Co­me­di­ans not laugh­ing at char­ac­ter in ‘The Simp­sons’

Medicine Hat News - - ENTERTAINMENT - MARK KENNEDY

NEW YORK Grow­ing up in New York in the 1980s, co­me­dian Hari Kond­abolu was like many young peo­ple. He watched “The Simp­sons” and he adored “The Simp­sons.” There was just one thing that both­ered him about it.

Amid the fic­tional Spring­field barflies, in­com­pe­tent doc­tors, clowns and crazy eggheads was a truly car­toon­ish char­ac­ter — Apu, the KwikE-Mart clerk who sold ex­pired food, ripped off cus­tomers and de­liv­ered the sing-songy slo­gan “Thank you, come again.”

To Kond­abolu and plenty of other peo­ple of South Asian her­itage, the pot-bel­lied, heav­ily ac­cented Apu led to real world bul­ly­ing, self-loathing and em­bar­rass­ment. Apu was one of the only In­dian im­mi­grants por­trayed in pop­u­lar cul­ture and yet he was a buf­foon.

“This char­ac­ter — the only rep­re­sen­ta­tion that we have — led a lot of kids who were born and raised here to feel non­Amer­i­can,” said Kond­abolu. “If you don’t nip racism in the bud from the be­gin­ning, it mu­tates and finds other ways of sur­viv­ing.”

Kond­abolu, whose stand-up and pod­casts have a so­cially con­scious fo­cus, is now fight­ing back with the doc­u­men­tary “The Prob­lem With Apu,” air­ing on truTV on Sun­day at 10 p.m. EST.

He hopes the film is as funny as it is il­lu­mi­nat­ing — an im­por­tant thing if you’re go­ing to war with one of TVs most beloved an­i­mated in­sti­tu­tions. “As a co­me­dian, if you’re go­ing to kill joy, you bet­ter kill it with joy,” he said.

The doc­u­men­tary fea­tures in­ter­views with other per­form­ers of South Asian her­itage, in­clud­ing Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Min­haj, who share their own dis­taste for Apu. Vivek Murthy, who be­came sur­geon gen­eral of the United States, re­calls be­ing bul­lied in Grade 7 by a kid us­ing Apu’s ac­cent.

“It’s not about him be­ing funny. That’s not the is­sue. He’s a fun­da­men­tally flawed char­ac­ter, based through the lens of a stereo­type. I think some­times peo­ple con­fuse some­times funny and wrong,” Kond­abolu said.

Penn, the “Des­ig­nated Sur­vivor” star who has mocked racial stereo­types in his “Harold & Ku­mar” films, sus­pects Hol­ly­wood can get away with a lot more mock­ing of AsianAmer­i­cans than it can with an­other eth­nic group.

“If you had an African-Amer­i­can char­ac­ter — even a car­toon — with the types of stereo­types done for Apu, peo­ple would un­der­stand­ably, and very right­fully, raise hell and the stu­dio would say, ‘We can’t do this. This is not funny,’” said Penn.

“They would do it both be­cause they would see it as deeply prob­lem­atic and of­fen­sive but they would also say, ‘This joke is played out.’ That’s how I see a lot of ‘The Simp­sons’ stuff — it’s played out.”

To those who push back and say “The Simp­sons” is an equal-op­por­tu­nity of­fender that mocks var­i­ous eth­nic­i­ties and cul­tures, Kond­abolu ar­gues that some im­ages have last­ing im­pact, es­pe­cially if you have so few of them.

Much of “The Prob­lem With Apu” be­comes like Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” — an at­tempt to sit down with Hank Azaria, who’s won three Emmy Awards for his work on “The Simp­sons,” which in­cludes voic­ing Apu since the first episode in 1989.

Kond­abolu wants to know what in­spired this white man to cre­ate Apu and why he’s con­tin­ued. He also speaks to Whoopi Gold­berg and W. Ka­mau Bell for a larger con­text of the way mi­nori­ties are rep­re­sented in me­dia. (Azaria did not re­spond to a re­quest from The AP for comment.)

FOX VIA AP

This im­age re­leased by Fox shows the Apu from the an­i­mated se­ries "The Simp­sons." The char­ac­ter is the sub­ject of the doc­u­men­tary“The Prob­lem With Apu,” air­ing on truTV on Nov. 19.

Hari Kond­abolu

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