The Origin of Apu from The Simpsons is Worse Than You Think
The Simpsons has faced its fair share of controversies over the past three decades. There's been everything from feuding with First Lady Barbara Bush to insulting Rio de Janeiro to the time Bart made robocalls promoting how super-awesome Scientology is. The most recent big issue the iconic series has been forced to contend with involves Kwik-E-Mart proprietor and smashed-hat confessor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
The problematic nature of Apu was brought to the fore thanks to comedian Hari Kondabolu, first with a segment on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, and later in his documentary The Problem With Apu. As the doc points out, Apu is basically an example of modern-day minstrelsy. Even worse, for a good portion of the time the series has been on the air, Apu has been the sole example of a South Asian character on American TV -- if you don't count airings of that movie where Fisher Stevens wore brownface and palled around with WALL-E's dad.
In the time since the documentary came out, there have been calls to retire the character, as well as passionate arguments for keeping him. This has included The Simpsons breaking the fourth wall to address the controversy. Unfortunately, the show's response was as helpful as a disgruntled preteen's half-hearted shrug. Commenting on an offensive book from Marge's childhood, Lisa says: "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Then they look directly into the camera as it pulls out to reveal a photo of Apu which Lisa suddenly has in her room (presumably the work of an offscreen wizard).
Yeah, a lot of viewers weren't thrilled. It didn't help that Matt Groening responded to the thoughtful documentary which used Apu to tackle the larger issue of representation and stereotypes in the media by chalking the criticism up to a "culture where people love to pretend they're offended." Former Simpsons head writer Mike Reiss called it "a nasty little documentary."
A lot of fans still vehemently defend the character. It's not difficult to understand why. Apu has been a staple of the show for three decades. He's in video games, Lego sets, and is personal friends with a goddamn Beatle. (And not Ringo, either. A good one.) Plus, Apu is clearly meant to be one of the smartest characters on the show. Take the episode "Much Apu About Nothing," in which Mayor Quimby distracts Springfield's citizens by blaming the town's problems on undocumented immigrants. Apu's efforts to become a citizen prove time and again that he's actually more knowledgeable about American history than the people testing him.
So despite the fact that on paper, Apu fits the description of a regressive stereotype, a lot of folks are willing to look the other way because his inception was never malicious ... except it kinda was.
Recently, the man behind Apu's voice, Hank Azaria, even offered to step away from the character, and expressed regret over the hurt he may have caused. He also claimed that his only intention with Apu was to "spread laughter and joy."
But in a 2015 interview, briefly seen in the documentary, Azaria admits that the Apu voice stemmed from an Indian 7-Eleven clerk who chastised him for drinking Gatorade in the store before paying for it. Azaria then goes on to say that he was so aggrieved by the clerk's outrageous demand that he not consume the thing he hadn't actually purchased that he began to imitate him. Why? Because that's how he likes to "work out aggression." According to Azaria:
"It's like, 'I'm observing how annoying you are, this is what you sound like. Isn't it annoying?' A lot of comedians I think say it starts with sort of a hostile instinct."
Aggression? Hostility? That's not spreading joy at all; that's making fun of a guy who got under your skin. Also, according to Reiss, Apu was merely written as "Clerk," and it was Azaria who randomly started doing the accent, presumably because he still resented being chastised for illicitly guzzling an energy drink. Azaria, however, contends that it was the producers who asked: "Can you do an Indian accent, and how offensive can you make it?"
Either way, the origin of Apu seemingly isn't as innocent as everyone involved is suggesting. Recently, rumors surfaced that he's quietly been dropped from the show altogether. No one can really tell, though, because would involve having to force yourself to watch new Simpsons episodes.
For more on this subject, check out The East is a Podcast. And while you're at it, maybe follow JM on Twitter.
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