Co­me­di­ans not laugh­ing at char­ac­ter in ‘The Simp­sons’

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - NEWS -

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 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 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.”

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 Asian-Amer­i­cans 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.


This im­age re­leased by Fox shows the Apu from the an­i­mated se­ries “The Simp­sons.”

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