THE PROBLEM WITH APU

Shit You Should Care About… The Problem with Apu

“Thank-you, come again.”

If you read this in the voice of the classic Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, then I have got some dire news for you. The Kwik-E-Mart could be closing its doors forever, as The Simpsons’ creators are considering writing out Apu – it seems that he has just become too problematic.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m an absolute Simpson fanatic. At 7pm, every week night, me and my brothers would be planted in front of the not-so-flat screen TV, ready for half an hour of innuendos that we wouldn’t understand, and middle-school angst that we understood too well – Bart and Lisa will always be #relatable. And Saturday’s were even more of a bloody treat as “Super Simpson’s Saturday’s” meant that The Box played back to back episodes from 6pm onwards. Homer and Marge basically raised us, (sorry Ma and Pa.)

 

Writing out a character who I grew up alongside because he’s become “too much of an issue,” feels as if someone is about to go through all my photo albums and cut out every image of my troublesome or “problematic” cousins, who’s cameos in my life sucked, but are formative to who I am (i.e they taught me  ALL the swear words by age six, and made me tough by dragging me through pools of mud behind quad bikes.) We simply can’t go around eliminating everything that seems problematic, or all we will be left with are tattered photo albums (and ruined iconic tv shows.)

A test for the creators of The Simpsons

Highlight any correct answers

What should we do when things become too problematic?

  1. Fix the thing

  2. Remove the thing all together because we are too proud/lazy/we enjoy crushing souls

  3. Adapt/change the thing

  4. Try to justify why we did the thing in the first place without actually apologising

So, call me dramatic, but buried beneath my fangirl facade, this Simpsons specialist may bear the solutions to the problem with Apu – if only The Simpsons’ creators would just listen to me.




The Problem with Apu

Let’s start off with the problem at hand – and I am in no way denying that there is one. The growing Apu controversy was sparked by comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” where Kondabolu outlines the outdated, stereotypical, and somewhat racist nature of Apu’s character.

Apu’s story begins in episode eight of the first season, where he was written in simply as “clerk,” and had one line: “35 cents please.”

Writer, and former leading executive producer Mike Reiss actually states that because Hindu convenience store clerks were “movie cliche’s” even back then, he inserted this stage direction under his line: ‘THE CLERK IS NOT INDIAN.’ And so somewhere between Reiss’s un-authoritative directions and the casting of Hank Azaria, Apu was born.

Here’s a list of a few things wrong with Apu:

  1. Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria: a white man impersonating Peter Sellers (another white man), who was impersonating an Indian.

    • This point doesn’t really need more explaining.

    • If you want to cast an Indian character in your show, save yourself the controversy and hire an Indian actor to do the job.

  2. Apu’s character on the show has done little more than form and maintain traditional South Asian stereotypes, particularly for immigrants.

    • For a long time, Apu was one of the only symbols of South Asians living in America on TV – Kondabolu even brands him as “the most famous Indian in America.” So, Apu – or more to blame – the creators of The Simpsons, shaped the South Asian experience, and they shaped it wrong. 

    • Apu and his “thank you, come again” catch phrase, displayed to The Simpsons’ massive audience, exhibits a one dimensional view of the South Asian community, and where they fit into society, particularly in America.

  3. His character is underdeveloped (or is it?)

    • All we truly know about Apu is that he is a shopkeeper with a PhD in computer science, who is defined by his job and by how many children he has in his arranged marriage (eight.)

    • On the flip side of this, however, you could argue that Apu was actually an emotionally developed character who cared deeply about his family, and worked tirelessly to support them – quite the contrast to, oh I don’t know, Homer Simpson.

  4. How The Simpsons ‘addressed the problem

    • Creators of The Simpsons didn’t actually try to fix the problem with Apu. Rather, they tried to justify it by insinuating that times have changed since the character was first written. I’m not sure if it’s because they were too proud to admit they were wrong, or because they couldn’t think of any way to rectify their previous misjudgements, but you can see below their attempt to “fix things:”




If you’re too lazy to watch the 14 second video, I’ve summed it up:

Lisa to Marge: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

The shot cuts to a photograph of Apu, inscribed: “Don’t have a cow”

And there we have it folks, 14 seconds of an “apology” from The Simpsons’ creators, basically telling us not to have a cow.

A test for the creators of The Simpsons

Highlight any correct answers

What should we do when things become too problematic?

  1. Fix the thing

  2. Remove the thing all together because we are too proud/lazy/we enjoy crushing souls

  3. Adapt/change the thing

  4. Try to justify why we did the thing in the first place without actually apologising

My suggestion: Writing him out is just writing him off

Writing Apu out is writing him – and the representation of the South Asian community –  off.

Yes, there is a problem with Apu, but the creators of The Simpsons had options. Getting rid of Apu will achieve nothing other than minimising visibility of South Asians even further, or suggest that they can only exist meaningfully as the punchline of a stereotypical joke. The fact that the producers of The Simpsons saw writing Apu out as the best solution actually highlights a greater issue: the lack of purposeful diversity in television (particularly in cartoons.)

A far better option would be to bring South Asians into the experience. Let them shape their own representation. Have them in the writing room, have them voicing their characters – have them involved. Hank Azaria backs this. Azaria has publicly stated that Apu needs to move away from a character that has become “the bane” of some South Asians lives, and that he would be “happy to step aside or help transition [the character] into something new.”



TV producer Adi Shankar has also proposed a public competition for an original script that cleverly takes Apu’s character, “subverts him, pivots him, intelligently writes him out, or evolves him,” and has pledged to produce the winning script as a self-financed fan project should Fox network and The Simpsons’ writers’ room reject it.

So, you’ve got Azaria, who voices Apu, Shankar, who’s willing to produce a transformative script, the support of a large majority of the public, and the funding – so why can’t this happen?

A test for the creators of The Simpsons

Highlight any correct answers

What should we do when things become too problematic?

  1. Fix the thing

  2. Remove the thing all together because we are too proud/lazy/we enjoy crushing souls

  3. Adapt/change the thing

  4. Try to justify why we did the thing in the first place without actually apologising

“Thank you, please come again”

The rumours about Apu’s fate are still permeating newsfeeds, however there has still been no confirmation of what is to happen to him. Maybe after the creators stumble upon this article they will reconsider their options. But, until then, just as Lisa chained herself to that tree in “Lisa the Tree Hugger,” (Episode 252), I will be metaphorically chaining myself to the doors of the Kwik-E-Mart in defence of poor old Apu.

Episode 94, released on February 10, 1994, contains Emmy nominated song, “Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart.” In amongst all this chat about how “times are changing,” these lyrics are still pretty damn fitting today.

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Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

We do.

Luce xx