No one wants to think that the pop culture they love doesn’t love them back, but that’s the situation in which people of color (any marginalized group, really) often find themselves. They’re underrepresented on screen, which makes every appearance significant—and all the more disappointing when their inclusion is limited to caricatures. There are more creators of color than ever before, but that number is still disproportionately low. So, allowances are made, along with efforts to combat stereotypes with more nuanced portrayals.
Writer-comedian Hari Kondabolu attempts to address both the offensive and defensive measures in his 50-minute documentary, The Problem With Apu. The film, directed by Michael Melamedoff, was spun off from the withering monologue he gave on the subject of longtime Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon while working on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell in 2012. Kondabolu’s takedown was an incisive mix of disdain, disbelief, and disillusionment—like so many other Indian-Americans, he didn’t see himself or his family reflected in the character, who is voiced by Hank Azaria (who’s white, in case you didn’t know). A subcontinent had been reduced to a low-paying job and a made-up accent, neither of which has really changed in the 28 seasons the show’s been on the air. After years of being taunted with “Thank you, come again”s and that accent—during which time there were virtually no countering examples—Kondabolu was left feeling angry and powerless to change anything, especially since he’s a lifelong fan of the show. So he joked about kicking Azaria’s ass, because what else could he do?
The answer, five years later, is run with it. The Problem With Apu often feels like an extended version of that segment, right down to the half-hearted threats. Or, as it invites Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Minaj to weigh in, one really in-depth Daily Show field piece. When Kondabolu sits down with Dana Gould, he displays the same poised demeanor of a TDS correspondent, even when listening to the former Simpsons showrunner admit that the show is more interested in laughs than accuracy. Comedy is paramount, which is why, despite initial concerns that making the convenience-store clerk a person of color was too stereotypical (note the superlative), The Simpsons just ran with that characterization. That depiction was reached so organically that neither the producers nor Azaria are entirely certain who came up with it first; in archival recordings and footage, they throw up their hands when not pointing to each other. It’s slightly amusing, but mostly, a great way to set up some plausible deniability.
And it’s infuriating for Kondabolu, especially since, by the halfway point, an interview with Azaria looks very unlikely. The actor, who voices dozens of Simpsons characters in addition to Apu, becomes Kondabolu’s white whale, his Guffman. This protracted wait adds some tension to the project, even though, at just 50 minutes, it never seems likely to happen. But while that would definitely provide a great climax for the film, Kondabolu’s interview with Gould is almost as revealing. The comedian pushes Gould to acknowledge that little thought has been given to the Apu character beyond the accent, that Apu is his ethnicity (and a blatantly distorted one at that) and that’s it. Surprisingly, Gould does, though he then asks Kondabolu if Mr. Burns is also a one-dimensional character because his distinguishing characteristic is greed. But they’re talking about two different things—Kondabolu is referencing culture, while Gould is focusing on a character’s wealth, which isn’t a trait inherent to any race or ethnicity. When Kondabolu tells the producer that the show has stripped a population down to a funny voice, made all the more egregious because it’s done by a white man doing what he’s previously referred to as “an impression of a white guy making fun of my father,” Gould has no real response.
It’s not the only time that a satisfactory answer remains elusive. Despite Kondabolu’s obvious passion for the subject, The Problem With Apu doesn’t come close to resolving the eponymous issue. He’s genuinely disappointed when Azaria ultimately declines to appear on camera, which probably cut the documentary short. But though the ending isn’t tidy, the film still offers a lot of insight from Kondabolu’s contemporaries like Aziz Ansari, Aparna Nancherla, Kal Penn, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Russell Peters, and several more, who, if we were to list them all, we’d probably have the full roster of South Asian talent in Hollywood, which just helps make Kondabolu’s point of how relatively small this community still is.
And while he doesn’t get the long-awaited tête-á-tête with Azaria—he’s asked his Twitter followers to help make his case—Kondabolu’s exploration of the Simpsons caricature opens up a discussion about the evolution of comedy. Gould defends the decisions made by the original showrunners with the old “those were different times,” while also seeming at least somewhat aware that the hackneyed line isn’t really an excuse. Several people throughout, including Gould, note that Apu isn’t a character that would come out of, let alone thrive in, the medium as it currently stands. Though the debate isn’t the focus of the film, the two sides are still outlined—those who believe “anything goes as long as it lands,” and those who know what it’s like to be on the other side of those barbs, and also know that comedy can do better. Whoopi Goldberg’s collection of minstrel memorabilia—or “negrobilia,” as she tells Kondabolu—is a potent reminder of what used to pass for comedy.
Like Kondabolu’s problem with Apu, the question of punching up or down remains up in the air, but that doesn’t signify any failing on the part of the documentary. It just suggests there’s another stage in this investigation.