Hari Kondabolu: 'Simpsons' betrayed legacy with response to 'Apu'

By Ben Hooper Contact the Author   |  May 15, 2018 at 6:12 AM
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May 15 (UPI) -- Comedian Hari Kondabolu is celebrating the release of his first hour-long stand-up special, streaming on Netflix, while still reeling from the reaction to last year's documentary on The Simpsons' Indian character, Apu.

Kondabolu told UPI he is pleased with the overall reception to The Problem with Apu, but he found The Simpsons' response to it in recent weeks "petty" betrayal of the show's legacy.

"Students are using this documentary in their classrooms, professors and teachers are assigning it. That's cool," he said. "It's an honor for my work to be thought of as valuable in that regard."

The documentary follows Kondabolu as he examines the cultural impact of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian character voiced by Hank Azaria, a white actor. The film explores what it was like for Kondabolu and fellow South Asian performers, including Aziz Ansari and Kal Penn, to grow up with the stereotypical character as their primary source of racial representation in popular culture.

"I'm happy that people are able to share their stories through the documentary, I've heard so many people talk about their experiences growing up -- feeling like an outsider, feeling left out, what it's like having immigrant parents," Kondabolu said.

He was less impressed with the response from The Simpsons, which recently referenced the documentary indirectly in a short scene featuring Lisa and Marge Simpson with a prominently displayed photo of Apu.

"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Lisa says directly to the camera.

"Some things will be dealt with at a later date," Marge responds, to which Lisa concludes: "If at all."

Kondabolu, 35, said that as a lifelong fan of the 28-year-old show, the scene felt like a betrayal.

"Lisa would never say that," he said. "Lisa is the original social justice warrior."

The documentary has also sparked plenty of other backlash, much of which the comedian said is coming from people who don't understand his point, or "trolls" who are intentionally misrepresenting it.

"There's a lot of people who have not seen the documentary who have opinions about it," Kondabolu said. "People who basically take whatever discussion is of the documentary, ignore it, and just slip it into a template regarding political correctness and free speech. That is not actually what the documentary is about."

Many of his most vocal critics are attempting to argue against points he never made.

"At no point do I talk about banning the First Amendment. In no way do I say that the show has to be canceled. In no way do I have to say that Apu has to be removed or has to be rewritten," Kondabolu said.

Kondabolu applauded Azaria, who declined to appear in The Problem with Apu, but voiced support for the comedian's efforts during an appearance last month on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The actor said he would be willing to step aside from the role and also called on The Simpsons' producers to listen to the experiences of South Asians and bring more diversity to the writers' room.

"I think when Hank was on Colbert, it was great, because that's all a lot of us wanted was to be acknowledged," Kondabolu said. "Indian Americans in this country have a unique experience and that experience has to be accounted for. ... We just wanted you to know we existed and that this affected us and that we are people. We are human beings with our full experiences. That was a big thing."

He said the idea that more diversity is needed on the creative side of television "hit a nerve" with "a lot of old, white writers and producers," who he said fear changes in culture because they don't know how they fit into it.

Kondabolu said the producers of the show, including series creator Matt Groening, who last month accused Apu critics of only pretending to be offended, "clearly didn't watch the documentary."

"Whether it's the voice of men's rights activists or white supremacists or whatever else, it's this constant feeling of, 'Oh, we're being repressed, we can't say what we want, everything's political correctness, this country's going to hell,'" Kondabolu said. "They just fed into that as opposed to being The Simpsons, being counterculture, being thoughtful. That's disappointing."

Kondabolu's special, Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives, is streaming on Netflix.

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