Is “The Simpsons” About to Quietly Kill Off Apu?

Matthew Loffhagen
(Photo: Fox)

It looks like “The Simpsons” may be about to retire one of the series’ most enduring characters.

We were bound to end up here eventually; the surprising thing is just how long it took for this issue to get mainstream attention.

South-Asian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu has created a documentary which is gaining widespread attention for shining a light on one of the inherent flaws in “The Simpson” that the majority of audiences have been ignoring for almost thirty years.

In “The Problem with Apu”, Kondabolu posits that the Indian immigrant character in “The Simpsons”, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is a racist caricature that has dramatically harmed Asian-American cultural integration.

By all accounts, the documentary is very well laid out, with interviews with many famous faces who’ve, at different times in their lives, faced the kind of racist slurs that Kondabolu wishes to expose.

While the documentary itself paints the team behind “The Simpsons” – most prominently, Hank Azaria, the incredibly white man who plays the voice of Apu – as less than cooperative, it seems that everyone involved has had a change of heart following the release of “The Problem with Apu”.

It’s funny how an approaching media storm will convince people to dramatically rethink their opinions on racism.

According to Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons” may end up looking very different in the future as a result:

“I think the documentary made some really interesting points, and gives a lot for “The Simpsons” to think about – and we really are thinking about it – and definitely anybody that was hurt or offended by any character or vocal performance, it’s really upsetting that that was hurtful or offensive to anybody, and I think it’s an important conversation and one definitely worth having.

“We’re just really thinking about it, there’s a lot to digest.”

It’s worth pointing out the context in which this quote was made – a video on TMZ shows that Azaria was approached in an airport by a news crew, and (understandably) didn’t seem hugely keen on talking until he realized that he was being asked about “The Problem with Apu”, at which point he spared a minute to say his piece.

This isn’t legally binding, or definite proof that things are going to change with “The Simpsons”, but this is clearly an issue that the voice actor thinks is important to deal with succinctly and carefully.

We don’t know what’s coming in the future, but it looks an awful lot like the future of the show won’t necessarily feature Apu.

The problem here is mainly one of social sensitivity and the age of “The Simpsons”. Having started in 1989, the show contains many ideas and elements that have fallen out of style or proven problematic over the decades.

Some old-fashioned elements of the show have been retired over the years, while others have remained present. These days, the show rarely features the kind of homophobic Smithers jokes that were common two decades ago, but at the same time, “The Simpsons” sticks to its nuclear family, stay-at-home-wife formula which has long since become a little dated.

Apu is one problematic element of “The Simpsons” that seems to have stuck around simply because nobody of note has thus far challenged the stereotypes that the character embodies.

“The Simpsons” came from the era of “Short Circuit”, in which it was (inexplicably in retrospect) totally okay for a white American to play an Indian immigrant with a heavy fake accent and painted skin.

Apu and the Simpsons
Source: Fox

This kind of thing isn’t okay anymore, but “The Simpsons” has enjoyed a free pass for a long time in large part because it’s an animation.

There’s nothing that can be said here that isn’t better said in Kondabolu’s documentary, and it’s commendable that he has managed to kick off a discussion about what place racial parodies have on modern television.

If Apu is retired, it’s probably for the best, but getting rid of one of the only non-yellow (the color used as a stand-in for Caucasian skin) character in “The Simpsons” merely places a band-aid on the problem, rather than introducing positive changes that benefit society.

Of course, nobody really expects “The Simpsons” to be culturally relevant any more. The show has long since gone from being counter-culture and innovative, to settling into a solid groove that can be ridden for quite some time to come.

Hari Kondabolu is completely justified in wanting to explore such an important part of modern culture, and it’s a good thing that the creators of “The Simpsons” are finally sitting up and paying attention to this issue.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, “The Simpsons” will shake things up and provide some kind of penance for thirty years of jokes featuring a character named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

In all likelihood, though, the majority of “Simpsons” fans have long since stopped expecting anything interesting from the show, and probably won’t notice a difference either way.