The character of Apu on The Simpsons, voiced by Hank Azaria, has come under scrutiny in recent years due to the relatively jokey portrayal of a South Asian man. While concerns about the character simmered over the show’s 30-year run, the controversy reached a full boil last year with the release of Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, The Problem with Apu. The show attempted a vague response in a recent episode — leaving fans largely unimpressed.
Azaria sat down with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday evening, where he was asked some tough questions about the past, present, and future of the character. Although the Brockmire star did not participate in Kondabolu’s film, he has stated in the past that the thought of anyone being bullied or teased because of Apu was distressing to him, and he reiterated that sentiment to Colbert.
“The idea that it’s brought pain and suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalize people, it’s upsetting, genuinely,” he said.
As for the aforementioned response from The Simpsons, in which Marge reads Lisa a favorite bedtime story of hers that is no longer politically correct, Azaria said that he had nothing to do with the writing or the voicing, and saw the segment at the same time everyone else in America did. When asked about what he thinks should happen to the character going forward, Azaria gave a thoughtful and measured response.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought, really a lot of thought, and as I say my eyes have been opened, and I think the most important thing is that we have to listen to South Asian people in this country when they talk about what they think and how they feel about this character, and their American experience of it has been, and as you know, in television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writers room.
I really wanna see Indian, South Asian writers in the room, not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take — including, how it is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside, or help transition it into something new. 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.”
Azaria’s words are already resonating, and were applauded by Kondabolu shortly after the interview aired. Showrunner Al Jean said earlier this month that he plans to “continue to try to find an answer that is popular and more important right,” so hopefully they make good on that promise.