Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the bumbling convenience store clerk on “The Simpsons,” has remained unchanged for almost 30 years. The character stereotypes South Asian immigrants, and the oddity of his continued existence, doubled by the fact that he is voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria, has largely flown under the radar.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu is looking to change that through “The Problem With Apu,” a documentary created by Kondabolu and directed by Michael Melamedoff that premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on truTV.
“I thought the accent was funny, and that [Apu] was a funny character, and that was that,” Kondabolu, 35, says in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t see it as a big deal until I realized: Oh, people are making fun of me because of this character.”
Following the success of Kumail Nanjiani’s film “The Big Sick,” Hasan Minhaj’s comedy special “Homecoming King,” and Aziz Ansari’s series “Master of None,” 2017 has been heralded as a landmark year for South Asian representation in Hollywood. But Kondabolu’s special, which explores how Apu came into existence and why he’s still around, reminds audiences the task is incomplete.
The documentary grew out of a segment Kondabolu did in 2012 for the late-night show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.” Mindy Kaling’s television show “The Mindy Project” had just premiered, and Kondabolu thought it’d be apt to dive into the history of South Asian comedy through the lens of one particular character.
“People have used [that segment] in college and high school classrooms,” Kondabolu says. “It’s become a conversation piece. It made me think: If that’s what came out of a couple of jokes in a four-minute piece, what does a documentary look like when we delve deeper into this character, ‘The Simpsons,’ and the history of representation?”
The comedian recruits a number of his peers — Ansari, Minhaj, Aparna Nancherla, Kal Penn, and Russell Peters among them — to discuss this history in the documentary. These interviews are dispersed throughout, connected by scenes of Kondabolu’s efforts to reach Azaria for comment. (The voice actor eventually declines to be interviewed.)
Kondabolu does manage to speak with Dana Gould, co-executive producer of “The Simpsons” and a stand-up comic, who addresses the issue head on.
“Humor comes out of conflict, and the seven deadly sins, and the aspects of our personality that we’re maybe not so proud of,” Gould says in the documentary.
When pressed on what makes Apu flawed, or if the accent itself is what supposedly makes the character funny, Gould responds: “There are accents that, by their nature, to white Americans — I can only speak from experience — sound funny. Period.”
When “The Simpsons” premiered in 1989, there weren’t a lot of characters like Apu on television. Many South Asian fans embraced him, Kondabolu said, pleased to see themselves represented in some form.
“Initially, you’re grateful to have something because you don’t exist,” he says. “And then when you do exist, you’re so happy you exist. That’s exactly where I was.”
That is, until the stereotypes Apu perpetuates were used against Kondabolu. South Asian fans can often pinpoint when they first realized the character had become a source of mockery. The clerk’s accent and catch-phrase, “Thank you, come again,” might find their way into verbal spars between grade-school kids.
Utkarsh Ambudkar, who stars on Showtime’s “White Famous,” was introduced to Apu after a classmate called him “slushie boy” on the school bus. Though Ambudkar, 33, is now among a class of young South Asian American comedians who have made it far — he even voiced Apu’s Indian-American nephew in a 2016 episode of “The Simpsons,” without an accent — he acknowledged the negative effect Apu had on him growing up.
‘I thought . . . [Apu] was a funny character. . . . I didn’t see it as a big deal until I realized: Oh, people are making fun of me because of this.’
“We moved the needle, right?” Ambudkar says in a phone interview. “But this character affected a lot of our developmental time in this country.”
The issue, as Kondabolu notes in the documentary, isn’t just Apu — after all, “The Simpsons” doesn’t discriminate about who it mocks. Rather, it was the lack of alternative representations that made it harder to see Apu as an exaggeration, according to Shilpa Davé, author of “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film.”
“The question becomes: What are you laughing at with Apu?” Davé says. “Are you laughing at what he does, or at how he’s saying it?”
The problem of how South Asians are represented on television and in the movies is diminishing. Characters like Kelly Kapoor (played by Kaling) on “The Office” or Cece Parekh (played by Hannah Simone) on “New Girl” are easier to find, and their cultural identity doesn’t always define them. Progress, Kondabolu said, is “also you being allowed to be nondescript. You’re part of the DNA.”
It could also be having the right to choose whether or not to address your heritage at all. Ansari, Minhaj, and Nanjiani’s projects do so to varying extents, but career- and relationship-centric obstacles take center stage in their recent work. Their South Asian identities aren’t twisted into an “otherness,” as is the case with Apu. They’re just fact.
“They’re talking from their perspective, and I’m doing the same,” Kondabolu says of the comedians. “I don’t see what I’m talking about as political. This is so deeply who I am that I don’t know how else to talk about the world.”
Nancherla, a comedian who has written in the past for “Totally Biased” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” says her work doesn’t deal with her Indian heritage much. But that’s not for any specific reason.
“The idea of growing up a fish out of water, that wasn’t the part of my identity that I led with,” Nancherla, 35, says. “It wasn’t where I felt like I had to mine humor from.”
South Asian women haven’t broken through like some of their male counterparts this year, but Davé says the future seems promising nonetheless. Platforms like Netflix and YouTube have introduced opportunities for creative people of all backgrounds to enter the industry in ways that previous generations lacked. And a willingness among networks to cast diverse leads has contributed to the stardom of actors like Riz Ahmed and Priyanka Chopra.
Now that stereotypical convenience store clerks or terrorist story lines aren’t the only instances of South Asian representation in Hollywood or on TV, Kondabolu hopes that audiences are encouraged to think critically about Apu.
“Everything you see, every edit that’s made, everything that’s said has an intentionality to it,” he says. “People had to make choices on what to air, what to write, what to present. We should be critical of how those choices get made.”
The Problem With Apu
On truTV, Nov. 19 at 10 p.m.Sonia Rao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @misssoniarao.