What can you do about Apu? The Simpsons used to know

Photo: Fox

Last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem With Apu, in which he grapples with his lifelong love of The Simpsons—a show that was also the bane of his existence, along with so many other people of South Asian descent. In Kondabolu’s balanced, it-can-be-two-things critique, he examines how the Hank Azaria-voiced Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, long the sole prominent Indian character on television, gave his bullies ammo for years, while contributing to a broader cultural stereotyping that, somehow, we’re only recently overcoming. It’s a complex issue, Kondabolu’s love for something that’s so repeatedly hurt him. And it started an equally knotty conversation over what’s to be done about it. Last night, The Simpsons offered an answer: Yeah, well, whaddaya gonna do?

In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Marge discovers that her old childhood favorite book is actually a lot more racist than she remembers. So, in order to share it with Lisa, Marge attempts some editing: “It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book, but now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati,” Marge proclaims, reading a revised version that is, indeed, so flat and conflict-free, Lisa immediately dismisses it as having no point. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asks. Lisa then turns to address the camera directly (always a bad sign).

“It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa asks. The camera then pans to a photo of Apu beside her bed, which Apu has signed, “Don’t have a cow, man!”

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge says.

“If at all,” Lisa says. They both then stare blankly at the audience. Ha... ho?

Unsurprisingly, the shrug of a response didn’t go over well with Kondabolu: “Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad,” he tweeted, before sharing others who have voiced their disappointment. “In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important,” he added. “The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

As another person pointed out, putting it in the mouth of Lisa Simpson—the show’s most progressive voice, a girl who once trashed all her beloved Malibu Stacy dolls because they started giggling sexist propaganda—is doubly insulting. It suggests even she would find the controversy ridiculous; Lisa actually rolls her eyes as she’s talking. And it’s a message echoed by Simpsons executive producer Al Jean, who on Sunday was already preemptively gloating about the “Twitter explosion” the moment would cause, then spent the evening retweeting people who cackled at the way it took aim at “politically correct people” and lauding them for how it handled a “non-issue” bandied by a bunch of social justice whiners.

There’s a lot wrong with this: The suggestion that any change to Apu would rob The Simpsons of its essential spirit. The idea that Apu—a character that many South Asians in The Problem With Apu, from actors Kal Penn and Aziz Ansari all the way up to Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, have cited as the source of years of mockery and marginalization—was “applauded and inoffensive” decades ago, and is only now being deemed otherwise due to a Twitter-propagated influx of thought-policing political correctness. The implication that, really, what matters most here is the show’s legacy, something reinforced by Jean’s reminder to one dissenter that, “respectfully, Hank won an Emmy.” The idea that Lisa keeps a framed photograph of Apu next to her bed. But perhaps what’s most galling is that The Simpsons didn’t really have to address this at all—that it has, in fact, handled Apu and the problem with him far more thoughtfully and sensitively in the past.

It’s easy to leap directly into “The Simpsons stopped being good XX seasons ago,” a criticism so common it’s now been woven into the show. But it was only 2016 when it aired “Much Apu About Something,” an episode that took an honest look at Apu through the eyes of his young nephew. Jamshed (or as he prefers, “Jay”) was voiced by Utkarsh Ambudkar, who appeared in Kondabolu’s film after previously decrying the character in interviews, saying, “I hate that guy.” Here Jay reappeared in Springfield to give his uncle an earful over the lifelong embarrassment he had caused him. “You’re my uncle and I love you, but you’re a stereotype, man,” Jay said. “Take a penny, leave a penny. I’m Indian, I do yoga. Why don’t you go back to the Temple of Doom, Dr. Jones!” Heavy-handed as the monologue may have been, Ambudkar’s casting indicated that not only was the show aware of the criticisms, but it was willing to invite their harshest proponents to come and say them right to their face.

The Simpsons has long had a history of lampshading its own caricatures, of course,, from Don Vittorio DiMaggio’s self-proclaimed “old Italian stereotype” to Bumblebee Man (only briefly) dropping the act to take over Kent Brockman’s news chair. And in case you didn’t get it, “Much Apu About Something” underlined Jay and Apu’s discussion by trotting out Luigi, the show’s self-aware Italian chef, to declare that stereotypes are-a spicy-a accusation-a.

Like the many licks the Irish took on Whacking Day, ‘twas all in good fun: The Simpsons is aware that it’s peddling these cartoonish clichés; it’s a cartoon, after all. But by openly acknowledging them, it says that the target of the joke isn’t the person being stereotyped, but rather the sort of people who might actually buy into them. It’s a thin line between “ironic racism” and real racism, as the past few years have shown us. But The Simpsons has generally earned the benefit of the doubt by being a sharp cultural satire in so many other respects—balanced by the fact that it was, at its heart, a humanist show, one that cared about the backstory and dignity of even its most sketchily drawn side characters.

Historically, that’s always included Apu—and indeed, The Simpsons has often treated him particularly well. Apu may have been conceived as a caricature, but over the years, he became a genuine, multidimensional character with a rich history and inner life. You can see this most evidently in the episode that “Much Apu About Something” was clearly meant to evoke, season seven’s classic “Much Apu About Nothing,” in which Apu is threatened with deportation due to a typically convoluted confluence of events involving bears and bureaucratic pandering. It’s here that we finally learned about Apu’s origins as a brilliant doctor of computer science, a go-getter who finished first in his class of 7 million in Calcutta, came to America on a scholarship, then ended up working in the Kwik-E-Mart for the rest of his life to pay off his student loans.

Apu’s complicated path to citizenship—the way he forces himself to adopt a typical “Nye Mets”-loving, lazy American impression and betray his culture just to fit in, even though he’s smarter, more driven, and more patriotic than those who were just lucky enough to be born here—is a resonant and familiar one. The episode even became part of college courses on The Simpsons’ acute sociological commentary, where it was key to helping students who were napping through their blow-off class understand how The Simpsons uses stereotypes to interrogate those stereotypes’ very existence, while at the same time creating the necessary empathy to negate them. Or at least, how it used to do that.

That love for Apu has been reinforced many times over: In season five’s “Homer And Apu,” we learn that Apu equates his Kwik-E-Mart work with a nigh-religious calling, while also delving further than ever into the man behind the counter—his belief in karmic responsibility, his gentle and helpful soul, his willingness to take a bullet for James Freaking Woods, of all people. Although season nine’s “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons” leans pretty hard on gawking at what it sees as the inherent zaniness of Hindu traditions, it ends up providing similar depth and shading. Like “Much Apu About Nothing,” the opening scene where Apu crushes it at the Springfield bachelor auction—simply because he’s a successful businessman who also loves cooking, listening, and building and arranging furniture—goes a long way toward establishing him as an exceptional catch with enviable qualities, no matter his background.

The tenth season’s “I’m With Cupid” further makes Apu out to be a husband who’s so devoted to wife, Manjula, and so imaginatively romantic in his overtures, that all the other men are shamed into trying to sabotage him. Season eleven’s “Eight Misbehavin’” then saddles Apu and Manjula with colicky octuplets, but even this doesn’t break him; he remains a committed, if understandably harried, provider. In fact, it isn’t until the season 13 episode “The Sweetest Apu,” where Apu is discovered to be having an affair with the Squishee delivery lady (yes, this happened), that The Simpsons dared to suggest he might have a dark side, beyond his adherence to Kwik-E-Mart’s policies on price-gouging and expired meat. Even there, his betrayal of Manjula is presented as cripplingly, universally human.

Maybe it’s that The Simpsons’ creative team just believes all this stuff is accepted as read—nullifying any need to “do something” about Apu, because they’ve already done so much with and for him over the years. There’s admittedly some truth to that: Apu is arguably the most rounded-out “tertiary” character on television, just by dint of his having been around for so long. The Simpsons has done plenty to show that there’s more to Apu than just an accent, portraying him not only as a complex, relatable man, but using him to explore some of our own unconscious racial presumptions. In that respect, it’s easy to see how Al Jean and the rest of The Simpsons staff might be tempted to just throw up their hands and say, “Look, what more do you want from us?”

That said, there’s a difference between thinking that and actually doing it, especially with a moment that could only be read as a glib “fuck off,” delivered square into the camera. As much as it’s similarly reductive to go back to that well of “The Simpsons hasn’t being good since...,” it’s a problem that the show has demonstrably been able to write to and around in years past, even as recently as two seasons ago. Had it simply let “Much Apu About Something” stand as its final comment on the matter, that would have been fine. Not wholly satisfying to everyone, probably, but better than revisiting and reigniting the controversy, just to openly bait those who actually care about it by laughing it off. It’s a “Poochie died on the way back to his home planet” solution to the problem.

When The A.V. Club interviewed Kondabolu in 2017, even he acknowledged that it was probably too late to really “do something” about Apu. The show’s been on forever, the character lives on in hundreds of reruns, and simply killing him off at this point would just be a lazy cop-out. But Kondabolu’s suggestion was surprisingly simple: Let him evolve. “The idea that Apu is still working at the Kwik-E-Mart versus owning these places seems weird,” Kondabolu said. “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.” He also suggested bringing in those octuplets, maybe fudging the show’s already-obliterated perceptions of passing time to turn them into characters who can give voice to the kinds of Indian-Americans that represent him.

Either scenario would have been easy enough, especially for a show that’s been on so long that its shredded continuity is just another in-joke. It’s hardly disruptive to the show’s spirit or character, and much better than just doing nothing—definitely better than literally rolling their eyes at the very idea of doing something. Most importantly, it would be very much in keeping with the way The Simpsons has always treated the character, until it suddenly decided it didn’t need to, because fuck ’em. That’s a much bigger problem than just Apu.

Sean O'Neal has been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006.