The Problem with ‘The Problem with Apu’
Few television programs have had the cultural impact of The Simpsons. Reporters now use the show as an inspiration for headlines. “’Free Market’” Conservatives Welcome Their New Protectionist Overlord, wrote Reason, citing a classic segment. In 2012 and 2016, reporters cited Homer Simpson’s proud declaration of “don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos!”—a joke suggesting that Americans wouldn’t vote third party even if the two main candidates were from another planet. White advocates also exploit Simpsons segments for meme potential. A joke about Russia coming back as the Soviet Union inspired a meme about the dispossession of the British. Even Ted Cruz awkwardly tried to evoke The Simpsons, saying that on gun control the Democrats were “the party of Lisa Simpson.”
During its early years, The Simpsons was seen as shockingly subversive, with schools banning Bart Simpson shirts. President George H.W. Bush famously said American families need to be “more like the Waltons and a little bit less like the Simpsons.” Homer Simpson is the exemplar of what is now a cultural cliché, the bumbling but well-meaning white paterfamilias kept aloft by more quick-witted (and liberal) female family members. He is beloved but somewhat pathetic, the iconic example of white men who are no longer portrayed as authoritative fathers but as confused weaklings.
Yet today, episodes from the show’s peak (generally seen as seasons 3 to 8, from 1991 to 1997) seem positively reactionary, centered as they are on a churchgoing nuclear family in what appears to be a largely white community with a lot of civic engagement. Even actors and millionaires show up to debate issues at town hall; no Coming Apart for Springfield. The race of black characters such as Carl, Officer Lou, or Dr. Hibbert (an obvious stand-in for Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable) is largely incidental. At the same time, the show delights in ethnic caricatures of other groups, such as the Scottish Groundskeeper Willie; Italian gangsters like Fat Tony; or “Bumblebee Man,” the comic character from Spanish television. These over-the-top portrayals were almost impossible to take seriously, and thus escaped charges of racism, at least until now.
Bumblebee Man could probably not be on television today. In the 1990s, Spanish-language television was a fringe market and an exaggerated Hispanic parody on a mainstream show was permissible, perhaps even a form of tribute. Today, Spanish-language channels like Univision can beat the networks in ratings, and to suggest that all Americans should speak English is “racist.” More broadly, America is nearing majority-minority status and acting “colorblind” is also “racist.” The Springfield of The Simpsons no longer resembles contemporary society. If all America before “the current year” was plagued by white racism, then The Simpsons certainly was, too.
Thus, we get The Problem With Apu, a film by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who suggests that the Simpsons character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, is as bad as a black-face minstrel character. Apu is an Indian convenience-store clerk, a not atypical type. As Joe Biden stated in 2006: “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” Of course, Apu has a thick accent. The film includes several clips of Mr. Azaria imitating Apu in real life, which strikes contemporary audiences as a painful reminder of Al Jolson.
Mr. Kondabolu suggests the real problem is not the character of Apu as such, but how that character came to represent Indian-Americans. Because Apu was the only important Indian-American character in such a culturally dominant American show, he argues, the image harmed all Indian-American, who were all expected to be versions of Apu. “Apu” reportedly even became a kind of racial slur.
The film has received an astonishing amount of media and promotion on social networks. Mainstream outlets, always eager for clickbait about white racism, are now giving the film a second wave of enthusiastic support because The Simpsons responded to the initial criticism. In a recent episode, Lisa Simpson says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect; what can you do?” The camera zooms out to show an autographed picture of Apu on her nightstand.
This created new reasons for outrage. Stephen Colbert, another commissar masquerading as a comedian, invited Apu’s voice Hank Azaria onto The Late Show, and Mr. Azaria turned against his employer, saying he opposed the show’s response. He also said, “I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced,” adding that he would be willing to “step aside.” Perhaps Mr. Azaria can afford to appear noble; he plays other non-white characters, such as Carl, who is black.
Indians with media access piled on. Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic that he used to think the character wasn’t offensive, but now he does. Indian actress Priyanka Chopra’s tweeting that Apu was “the bane of my life growing up” was highlighted on Twitter’s Moments—not the first time the social networking giant championed the campaign.
Interestingly, Simpsons creator Matt Groening has shown the most backbone. “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended,” he said.
Matt Groening can hardly be called a conservative. His first comic strip, Life In Hell, was about a gay, fez-wearing, and possibly incestuous couple, among other characters who made cynical remarks about American life. He’s a graduate of Evergreen State College, the now notorious school that made headlines after a professor defied a supposed white-free day on campus. Mr. Groening also spoke of the possibility of Donald Trump’s election as a “horror.” However, he clearly sees his job as being funny and, to some extent, offending people. This puts him out of step with the new breed of comedians, such as Mr. Kondabolu, who think their job is not telling jokes, but lecturing us on what we aren’t not allowed to laugh at.
Mr. Groening can see that this is a bogus controversy. Mr. Kondabolu largely gave the game away in an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, when he admitted he didn’t even care about Apu. He said the real issue was adequate representation for Indians on television, adding that Apu would have been fine if there had been other Indians. Basically, he is asking for quotas and set asides.
At one point in the interview, Mr. Kondabolu noted “there’s a billion of us,” naturally referring to Indians, not Americans. Mr. Noah jokingly replied, “In America?” Mr. Kondabolu replied if that were true, he’d have his own show by now. That seems to be all he really cares about—besides taking pokes at “white racists.”
In fact, Apu probably overrepresented the Indian population in the country when he was created. In 1989, when The Simpsons first aired, the US Census estimated the country was 84.1 percent white (including some unknown number of Hispanics), 12.4 percent black, and 3.5 percent other. The dramatic lack of Hispanic characters in Springfield (aside from Bumblebee Man) reflected their low profile. No doubt that will be the next complaint.
The point is not, as Mr. Groening puts it, that people “pretend” to be offended, it’s that they are rewarded for it. Hari Kondabolu is now famous because of this controversy, and has mainstream media promoting him. Whether his feelings were really hurt is irrelevant. Just like the two black loiterers who refused to leave a Starbucks, his claim of victimization is the best possible way to increase status and exposure. It’s easier than trying to come up with jokes.
It is clear how Mr. Kondabolu profits from this; what suffers is art. One of the main criticisms of a monoracial society is that it would be stultifying and uncreative. The reverse is true. In a multiracial and multicultural society, minority groups ostracize members who refuse to join in lock step to promote their group interests. Self-appointed spokesmen for black America were furious when Kanye West split ranks because disunity makes it harder for them to extract concessions from whites.
Today’s multiracial America hasn’t created a vibrant culture, but a malevolent orthodoxy that throttles people. Artists are not encouraged to create and be independent, but to make sure certain kinds of people remain beyond criticism or satire, and to snuff out dissent. Look what happened to Sam Hyde, a real comedian.
Putting minorities’ feelings first kills creativity. To “avoid stereotypes,” Apu would have to be less realistic, less interesting, and less complex. If the purpose of portraying non-whites is to make them feel better about themselves, every character must be admirable, and therefore disposable and uninteresting.
The character of Apu is actually complex and even fascinating. He had an “inherently funny voice,” as one Simpsons producer said. He wasn’t noble: He price gouged his customers, changed the dates on expired products, and cheated on his wife. But he was an incredibly hard worker (refusing to take days off even after repeatedly being shot during robberies) and would usually do the right thing in the end. He was part of Homer’s various adventures, even living with the Simpson family for a while. Since he is vegan, he could give Lisa Simpson advice when she became a vegetarian. Needless to say, at no point do the Simpsons show him the slightest prejudice on account of his race.
Apu was the focal point of one of the few openly political episodes from the show’s peak years, “Much Apu About Nothing,” which mocked California’s Proposition 187 that would have denied state benefits for illegals. Homer completely changed his mind about opposing illegal immigration when he found out Apu was illegal and even helped Apu get citizenship.
The episode raises the question of civic nationalism; Apu is torn between remaining true to his heritage and becoming a citizen just so he can stay in the country. He ultimately becomes a citizen but remains loyal to his heritage. Still, he’s proud to get his first jury duty notice because that means he is an American. (He then balls up the notice and throws it away, just like other Americans who don’t want to do jury duty.) This episode explores identity more honestly, and is funnier than anything Mr. Kondabolu has done.
The Simpsons did occasionally joke about Indian culture. Apu’s graduating class consisted of “seven million people.” Apu and his brother Sanjay are once portrayed dancing absurdly to bizarre Indian music. Watching a ridiculous Bollywood film, Homer laughs, saying, “It’s funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes!” When Apu finally get married, it is in an arranged marriage that he initially opposes. Homer tries to save him and stop the wedding by rushing in, wearing a costume of the god Ganesh, and saying, “This wedding angers me.” He is chased up a tree, the wedding proceeds, and Apu and his wife come to love each other. Needless to say, such scenes are usually more at Homer’s expense than Apu’s. They are funny, while they point out the culture clash that comes with immigration.
Mr. Kondabolu, the son of Indian immigrants and born in Queens, has fully absorbed contemporary victim culture. His comedy/political activism is focused entirely on the alleged injustices of the host society. His first comedy album was called Waiting for 2042, a reference to the year when whites are predicted to become a minority. He joined the campaign to rename the Washington Redskins (I did too, but for different reasons). His material wins plaudits from the likes of Buzzfeed and Vice, but it’s about as funny or original as an SPLC press release.
The character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is more genuine than Mr. Kondabolu. There’s nothing to Mr. Kondabolu’s work except resentment against the people who built the country. There’s no creativity or insight, nothing you haven’t already heard over and over. Even Apu hasn’t cost him anything; he has built a profitable career out of complaining, and Apu is just one more pretext. The character of Apu is actually far more complex and interesting than Mr. Kondabolu’s affirmative-action comedy. In the end, it is Mr. Kondabolu who is the caricature, not Apu.