16 May 2018

Hari Kondabolu on racism, comedy and The Simpsons

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 16 May 2018

The problem with Apu in The Simpsons –  which comedian Hari Kondabolu made a documentary about –  is not that a caricature of an Indian immigrant voiced by a white actor is offensive, he says.

Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu Photo: Hari Kondabolu

The deeper problem, Kondabolu tells Jesse Mulligan, is that for a long time Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was the sole representative of all Americans of South Asian descent in the US media. 

His documentary The Problem With Apu was released last year. 

Apu has been a regular character on The Simpsons since its eighth episode in 1990.

Apu has been a regular character on The Simpsons since its eighth episode in 1990. Photo: 123RF

Kondabolu says when he was growing up in the '90s, the guy behind the counter of Kwik-E-Mart was the only person he saw on TV or in film who looked even vaguely like him. 

While the character of Apu is smart, worldly and makes some interesting points about immigration, he is also based on external perceptions of how Indians who immigrated to the US in the '80s and '90s appeared and behaved, he says.

He and other South Asian American kids were at first excited to see the character – "Wow, we exist" – but then worry set in.

"This is gonna be used against us in some way. This is gonna be used against me in school. I'm gonna be embarrassed by the way my parents sound.

"Yeah, I can take a joke, we can all take a joke. But [the stereotypical speech and behaviour of Apu is] the same joke for 30 years, and we weren't allowed to say anything for the bulk of it.

"The one [representation] you have is something that's basically mocking you."

Being judged in relation to a racial stereotype leaves you feeling voiceless and powerless, says Kondabolu, who is now 35.

"There's no way you can fight back. There's nothing on TV that lets you speak, there's nothing in the media that lets you speak. That's what that experience is like – it's not being able to fight back and say anything."

"Spineless" is how Kondabolu describes the response of The Simpsons' creators to his documentary.

In the episode 'No Good Read Goes Unpunished' (which aired on 8 April this year), Lisa Simpson and her mother Marge are looking at some old books Marge used to read as a child.

Marge is saddened that the books she remembers fondly are now deemed unacceptable as they contain racist messages.

"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Lisa says, before looking over at a framed photo of Apu inscribed with her brother Bart's trademark comeback 'Don't have a cow.'

Kondabolu believes Lisa – "one of the original social justice warriors in mainstream media" – would more likely have shared his point of view.

Lisa Simpson and her portrait of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon

Photo: YouTube screenshot / Fox

The "gutless" response of The Simpsons' white male creators demonstrates how fragile 'whiteness' can be, he says.

Kondabolu finds it sad the creators used the character of Lisa to respond to The Problem With Apu, rather than Apu himself.

"They just showed what's underneath there. They showed that they were out of touch. They showed the voice of the people making it – and it's mean.

"I wasn't being a troll. I was sharing an experience that I and many other people in my community had ... But if I was a troll, I just won."

Hank Azaria on The Stephen Colbert Show (24 April 2018)

Hank Azaria on The Stephen Colbert Show (24 April 2018) Photo: YouTube screenshot

One good thing to come out of the related publicity was the actor who voices Apu, Hank Azaria, speaking out on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert about how the voices and stories of South Asian Americans are relevant and should be heard, Kondabolu says.

"At the end of the day, I think that's all we wanted – just to be acknowledged as people with American experiences that are different and are valid."

Growing up, Kondabolu felt his non-whiteness was constantly remarked on, while 'whiteness' was the default way to be.

"African American, Asian... I rarely hear 'white' because that's just 'American'. That seems unnecessary."

People who get offended at being called white are reacting to the experience minorities have had no choice but to get used to, he says.

"When you say someone's white you're calling out what's in the room. It's like 'We are this, but what are you?

"I don't think it's fair to consider [white skin] normal, so I'm going to point it out."

As a comedian, Kondabolu says he's more often described as 'smart', 'poignant' and 'edgy' than 'funny', but primarily he's in the game to get laughs.

"It's not just me making political statements. If that was my path I wouldn't have done comedy … at the end of the day if the things I say are not funny to people I have failed in my job. That is the bottom line.

"If people are not laughing enough they will leave … They tolerate what you have to say because there's the promise of laughter.

"Some of the things I get away with, I don't get away with just cause the points are righteous I get away with them because I'm funny when I say them."

"I like funny. Funny sounds good, it feels good."

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