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?
I felt like they had to be in this. If the whole film is about someone else giving voice to my community and to my parents’ generation, and I find it inaccurate, what’s the best way to counter that? To actually give the people spoken over a voice. There were other clips we couldn’t get in for time, where we were talking to other immigrants on the street in Jackson Heights. We get to hear their stories. The film is only 49 minutes. You can’t get everything in. But I wanted to make sure my parents were in there, and that you could hear their voices while they talked about their struggles. I wanted that reality.
A big chunk of this concerns your attempts to involve Hank Azaria, though he ultimately doesn’t participate. But you talk to Dana Gould, who wrote for and produced The Simpsons. Did you reach out to anyone else from the show?
Absolutely. Of course, we wanted Matt Groening. I mean, that’s one of the first people you want to reach out to when it comes to The Simpsons. Groening is such an interesting figure — not only because of the show, but in terms of how he operates. Back when he was writing The Simpsons, he used to write notes in the margins of scripts saying “this is too stereotypical” or “I don’t want to make fun of this group.” He was really thoughtful about what he was and wasn’t willing to put out there, especially for the time. So I found it really curious that the Apu character made it through his watch. I really wanted to talk to him about that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get him.
Considering how personal this is, it’s clearly evident you are trying to thread your questions and concerns in a discursive manner. Sure, there are plenty of jokes told at Azaria and the show’s expense, but it’s never mean. But you do get particularly angry — and rightly so — during a penultimate scene. Was it difficult to remain cool and collected while making this?
It wasn’t really difficult because, like I was saying earlier, this is a discussion I’ve had in my community for two decades. I’m really past the anger. It was almost like channeling the anger I used to have in order to make sure it was clear that this isn’t something I’m happy about. The place where I’m at, which I think we clearly show in the movie, is a place of contemplation and conversation. I’m asking where are we going from here? How did we get here? What do we do from this point on? That really was the main goal.
Even when trying to get Hank to go on record, I just wanted to have a conversation with him. I didn’t want to grill him. I wanted a conversation because, ultimately, it’s the awkward conversations that actually move us forward. It’s actually having discussions that aren’t always clean, and that aren’t necessarily scripted, that actually force us to look within ourselves and figure out if we feel good about the choices we’ve made. That’s how we talk about how people view each other. Those are hard conversations. Or at least that’s what I was trying to get out of this. But yeah, it wasn’t really that hard to keep the anger in because, to be honest, I haven’t been furious about it in a long time. It’s annoying, sure, but I can channel how I’ve felt about it now. I’m part of a wave of young South Asians who are making art and questioning the way things have been made before. I feel pretty good about moving forward.
Are there any plans in the works to have a conversation with Azaria?
No. Nothing has happened since the film. If he wanted to talk publicly and chat about the film, I would absolutely take him up on that. I think that’s what this film is about — talking about the history of the Apu character, and The Simpsons‘ use of him, as well as what my community has been through as a result. It’s all about this conversation. About how we must have a conversation — even when it concerns something from pop culture that you love, like The Simpsons or America — in order to criticize it. You can still love something and be critical of it. Doing this doesn’t make you unpatriotic or less of a fan. I’m always willing to have that conversation. I enjoy having conversations. So if it happens, I would be really happy to do it, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The film debuts this weekend, but have you seen any kind of response to it yet? After all, The Simpsons has been around for decades, so I’m sure plenty of people will have something to say about the documentary.
It’s across the board. You have people who are really excited about the film because it’s a film about The Simpsons and this particular character. People saying, “I always thought Apu was weird, so I wonder how they are gonna talk about him.” I don’t know that there’s anything that has criticized The Simpsons like this before. It has kind of been untouched, for the most part, because it’s an amazing show. But I think there is a kind of thrill about the way we’re confronting it, with people wondering, “What is this going to be?” I think there are people — especially in my community, or others who think critically about race and representation — who have been waiting for this film and are excited about it.
Then again, there are some people who don’t like the idea of The Simpsons being criticized. There are people who say, “You just don’t get it. You don’t get the show.” And I’m like, “I’ve been a Simpsons fan for as long, if not longer than, you have.” I do understand the show. I love the show. I’ve been deeply influenced by the show. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have points of view about it that aren’t necessarily things others will agree with, and that’s okay.
As you joke in the film, there will be plenty of people who won’t like it — or the idea of it — because they think you’re being too sensitive.
Yes, there are those who will straight up dismiss it as being “politically correct.” They’ll say it’s “another example of oversensitivity.” I think that probably annoys me the most. When you say something is politically correct, it’s kind of a blanket thing to say. It’s a blanket answer that doesn’t actually offer any specifics. Meanwhile, this is a well-researched piece. This movie involved a lot of interviews with a lot of different people, a lot of reading, and a lot of research conducted by many different people. This wasn’t a knee-jerk response to anything.
So if you’re going to criticize it, know what you are criticizing. I’ve had people write me hate mail and say terrible things like, “I can’t believe you’re making this film. This is such garbage. You’re a snowflake.” So I’ll reply, “Watch the film, then write me back.” Though I hope they don’t write me back, just because it’s usually still awful. Though I’ll be happier then because at least it will be informed hate. I’m somebody who believes in real intellectual conversation, and if you’re going to do things like that, you at least need to know what we’re talking about.
As serious as the film is, it’s also very funny. In a way, by poking fun at The Simpsons and its significance on pop culture, you’re paying homage to it.
Absolutely! I mean, The Simpsons makes fun of pop culture all the time. That’s something they’re known for doing, and that’s what we set out to do here. We made fun of a really big part of pop culture.
This is your first foray into documentary filmmaking, right?
In a previous interview, you talked about pursuing complex issues that stand-up wasn’t always the best vessel for. You mentioned writing and documentary filmmaking as possible avenues for these endeavors. Is this something you see yourself doing more of if the right subject comes along?
We’ll see how the film does. This has been a couple years’ worth of work. We’ll see how people respond to it. Who knows? Maybe documentary filmmaking isn’t for me, but I certainly feel good about what we put out with this one. If people react the way I hope they do — and that’s not positively or negatively, but have a reaction and start a conversation as a result — then maybe. If I can make art that leads to deeper conversations, I feel that that is art I should be making more of.
The Problem with Apu premieres Sunday, November 19th at 10pm ET/PT on truTV.