Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons” is proud of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart owner with a thick Indian accent. Adding that he has “ambitious plans” for Apu, Groening said, “We’ve got plans for Apu, but we have to see if we can make the stories work.”
Groening revealed the plans in an interview with USA Today, to mark the series’ 700th episode on March 21. The Fox show is said to be television’s longest-running prime-time scripted series. Since early last year, the character of Apu was sidelined from the show over criticism that he was voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria, and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
“The Simpsons” first hit screens in 1989, 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.
However, in 2017, Apu and Azaria were mired in controversy in wake of Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu.” In the feature-length documentary, the Indian American comedian deconstructs the show’s “most offensive character” and explores the racism behind the show. He likens the character to the stereotypical early blackface minstrels “since it’s brown paint [and] a white guy’s voice.” But it’s a stereotype that has endured, according to many of those interviewed by Kondabolu for his documentary. Several also remember being called “Apu,” used like a racial slur.
“Now I realize some of you think I’m some annoying, PC, social justice warrior that’s very sensitive,” Kondabolu says in the trailer, adding, “and you’re probably thinking ‘C’mon snowflake let it go!’ Well, I have let it go … for 28 years.”
In the documentary, Kondabolu sits down for interviews with fellow entertainers Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Sakina Jaffrey, Utkarsh Ambudkar as well as Whoopi Goldberg and “The Simpsons” writer Dana Gould. “There are accents that — by their nature — to white Americans sound funny. Period,” Gould tells Kondabolu about Apu’s accent. The comic replies: “It’s funny because it’s racist!”
Addressing the Apu controversy, Groening told USA Today that while using the voice of white actors for non-white characters was not his idea, he was “fine with it.” Adding that the actors were not hired to play specific characters, he said: “They were hired to do whatever characters we thought of. To me, the amazing thing is seeing all our brilliant actors who can do multiple voices. That’s part of the fun of animation, However, to be more inclusive and hire more people, I’m completely in favor of that.”
When reflecting on Apu’s journey, Groening said he looks back at the character with pride. “I think the Apu stories are fantastic, and he’s one of the most nuanced characters on a silly two-dimensional cartoon show,” he said. “So, yeah, I’m proud of Apu.. I’m trying not to open up another chasm of criticism, but it doesn’t matter what I say. I’ll get it anyway.”
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.”
In an April 24, 2018 interview with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” Azaria offered his fullest response yet to the criticism, which started with the debut of Kondabolu’s documentary. He told 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.”
In January 2020, it was announced that after 30 years, Azaria would no longer be the voice for Apu. Along with Azaria’s decision to step down, the character of Apu was sidelined from the show. “All we know there is I won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s some way to transition it or something,” Azaria said, according to Slashfilm. “What they’re going to do with the character is their call,” the Slashfilm report quoted Azaria as saying. The actor, however, said that the decision to remove Azaria from voicing Apu was mutual. “We all agreed on it,” he said. “We all feel like it’s the right thing and good about it.”