexperienced, ruthless and relentless. If they see it on TV, they will use it. If they don’t see it on TV, they don’t know. They only got to see a mini-mart employee with a bad accent.

  • BlueMaxwell

    Isn’t The Simpsons, like…. the most PC adult show out there? Especially compare to Family Guy and South Park? At least with The Simpsons, they brother to give Apu a personality and make him a really funny, and nice hard-person person who cares for his friends and family. I can’t say the same for Family Guy and South Park, who only uses Indian charterers as a way to make “haha look terrorist and rape goats in shit” and kill them off to never be see again, (and they also imply all Indians are like that, where as The Simpsons has multiple of handful of Indians characters, and they are different and actually have personality and act like normal people)

    Infact… speaking of Family Guy and South Park, why The Simpsons? Why are you guys trying to call the show that isn’t relevant for the past 20 years and it’s creators, racists?

  • Auxesia

    While I sympathise with this sentiments of this post (that is, you feel offended), I feel that The Simpsons poked fun at a wide range of stereotypes, not just Apu.

    Homer is depicted as an idiotic, average white dude.. Barney, your local idiot white trash drunk, Ned, the bumbling religious fool next door, the fat dumb cop, Marge the bored, simple housewife, Martin, the socially inept nerd.. The list is endless. Apu was no less likeable than any of the white stereotypes, in fact he had many redeeming episodes.

    Point is: The Simpsons was all about making fun of stereotypes, it is for that reason that I don’t think there is a problem here. If you have an issue with comedy which makes fun of stereotypes, then by all means, be offended, but don’t forget that Apu is definitely NOT the only stereotype being made fun of here.