Apu on Simp­sons no laugh­ing mat­ter for some

Times Colonist - - Television - 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 Kwik-E-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 non-Amer­i­can,” 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.

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 sev­enth grade 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.

Kond­abolu grew up in the di­verse New York bor­ough of Queens and was shocked to not see on film or TV what he saw on the streets ev­ery day. The mes­sage he got was that non-whites didn’t ex­ist. He be­came so des­per­ate to con­nect with any­one on TV that he found so­lace in the im­mi­grant Balki from the sit­com Per­fect Strangers.

Much of The Prob­lem With Apu be­comes like Michael Moore’s Roger & Me — an at­tempt to sit down with Hank Azaria, who has 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 AP for com­ment.)

He re­mains a fan of the an­i­mated se­ries. “You can love some­thing and crit­i­cize it. I mean, I’m a Mets fan,” he said, laugh­ing.


Co­me­dian Hari Kond­abolu stars in the doc­u­men­tary The Prob­lem with Apu, air­ing Sun­day on truTV.

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