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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: December 4, 2017

Comedian Hari Kondabolu has a ‘Problem with Apu’

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Hari Kondabolu in his documentary 'The Problem with Apu.' Photo courtesy of truTV

Hari Kondabolu in his documentary ‘The Problem with Apu.’ Photo courtesy of truTV

If there’s someone not directly connected with “The Simpsons” who thinks as much about the show as I do, it’s Hari Kondabolu. In addition to being a huge “Simpsons” fan for most of my life, since 2014, I’ve been the weekly reviewer of the still-running animated TV institution for the A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment arm of The Onion. But Brooklyn-based writer, comedian and filmmaker Kondabolu, while as big a “Simpsons” fanatic, has also turned his lifelong conflicted relationship with one particular character on the show into the thought-provoking new documentary “The Problem With Apu.”

Watch the trailer:

Kondabalu (like this author, a Bowdoin College graduate) is of Indian descent. In his film, he talks with other South Asian actors like Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”), Utkarsh Ambudkar (“The Mindy Project”), Hasan Minhaj and Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”), and comedian Aparna Nancherla, among others, all of whom share their similar love-hate relationship with the show — and Apu.

Hari Kondabolu interviews Kal Penn in "The Problem with Apu." Photo by David S. Holloway/Courtesy of truTV

Hari Kondabolu interviews Kal Penn in “The Problem with Apu.”
Photo by David S. Holloway/Courtesy of truTV

Throughout, they share stories of a lifetime of not only being taunted in the character’s stereotypical sing-song accent (performed for more than a quarter-century by white-guy voice actor Hank Azaria), but also of seeing one of the most popular shows in America continue to trot out a character that Kondabalu famously called “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” I spoke to Kondabalu about his film, his enduring love of “The Simpsons” and what he thinks should be done with Apu Nahasapeemapetilon as the series goes into its 29th season.

How does “The Simpsons” fix its Apu problem? Or can it?

In one way, it’s as simple as there’s just so many directions you can move while also trying to talk about contemporary things with an old template. Apu has been in that Kwik-E-Mart for 30 years. What’s the excuse for not changing something? This is a cartoon. Characters have died, they’ve shifted things — in a cartoon, you can do anything you want. There’s been talk of killing Apu off, and I think that would be a cop-out and a disgraceful insult to the show. That means you couldn’t write your way out of it. It’s “The Simpsons”— it’s the highest of writing.

So, who is Apu in the show’s Springfield, if he’s not the stereotypical convenience store owner?

You could move Apu out and move Cletus in. Talk about trends in rural white America, and all of a sudden, that opens up an interesting bunch of ideas. Make Apu (who, on the show, has a Ph.D. in computer science) upwardly mobile, as a counter to Mr. Burns. Why is that bad? Ultimately, I think it’s a matter of being handcuffed by tradition, and it’s being lost as a writer not to take that as a challenge.

You and everyone you talk to in your film speaks feelingly about how hurtful the character of Apu could be, especially in a world where he was pretty much the only depiction of a South Asian on TV. There’s more representation for South Asians now, so why hasn’t “The Simpsons” changed?

I think it has to do with who is creating the show still. Who is writing? Is the writers’ room diverse enough, and the executives and producers — do they see that as a value? Even if you’re a pretty progressive, nuanced, thoughtful writer, I think there’s a sense that you can’t do that, because it’s not “The Simpsons.” It’s not necessarily the individual writers, so much as the institution, which is a fundamental obstruction toward progress.

Not to give anything away, but “The Problem With Apu” is partly a “Roger & Me” type of story, trying to sit down with Hank Azaria. Why was that so important?

For a guy like Hank — who’s super talented and versatile, but who has no real controversy connected to him — I think it’s a mindset of, “I’ve always done this. Who cares? Why is this going to be an issue?” To be fair, he’s expressed some conflicted feelings about doing the voice over the years. (As in a 2013 Huffington Post article by Mallika Rao entitled “Is It Time To Retire Apu?”) And, to Hank’s credit, he’s the only one who did reach out.

Yet in the film, we see a clip of him speaking at a Tufts graduation ceremony in 2016, doing the Apu voice.

I think that speaks of the privilege of a man who’s always done this and who lacks a certain self-awareness. I did a show in Boston not long after, and a couple of people came to me afterward who were at that ceremony and they told me how pissed they were. If you watch, there are laughs, but it’s not universal — these kids gave me a class of 2016 sash to say, “You’re also part of our class because you’re countering this.” So that was nice.

Speaking as someone who is told constantly, “No one cares about ‘The Simpsons’ any more” in my job as reviewer, is the amount of often-abusive backlash you’ve gotten over your film a surprise?

I don’t even think it’s about “The Simpsons,” honestly. Every week, something stands in for “political correctness” and gets attacked. Usually by people who haven’t seen or analyzed the film, who didn’t even bother watching it. I don’t think of these people as “Simpsons” fans. Fans who appreciate the show are thoughtful and critical and have thought about that character and say that, for a show that’s so cutting edge, it’s weird to have this very simplistic character. I think that what I did was the ultimate “Simpsons” thing, really, saying it’s OK to criticize something, to criticize an institution and still love it, still find value in it. If we can’t have a discussion about “The Simpsons” after three decades, then what hope do we have?


“The Problem With Apu” aired on truTV and can be seen on the truTV app, iTunes, Roku and Amazon Fire, among other places. You can see more of Hari Kondabolu’s stuff at harikondabolu.com and hear him alongside comedian W. Kamau Bell on their podcast “Politically Re-Active” (politicallyreactive.com). “The Simpsons”‘ 29th season is currently airing every Sunday night on Fox at 8 p.m., which the author of this article reviews in The A.V. Club directly following each episode. There’s always plenty to talk about.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

PMA FILMS
Friday-Sunday: “Bill Nye: Science Guy.” Former kids’ show host and current thorn in science-deniers’ sides Bill Nye is the subject of this documentary about the fact that people who don’t believe in science are now in charge of the country.

SPACE GALLERY
Wednesday, Dec. 13: “From Nowhere.” Acclaimed indie drama about three undocumented immigrant teens in the Bronx attempting to stay ahead of the authorities while they manage the pitfalls of just being kids. Presented with the ACLU of Maine.

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