More On Apu: The Problem With Hank [Azaria]

 

The Problem With Apu discussion continues. Honestly, at this point, I can’t believe we are still talking about this…but here we are.

Following my piece at National Review, much of the commentary was about where the Simpsons could take the character of Apu, and bring him into “modern times.” The controversy, originally started by comic Hari Kondabolu, was reignited this week when the voice of the famous cartoon character, Hank Azaria, was a guest on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and spoke up about the subject.

Azaria appeared on Kondabolu’s documentary but did not provide answers that satisfied his critics. With “The Simpsons” response in an episode several weeks ago erupting anger once again, Azaria seems to have raised the white flag:

“The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad,” the actor went on. “It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people.”

“I’ve given this a lot of thought, and, as I say, my eyes have been opened,” he said. “I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room…including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me.”

“I really want to see Indian, South Asian writer, 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,” Azaria said. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what ‘The Simpsons’ does and it not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”

Like Kondabolu and others, Azaria misses the point.

Whether Azaria voices the character or not fundamentally doesn’t matter. The problem with Hank’s take on this (and to be fair, the take of Kondabolu and others) that having a white actor voice the character was the inherent flaw is illogical. Are they arguing that if an Indian had voiced the character from day one, with a harsh Indian accent, that Indians such as Kondabolu would not have targeted him for abuse?

No one honestly believes that. I am willing to bet Azaria doesn’t believe that either.

And this goes back to my criticism of the entire debate. Even Kodabolu is reticent to argue that Apu was ever intended as a racist or bigoted character. In his documentary, he basically admits that is not the case. He does suggest that the writers were insensitive since they were mostly white and lacked input from South Asian writers. There may be some truth to that.

But ultimately, does the race of the voice actor make this character racist? It certainly does not. Now, if they want to argue that Apu, existing in any iteration, and voiced by an Indian, Caucasian or otherwise is racist — fine.

At which point, the only solution is to kill off Apu.

Ali Noorani, a commentator at CNN, had this to say about the subject this week:

Let’s be clear: We can, and should, continue making fun of one another. We live in a complicated and changing society. Humor remains a critically important communication tool.

But we can do humor with more respect. As actor Kumail Nanjiani put it, “Norms evolve. Societies grow. We learn. We acknowledge mistakes as a society. Something that was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable now.”

Good comedy challenges stereotypes by acknowledging stereotypes. Bad comedy perpetuates stereotypes by pretending they don’t exist.

This is a reasonable take as well but inevitably leads to the question I keep asking: Why stop at Apu?

Jeet Heer at the The New Republic responded to some of my criticisms. He believes the very fact Azaria is white makes it inherently racially problematic. But that again presumes that the writer’s intent was that of one that had a racial element. If Apu was originally voiced by an Indian and portrayed the same way — and bigots had still used Apu to target people — would the character be any less problematic? If not, why not? Because you can’t have it both ways, regardless of the ethnicity of the voice actor.

Heer goes on to argue that Indian Americans such as him and myself don’t understand what younger Indians are facing. I actually thought about that question: was I possibly biased because of my age?

So, I looked for an answer: I did an unscientific survey of about a dozen Indian kids at my son’s school. I asked them: “Which Hollywood character is most used to make fun of your ethnicity?”

Not a single one mentioned Apu. Not one. Half the kids didn’t know who Apu was. “The Simpsons” simply are not the cultural phenomenon they were in the 1990s when those having this argument were growing up.

Who did the kids mention? A few named the cartoon character Baljeet, the Indian friend on the Disney animated show “Phineas and Ferb.” But the most common response was Raj, from the extremely popular CBS show “The Big Bang Theory.” Raj is an Indian immigrant, an engineering academic at a California university. He has a harsh Indian accent, is sexually repressed (so badly that he can’t even talk in the presence of American women!), and is often subservient to his rich Indian physician parents back home in India.

You want to talk stereotypes? Well, that’s a big one. Furthermore, it’s ironic that Heer may be right that there is an age bias in this discussion. But the age bias may be with Heer and Kondabolu, who are arguing about an archaic character that has far less influence on Indian American kids today than it did two decades ago. And if that is the case, do they now have a similar distaste for Raj on “The Big Bang Theory,” whose character is actively used to bully kids today?

None of the above changes the fact that Apu was never a racist character. The problem these critics have is still the same problem they’ve always had: their anger is pointed in the wrong direction. Until they face the fact that bigots will use any personification or stereotype of Indians to propagate their bigotry, they are missing the point.

But people such as Kondabolu remain willfully ignorant to the Hollywood personas that are affecting our Indian children today. He is still complaining about a character that, apparently, has little or no influence on kids like my boys. Their ignorance, and silence, on that shows that this isn’t really about solving prejudice and bigotry. It’s about something else.

Back to Hank Azaria. There are probably two real reasons Azaria wants to quit and neither of them is because he believes Apu is truly insensitive. First, he has done this character for almost three decades. Who would want to keep doing that? Second, at this point, with all the social justice warriors attacking him, what incentive does he have to continue? I fully sympathize with him wanting to leave it all behind.

We should instead discuss what racial prejudice South Asians are really feeling today and how we can improve those relations with education and understanding. We should be educating the broader public about the complexities of being of Indian heritage as an American today. That would do far more to advance our cause.

Instead, we waste our time over Apu.

There are 17 comments.

  1. Coolidge

    I agree with your points, also Andrew Klavan had Denis Miller on his podcast yesterday, they briefly discussed this situation. Being long term Hollywood insiders, they did have some unique perspectives.

    I agree that Apu is not a racist character, he is shown to have many admirable qualities. I think Apu is there to ridicule the stereotype – like Chief Wiggins. 

    I think the real problem between the Simpson’s and Big Bang Theory, is cultural appropriation. That Azaria being white shouldnt play an Indian character, while Raj from Big Bang is actually played by an Indian actor – so that makes it ok. By this logic Mat Bomer should not play a romantic lead, as he did in Seasons 1 and 2 of “Chuck” or in “White Collar” … or Lucy Liu should not play Dr Watson. (as she has for 5 seasons on the Sherlock Holmes show “Elementary” – the 6th season starts shortly)

    Actors pretend to be someone they’re not, its kinda the self-evident job description, they should be allowed to act in roles of nationality, gender and in orientations that differ from the character.

    • #1
    • April 27, 2018 at 1:14 pm
    • 8 likes
  2. Member

    The Simpsons is entirely about stereotypes. There is no ethnicity that is not included. The main characters are white stereotypes – Homer, the dimwit bungling beer swilling father, Bart the underachieving troublemaker, Mr. Burns the heartless millionaire energy company owner, Moe the sleazy barkeeper, Barney the sloppy alcoholic, Cletus the slack jawed yokel. Etc. 

    The whole discussion is nonsense. If one can’t laugh at the aspects of the stereotype that fit one’s self, you are a sad, hyper offended bore. So don’t watch!

    At this rate, the next generation will outlaw all comedy whatsoever. Too transgressive. 

     

    • #2
    • April 27, 2018 at 1:15 pm
    • 16 likes
  3. Member

    In India they have riots were Muslim-Hindu and Muslim-Sikh riots where they slaughter each other. In America, we make a cartoon that used to be funny and we freak out.

    • #3
    • April 27, 2018 at 1:20 pm
    • 11 likes
  4. Member

    The whole affair is a load of tosh and shamefully overblown. But then as Andrew Klavan never ceases to preach, if we leave culture to the bolsheviks we lose the children and the downstream, i.e. communication, rules and regulations in commerce and politics. As such, valiant, albeit it sisyphean effort in the never ending game of inches, Pradheep. Thank you. 

    • #4
    • April 27, 2018 at 1:49 pm
    • 6 likes
  5. Member

    “Gunga Din” must really blow some minds.

    • #5
    • April 27, 2018 at 2:09 pm
    • 1 like
  6. Member

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):
    I think the real problem between the Simpson’s and Big Bang Theory, is cultural appropriation. That Azaria being white shouldnt play an Indian character, while Raj from Big Bang is actually played by an Indian actor – so that makes it ok. By this logic Mat Bomer should not play a romantic lead, as he did in Seasons 1 and 2 of “Chuck” or in “White Collar” … or Lucy Liu should not play Dr Watson. (as she has for 5 seasons on the Sherlock Holmes show “Elementary” – the 6th season starts shortly)

    I’m outraged and deeply offended that non-Caucasian actors were hired to portray our Founding Fathers in the Broadway musical Hamilton. If that’s not cultural appropriation, what is?!?

    • #6
    • April 27, 2018 at 2:13 pm
    • 11 likes
  7. Member

    Pradheep Shanker: But the most common response was Raj, from the extremely popular CBS show “The Big Bang Theory.” Raj is an Indian immigrant, an engineering academic at a California university. He has a harsh Indian accent, is sexually repressed (so badly that he can’t even talk in the presence of American women!), and is often subservient to his rich Indian physician parents back home in India.

    It’s not just Raj, all the lead characters on the show portray negative stereotypes of my community: nerds.

    Just because the characters are all smart scientists and engineers with advanced degrees and geeky hobbies, why can’t they also be tall, athletic, outgoing, confident, and sexually irresistible? I mean, I’m sure the show would be just as funny and wildly popular if that were the case, right?

     

    • #7
    • April 27, 2018 at 2:18 pm
    • 10 likes
  8. Inactive

    Dang. I saw Hank Azaria and thought the post was about Brockmire.

    I have no clue what this debate is about, but that’s okay. Carry on…

    • #8
    • April 27, 2018 at 2:31 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Member

    PHenry (View Comment):

    The Simpsons is entirely about stereotypes. There is no ethnicity that is not included. The main characters are white stereotypes – Homer, the dimwit bungling beer swilling father, Bart the underachieving troublemaker, Mr. Burns the heartless millionaire energy company owner, Moe the sleazy barkeeper, Barney the sloppy alcoholic, Cletus the slack jawed yokel. Etc.

    The whole discussion is nonsense. If one can’t laugh at the aspects of the stereotype that fit one’s self, you are a sad, hyper offended bore. So don’t watch!

    At this rate, the next generation will outlaw all comedy whatsoever. Too transgressive.

    Bingo! The whole thing does hinge on stereotypes. But then the genius of the Simpsons – and the key to its longevity in my opinion – is that it exhibits compassion for nearly all of its characters. I could be offended that Ned Flanders has mercilessly mocked people like me for years (white, born-again evangelical, conservative) and yet two things prevent that. Three things.

    1. He is a funny character.
    2. He is yet treated, as all Simpson characters, with a measure of compassion and complexity. Righteous but not self-righteous. Meek yet really buff. Uptight and rigid with himself and endlessly forgiving and patient with others (Homer).
    3. The Simpsons is an equal-opportunity offender. Even Lisa, the avatar of progressive conscience is shown to be judgmental and self-righteous…much more so than Flanders in fact.

    Likewise he (Apu) plays on a particular stereotype and yet is shown as one of the most noble characters in the show. For this and similar reasons I would say that the presence of Apu in the show should be welcomed by Indian-Americans as a fundamental nod of inclusion in American culture.

    After all, your close friends are the ones you tease, not strangers.

    • #9
    • April 27, 2018 at 2:54 pm
    • 11 likes
  10. Member

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):
    I think the real problem between the Simpson’s and Big Bang Theory, is cultural appropriation. That Azaria being white shouldnt play an Indian character, while Raj from Big Bang is actually played by an Indian actor – so that makes it ok. By this logic Mat Bomer should not play a romantic lead, as he did in Seasons 1 and 2 of “Chuck” or in “White Collar” … or Lucy Liu should not play Dr Watson. (as she has for 5 seasons on the Sherlock Holmes show “Elementary” – the 6th season starts shortly)

    I’m outraged and deeply offended that non-Caucasian actors were hired to portray our Founding Fathers in the Broadway musical Hamilton. If that’s not cultural appropriation, what is?!?

    Watching “Troy” on Netflix I noticed that both Achilles and Nestor are black along with several of the Trojans including Aeneas. This really offends me and I demand they use only Caucasian actors…

    • #10
    • April 27, 2018 at 3:32 pm
    • 2 likes
  11. Moderator

    The solution is for all white people to get out of show business. If some white people make a TV show and all of the recurring characters are white, they get blasted for not looking like America. If they include some non-white characters, then they’ve really stepped in it. If the non-white characters are not virtuous enough (and I’d like to know just what about Apu is non-virtuous) they will be called racist. If the critics can’t find a way to claim the character isn’t wonderful enough, then the portrayal is “inauthentic”. If the writers manage to thread that needle, there’s still the old “cultural appropriation” gambit. 

    PHenry (View Comment):
    The Simpsons is entirely about stereotypes. There is no ethnicity that is not included. The main characters are white stereotypes – Homer, the dimwit bungling beer swilling father, Bart the underachieving troublemaker, Mr. Burns the heartless millionaire energy company owner, Moe the sleazy barkeeper, Barney the sloppy alcoholic, Cletus the slack jawed yokel. Etc. 

    I wonder if Scots are going to blow a gasket over Groundskeeper Willie? The accent, the plaid, the bagpipes, the red hair. What do you suppose is the percentage of Indian Americans who watch The Simpsons and are actually offended? Pretty low is my guess. Unless they’ve gone to an American university where they’ve been educated on how to be offended.

    • #11
    • April 27, 2018 at 4:03 pm
    • 5 likes
  12. Member

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    The solution is for all white people to get out of show business.

    Don’t be silly.

    If all white males get out of show business, whom will they cast to play the villains?

     

    • #12
    • April 27, 2018 at 5:35 pm
    • 4 likes
  13. Member

    Pradheep Shanker: the white flag:

    Talk about your racism.

    • #13
    • April 27, 2018 at 7:53 pm
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    PHenry (View Comment):
    At this rate, the next generation will outlaw all comedy whatsoever. Too transgressive. 

    It’s already happening. Jerry Seinfeld no longer will perform on college campuses thanks to all the PC nonsense. 

    • #14
    • April 28, 2018 at 5:37 am
    • 3 likes
  15. Member

    Songwriter (View Comment):

    PHenry (View Comment):
    At this rate, the next generation will outlaw all comedy whatsoever. Too transgressive.

    It’s already happening. Jerry Seinfeld no longer will perform on college campuses thanks to all the PC nonsense.

    Lots of comedians won’t go near a college campus, not just Jerry.

    • #15
    • April 28, 2018 at 7:18 am
    • 2 likes
  16. Thatcher

    Hank Azaria played Lancelot in Spamalot when I saw it on Broadway. The number where he is confronted with the fact that he is a closeted gay man is a total hoot. This number, and every other number in the show, plays with stereotypes and staid convention – just like all humor is supposed to.

    No one was hurt during the production of this number. Everybody involved had a great time. It was funny as ***k, and it remains one of the best songs out of a list of 15 totally best songs.

    I hadn’t seen Hank as an actual performer before, just the Simpsons. He was freaking great. (David Hyde Pierce played Sir Robin, also show-stoppingly great.)

    I was so disappointed that Hank didn’t throw this right back at them and tell them to please lighten up. Grovelling to this poison does not appease them, it FEEDS them. (See Donald Trump.)

    • #16
    • April 28, 2018 at 12:06 pm
    • 1 like
  17. Thatcher

    Pradheep Shanker:

     

    Let’s be clear: We can, and should, continue making fun of one another. We live in a complicated and changing society. Humor remains a critically important communication tool.

    But we can do humor with more respect. As actor Kumail Nanjiani put it, “Norms evolve. Societies grow. We learn. We acknowledge mistakes as a society. Something that was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable now.”

    Good comedy challenges stereotypes by acknowledging stereotypes. Bad comedy perpetuates stereotypes by pretending they don’t exist.

    This is a reasonable take . . .

    No. Poking fun at someone is by its very nature disrespectful. If we try to “…do humor with more respect.,” it won’t be funny anymore. And who decides? The powerful don’t like humor directed at them; you can usually tell who has the most power by who makes the most noise.

    • #17
    • April 29, 2018 at 12:57 am
    • Like