“Homer And Apu” (season 5, episode 13; originally aired 02/10/1994)
“Homer And Apu” beautifully illustrates the richness of The Simpsons’ gallery of supporting players. Reduced to his broad outlines, Apu is an unapologetic, unashamed caricature: an Indian convenience store clerk who delights in ripping off gullible customers at the behest of his corporate overlords at the Kwik-E-Mart corporation.
But over the course of the show’s seven-millennia run the character has revealed unexpected depths. Apu is a man ruled by convention and commitment and tradition, a true believer who sees his work at Kwik-E-Mart less as a job than as a solemn existential calling no different, in its own way, from being a monk or a general, only with a greater inducement to remind the general public about the existence of delicious fried pickles.
Apu is a quintessential company man. His position at Kwik-E-Mart defines him. “Homer And Apu” explores what happens when Apu loses what is most sacred to him. When your identity is your job and you lose your job what happens to your sense of self? That’s the intriguing question behind “Homer And Apu.”
Apu is paradoxically fantastically skilled at doing a terrible job, or rather he is uniquely talented and pathologically committed to doing exactly what Kwik-E-Mart angrily demands of its employees: that they flagrantly disregard the health, safety and well-being of their customers for the sake of the corporation's bottom line. Apu is so committed that he’s even willing, even eager, to flagrantly disregard his own health, safety and well-being for the sake of Kwik-E-Mart.
When it comes to laughing off gunshot wounds, 50 Cent has nothing on Apu, who has seemingly absorbed so much gunfire on Kwik-E-Mart’s behalf that his insides are probably mostly shell casings and scar tissue at this point. Yet Apu loves what he does even if that entails making the world a greedier, less healthy place.
“Homer And Apu” opens with Apu very much in his element, smilingly confronting the rage of his justifiably angry customers with sublime indifference. Apu sells two dollars worth of gas for four dollars and twenty cents (that’s the Democrats for you) and answers a child’s query as to how much penny candy costs with a delighted, “surprisingly expensive!”
An enraged customer attempts to destroy a Twinkie only to discover, in Apu’s mocking words, “You cannot hurt a Twinkie.” Apu is puffed full of the pride that comes with being a Kwik-E-Mart clerk whose name is whispered by contemporaries in hushed tones but he comes to pay a steep price for his arrogance.
Apu has untold depths but there’s also bottomless comic gold to be mined in the default Kwik-E-Mart gag of Apu selling an overjoyed Homer some exquisitely disgusting entity that can very generously be called food at a comically inflated price, then watching on apathetically as the tainted food product works its dark magic. Sure enough, the plot of “Homer And Apu” turns on one such transaction, as Apu sells Homer meat that is rancid and disgusting even by the exceedingly lenient standards of Kwik-E-Mart.
Homer becomes violently ill but he is constitutionally incapable of learning from his experiences so when he returns to Kwik-E-Mart to confront Apu the clerk appeases him with ten pounds of not-so-frozen shrimp that sends Homer hurtling immediately back to the emergency room.
It is at that point that Homer, with more than a little nudging from the universe, turns to investigative reporter Kent Brockman, who tries to get Homer to go undercover and wear a wire to expose his friend. Homer will have none of it; he’s not about to be a snitch for the man; he does, however, have no problem wearing a microphone and a hidden camera inside an outsized novelty hat.
Homer succeeds despite himself and Apu is fired for faithfully executing Kwik-E-Mart foreign policy in ways that are publicly embarrassing when brought to light. While much of the richness of Apu is attributable to the show’s writing, Hank Azaria also deserves a lot of credit for fleshing out what could have been a creaky, even offensive stereotype.
Azaria gets to explore a surprisingly broad emotional palette here as Apu cycles through sadness, resignation and shame before deciding that, karmically speaking, he is responsible for his fate and must pay off the karmic debt that he owes to Homer. But before he arrives at Homer’s home to make amends, it seems like the whole world is laughing at his pain, from hobos delighting themselves with feathers to Homer laughing at a Def Comedy Jam-style black comedian’s observation that black people drive all cool and hip while white people drive all uptight and lame. It’s a simple gag mocking the hacky laziness of stereotype-based comedy that nevertheless feels like the definitive parody of race-based comedy at its lamest.
Apu sets about redeeming himself by assisting the Simpsons in all of their endeavors. At a Wal-Mart like megastore, for example, Apu illustrates the keen understanding of the human psyche he picked up during his time at Kwik-E-Mart by helping Marge find the fastest line. It’s also the longest, but as Apu helpfully explains, it’s stocked entirely by depressed single men eager to pay cash and get the hell out as quickly as possible. At Kwik-E-Mart, meanwhile, James Woods replaces Apu to help him prepare for an upcoming role as a convenience store clerk.
Apu professes not to miss his old job in a wonderful production number “Who Needs The Kwik-E-Mart”, a delightful ditty with such eminently quotable lyrics as “Homer’s a delightful fella/Sorry bout that salmonella.” Despite his cheerful façade, Apu is ultimately only lying to himself and to the Simpsons when he professes not to miss Kwik-E-Mart. Even worse, he lies to himself and the Simpsons through song, which we all know if the very worst way to deceive anyone.
When I interviewed David Mirkin a while back in connection with the long-awaited arrival of Get A Life on DVD he talked about writing a throwaway gag for Heartbreakers, which he co-wrote and directed, that he immediately cut on the grounds that it would cost seventy-five thousand dollars and while funny, the joke wasn’t seventy-five thousand dollars funny. The genius of Mirkin taking over The Simpsons in its fifth season is that he could let his imagination run wild. There were no more seventy-five thousand dollar gags: in animation, you could do just about anything.
Accordingly, “Homer And Apu” sends Homer and also Apu to India to seek Apu’s job back from the head of Kwik-E-Mart, a guru-like figure who, in a perfect fusion of Eastern religion and convenience store tradition, knows “all except for the combination to the safe.” Homer ruins Apu’s chance for redemption by squandering the two questions he and Apu are allowed to ask and the defeated duo heads back home in disgrace.
Just when it appears that all is lost, however, Apu climactically redeems himself in the eyes of both Karma and more importantly Kwik-E-Mart by heading over to his old store and doing what he does best: sacrifice his body and safety for the sake of his bosses’ bottom line. The casually heroic convenience store clerk takes a bullet for James Woods when a criminal sticks up the store and Woods, in appreciation, gets Apu his job back. You can do those sorts of things, apparently, when you are a famous Hollywood movie star.
In exploring the complexities and emotions of Apu this episode ended up enriching the show’s entire sprawling universe. If a character as seemingly thin and disposable as Apu could be revealed to have a compelling and dramatic inner life then why couldn’t other scene-stealers on the show’s periphery? Who needs Apu and the Kwik-E-Mart? It turns out we all do.
- I love the absurdity of Homer being completely hypnotized by a dog on TV whose laborious barking he is convinced can sell any product. Such a weird, inspired joke.
- The title “Geezers In Freezers” (Kent Brockman’s expose on the freezing conditions in nursing homes) made me laugh out loud, as did the station’s tardy realization that phrases like “geezers” are patently offensive. There’s a lot of great Kent Brockman material in this episode
- What is life if not one long spiritual de-pantsing?
- “Life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead.”—Homer’s eminently reasonable philosophy.
- Next up is “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacey.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.