Comedy was once known for having a conscience. At their best, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lily Tomlin were not only hilarious, but also opened space for marginalized voices to be recognized and appreciated. That tradition has largely disappeared, and now some of the most successful comedians are less likely to poke fun at those with power and privilege than to defend “the right” to make rape jokes with the humorless sanctimony of Steve Bannon or Ann Coulter, living to “trigger the libs.”
An antidote to this for years has been comic Hari Kondabolu. He has built a national following precisely by serving an audience who wants to laugh without feeling like they were either party to—or a future victim of—a hate crime. Like Pryor, he uses laughter to open his audience—from right-wingers to the smuggest of liberals—to ideas they aren’t trying to hear. Now Kondabolu’s act comes at us in documentary form, with a devastating critique of the ultimate comedic sacred cow: The Simpsons. Kondabolu, whose parents are immigrants from India, puts a laser focus on one of the show’s iconic characters, Indian immigrant and Kwiki Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, in his new TruTV Documentary, The Problem With Apu.
Debuting tonight, The Problem With Apu is an examination of stereotypes, minstrelsy (a white actor, Hank Azaria, has been the voice of Apu for 28 years), and who pays the price when comedy kicks down. Packed with Simpsons clips, as well as with interviews with prominent South Asian actors like Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, and Sakina Jaffrey (House of Cards), and former Simpsons executive producer Dana Gould, Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu looks at how a beloved character from a legendary television program—one I adored growing up—also provoked the bullying of a generation of South Asian kids in the United States. All of the South Asian actors, male and female, as well as former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy tell their stories of being called “Apu” growing up, the character filling the gaping vacuum of South Asian representation. As Kondabolu says bluntly, “Twenty-eight years later, the words ‘Thank you, come again’ still follow me wherever I go.”
The Problem with Apu does not stop at critiquing the character. It also looks at the ways that The Simpsons have used stereotypes of all kinds as a source of humor—but in Apu’s case, the starting point was racist mockery based on his ethnicity. It becomes starkly clear when Dana Gould defends Apu’s stereotypical persona by saying (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “You need characters with flaws, because that’s funny. Sober Barney wouldn’t be funny. ‘Out’ Smithers [a closeted gay character] wouldn’t be funny.” Hari asks him in quiet voice, “What’s Apu’s flaw?” Gould is silent, and the unspoken answer is that he’s Indian and that’s why “we” laugh.
But the narrative through-line of this documentary is Kondabolu’s efforts to interview the legendary Hank Azaria, who has voiced not only Apu but many of the show’s most iconic characters. This is not only an attempt to confront Azaria on questions of minstrelsy, but to raise an issue that Kondabolu discusses with many of his interview subjects: that of the responsibility of the artist to challenge or reject racism when it comes out of the writers’ room. In one moment that will stick with me, Kondabolu interviews South Asian actor Aasif Mandvi, best known from The Daily Show and films like The Internship, and Mandvi resists criticizing Azaria directly, saying that the racism in the culture is to blame and artists merely work in that culture. While Kondabolu does not explicitly contradict Mandvi, it’s clearly not a view he shares, especially when it comes to the question of minstrelsy. This stands out in shattering fashion when Azaria finally contacts Kondabolu directly. I’m not going to reveal what was said or Kondabolu’s analysis of it, but it’s a gut punch about power, privilege, and control. Whether you’re a Simpsons fan or not, this is must-see work—even though it may make us feel defensive about a character many of us have loved for over a quarter-century. It’s a must-see, in fact, especially if it makes us uncomfortable. Because it’s Kondabolu, at least we’ll laugh through the discomfort.