Hari Kondabolu's 'The Problem With Apu' battles bad stereotypes.

If you've been anywhere near a TV in the last three decades or so, it's likely that you've seen an episode or two of "The Simpsons." Whether you're a fan or casual observer, you're no doubt familiar with Kwik-E-Mart clerk and Indian immigrant Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria).

Comedian Hari Kondabolu is a longtime fan of "The Simpsons." But he has a bone to pick with Apu, whose one-dimensional, hackneyed stereotype of Indian immigrants has antagonized his personal and professional lives since he was a child.


In his new documentary, "The Problem With Apu," Kondabolu lays out a case against the cliché-driven character and tries to chart a path forward for better, more accurate representation in the media.

Apu isn't an especially accurate portrayal of an Indian immigrant, relying on tired tropes and offensive stereotypes. GIF from "The Simpsons"/YouTube.

What's Kondabolu's problem with Apu?

To start, it's a problem that extends far beyond Kondabolu himself. Early in the documentary, Kondabolu assembles a group of other Indian and South Asian actors and comics and asks how many have ever been called "Apu" as an insult. Every single person raises a hand.

In a series of interviews, featuring comedian Aziz Ansari, "House of Cards" actress Sakina Jaffrey, "Designated Survivor" actor Kal Penn, "Hamilton" actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and more, Kondabolu navigates a series of indignities brought on or exacerbated by stereotype-laden portrayals of South Asian individuals.

For example, many of the actors mentioned being expected to more or less mimic Apu's voice (unaffectionately called "patanking"), something Kondabolu describes as being like "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of [his] father."

Audiences then only hear Indian and South Asian actors talking with the same accent, when in reality there are hundreds of different dialects, accents, and languages among people actually living in India. As it turns out, there's far more cultural and linguistic diversity in a country of more than 1.3 billion people than pop culture gives them credit for.

"If you're a South Asian-American and you dream of being an actor, your choices are pretty limited," Kondabolu says in the documentary.

"You either portray your community as one-dimensional with hopes of better work, or you let somebody else do it," he says, referencing Hollywood's unfortunate history of casting white actors to play Indian roles."It begs the question: Is it better to be clowned or to clown yourself?"

"'The Simpsons' stereotypes all races," Ambudkar says in the film. "The problem is we didn't have any other representation."

This is precisely why the "equal opportunity offender" argument so often falls flat. Sure, a character like Homer Simpson is a dopey representation of a white (though he's technically yellow) middle-class father and husband.

Because Homer is far from the only example of white middle-class fathers and husbands we see in the media, in real life, and in the 1,000-plus character universe of "The Simpsons," however, his portrayal doesn't come with as much of a sting as Apu's does as one of few Indian characters that audiences see on screen.

Kondabolu has always hated the "equal opportunity offense" excuse, he says in a phone interview, especially when it's being used to defend stereotypical characters. "Equal opportunities" don't exist in real life, he explains. "Whether that's economically, whether that's in terms of education, or whether it's just in terms of representation," he says.

"If you only have a handful of images, and that's what defines a large group of people," he adds, "then each time you have a negative image or you go after that particular group, that's a big thing."

Stereotypical characters like Apu are influential offscreen, and that's the really big problem.

"The media ends up shaping our perceptions, and to pretend it doesn't is foolish," Kondabolu says, responding to the common argument that viewers can tell the difference between fictional portrayals and reality. "The idea that the media shapes us is the fundamental aspect of advertising. ... So if we're saying that's not true, then why do we buy things based on commercials? Why do people spend millions of dollars trying to influence us? Clearly there's impact."

"If you only have a handful of images, and that's what defines a large group of people, then each time you have a negative image or you go after that particular group, that's a big thing." — Hari Kondabolu

When you take that principle and apply it to how people of different races are portrayed in the media, the results can be deadly. As an example, Kondabolu points to media portrayals of black men as violent or predatory, touching on how the media we consume contributes to unconscious bias.

"Let's say if you're a cop, you're scared, you have a gun, and you see a black man in front of you. You don't know exactly who this person is, you're going to go back to that muscle memory shaped from years of being told by your peers, by your parents, and by the media that this person is a threat."

Is Kondabolu just a big liberal snowflake? Only if you ignore what he actually has to say. Image from "The Problem With Apu"/YouTube.

The best way to fight inaccurate portrayals is to fight for more authentic representation in media — and progress is being made.

In recent years, the number of Indian-American actors landing breakthrough roles has seen a big boost with the likes of Penn, Jaffrey, and Ansari all landing spots on critically acclaimed shows as well as people such as Mindy Kaling, Aasif Mandvi, and Kondabolu finding major success too. That's just a drop in the bucket, according to Kondabolu, who calls on creatives from marginalized groups to tell their stories, whether funded or not.

"We just have to control our stories to the best of our ability," he says, urging writers and actors to "present the counter-argument" for a more clear and accurate portrayal. "That part's on us. I think that we need to call out portrayals when they are inaccurate, when they are homophobic, when they are transphobic, when they're racist and sexist, and when there's fundamental things about them that are not true about an experience."

"When I see [Apu on screen], it's like, 'Oh, this is how they see us,'" Kondabolu laments. "I think it's important to call those things out."

The question of what to do with the character of Apu is a gateway to a much larger conversation.

Throughout the film, Kondabolu tries to land an on-camera interview with Azaria to discuss the character — not to yell at him or tell him that he's wrong for giving voice to something he finds so personally grating, but to find a mutual understanding of different experiences.

Hank Azaria voices Apu and a number of other Simpsons characters. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.

He hopes that his documentary can serve as an entry point to those harder conversations that seem doubly difficult in the current political landscape.

"I just want us talking to each other," Kondabolu says, his voice tinged with cautious optimism. "If this leads us to have longer conversations from this very simple point forward, that's what's important. We don't listen to each other, we don't talk to each other. One hope I had by interviewing Hank Azaria was that we could show people that this is how you can talk through something that might be awkward. This is how adults behave. This is how we can actually deal with things."

Watch the trailer for "The Problem With Apu" below.

"The Problem With Apu" debuts Nov. 19, 2017, on truTV.

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Sperm whales are uniquely shaped, with humongous, block-shaped heads that house the largest brains in the animal world. Like other cetaceans, sperm whale babies rely on their mother's milk for sustenance in their first year or two. And also like other cetaceans, a sperm whale mama's nipple is inverted—it doesn't stick out from her body like many mammals, but rather is hidden inside a mammary slit.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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