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Stereotypes in ‘The Simpsons’ affected a generation of South Asians, says this comedian

Throughout his career, comedian Hari Kondabolu has tackled the tough topics of race and inequality in the U.S. His new documentary, “The Problem With Apu,” looks at the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on “The Simpsons” -- a convenience store owner voiced by actor Hank Azaria -- and the effect the show has had on portrayals of South Asians in media. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A new documentary that takes on racial stereotypes on prime time television premieres tonight on TruTV. It’s called ‘The Problem with APU’ and it challenges the representation of an Indian character on the long running animated series ‘The Simpsons’. Comedian Hari Kondabolu made the documentary and he joins me now from Seattle. You know you make clear in this movie that you’re not trying to set out this mission of political correctness, you’re not trying to erase the character from history and the program. You’re actually approaching it as a fan of ‘The Simpsons’ so what is the problem with Apu?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I think one of the biggest problems is during the majority of the show’s run it was the only Indian-American representation and the representation that we had was a big stereotype. It was a person working at a convenience store – which is fine and a bad thing – but it was somebody working in a convenience store who had no other prospects and who was obsessed and happy that he survived. He was clearly written through the eyes of white writers. It wasn’t an authentic character. And not only that the voice, which is a ridiculous accent is done by Hank Azaria who is a white man. So in terms of the history of minstrelsy in this country, it’s very consistent with that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You also have a conversation with Whoopi Goldberg and she has a collection of what she calls negrobilia which is from a painful part of America’s past where white actors would put on blackface. And as you pointed out, Hank Azaria, a white actor is the one that’s been doing this brown voice for some 30 years. I mean is this kind of a new minstrelsy that we’ve basically normalized?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I wouldn’t say new minstrelsy but I think it’s a continuation of a very long legacy. You know during the interview I said look this is clearly meant to hurt black people and she said she didn’t think it was that complicated. To her, it’s a normalized thing that’s used to move product. And I think that’s the same thing with that too. I don’t think they made the character to hurt anybody. But clearly it was an effective stereotype and it made people laugh. Therefore nobody had an issue with it. I mean, the South Asian community had an issue with it but nobody could hear us. And I wanted this film to be what would be negrobilia collection was – a reminder of the history and it’s not where we are now. But let us not forget so we do not repeat the patterns. And I feel that’s the same thing with my documentary. The only difference being that Apu is still an active character.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Did you realize that basically Apu was being kind of weaponized against you?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I would say around junior high school. I think initially when ‘The Simpsons’ came out, I was so happy to see a brown face. And then you’d start to realize that that’s how your viewed because that’s all you have. And I think it’s a big deal because if that’s the only image you have, you can’t help but be shaped by media. And you can’t help be shaped especially as a young person by how others see you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There’s a section you have in the film where you talk to different actors about whether or not this had an influence on the types of roles that they got and I think it was Aasif Mandvi goes down the list – cab driver, cab driver, cab driver, doctor, cab driver, cab driver..What were the longer term effects of recognizing that this was the most prominent South-Asian character on television or in the media at the time. I mean this was pre Sanjay Gupta or Fareed Zakaria?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I think the long term effects in our community after 9/11 the two major depictions of brown people were convenience store owner on ‘The Simpsons’ brown paint. Ridiculous absurd character! On the other side of that it was terrorists. 9/11 happens and there’s all these anti-Sikh, anti-Muslim, anti-brown hate crimes. And you wonder well, how come they can’t see our humanity? How come they can’t see us as them? Well, when you have two versions of you – a convenience store owner and a terrorist – which side do you think people are going to err on?

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