On 19th November of this year, Hari Kondabolu, an American stand-up comedian whose parents immigrated from Tenali in India, released his documentary The Problem with Apu. This programme studies the issue of having such a stereotypical character, in The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, so near the centre of a staple of American TV. In this documentary, Kondabolu and his peers, including Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari and Oscar winning Whoopi Goldberg, discuss the negative stereotypes shown in Apu’s character and how it has led to the parroting of racial micro-aggressions and slurs against those of Indian and South Asian heritage.
Ever since it first aired on The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19th, 1987, The Simpsons has been a great success, running for 29 seasons and 626 episodes, making it both the longest-running American sitcom and animated programme. Although many people would agree it is far past its best, the first 8 seasons are still incredibly capable of making the viewer laugh and, nearly as often, cry at the struggles befalling Springfield and its most famous family. At the same time, The Simpsons has elements that have caused controversy over the years, such as Homer’s recurrent strangling of Bart and his promotion of alcohol to solve all issues in ‘Homer v. The Eighteenth Amendment’. How are these actions of the show’s anti-hero, the only character to have appeared in every episode to date, deemed acceptable in a children’s television show? The reason for this is because Homer is presented as such a caricature that his actions can be overlooked. The utter ridiculousness of Homer helps the viewer to get over the controversy of his actions and even find humour in them.
However, one aspect of controversy to emerge from the show is harder to dismiss, that of the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. One of the longest running characters in the show, Apu has appeared in every season and was the only playable character in the extremely successful game ‘The Simpsons Hit & Run’ that was not a member of the main family. Throughout his time as the clerk in the Kwik-E-Mart, Apu has made viewers both laugh and cry, with his catch phrase ‘Thank you, come again’ and his song ‘Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart’ being two of the most recognisable parts of the show to date. He has always been a strong favourite of the fans, leading to him becoming a crucial non-family regular, alongside Moe Szyslak and Ned Flanders.
Despite this popularity, Apu has been the subject of increasing controversy over the last decade or so. Ever since appearing in the episode ‘The Telltale Head’, Apu has presented us with an image of the South Asian community that is riddled with stereotypes. Born in Ramatpur, Apu graduated from Calcutta Technical University before studying at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology. However, despite his education, Apu still finds himself working in Homer’s local convenience store. Apu has caused controversy through the stereotypes presented, as his character is used to find humour in arranged marriages in ‘Much Apu About Nothing’ and in the image of an educated immigrant struggling to find work in America, whereas Homer has a successful job at the Power Plant despite having never finished his education. Also, the fact that he is voiced by Hank Azaria, an American Caucasian actor who also voices Moe, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy and Carl Carlson, has led to increased tension as people have come to see it as promoting the spread of said stereotypes.
The Problem with Apu explores these issues thoroughly. Daniel Fienberg, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, praised the documentary for providing ‘a brisk discourse on hegemony and representational inequality, the doc lays out its thesis against the character’s acceptability in 2017 (to say nothing of 1989) with such clarity, it’s hard to imagine it generating an adversarial response more cogent than that hoary classic ‘It’s a joke, stop taking it so seriously,’ which is no response at all.’ I would be inclined to agree.