TV

"The Simpsons'" Apu, as We Know Him, Is Dead

Hank Azaria will no longer be voicing Apu.

Apu is no more, or, at the very least, the Apu we knew is gone.

Ever since Hari Kondabolu's 2017 documentary, The Problem With Apu, the iconic Kwik-E-Mart owner has been widely viewed as a source of controversy. Kondabolu's documentary explores the culture surrounding Apu, the Indian immigrant stereotypes Apu enforced, and the effect it had on the children of Indian immigrants who grew up in the '90s and 2000s. On one hand, Apu was arguably "representation" for Indian immigrants at a time when there were no other Indian characters on TV. But on the other, Apu's stereotypical manner of speaking and catch phrases like, "Thank you, come again!" became a common source of ridicule for Indian people in the real world.

"I think particularly right now, people feel so aggrieved and crazed and powerless that they're picking the wrong battles," said Simpsons creator Matt Groening at the time. "I am sorry that The Simpsons would be criticized for having an Indian character that, because of our extraordinary popularity — I expected other people to do it. I go, maybe he's a problem, but who's better? Who's a better Indian animated character in the last 30 years?"

Apu Simpsons Fox

To Groening's point, even in 2020, there are very few Indian faces on American TV. But for Azaria, the diversity provided by Apu didn't necessarily make up for the real pain that the character caused so many young Indian-Americans.

"The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing," said Azaria shortly after watching. "And especially in post-9/11 America, the idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally."

Azaria immediately called for more South Asian representation in The Simpsons' writing room, but now, after 30 years of being the white voice actor behind the best known Indian character on American television, Hank Azaria has officially decided to step down from the role.

"Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn't want to participate in it anymore," Azaria recently told the New York Times. "It just didn't feel right." However, he admitted being hesitant to give up the character. "I didn't want to knee-jerk drop it if I didn't feel that was right, nor did I want to stubbornly keep doing it if that wasn't right," he said. "But then I started thinking, 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."

"What happened with this character is a window into an important issue," Azaria said. "It's a good way to start the conversation. I can be accountable and try to make up for it as best I can."

Of course, that doesn't mean that Apu is actually gone. "Apu is beloved worldwide," said The Simpsons executive producersexecutive producers in a statement confirming Azaria's departure from the character. "We love him too. Stay tuned."

So what does the future hold for Apu? Can a character largely based on cultural stereotypes survive in the media landscape of 2020, or has Apu already failed the test of time? After all, times change, and culture changes, too. Things that were largely considered "okay" in 2019 can no longer hold up when we factor in the voices of non-white people who grew up experiencing the repercussions. But change is a good thing. That's how humanity grows and advances. Maybe Apu can grow and advance, too, with an Indian voice actor and Indian writers leading the way.

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