Earlier this year, Hank Azaria, one of the key cast members on Fox’s The Simpsons, announced that he would no longer be voicing the character of Apu, the show’s Indian convenience store owner and one of its most well-known characters. This came after many years of criticism, culminating in Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. In an interview with Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times, Azaria discussed his feelings over him playing Apu, his deeply racist inspiration for the voice, and why he no longer wishes to play him.
Apu was based on a Peter Sellers character from the 1968 movie The Party, directed by Blake Edwards. Sellers, who is obviously white, plays an Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, complete with brownface. Azaria has talked about this influenced several times before over the 30 or so years he’s been a part of the longest-running sitcom on American television. Now, he’s admitting that this inspiration ‘represents a real blind spot I had […] There I am, joyfully basing a character on what was already considered quite upsetting.’
Following the more public backlash to Apu after Kondabolu’s documentary, Azaria said that he took the time to listen to the criticisms and knew that it was time to step back.
‘Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore. It just didn’t feel right. What happened with this character is a window into an important issue. It’s a good way to start the conversation. I can be accountable and try to make up for it as best I can.’
He also admitted that he felt the need to step down after wondering how he as a Jewish man would have felt if ‘that character were the only representation of Jewish people in American culture for 20 years, which was the case with Apu, I might not love that.’ Azaria will stay with The Simpsons and continue to voice characters such as Moe and Chief Wiggum, but no announcements have been made on the future of Apu.
This is a classic case of ‘better late than never’ and I think a lot of people are hesitant to roll out the welcome wagon for Azaria given how many decades he voiced this character and the cultural damage it created. It’s not like any of this criticism was new either. It’s always been around for as long as the show has. Still, Azaria making this decision does mean something, especially in the context of the series’ current show-runners basically sneering at the criticisms and making fun of it on the show itself in a deeply smarmy manner (like, how bloody dare you make Lisa Simpson say all your bullsh*t?!) Hari Kondabolu received a crap ton of abuse and death threats for speaking out on this and the show’s writers essentially added an even bigger target to his back.
I would tell them to try harder but I think they tapped out on trying about 15 seasons ago.