In December 1989, The Simpsons debuted on television with a Christmas special. Reviled by many but beloved by more, the animated comedy has made a lasting impact on North American culture—the show is still airing 28 years later.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon made his first appearance in the eighth episode as the owner of the Kwik-E-Mart and has been a mainstay of the show ever since. He is a broad caricature of Southeast Asian people, though at the same time he is often used as an intelligent, kind foil to the idiocy of the other characters.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu is the son of Indian immigrants; much of his comedy deals with racial and identity issues. He grew up loving The Simpsons but had one issue with it. His recent one-hour documentary, The Problem with Apu, takes a look at how the stereotypical Apu has influenced perceptions of Southeast Asians around the world.
As he interviews actors and comedians who also have ancestral roots in that area, it becomes clear that the lovable, workaholic Apu with his exaggerated accent has become the foremost representation of a number of different cultures and people. All of these actors and comedians have had Apu’s catchphrase, “Thank you, come again,” thrown their way in all manner of situations, including as a way for other children to bully them when they were young.
The character Apu is played by white voice actor Hank Azaria. Azaria is a talented comedic voice actor who has won an Emmy for his work as Apu; he has been with the show from the beginning. Azaria has admitted that the voice was meant to be a stereotype played for laughs. In an interview for this documentary, former Simpsons producer Dana Gould said that to white ears accents are funny, and he defends Apu by saying that lots of characters on The Simpsons are stereotypes.
The difference, though, is largely one of representation. Rich, nasty Mr. Burns, hapless Homer, and Barney, the town drunk, are all stereotypes in their own way. But they are all different representations of white people. There are myriad representations of white people on television and in movies in all different roles. But for years, most of the Western world had one representation of a Southeast Asian person: Apu.
This is not a well-disciplined documentary. At some points it spirals into a rant against Hank Azaria. Kondabolu’s sometimes crass language (lots of bleeps) and outspoken political views will put off some viewers. However, there is a lot to learn from the voices in the conversation. This is a quick, often entertaining, one-hour education in the problem of representation and stereotypes in the entertainment industry; it could be a great jumping-off point for a discussion of the insidious nature of racism.
Initially released last month on the cable channel TruTV, The Problem with Apu is currently available on TruTV.com, through Xfinity’s on-demand service, and through rental on Amazon’s streaming service.