Comedian Hari Kondabolu wants to make it clear that even though he spends the better part of his film The Problem With Apu criticizing the long-running TV show The Simpsons, he’s still a fan.
“I’ve been using this example recently,” he says. “Whenever you hear sports talk radio and you hear those fans yelling and screaming about their teams, they don’t hate those teams. They love those teams. And that’s why they’re upset. They’re upset that they didn’t make that trade. They’re upset that they didn’t win that game.”
That said, criticism about the way that the writers and producers of The Simpsons and voice actor Hank Azaria have been depicting the show’s one South Asian character Apu is long overdue. As is the conversations that Kondabolu has with some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Master of None co-creator/star Aziz Ansari, Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj and stand-up/actor Aparna Nancherla about the effect that that character has had on a generation of viewers. Like 30 Rock co-star Maulik Pancholy’s memories of praying that, when he and his buddies would stop by a 7-Eleven during his high school years, there would not be an Indian or Pakistani man behind the counter lest his friends jump into awful Apu impressions.
Kondabolu’s film, which premieres on truTV on Sunday, Nov. 19th, is, much like his stand-up act, a multi-faceted work. He questions the need for Apu to continue on the show, while also exploring the representation of South Asians in popular culture like Peter Sellers’s broad caricature in the 1968 film The Party. And through the film, he tracks his unsuccessful efforts to try to get Azaria on camera to discuss his portrayal of Apu. Paste caught up with Kondabolu following a stand-up performance in Eugene, Oregon to discuss The Problem With Apu. His responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Paste: You were able to get one of the current writers and producers of the show, Dana Gould, on camera talking about Apu and he challenged you a bit during the interview, wondering about whether the character of Mr. Burns could be painted with the same brush. Did you anticipate that kind of push back?
Hari Kondabolu: I was shocked by the honesty. I didn’t want him to sugar coat it. I wanted someone who had insider status, who worked on that show, who has produced on that show and who knows it extremely well inside and out. I wanted to know what the process was. How do you write for it? I think he was honest. It wasn’t the easiest stuff to hear but it’s nothing that I was really shocked to hear. When he pushed me back on the Burns thing, I knew exactly how to reply to that. I know exactly why I like Burns and why I don’t like Apu. I know exactly why the dynamics are different. I appreciate the fact that he was open. He’s the only one that stepped up. I appreciate that.
Paste: Was it frustrating that you couldn’t get someone like Matt Groening or one of the longtime producers of the show to be in the film?
Kondabolu: Oh yeah, it was extremely frustrating. I want to tell a well rounded story. It was cool to be able to talk about the history. We have our perspective as South Asians. But what is the perspective of the writers and creators outside of the archival stuff that we have? I just think it would have been cool to have a real conversation.
Paste: Though you feature your efforts to try to get Hank Azaria to go on camera, I didn’t realize until reading a New York Times feature about this film that you had a private phone conversation with him. Was that satisfying?
Kondabolu: It was satisfying as a Simpsons fan to be able to talk to the voice of Moe. That was cool! How often do you think someone like Hank Azaria will call you? But in terms of the film, he laid out a decent compromise that we debate this on a respectable third party platform like Maron or Terry Gross. And when I agreed to do it, he still said no. Which bummed me out because I thought that was a good compromise. It forces me to be accountable. It allows for the film to get made with him in it. And it allows for another document to be made, which can be much longer, in-depth. To me, you get points for trying, for putting your neck on the line. I think people would have really appreciated that.
Paste: The other aspect of the Dana Gould interview that stood out for me is that he talks about how, to white people, the Indian accent is inherently funny. And I was thinking about that in terms of the interview with Whoopi Goldberg in the film that discusses her collection of “negrobilia.” I realized you can’t really have a physical manifestation of South Asian stereotyping like that. It’s all about how those characters are performed in film and TV.
Kondabolu: That’s really interesting, actually. I think the film is almost the negrobilia collection. My film is my equivalent to Whoopi’s collection. Something that documents this history and time period and makes people uncomfortable, but makes them think. This is what I was trying to do. When Whoopi describes her collection, I feel very connected to it. Another thing that she says that I thought was interesting was I said this was something that was done to just be racist and to hurt black people, she said it wasn’t that complicated. They were just trying to sell cookie jars. That’s kind of the same thing Dana was saying. Apu is funny in these four moves. They’re trying to sell cookie jars. The show and the jokes, those are the cookie jars. It wasn’t done with maliciousness. It was done with the practicality that this racism works. I don’t even see it as racism because it works. It’s so systematic that you don’t even think about it.
Paste: What about the Simpsons episode that you talk about with Utkarsh Ambudkar, where he does the voice of Apu’s nephew, a character that actually points out what a stereotype his uncle is? Does that feel like too little, too late?
Kondabolu: It’s probably both. The “too late” is less so because it takes someone to bring the issue up in order for them to react to it, I suppose. The “too little” I think is the bigger issue. It was a very superficial kind of episode, which Utkarsh lays out. It addresses a complaint and then moves on from it and doesn’t touch it again. It felt like, “We’ll throw you a bone and we’ll move on.”
Paste: I was also shocked to see the fairly recent stand-up footage in the beginning of the film where someone heckles you with Apu’s supposed catchphrase (“Thank you, come again.”).
Kondabolu: It was funny because I was planning the film when it happened. All of the sudden, “Yep, this is what I’m talking about.” My friend who was watching the show said, “You do realize that’s the beginning of your movie, right?” I was, like, “Oh my God, you’re right.” It sets up the whole point I’m making. It’s still a thing, it’s still relevant. Even as a 35-year-old I’m still having to deal with. It’s kind of perfect. Usually you see that in more subtle ways but that was just so blunt and corny.
Paste: You also spend some time reckoning with your early stand-up, where you kind of play into these stereotypes doing South Asian accents and highlighting your ethnicity for laughs, which you then tried to stop doing after 9/11 happened. Although it plays into your larger point about representation of South Asians in our culture, just from a personal standpoint, was it hard to go back and watch your old act?
Kondabolu: Bob, it was horrifying. Going through those old video tapes was a terrible experience. Seeing myself at that age. Not even in terms of the material, but just the delivery. The writing was okay. I could always write okay. But the content…what am I talking about? You have this great set up for this horrible punchline. It was hard to see but I knew this is what I did. It was interesting because that was about two or three years in. 9/11 was about a year and a half, two years into my doing stand-up. I didn’t immediately change. It wasn’t like the next time I did stand-up, it was all political. It took about four or five years to gradually weed that stuff out. I was still afraid of silence. I knew if I was going to take a risk, I’d better have some stuff that worked.
Paste: I feel like we’re in the midst of this huge reckoning in the U.S. with regards to how we treat our immigrant population, with the legal battles about the travel ban and how people from other parts of the world are being treated in this country. As someone who spent a sizeable chunk of your life working on behalf of immigrant’s rights, how has that been to witness?
Kondabolu: I think a big part of it is that we need to humanize immigrants. Whenever we talk about immigrants we talk about them as workers. They’re hard workers. They contribute. It ‘s all about money and the economy and the workforce. Human beings are simply there to contribute to an economy. They’re your neighbors. It’s culture. It’s family. There are all these other elements that are at least equally important if not more important. I think depicting Apu in this way just reinforces that. His role in the show is as a worker. I don’t know the depths of him, but I know his main role is to work.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.