Co­me­di­ans not laugh­ing at char­ac­ter in ‘The Simp­sons’

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - ENTERTAINMENT -

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 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.

“If you only have a hand­ful of rep­re­sen­ta­tions, each one counts more be­cause that’s the only thing you get,” he said. “If you’re a mid­dle-aged white dude, you can be any­thing. You can be a de­tec­tive, you can be the crook. You can be the pres­i­dent, you can be the as­sas­sin.” Brown peo­ple, on the other hand, come in two op­tions: ei­ther crafty ter­ror­ists or clerks and cab driv­ers.

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.)

While he’s no Apu fan, Kond­abolu is adamant he’s not look­ing to end “The Simp­sons” or even re­move Apu. “I don’t see any point to killing him. What’s the point in killing him? To me, it’s lazy writ­ing if they kill him. They’re ‘The Simp­sons.’ They’re sup­posed to write their way out of it,” he said.

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. “When peo­ple crit­i­cize Amer­ica, why do we as­sume that they hate it? I just want Amer­ica to play bet­ter. I want ‘The Simp­sons’ to play bet­ter.”

This story has been cor­rected to show that “The Simp­sons” first aired in 1989, not 1990.

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