If you're a fan of "The Simpsons," you definitely know — and may even adore — Apu.
The Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner who reliably tells his customers, "Thank you, come again" is a clownish series favorite among many "Simpsons" diehards.
But in recent months, more attention has been paid to "The Problem with Apu" — both in the actual sense and the documentary from comedian Hari Kondabolu, which premiered last year on TruTV.
[rebelmouse-image 19491114 dam="1" original_size="492x326" caption="GIF via "The Simpsons."" expand=1]GIF via "The Simpsons."
Now, Hank Azaria — the actor whose voice has brought Apu (and a host of other "Simpsons" characters) to life onscreen for decades — has spoken out about the controversy that's ensnared his contentious character since the documentary aired.
And, fortunately, he hit all the right notes.
But hold on! *pumps brakes*
Before you roll your eyes thinking this is just another one of those stories about an actor bowing to the P.C. police, you should at least know that Kondabolu, a New Yorker of Indian descent, has never criticized the show for its lack of political correctness.
The Fox series has long held a special place in his heart and personal history; he simply wanted it to do better.
"I was obsessed with 'The Simpsons' growing up and it has greatly influenced my comedy," Kondabolu said in a statement in September 2017.
"However," he noted, "as my mother proves, you can criticize something you love because you expect more from it."
A month later, in November 2017, Kondabolu explained to the BBC why Apu — who speaks in a caricatured accent and is often defined by the stereotypes associated with his South Asian identity — has been so harmful:
“Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid. And of course he's funny, but that doesn't mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don't even notice it when it's right in front of you. It becomes so normal that you don't even think about it. It seeps into our language to the point we don't even question it because it seems like it's just been that way forever.”
After months of silence from the series' creators, "The Simpsons" addressed the controversy in an episode that aired in early April 2018 — but totally botched the response. The episode used a conversation between Marge and Lisa as an attempt to illustrate the predicament the show found itself in.
"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect," Lisa said in the episode, as the camera panned to include a picture of Apu. "What can you do?"
In a series of tweets, Kondabolu reiterated that his criticisms weren't about political correctness, but the problems that result from a lack of proper media representation.
In “The Problem with Apu,” I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the represe… https://t.co/EkFE38ScY8— Hari Kondabolu (@Hari Kondabolu) 1523250840
Clearly, "Simpson" critics were not pleased. So finally, on April 24, Azaria addressed the issue as a guest on "The Late Show."
It went much better.
Speaking with Stephen Colbert, Azaria said his "eyes have been opened" to the problem with Apu.
"I think the most important thing is that we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people, in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character, and what their American experience of it has been."
.@HankAzaria addresses the controversy surrounding the character ‘Apu’ from @TheSimpsons. #LSSC #Apu #TheSimpsons https://t.co/pkmYgcX4Il— The Late Show (@The Late Show) 1524628996
The actor called for more artists of South Asian descent to have a seat at the writers' table for shows like "The Simpsons" so that characters like Apu are shaped by those who've actually lived similar experiences, and noted that he's open to evolving or ending his work on the show, if it's decided that's what's best.
"I'm perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition [Apu] into something new," Azaria said. "I really hope that's what 'The Simpsons' does. It not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me."
Like I said: This isn't a story about an actor forced to apologize for being un-P.C. It's a story about an actor understanding exactly how his character exacerbates a bigger cultural problem.
Characters like Apu are not only steeped in harmful, inaccurate stereotypes, but they're often the only depictions of marginalized groups many white Americans see on TV. If "The Simpsons" had featured other prominent South Asian characters in its nearly three decades of fictional storylines, the problem with Apu would be far less scarring to fans like Kondabolu. (He's not calling for Apu to be scrubbed from past episodes, by the way.)
“After a while, you’d watch 'The Simpsons' on a Sunday and you’d get a sense of how you’d be made fun of at school on Monday, based on what Apu did in the latest episode," the comedian told the BBC.
Apu's depiction really did have — and still has — real-world consequences.
Kondabolu, however, saw Azaria's interview with Colbert. And he's happy with how the comedian broached the topic.
Azaria's response to the controversy is an encouraging sign, but the problem with Apu remains.
So, until our TV screens reflect the real world we live in — where marginalized groups are portrayed both frequently and fairly — let's follow Kondabolu's lead and demand better of the shows we love.