THE DOCUMENTARY “The Problem With Apu”
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on truTV
WHAT IT’S ABOUT South Asian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu has a mission — to get rid of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart on “The Simpsons.” Why poor Apu, voiced by Hank Azaria for nearly 30 years? Lots of reasons, all of them having to do with racist caricatures and the facilitation of negative stereotypes. Queens-raised Kondabolu speaks with many prominent South Asian comedians and actors, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aparna Nancherla, Russell Peters, Sakina Jaffrey and Maulik Pancholy. None have anything particularly funny to say about Apu.
MY SAY The problem with “The Problem With Apu” is Azaria. Regrettably — and here is the obligatory spoiler alert — he declines Kondabolu’s repeated requests to appear in this film. As every reporter suspects deep down, a person who declines an interview request must have something to hide. Maybe they’re ashamed. Maybe what they’ve done is indefensible. Maybe they just don’t want to talk to the reporter. Who knows, really, but the pall of suspicion still hangs. Azaria is a smart guy, great voice-over actor and gifted dramatic one, with six Emmys as proof of all that. But he can’t set aside 10 minutes to defend Apu?
Kondabolu mounts a compelling, thoughtful and persuasive case as to why he should have. With the evidence assembled here, along with supporting testimony, Apu is a racist depiction. His image — and mostly that accent — has taunted South Asian-American children for decades. “Thank you, come again” has been thrown at them their entire lives. Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy recalls being bullied as a kid by others using Apu accents. Kondabolu puts his struggle this way: “Some of you think I’m an annoying PC civil justice warrior [and say], ‘Let it go, snowflake.’ I have let it go — for 28 years.”
So what is the big deal, Apu apologists want to know. He’s funny, smart, beloved. But maybe this question needs to be answered with another: Would they tolerate a minstrel character, or someone funny/smart/beloved but a Japanese caricature? Or a gay, or transgender one? Maybe all that’s the big deal, snowflake.
In this funny, offbeat but completely serious anti-Apu hour, Kondabolu says exactly what his deal is. Apu demeans Kondabolu’s parents, who were first-generation Indians, and his neighbors in Jackson Heights. Apu fuels biases, and turns an entire group of people into a punchline. Maybe he’s not hurtful to you, but Kondabolu argues that he’s hurtful to them.
He admits that he once did his own brand of racial humor, mostly jokey stuff about his parents, but “after 9/11, I felt more isolated than ever. My comedy shifted from the way people saw me to the way I wanted to be seen.”
Fair enough. Now what to do with Apu? He’s “like your racist grandfather,” says Kondabolu. “You love your grandfather, but he still does racist stuff. If he can’t change, maybe it’s time he dies and you can remember the best things about him — seasons 1 through 10.”
BOTTOM LINE A congenial and persuasive argument for why Apu must go.