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‘The Problem with Apu’ and the American immigrant stories that aren’t being told

Hari Kondabolu has been thinking about how he fits into America for some time. Growing up the son of Indian immigrants, he has experienced cultural exclusion and negative stereotypes, reflected most potently in the character of Apu from "The Simpsons." He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the documentary he made about Apu, as well as his standup in the age of Trump.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Hari Sreenivasan catches up with comedian and documentary filmmaker Hari Kondabolu to look at the effects of exclusion and stereotyping in American comedy, entertainment and media. They focused on the treatment of South Asians as see in the character, Apu, on "The Simpsons," the longest-running primetime scripted series on TV.

    It's part of our ongoing series, "Race Matters".

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    We've had an amazing run in the past few years, with more Indians in the public eye than ever before. There's like 14 of us now. Oh, hey, how'd I get up there? That's progress in real time!

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Comic Hari Kondabolu has been thinking about how he fits into America as the son of immigrants for quite some time. Here he is in 2012 on the "Totally Biased with Kamau Bell" Show.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Growing up, I had no choice but to like this. Yes.

    Apu, a cartoon character voiced by Hank Azaria, a white guy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kondabolu felt so strongly about the negative stereotype perpetuated by Apu from "The Simpsons", he decided to make a documentary about the impact the cartoon character has had.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I should be completely happy but there's still one man who haunts me, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

  • Apu:

    Please pay for your purchases and get out and thank you come again.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    How many of you had to deal with being called Apu or that being referenced?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Since the documentary aired on TruTV, Kondabolu has moved on to a Netflix standup special, tackling issues like race relations in the age of Trump.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    And I know they're Trump supporters because after the hate crimes, they yell "Trump!"

    Various people from all over the world —

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We met in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens with a high South Asian population. Kondabolu grew up near here.

    He has an unconventional background for a comedian. He worked as an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle and got his masters in human rights from the London School of Economics.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    You get the full experience.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We sat down at a local Indian snack shop to talk about his new special and "The Simpsons'" response to his documentary

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I think, first of all, I was surprised "The Simpsons" even responded. Do you know what I mean? I made a film that I thought was heartfelt and very genuine, and funny. And, like, a love letter to my community.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because you're a fan of "The Simpsons".

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I love "The Simpsons". Grew up on "The Simpsons". I would say a ton of — you know, my sense of — a lot of my sensibilities come from watching that show every night when I was a kid, you know, because they're "The Simpsons". So, imagined they would've come up with something clever — and instead, it was just kind of like, ah, we don't care. We don't care what you have to say. I don't even think they saw the movie.

  • Lisa Simpson:

    Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect, what can you do?

  • Marge Simpson:

    Some things will be dealt with at a later date.

  • Lisa Simpson:

    If at all.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Did it upset you?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    It upset me as a "Simpsons" fan. Not so much as an Indian-American. Lisa wouldn't say that. Lisa would have been the ultimate social justice warrior. She would have been the first one on my side.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yes.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Now, all of a sudden, it feels like, you know, they threw her under the bus.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, you're trying to get — throughout the film, you try to get a response from Hank Azaria. And he didn't in the film. But he did say something on "Colbert".

  • Hank Azaria:

    I really want to see Indian, South Asian writer, writers in the writing room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced, you know? I'm perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that's what "The Simpsons" does.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When you saw that, what went through your mind?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    It would've been great if he said that to me in the film.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sure.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    But I thought it — it was really gracious, and thoughtful, and he definitely had thought about, like, the reason why this is important to us is we wanted to be seen as valid. You also got a sense that Hank doesn't make these choices.

  • Cartoon Character:

    Are you sure you want a child, Apu?

  • Apu:

    You know I do.

    I mean, there comes a time when a man asks himself who will float my corpse down the Ganges?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    So, that's you guys.

  • Uma Kondabolu:

    Today you look like Apu today, somewhat.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    No, that's not funny.

    Do either of you identify with that character in any way?

  • Uma Kondabolu:

    No.

  • Ravi Kondabolu:

    I don't think so.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Does it bother you at all that it's a white actor that does the voice of Apu?

  • Uma Kondabolu:

    Hank Azaria is a talented guy. They paid him, he did it. And he did it good.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I still remember there was a kid in high school, Ian — I won't say his last name. But you know, I mean, Apu's catchphrases were used as a bludgeon against —

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    — all South Asians at the time.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It was just — it wasn't that sophisticated —

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    No.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    — a putdown, right? It was kind of cheap. And —

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Right.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As a brown kid you're like, that's all you got? You know? It sort of —

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Well, and that is all they had, because they're — nobody knew much about us. And one thing that I've heard a lot of is, well, "The Simpsons" makes fun of everybody. And that can be true of any kind of comedian. Like, if you make fun of everybody, it's equal opportunity offense. What's your problem? Why can't you take a joke?

    I can take a joke, first of all. It's just it's been the same joke over and over again for 30 years. Like, after a while — it's like, I know the punch line already.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Like, you know, what else do you got?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yes.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    And the second thing is it's not really a fair fight if I'm not allowed to respond. The media wasn't talking about us or giving us opportunities. And secondly, I was eight years old.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, you also point out that there is a long history of minstrelsy in this country. But it seems Apu has not changed or evolved —

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    — in the time that he has been in America.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I mean, I think the strange thing is I think a character like Apu wouldn't probably be made today in that form because it's so basic. But "The Simpsons" is 30 years old. So this character was kind of grandfathered in.

    You know that a white guy does the voice?

  • Woman:

    huh?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You were one of the first comics I remember seeing that actively chose not to do Indian accents.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    First of all, I'm not really good at doing accents. So why would I go with something that isn't my strength? If I'm doing it, I'm basically doing Hank Azaria's impression, which is just his impression of Peter Sellers' impression —

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Which is just his impression of some Indian dude he met once, maybe. And another is, you know, I feel like my parents, and a lot of immigrants, already get made fun of for their accents. There's a self-consciousness. And that's a way of silencing people. I didn't want to further that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do you see this documentary, and this in the context of a larger conversation about immigration right now?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    Yes, there's nothing wrong with being a convenience store owner, for example. But what does a real convenience store owner have to say? What are their stories? There's a million stories in this country that have not been told because we tell the same stories over and over again.

    If we were able to humanize each other, and humanize immigrants, I think it would be harder to be OK with large groups of people being sent away, our neighbors being deported, families being split up.

    We need John Brown and white people that will sacrifice their money for the movement. We need John Brown and white people that will sacrifice their power for the movement. We need John Brown and white people that will sacrifice their lives for the movement.

    And people of color, people of color, we have a role in this as well. We're going to tweet about it and write Facebook posts and —

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kondabolu's standup often mentions his mom.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    For a woman in southern India in the '70s, to have her own practice as a doctor, I mean, that wasn't a common thing. And to be that —

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That's a big deal.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    It's a huge deal.

    And then to have to give it up because you're getting married, and then you're raising kids, and you have to pick a different life. I think my mom had this incredible sense of humor, and she still has this incredible sense of humor. And it's a way for her to survive.

    I think the mom stuff on my albums and on my special, to me, are really important partly because you hear about the immigrant parent in different people's specials, and they're just accents.

    If you want to know a stereotype about Indian people that not everyone knows, it's this. Indian people love mangoes, right? You might be thinking, well, Hari, I love mangoes. No, you don't!

    My father ate a mango in 1973 that he bought at a roadside stall in India and the story is the mango was very juicy. That's the whole story!

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yes. Did you — did you think the bit about the mangos was going to be as funny for the rest of America as it was, probably, for South Asians watching it?

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    I think that it was really successful in part because it must seem absurd to people. A fruit? When I started writing comedy, I always thought, what is going to make the majority white audience laugh?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yes.

  • Hari Kondabolu:

    That's what mainstream means, right?

    And after a while, you want to expand and be like, well, I'm a full person. I have a culture. I have things that shaped me into what I — into what I am. How come I'm not talking about these things?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yes.

    In Jackson Heights, New York, for the PBS NewsHour, the other Hari in the story, Hari Sreenivasan.

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