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Hari Kondabolu on loving The Simpsons, but hating Apu (and making a movie about it)

Photo: David S. Holloway/TruTV. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
Photo: David S. Holloway/TruTV. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
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“They haven’t seen the movie!” It’s Monday, November 5, and Hari Kondabolu is already having preemptive criticisms of his new truTV documentary, The Problem With Apu, lobbed at him on Twitter. “I don’t mind discussion, I don’t mind criticism, but watch the goddamn movie, then go after it.” The Problem With Apu, which premieres November 19, is many things—a comedic visual memoir for its star and executive producer, an examination of South Asian representation in American popular culture, a crash course on the history of minstrelsy in the U.S.—filtered through one entry point: a critique of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. And that’s what’s attracting these hostile reactions on social media.

Kondabolu grew up watching The Simpsons and remains a fan of the show to this day, but he’s not a fan of the show’s convenience-store proprietor, voiced by Hank Azaria. For most of Kondabolu’s life, Apu was the sole Indian presence on broadcast television (albeit one portrayed by the son of Sephardic Jewish parents from Greece), and also the caricatured source of ridicule directed at Kondabolu by his peers. This experience was shared by the likes of fellow performers Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aparna Nancherla, and Hasan Minhaj, all of whom Kondabolu speaks to in The Problem With Apu. Alongside chats with Whoopi Goldberg, one-time Simpsons showrunner Dana Gould, and former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, these interviews frame Kondabolu’s analysis of Apu and his attempts to discuss the character with the man who plays him. Kondabolu—who’s currently on tour—discussed all this and more in a phone interview with The A.V. Club.

The A.V. Club: Being a fan of the show, when did your negative opinion of Apu start to form?

Hari Kondabolu: Probably when I got to junior high. When he showed up, I was maybe 9 or 10—maybe even younger. I watched the show from the Tracey Ullman era, and he probably showed up somewhere in season one [of The Simpsons]. It didn’t really get to me until fifth, sixth, seventh grade. Then you start to realize, “Oh, crap, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s the one thing, and that’s why the kids are doing the voice,” because it was either that or Gandhi, and they didn’t know what Gandhi sounded like exactly, so you have Apu. And that’s going to be the voice, that’s going to be the name they call you. And what are you supposed to say back? Do an impression of every other character on television? There’s not much you can do.

That’s when I started to realize that this was going to be a liability, as excited as I was initially. Because when you don’t have anything, the idea of something, regardless of how good it is, is wonderful. You’re just, “Thank god we exist.” Same thing with Harold & Kumar. It’s a fine movie, but it shouldn’t be seen as groundbreaking—but it was groundbreaking, because people up to that point didn’t portray us as just Americans going through normal American teenage and twentysomething shit and smoking weed. At that point, with The Simpsons, we just wanted to exist, man.

AVC: Realizing that Apu could be a source of bullying, how did that affect your feelings about the show?

HK: It was complicated, because I still loved the show. And also, Apu’s a funny character. And the writing’s very good. When people say, “It’s not funny, it’s offensive”—those are two separate things. Something can be fucked up and still really funny. You’re not talking about content, you’re talking about form. Sometimes something is done so well that you laugh and you don’t know why. It was hidden well, the voice, the face, all that stuff. That’s one thing, and the other thing is he fit into the community of that show. If you separate the impact of the character, and you just follow it, he’s a funny character in terms of how he’s one of the smarter characters. He provides a perspective nobody else has. The times when I watch it, within the context of the show, I can generally deal with it—until you hear a joke that you realize is basically a joke a bully would have made. It takes you out of it for a split second.

I was watching this episode where Mr. Burns goes people-hunting—it was a Treehouse Of Horror episode. And the premise is funny: This is what happens when you’re a rich maniac with no perspective and you need the next thing. “How far can I go? What does my privilege get me?” This was a couple of weeks ago—me and my brother were watching the FXX reruns—and all of the sudden, Burns says something to the effect of “I smell a mix of fear and curry,” and all of the sudden Apu pops up. I’m like, “Fuck! Really? Did you go back in time and ask my sixth-grade bully to write that line?” That’s not good writing—as a comedian I’m offended. And second, that’s just stupid. That’s so basic, that’s so old. And it doesn’t feel like The Simpsons I know. And that takes you out of it. You’re immediately like, “Oh, right. This wasn’t written for me. This was written by non-South Asians. Probably white guys. That’s when you have to put it aside and watch the rest of the episode. You also know, especially when I was in high school, “Oh, that’s going to be brought up. Somebody’s quoting The Simpsons and that’s showing up.” “Dear Mr. Homer,” “Please don’t feed my god a peanut.” When he starts singing “Dream Police”—yeah, that’s going to be coming up.

AVC: The Problem With Apu sets the scene for how the documentary came to be: You were a writer on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, Kamau encouraged you to include your take on Apu in a segment for the show, and it became a viral hit. At what point did you think it could be a documentary?

HK: When he asked me to do the thing, I didn’t want to do it, because it felt corny. It just felt like, “Oh, we’re talking about Apu being this racist, hack character? How many times do we have to talk about this?” And Kamau’s like, “No one has talked about this! You and your community talk about this. You’re getting confused because it’s been 25 years of the same conversation in your community. Nobody outside your community has ever thought about this.”

And when the thing gets done, I hear people’s reactions. I see it ending up on all these blogs. And years after the show’s even on the air, the clip is up and people are using it in high school and college classes. I realized, holy crap, this clip from Totally Biased is still relevant, and the part people are focused on is the Apu part. Because it’s The Simpsons, and The Simpsons is extremely important. That’s a show that’s three decades old. So many people have been influenced by it—both personally and comedically. Clearly, this is a bigger deal, and it’s still alive. The character’s still alive, the show’s alive.

At that point, it became clear. I started pitching it, and whenever I pitched it to different channels, they all had the same reaction: “Oh, my god! Yeah, why is he there?” You just don’t think about it. It was clear that this was interesting. I knew at that point that this was something that is bigger than a single character. There’s a bigger discussion to be had. And there’s a history here that I know, but most people don’t.

I mean, it’s funny: This is review for me. It almost feels like there are certain things in our society that are catch-up. Like Fresh Off The Boat is catching up on history. That show should’ve been around 10 or 15 years ago. It’s not Eddie Huang’s story anymore—it’s this show about this kid growing up in the ’90s. That show should’ve been around already. It’s almost like we’re trying to gain a certain cultural competency and understanding now, so we’re getting all of these things that, to a lot of the people doing the writing, are kind of old. It feels like it’s important to fill that gap. This film tries to fill that gap, and it also tries to have an honest conversation about a single character and expand it to a broader conversation.

AVC: This is a stupid question, but why did it take so long, and what’s changed to enable you to make this documentary, or for Fresh Off The Boat to be on a broadcast network?

HK: There’s a lot of answers, so I’ll try to boil it down to a few, but I think one is all these voices have been suppressed for so long—everyone’s looking for the next big thing, and the next big thing becomes our old thing. Because there’s all these stories that haven’t been told, so all of the sudden it’s like, “Holy crap, there’s a gold mine here in all of these people we weren’t listening to.” There’s all this stuff that no one has ever seen: It’s fresh and it’s new and it’s interesting. And another thing is it’s not just a handful of networks anymore. If one network doesn’t get it, then another’s going to get it, because there’s 15 other places that could get it. And they could all make money, and they could all win awards now. You can win awards off AMC, you can win awards off Amazon. You can get money from any of those places—so we step up, because there’s a competition. We’re not just going for the biggest piece of the pie. We’re going for a piece of the pie.

I think that people have seen, because of the internet, that there’s money to be made, that if no one produces this stuff, the creators are making money off of YouTube or other places. They have viable fan bases—there’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. Issa Rae doesn’t exist if she doesn’t make it herself. She proved that she didn’t really need anybody, and it’s in the interest of HBO to be like, “Okay, what do you want to do? You clearly know what you’re doing.” But it’s not like a gatekeeper from the get-go is passing up on you. You prove it, and all of a sudden, there’s money to be made. This is going to be successful financially and/or critically.

So I think it’s all those things, in addition to a generation growing up with, let’s say for my example, South Asians. There are kids who grew up with us, there’s kids who all saw how there was nothing, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Holy crap! Aziz! Mindy! Kal, Aasif, Kumail—who is Pakistani, and several places have incorrectly called him Indian, which is not fair to him. [Laughs.] In terms of South Asian representation, people are seeing it. There are executives now who grew up with kids like us who, all of a sudden, are like, “This doesn’t make sense. And that’s not an interesting character. But these guys write something nobody else has seen.” That’s part of it, too. The people who are making the decisions are a little bit more well-rounded.

AVC: As you were preparing the doc, could you sense that the conversation, in that big-picture sense or even about Apu, was evolving? The documentary was greenlit by truTV after Master Of None had done “Indians On TV” and after The Simpsons staged its own critique of Apu. The Problem With Apu feels like the next step in a dialogue that was occurring in multiple venues. 

HK: I’m not sure if it was lined up quite like that to people making the decisions, but certainly, you know when the culture’s changed significantly. You feel it. Between Hasan’s Homecoming King, Aziz’s show, Mindy’s show, The Big Sick, an increase of stand-up specials from a wide range of people—you know something’s in the air. They knew that this was something that had not been done, and maybe the audience was more willing to listen and be accepting.

People keep asking, “How did you get all these people in the movie?” A bunch of them I just texted. The community’s not that big. “Hey, Aziz, you want to do this thing?” “Yeah, let’s figure out schedules.” That’s another thing: I could get A-plus talent because everybody has a story. This is a funny phenomenon that affected a lot of us. Who doesn’t want to see notable people onscreen talking about something?

Whoopi Goldberg was a shock, by the way.

Hari Kondabolu (left), Whoopi Goldberg (Photo: David S. Hollway/truTV)
Hari Kondabolu (left), Whoopi Goldberg (Photo: David S. Hollway/truTV)

AVC: How did that come about? The interview with her is one of the more revealing within The Problem With Apu, as her collection of black Americana puts Apu in this larger, unfortunate context of minstrelsy in popular culture.

HK: That was important to me, to make sure we don’t treat this as an isolated phenomenon, that there is a legacy of minstrelsy that begins with the black experience, as well as with the indigenous experience in this country. The idea of unfair representation, and the cost of that—this is not new. If anything, I’m hoping to reignite some of the conversation using The Simpsons, which is this holier than thou, huge show—and even there, there’s this flaw in it.

I wanted that context, and Michele Armour—who co-executive-produced this with me—knew that Whoopi had this collection. And she knew because her husband, Rob, works on The View. They got me in a room with Whoopi. I went to The View—which, by the way, The View has gotten really good. Have you noticed that? Whoopi has kind of taken over, so I remember getting there, and I sat in on the episode, and I’m thinking, “This is going to be The View I remember from SNL parodies,” and all of the sudden the show starts, and it’s like, “Let’s talk about North Korea.” I’m like, “Holy what? Right off the bat?” It’s a different show.

Anyway, I got to meet Whoopi between tapings. She knew I was hungry, so she split her lunch with me, which is still one of the nicest things—you’re a famous person, some kid shows up, asking you for a favor, and you split your lunch with him? The whole thing is just amazing. I told Whoopi about my project, and I knew Whoopi was really thoughtful and she valued history—both with her collection and also her Moms Mabley documentary on HBO, which was extremely well done. It’s important to document history, it’s important to have context, it’s important to give credit to people who deserve the credit. And I knew she felt that way, especially after that documentary. And she was onboard pretty much from the get-go. Of all the people that we got, it means the world to me that she was willing to do it.

AVC: Did the fact that The Simpsons is such an institution present any hurdles as you were shopping the concept around?

HK: I think there was some wariness about critiquing The Simpsons, but I think there was also some wariness regarding the legality. Because you’re going to need Simpsons clips. And what I love about truTV is that it didn’t stop them. They were like, “We’re going to find a way.” And you know what? We got these clips through because it’s fair use. If you’re making a documentary, and you have an opinion on something, it’s fair use. And I love that truTV stepped up, and they’re like, “We have your back. We believe in this, and we’re going to push forward.” But I think that some people were just afraid of pissing Fox off, and truTV wasn’t.

I struggled with the idea a little bit. I’m a Simpsons fan. I’m going after something that I love so much. That’s not easy. But you do it, because if you love something, you’re critical of it because you want it to be better. That’s part of a larger debate in this country right now. Is Colin Kaepernick doing the right thing? Are all these football players not patriotic? It’s like, “No, this is how you have conversations. You make a statement. You want people to talk. It’s important. I’m not telling you if I do or do not kneel when I watch The Simpsons, but I will say that I’m certainly more critical.”

AVC: You packed a lot into an hour-long time slot. Were you surprised at how much material you were able to get into the film? Is there anything you wish there would’ve been more room for?

HK: Oh, yes. [Laughs.] I’m surprised we got so much, and I think I was really critical: “Ah, how come we didn’t get this, this, and this?” But I watch it again, and I’m like, “This is on cable TV, 49 minutes, and we jam-packed it with information.” I don’t think most, if any, of these networks have had a clip from Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy in it. And that’s the most emotional scene in the first film in the trilogy, Pather Panchali, so the fact that we got that in was amazing. And we got John Powers, who writes for so many incredible magazines and is on NPR. This is a really thoughtful documentary, but certainly, as a comedian, I’m like, “Oh, we dropped this funny thing, we dropped that funny thing, and Aparna had such a funny line that we cut out. And Aasif has these great stories, and Aasif seems so serious and he had some of the funniest stuff.”

The thing that hurt me the most to cut, this one I will obsessively think about forever: We know that Peter Sellers is the inspiration for Hank Azaria’s voice. And we know Apu, that name comes from Matt Groening loving the Apu Trilogy. What we didn’t include in the film is that Satyajit Ray and Peter Sellers knew each other. And Ray was about to make a film, his first attempt at a Hollywood film, called The Alienwhich itself has a very interesting history. He wanted to make this film, and he loved Peter Sellers’ work, and he asked Sellers to be in it, and they met, and they became friendly, maybe even friends. And Sellers agreed to be a supporting part of this film. Time passes by, and Ray sees The Party, and he sees Peter Sellers in brown face, and he hears the accent, and he’s horrified. “This is the same man I asked to be in my film? How could this happen? And why does he view us like this?” And then there’s a part in the film where the minstrel character that Sellers is playing, he talks about his pet monkey. And his pet monkey’s name is Apu. It’s not like Apu is a name everyone was given—there was one Apu reference that was notable, and it was from the trilogy.

The idea of all of those things, meeting at one point, that we have this character that incorporates Satyajit Ray and Peter Sellers in such a way that horrified Ray based on his relationship of Sellers. The fact that that Apu thing will forever link them because of The Simpsons breaks my fucking heart. And I wish we would’ve gotten that in the film, but it’s a visual medium, and it’s really hard to illustrate that, I think.

AVC: What wound up happening to The Alien?

HK: That’s almost like a different documentary right there. The Alien never ends up getting made. The script kind of floated around. And also it was a shitty deal: It was his script, but whoever Satyajit Ray’s American agent was or whoever he was working with, took half the writing credit for doing nothing, which is complete bullshit. But if you read the script—which I still haven’t done—apparently it’s very close to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and to E.T. There are elements in that script, which was written in the ’50s, that are close to the other two, and you can’t help but think, “Did they read this script? Did someone know this script? Was it passed around?” From the film criticism that I’ve read, it seems kind of shocking that some of the elements are so fucking close for something that was written decades earlier. Which, if it is true, I’m not surprised. It’s just going after Satyajit Ray’s whole legacy, stripping it down and ripping up the carcass. That’s a documentary [that] if I had unlimited funds, I would make.

AVC: What can be done about Apu at this point?

HK: At a certain point, it doesn’t matter, right? It’s 30 years, it doesn’t really matter, and who’s really paying attention? If they really wanted to do something, I think the worst thing they could do is kill the character. Because that’s lazy—that’s lazy writing. And The Simpsons should be above that. They can write their way out of it.

So I feel like what you could do is like—I know people who own small businesses, whether it’s convenience stores, whether it’s motels. They don’t stay working in those places. They end up buying other places. And they end up managing them. They have a franchise or something. The idea that Apu is still working at the Kwik-E-Mart versus owning these places seems weird. Make him a mogul. Make him wealthy. Make him somebody who’s actually had things work out for them—an immigrant who’s successful. If you’re not going to have an accurate representation, at least give him some upward mobility.

And the other thing you can potentially do is, I don’t know, give his kids a voice on the show. They’re Indian-American kids: They’re me, Aziz, Hasan, Mindy. Give them a voice. Let them talk. Let them actually express our points of view. Why not? Maude Flanders is dead. Krabappel is dead. Characters have died and moved on, and they’ve changed parts of the plot. They still have the same base of characters, but you can change things on The Simpsons. That has been done.