Comedian Hari Kondabolu
last november, brooklyn-based comic hari kondabolu launched The Problem With Apu, a documentary that questioned the racial legacy of Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, described by Kondabolu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” It was a way into the larger issue of how minorities are represented in the press, and the doc sparked heated, widespread discussions on social media. It also prompted Hank Azaria, the white actor who is the voice Apu, to say he was “perfectly willing and happy” to give up the role. (Simpsons creator Matt Groening, meanwhile, continues to shrug off criticism.) “There’s an irony of, as a kid, I hated being associated with Apu, and now, as an adult, I’m forever associated with him,” says Kondabolu. He hopes to change that with his new Netflix stand-up special, Warn Your Relatives, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. While the comedian continues to dig into “aggressive and painful things,” the show also proves that, first and foremost, he’s funny.
How do you feel about Azaria’s response to your documentary?
It felt great because someone actually listened and understood that we’re human beings. He said that Indians in America have their own experiences in such a nuanced and thoughtful way. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with being a convenience store owner. I would just like to hear that authentic experience.
The Simpsons writers addressed the controversy by having Lisa say, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded... is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera then pans to a photo of Apu with the caption “Don’t have a cow.”
The irony is that Lisa would be the one that was fighting for us. So having her say that was totally calculated. It’s also gutless and shows white fragility.
Are you satisfied with what you accomplished?
I know I made this discussion happen publicly, and that’s incredibly satisfying.
Does your audience skew toward people of color?
Whenever people say, “Your crowds are amazing, mostly people of color,” I’m like, “No, it’s a third or half.” We’re so used to seeing all white everywhere that even a little color seems like a lot. The laughs [can be] different, though. Rather than just “This is a funny joke,” it’s “Oh god, I needed that.” —Christina Zhao
“As a kid, I hated being associated with Apu. As an adult I’m forever associated with him.”