Three years before Aziz Ansari confronted actor Fisher Stevens about his brownface role in Short Circuit, both in person and in Master of None‘s first season, comedian Hari Kondabolu delivered a hilarious, though poignant critique of The Simpsons on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. “Apu, a cartoon character voiced by Hank Azaria,” he told the audience, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” Not only did the segment achieve viral fame in 2012, but it also became a much-used example for college classrooms across the country — long after Totally Biased was cancelled.
These days, Kondabolu and Bell co-host the popular podcast Politically Re-Active. The latter also hosts the acclaimed CNN series United Shades of America, and both regularly tour the country with their latest stand-up . Yet Kondabolu never really forgot about his famous Simpsons hot take, and neither did his boss Bell, who encouraged him to push it even further. As a result, the Queens native has spent the past few years making The Problem with Apu, a brand new documentary about the problematic Simpsons character that premieres this Sunday, November 19th at 10pm ET on truTV.
In the documentary, you talk to W. Kamau Bell about doing the Totally Biased segment that inspired this. Was it Bell’s insistence that first pushed you to make The Problem with Apu, or is there more to it?
I mean, Totally Biased really was the first time I thought about the issue. Initially, I didn’t really want to include Apu in that piece, because it felt really corny to me. People had already talked about how hacky that stereotype was and how sick they were of it, but Kamau was like, “No one’s talked about it this way. Your community has talked about it for 20 years, but nobody outside your community really thinks about this stuff.” That’s when it hit me. “Oh my God, is that true?” So I did the piece and it took off. I later found out it was being used in different college classrooms. Ever since then, people have stopped me after shows and asked me about it. It’s been years and people still pass it around and have discussions about it. That’s when I knew this was far richer than just that one-off piece with a few jokes — especially with the conversation about representation that we’re having all over the country right now. It just felt like it fit perfectly into where we are at this moment, and clearly The Simpsons is an incredible show. It’s so important to our pop culture. It still survives. It’s still relevant.
Your parents obviously mean a lot to you. You include them in The Problem with Apu, and one of the Totally Biased segment’s more popular jokes concerns your father.
I mean, it’s not by design. It’s honest. Certainly, the idea that I felt embarrassed about my parents’ accents informs this. When I was younger, I wondered what my friends who came over, or any people I had just met, would think if they heard their accents. Are they going to judge the way they speak English? There’s a great deal of insecurity in this. Even in college, when I would bring people home, I worried about this. My mom is a beloved figure. Both my parents are, but especially my mom. I think people keep in touch with her more than me. My friends keep in touch with her even when I’m not around. She’s somebody who has such grace and dignity and decency, and I ignored all those things when I was younger because I was so worried about her accent.
It seems so absurd now, but that’s kind of the impact the character of Apu had on me. It’s almost selfish of me to think the character was just about me in this way because it was really mocking my parents. People who were working hard, who were somewhat voiceless in a society in which they’re trying to support their children. The immigrant struggle is real. It’s hard, and that was something I felt like I should talk about when talking about the character in this film. Even though it was kind of vulnerable, and it still feels embarrassing that I ever felt weird about the way my parents spoke, I needed to address it.
You actually put them on camera at one point, when you show them an Apu scene from The Simpsons and ask them about it. It reminded me of Aziz Ansari casting his parents in Master of None. Did you think it was necessary to put them in the film or was that more of a gradual thing?