Richard Worth 8th December 2017
The Problem with Apu is a 2017 documentary by filmmaker and stand up comedian Hari Kondabolu. In it he makes the case that The Simpsons Character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is essentially a brownface caricature, a poor stereotype of an Indian migrant, who is an overworked IT PhD holder working at a convenience store, voiced by a Hank Azaria, who if you didn’t already know, is not Indian.
He interviewed numerous South Asian comedians who felt much the same as himself; enjoying Apu in their youths as the only the Indian to make regular appearances on television, then coming to resent him as they grew older and to realise that he didn’t really represent them or their experience. Even Apu’s name and catchphrase became racial slurs against anyone with brown skin, Indian or otherwise.
A part of the problem is that The Simpsons has such a long history and that Apu’s has become normalised. Those of us without brown skin can completely fail to see how Apu is problematic, even though if you think about it for even a moment, it’s screaming obvious. Another issue is that The Simpsons is sacred in the comedy world – most of it anyway – and it’s easy to dismiss any criticisms as not having a sense of humour.
The Simpsons has been running for just under 30 years now. As a sitcom it relies on certain stereotyping and tropes. They are comedy shorthand, allowing writers to subvert them for comedy effect and expressing everything a viewer might need to know about a character or situation very quickly. But attitudes towards comedy have changed dramatically in the last few years, never mind since 1989. That said, because of its longevity, there is real affection for denizens of Springfield and for the show to continue it needs to adapt and grow.
Luckily, it seems The Simpsons team feels the same way. Hank Azaria was recently confronted by a reporter from TMZ who asked him about the documentary. He said the “documentary made some really interesting points, and gave us a lot at The Simpsons to think about” but stated that nothing had been finalised yet.
The Overtake tried to envision how The Simpsons could address the criticism raised in Kondabolu’s documentary. So, without further Apu – get ready for more puns – here are five imaginary episodes that could be the solutions to the problem with Apu.
Apu is offered a promotion to manager of the new and improved Kwik-e-Mall of America, but there is one problem, it’s in SHELBYVILLE. The Simpsons try to convince him to stay in Springfield and reminisce over all the great times they’ve had together. Lisa disapproves. It doesn’t work. A clip show – sorry.
This is the laziest solution; not just the clip show, removing the character. The Simpsons has killed off or just forgotten characters in the past with mixed success and while getting rid of Apu would remove the problem in the broadest sense, it wouldn’t address his impact on the show or its viewers. Kondabolu himself has addressed this solution tweeting: “To @TheSimpsons Writers: Please do NOT remove Apu from The Simpsons. Killing him is lazy writing & an insult to the show’s legacy. Let him be upwardly mobile & own multiple Kwik E Marts. Let his kids talk. Plots have been repeating for years & tweaks provide tons of new stories.”
After Mr Burns buys Kwik-E-Mart, in a bid to control all the business in Springfield, Apu incorrectly receives a letter for a different Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. What are the chances? The other Apu is young, smart and everything Apu isn’t. A bored Burns pit them against each other for the role of Manager. Homer and Marge start a detective agency and their first client is Hank Scorpio! Lisa disapproves.
Slightly better than complete removal is a replacement, it allows the characters legacy to be acknowledged whilst negating the problematic elements. On top of which it allows the writers to keep the Indian population represented in Springfield. A more well rounded, less clichéd second generation Indian might be more representative of modern audiences experiences. It would certainly be a means of dealing with the accent.
But it still feels like a halfway measure, an appeasement. It’s somehow less brave than just getting rid of Apu. Even with his problems, a substitute would feel like just that, a temporary replacement, that an audience just won’t have the same affections for. In the Prince and Pauper, Principal Skinner is revealed to be Armin Tamzarian when the real Seymour Skinner returns to Springfield. The episode is widely hated and justly so, replacing popular characters so flippantly does not go down well with audiences as it makes them feel robbed of a character they have invested in and care about. Still, Hank Scorpio though, that would be good eh?
The “ See Boy” Rebellion
A scheme to avoid changing his socks results in Bart destroying a Hindu temple and offending the Hindu population of Springfield. Homer makes Bart work at the Kwik-E-Mart to pay for the damages and learn about Indian culture from Apu. Meanwhile Marge finds out that Professor Fink is bisexual and tries to set him up on a blind date, Lisa disapproves.
One of the best episodes of The Simpsons is “Homer’s Phobia”. In it Homer is shown to be prejudiced towards gay people, specifically John, played by John Waters. Of course, over the course of the episode he proven wrong and eventually learns to accept John and the possibility that Bart may be gay. Taking a member of the Simpsons through this kind of growth takes the viewer on the same journey. Having Bart move from a position of ignorance to a more enlightened standpoint, gives the writers the chance to say to the viewer that our preconceptions are wrong.
Further it would provide an opportunity to introduce more Indian and South Asian characters to Springfield as Bart gets explore the Indian community. This could diversify the cast and give Apu the chance to address his conflicts between his customers and his culture. The voice of discontented Asian fans of The Simpsons could have their chance to voice their concerns directly to the audience that might otherwise not see the problem, but directly to the character also.
Hindu what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
To increase sales of firearms Apu holds a “Gorilla Warfare” sale at the Kwik-E-Mart but during a promotional dance slips on a banana peel and hospitalises himself. While in a coma he see visions of all his previous lives, in each one he sacrificed his dreams to live up to others expectations. Not anymore! Bart convinces Moe to fight one of the escaped gorillas for the charity “Impossible Odds: Spirit of Grimes” featuring the ghost of Frank Grimes. Lisa disapproves.
Not only can the writers attempt to change the viewer’s opinion of Apu, they can change Apu’s opinion of himself. Having Apu realise that he is stereotype, could be the first step in developing his character. As part of a meta-storyline, Apu could have adopted the Indian stereotype on his arrival in Springfield in the ‘80s in order to fit in and meet the expectations of predominantly white yellow Caucasian town. Perhaps he even affected a fake “Indian” accent? But now he can follow his own dreams and more importantly set an example to his octuplets that they are more than stereotypes.
However, it has its risks. A drastic change in character, or a characters background could bring down the ire of the fans. Still, this could be a permanent shift for Apu, perhaps even allowing Azaria to hand over the reins to an Indian voice actor and could be worthwhile.
The allusion to Frank Grimes is important. A controversial character in his own right, though for different reasons, he shares a quality with Apu aside from being voiced by Azaria. They both are somewhat aware of the stupidity of Homer and how ridiculous the world of Springfield. Obviously Grimes‘s awareness was taking to illogical extremes but Apu has frequently shown a frustrated disdain with Homer. This awareness makes it easier to address the problems within The Simpsons and affect change.
Ask not what Springfield can do for Apu, but what Apu can do for Springfield
Mayor Quimby is forced to resign after footage is leaked of him swearing obscenely at Snowball II. As a successful business man, Apu decides to run for office with Homer and Bart running his campaign. Grandpa and Jasper foolishly decide that it’s about time for a Vaudeville revival and must be stopped! Lisa disapproves.
Over the years The Simpsons have given Apu plenty of depth and added more to his character. He loves his job, is quite the charmer, he is a family man and his personal mythos has become increasingly complicated. But none of these act against the South Asian stereotype, they just happen to exist in addition to that stereotype. Shopkeeper in a convenience store and the obligatory “thank you, come again” catchphrase that come with it are a part of the problem. If Apu could break out of that role and better his position and begin a new career that defies stereotype.
Becoming the Mayor of Springfield would be a major step and it makes sense. He’s a successful, well-educated, popular and driven individual, and frankly there are enough real life Joe Quimbys that the change would be refreshing.
It would be a change of the status quo, which is dangerous but not impossible in a sitcom, and it would demonstrate to South Asian viewers that there is more available to them than just being a shopkeeper. Taking with that a sense of self realisation from Apu and a better understanding for his experience by the characters around him, Apu as the Mayor of Springfield could be the perfect solution.
Whatever option the writers take it’s good that The Problem with Apu is being discussed. Sitcoms function on expectations and tropes and returning to where the characters started. The Simpsons has thrown these formulas out of the window in the past and ventured into new grounds but the weight of the history it carries is vast and it can be difficult to change a show that is so iconic. That said, Apu is only the most obvious problem in a show whose parts have ossified over 30 years. Groundskeeper Willie, Cookie Kwan and Akira surely represent similar problem.
Apu, as he stands, isn’t meant to be a cruel joke, he’s comedy relic that no one really needs. The Simpsons is a show that’s heart is in the right place and its creators must be taking these issues seriously and hopefully changing with the times. The populations of Springfield are timeless – literally they haven’t aged at all – but that doesn’t mean they have to be outdated.
Richard Worth 8th December 2017