One of the most difficult tasks in Hollywood is to get someone who is successful to admit they are dead wrong.
That’s a lesson comic Hari Kondabolu learned the hard way, while making his compelling, layered, highly entertaining documentary airing on truTV Sunday, The Problem with Apu.
On the surface, it’s kind of a comedy primal scream: a passionate exploration of why the Indian character on The Simpsons, Kwik-E-Mart clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is racist.
Beneath that, a tension simmers, pulling viewers through the film. It’s rooted in a quest Kondabolu undertakes similar to Michael Moore’s hunt for General Motors’ CEO Roger Smith during his debut film Roger & Me; Kondabolu wants to talk about Apu with the white man who has voiced the character for more than 20 years, actor Hank Azaria.
But what really emerges — as Kondabolu sits down with former Simpsons producer Dana Gould, and culls comments Azaria has made about the character in other, less critical spaces — is an essential truth about Hollywood.
Success justifies everything. Especially when that success comes at the expense of people who are not the mostly white, mostly male powerbrokers who define comedy in America.
Kondabolu builds his case logically, with a cheeky flair. We see where the idea for the film started, as a bit from his standup act complaining about Apu. That became a standout commentary on the late night show where he once worked as a writer, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. (He says Bell told him, “If you don’t do this, I will fire you,” which was pretty good motivation.)
The comic, a New York-born son of Indian immigrants, lists Apu’s hurtful qualities with a rueful precision: Goofy. Servile. Devious.
He is a character whose humor almost completely springs from his sing-song, stereotypically outlandish accent. For years, Apu was one of the most prominent Indian characters on prime time TV — a mugging, persistent example of the derisive way many Americans viewed Indian immigrants. And in the film, when Kondabolu asks a roomful of young, South Asian performers whether they got bullied by people who called them Apu, nearly everyone raises their hand.
Yes, as the film notes, The Simpsons stereotypes lots of characters. But there were plenty of other working class fathers and rich people on television in 1989 to counter Homer Simpson and Montgomery Burns. Not so with South Asian characters, especially back then.
(And there’s one thing Kondabolu doesn’t note: The Simpsons doesn’t build black characters around essential stereotypes in the same way, as if producers recognize the danger of trafficking in such images about African-Americans.)
The Problem with Apu educates while it entertains, featuring House of Cards alum Sakina Jaffrey explaining the awful accents South Asian actors are often asked to adopt. She defines it as “patanking,” a dismissive word that imitates the sound of an Indian accent to non-Indian ears.
Whoopi Goldberg shows up to talk about blackface and harmful racial caricatures, referencing her extensive collection of racist art, posters and kitschy items she calls “negrobilia.”
Kondabolu digs up two different stories on how Apu was created.
Azaria is shown during an interview in a comedy club saying that Simpsons producers asked him to do an Indian voice, quipping, “How offensive can you make it?” But Simpsons producer Mike Reiss told the Cracked podcast that the character was originally just called “store clerk” with directions that he specifically not be Indian – to avoid a comedy cliché – until Azaria cracked up the table reading by saying “35 cents please” in Apu’s lilting dialect.
Later, Azaria is shown in an interview with the Archive of American Television saying that he was also inspired by Peter Sellers in the 1968 film The Party – where Sellers, a white British actor, donned brown makeup to play an Indian man. Brownface, if you will.
One of The Problem with Apu’s most eye-opening moments, however, comes from Dana Gould. He insists that, for The Simpsons, “The bottom line was always ‘What’s funnier?'” Later, Gould asks, “How much do you want to tear at the fabric of the show? Do you want to pull Apu, a beloved character out of the Kwik-E-Mart… just for the sake of updating that character to be less anachronistic?”
In other words: Who cares if it’s racist? It’s successful.
“This is the insidiousness of racism,” Daily Show alum Aasif Mandvi tells Kondabolu about the pressure to just accept the stereotypes fueling popular, problematic characters like Apu, “The person who is subjected to it, winds up buying into it as a cultural norm.”
The Problem with Apu often unfolds like a movie-length Daily Show segment – and that’s a compliment – deftly outlining the stereotypes South Asian people still struggle with in media depictions.
But the attitude it exposes among Hollywood producers and performers, reveals the ugly truth of why these stereotypes persist. Until the pain of indulging the stereotype outweighs the success, wealth, and power that comes from feeding it, the awful images will remain.
Let’s hope Kondabolu’s film is a step toward making the pain a lot sharper, when it comes to characters like Apu.