Hank Azaria, the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons, addressed the controversy surrounding the character at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena Friday, offering a heartfelt, contextual response to a reporter's question about his take on the issue.
Apu, the South Asian owner owner of the Kwik-E-Mart on the landmark animated sitcom, has been derided in recent years as a problematic stereotype of Indian people — particularly because his distinct, intentionally comical accent is voiced by Azaria, a white man. Frustration with the character, who from 1989 until the late aughts was the only South Asian presence on TV at all, was the subject of The Problem with Apu a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu that aired on TruTV. In it, Kondabolu attempts to talk with Azaria about the character (an invite Azaria ultimately declines) while discussing Apu's effect with notable South Asian talents including Kal Penn and Aziz Ansari. Apu, they recounted, opened the door for them to be mocked and bullied and he's fundamentally a form of minstrel mockery not unlike blackface. Azaria has made few public comments about Apu outside comments to TMZ in December, when he expressed regret people were hurt. During a panel discussion for Brockmire, IFC's show going into Season 2 in spring, Azaria expanded his thoughts on the issue — and the uncertain future of Apu.
"The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased — or worse — based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, or the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing, especially in post-9/11 America," he said. "The idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally."
Azaria, who's also voiced bartender Moe, Chief Wiggum and Comic Book Guy in his 29 years on The Simpsons, said the show has parodied all kinds of people, including "Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals" and they take a lot of pride in not apologizing. " I think over the years they've done a really good of job being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful," he said. That said, "that it caused any kind of pain or suffering in any way, it's disturbing actually." Apu was one-dimensional, he said, and the character could be in flux as the team continues to think about how to adjust the character.
"I think it's really important when people express themselves about racial issues, what they feel is unfair or upsetting or distressing or makes them angry, upset or hurt. Most important thing to do is listen, try to understand, try to sympathize, which is what I'm doing. I know that the Simpsons guys are doing that too; they're giving it a lot of thought." There was no mention of whether producers have reached out to Kondabolu.
"They will definitely address, maybe publicly but certainly creatively within the context of the show, what they want to do, if anything, differently with the character," Azaria said.