I have always known there was something off about Apu, the illegal Indian immigrant who runs the Kwik-E-Mart on The Simpsons. The one-dimensional devotion to his job, the hair, the obsequiousness, the preposterously over-the-top accent… he was clearly a stereotype. But I told myself that it was OK, because The Simpsons was a work of high-level satire. The show was too smart to just parade a simple stereotype for the sake of it, cashing in on the fact that white people would find it funny. There had to be something else to it.
I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because - and this is a lukewarm take at this point - seasons three through eight (1991-1997) of The Simpsons is the best TV of all time. At a time when American shows had to maintain a level of quality over 22 episodes, the show was fantastically consistent. Smart and silly, funny and touching, it skewered American culture to the point where I felt like the country needed to start over. Hit the reset button. Anything anyone tried to do, The Simpsons had already parodied it or they’d done it better.
And one of the things the show did so well was use stereotypes to make fun of stereotypes. It heightened clichés and tropes associated with the rich (Mr Burns), the elderly (Grampa Simpson) and showbiz (Krusty the Klown). It walked a finer line when it came to ethnicities and nationalities, but pulled it off by being so ludicrously over-the-top, even if the characters were largely one note. Bumblebee Man, Groundskeeper Willie, Fat Tony and Dr Hibbert are all clichés, but they’re completely absurd or used to subvert those clichés.
I bought the equal opportunity offender excuse – a frequent refuge of stereotype-laden comedy created by white people.
Plus, I thought Apu had dignity. He didn’t own his business, but he ran the place the way he wanted to – and that way frequently meant cheating the white citizenry of Springfield. He was given major storylines that explored his journey as an immigrant, his self-worth as a Kwik-E-Mart employee, and his home life as a husband and a father.
He was accepted as an immigrant in Springfield. He was in the barbershop quartet. And Matt Groening named him after the lead character in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy – a high-minded film nerd reference that would seem to imply a respect for Indian culture.
I was happy to live in this reality for the almost 30 years the show has been on the air, partially because, as discussed, the quality fell off a cliff after season eight and there has been little reason to watch it since. But then I saw Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu, which calls out the character for what it is: a minstrel.
There’s no way around it. He’s voiced by a white guy – Hank Azaria, who’s won Emmys for doing the voices of many classic characters on the show. And while there is some disagreement over whose idea it was to give the convenience store clerk an over-the-top Indian accent – Azaria says it was the writers’; the writers say it was Azaria’s – it was created to make fun of Indian immigrants. It’s just funny to white people, comedian and former Simpsons writer Dana Gould admits in the documentary.
Revisiting Apu after many years through this lens, the problems become more glaring. “Much Apu About Nothing”, a classic episode from season seven, is dedicated to satirising America’s hysterical attitude towards illegal immigration. The Simpson family support Apu and don’t want him deported. Apu buys a fake passport but can’t stand not being true to himself and his culture. There are lots of lines that are still very funny – “Let the bears pay the bear tax. I pay the Homer tax.” – but even as they give Apu a backstory and develop him as a character, the cliché jokes about India and Indians come thick and fast – a snake gives him his diploma, he’s got an arranged marriage planned with some five-year-old and there are seven million people in his graduating class.
I didn’t pick up on any of this stuff the first time around. And neither did anyone else – this 2014 review of the episode doesn’t notice. It applauds Azaria for being able to do a stereotypical Indian-accented person trying to do an American accent.
And through it all, there’s that accent. That terrible minstrel accent that Kondabolu, in a stand-up bit that went viral, describes as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”.
My father is also from India. I have been around Indian accents of various strengths all my life and I have never come across anything like Apu. In fact, other than some vague observations about immigrants, I’m not sure there is anything truly, recognisably Indian about Apu outside of what a white writer looked up or heard about India. Even when he’s given his own storylines, the references to Indian culture feel superficial.
What people like Azaria and the writers who signed off on the accent now appreciate is that this kind of cartoonish and goofy, even if apparently benign, characterisation of an ethnic group can have adverse effects. Apu’s signature line, “Thank you, come again”, though only spoken eight times in the entire run of the series, was used as a taunt to Indian Americans like Kondabolu or Kal Penn, one of the actors interviewed in the documentary.
I can’t remember being specifically targeted with that line, but I was certainly made fun of for being Indian (being half-Puerto Rican was also not that popular). I was called the n-word by neighbours, and in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, a bunch of locals smashed our pumpkins and screamed, “Indira Gandhi is dead!” And just a few months ago, a co-worker, after learning I was Indian, white-splained to me that Indians and people with Indian heritage are innately rude.
None of that is Apu’s fault (as far as I know), but the fact that he, a white person’s heavily stereotypical, 30-year-old idea of what Indians are like, is still on TV feels like a problem. As former Simpsons writer Gould acknowledges in the documentary, if they made The Simpsons now, he would have been cut. He’s tired and hacky, from another age. The culture has evolved and so has comedy.
There is now broader representation of South Asians on TV and in movies. Mindy Kaling just ended a six-year run as the lead of her own show. Aziz Ansari’s series, Master of None, is winning prizes. Kumail Nanjiani was the star of one of the best movies of the year, The Big Sick. Riz Ahmed was the lead in one of the best shows of last year, The Night Of. In this landscape, Apu stands out as a cultural relic that should have been buried a long time ago like the guy from Short Circuit and monkey brain-eating freaks in Temple of Doom. (While they’re at it, they should also probably take another look at Cookie Kwan, the aggressive Asian real estate broker voiced by Tress MacNeille, and Julio, the gay Latin stereotype voiced by Azaria.)
In 1989, the same year The Simpsons debuted, Beastie Boys released Paul’s Boutique, widely considered to be one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. One of my favourite tracks on the album is “High Plains Drifter”. It tells a story, has lots of cultural references and ends with a Ramones sample.
It also has these lines, describing a scene in a 7-Eleven:
"Knucklehead deli tried to gyp me off the price / So I clocked him on the turban with a bag of ice"
I don’t know what “deli” is supposed to mean in this context and I guess they’re doing an outlaw character, but this has never stopped bothering me. I’ll be enjoying the song and then, boom – an Indian guy gets brutalised for fun and I’m reminded that people like me aren’t always welcome in popular culture.
I get the same twinge when I watch Apu now.
But I won’t let that interfere with my appreciation of The Simpsons. Unlike Penn, who says he doesn’t like The Simpsons because he hates Apu, I would have a hard time condemning something so good for being flawed, however insulting that flaw might be.
As the documentary suggests, what really needs to happen is for The Simpsons to go away. They can’t kill Apu and they can’t suddenly change his voice. It’s impressive the show is still on the air – though it’s now almost completely culturally irrelevant – but if it can’t somehow completely evolve and become funny again, it needs to take its place in our memories as that amazing '90s show with some uncomfortable racist stuff in it.
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Watch The Problem with Apu on Tuesday 16 October at 9:35pm on SBS VICELAND and after it airs at SBS On Demand: