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Making Up for Apu? Kumail Nanjiani Guest Stars as Mysterious Man Theo on ‘The Simpsons’

Making Up for Apu? Kumail Nanjiani Guest Stars as Mysterious Man Theo on ‘The Simpsons’

  • For the past few years, the Fox series has been embroiled in a controversy surrounding Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian American Kwik-E convenience-store owner, voiced by Hank Azaria.

Kumail Nanjiani made his debut as a guest star on “The Simpsons” this Sunday, March 13. He played Theo, a mysterious man who runs “The Institute,” a company that rehabilitates the reputations of those people savaged on the internet. Theo approaches Homer and offers up his services to help save his reputation, and he joins a group that also includes Helen Lovejoy, Councilman Jed Hawk, Larry Doogan and Kirk Van Houten.

Titled “You Won’t Believe What This Episode Is About — Act Three Will Shock You!” the episode shows Homer being blamed for leaving Santa’s Little Helper locked in the family car on a hot day. It’s actually not Homer’s fault, but footage of the incident is posted on a neighborhood social media website and then goes viral.

Nanjiani, who was most recently seen in Marvel’s “The Eternals,” is currently in production on Disney+’s “Obi-Wan Kenobi” series. He will star and executive produce a limited series adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies” for FX, the Disney-owned cable outlet. Akhtar himself will pen the adaptation with Oren Moverman who is slated to direct the eight-episode limited series. The project hails from Sight Unseen and Nimitt Mankad’s Inimitable Pictures.

“Homeland Elegies” will be the first major television lead role for Nanjiani. His prior small screen highlights include “Silicon Valley,” voicing Jesus on the animated series “Bless the Harts,” episodes of “The X-Files” and “Twilight Zone” as well as hosting an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”

Additionally, he is teaming up with his wife Emily V. Gordon to write “The Doubtful Guest,” based on the illustrated book by the late Edward Gorey. Director Andy Muschietti is set to direct the film, which will also star Nanjiani. “The Doubtful Guest” is Gorey’s third book, considered one of his most distinctive works. Originally published in 1957, the story revolves around a mysterious, mischievous creature whose unannounced and unwelcome arrival at a family’s home brings trouble and chaos. In addition to co-writing the script, Gordon and Nanjiani are serving as executive producers.

“The Simpsons” first hit screens at a time when ethnic minorities were not represented on television. Faced with a lack of Indian characters, Apu became the face of Indian-Americans and all references to them were made through the cartoon. 

For the past few years, the show has been embroiled in a controversy surrounding one of its central characters, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian American Kwik-E convenience-store owner, voiced by Hank Azaria. Since comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu” was released in 2017, there has been conversation and controversy surrounding the stereotypes about Indian-Americans that Apu is said to have embodied. Azaria has been the voice of the thickly-accented Apu for the last 30 years. The Fox show is said to be television’s longest-running primetime scripted series.

But it’s a stereotype that has endured, according to many of those interviewed by Kondabolu for his documentary including actors Kal Penn and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Several also remember being called “Apu,” used as a racial slur. Kondabolu said in the film that Azaria’s rendition of Apu was more like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”

Nanjiani himself has complained about still being called to castings requiring “the Apu accent”.” In an interview with the Guardian in 2014, Priyanka Chopra said she was sick of how she was so often perceived in the U.S. “We don’t all talk like Apu!” she emphasized. 

A January 2014 article in the Huffington Post by Mallika Rao said that although the world has moved on and accepted Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri or Mindy Kaling, in fictional Springfield, Apu is still selling hot dogs with a funny accent. “Endearing and occasionally wise he may be, but his legacy is one that continues to thwart Indian actors looking to play three-dimensional characters,” Rao wrote.

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A few months after Kondabolu’s documentary was released, “The Simpsons” responded in an April 2018 episode to the backlash over Apu. In the episode, the young Lisa Simpson said, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa then glanced at a framed photograph of Apu inscribed with the message, “Don’t have a cow.”

A few weeks after that episode aired, Azaria told the host of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” that he’d be happy to step aside from Apu and disagreed with how the show handled the criticism. “The idea that anybody — young or old, past or present — was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad,” said Azaria, who voices other characters on the show. “It was certainly not my intention,” he said. “I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character, and the idea that it’s brought pain and suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalize people, it’s upsetting.” Then in January 2020, he announced that he will no longer provide the voice for Apu. 

A few months later, in June, the series producers announced that “from now on, its characters of color will be voiced by actors of color only,” Variety reported at the time. “Moving forward, ‘The Simpsons’ will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters,” the statement read, adding that there wont be any repeats of Azaria voicing Apu.

However, the debate on Apu and Azaria and once again surfaced by another Indian American comic. Akaash Singh has been using his platform as a standup comedian to voice his displeasure on the removal of Apu from the show. “Here is a brown man married to a beautiful brown woman, who owns his own business, selling overpriced products to unwitting white people,” he says on App at the start of his 20-minute debut special, “Bring Back Apu,” released on YouTube a month ago. “Apu is not racist. He’s the American dream.” 

The New York Times notes that Singh’s special “never mentions Kondabolu by name, but it is a response to a public conversation kicked off by his cutting critiques of “The Simpsons,” which did more than anything else to lead to the removal of the character.” Singh told The Times that he wasn’t necessarily offended by comic accents and even thought Azaria did a better one than most “brown comics I know.” But he added that the accent shouldn’t outweigh the rest of the character. “A lot of my brown acting friends refuse to do a role that has an accent. I don’t understand that,” he said. “Your parents have that accent. That accent is beautiful. My issue is: What are the jokes behind that accent?”

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