When Jokes Lose Their Edge: The Problem With Apu

Hari Kondabolu loves The Simpsons, but he has a problem with Apu. So he made a documentary about it.

Hari Kondabolu and Kal Penn in The Problem with Apu. (Photo by David S. Holloway)

Hari Kondabolu was a big fan of The Simpsons growing up. How could he not, when his teenage years coincided almost exactly with what many people consider to be the series’ golden age? And while the show has dimmed to the point that a Simpsons trivia night at Cafe du Nord over the summer billed itself as “’90s-only,” Kondabolu still considers himself a fan, crediting the show for its influence on him as a stand-up comedian.

“It’s funny and well-written — and a lot of times when I see shows again, I’ll get a joke I missed the first time because it’s so subtle,” he says. “It’s entertaining on so many levels, and some stuff is not for everyone. It’s like these Easter eggs for people who get it. I learned from The Simpsons that it’s OK to be smart and silly.”

Now Kondabolu has made a documentary about The Simpsons, but it’s not about how clever and subtle it is. The Problem with Apu, which aired on truTV on Nov. 19, is about the thorny dilemma of one Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart owner voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria, who is just a collection of clichés and stereotypes of Indian-Americans.

In the documentary, Kondabolu talks with other South Asian comics and actors, including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, and Aasif Mandvi, about how Apu affected them growing up — especially as Simpsons writers gradually began to flesh out the one-dimensional character with a backstory. (In addition to being hard-working, Apu is a highly educated vegan who studies to become a U.S. citizen and later marries a woman named Manjula, with whom he has octuplets.)

Kondabolu interviews people on the street, asking them what they think of The Simpsons and about Apu, and finds that many of them are surprised to hear Apu’s voice is that of a white man. Kondabolu also documents his pursuit of getting Azaria to appear in the film.

The Problem with Apu came about after Kondabolu talked about media representation on a segment of comedian W. Kamau Bell’s show, Politically Biased, where he was a writer. One of the difficulties that historically underrepresented groups face is when (or whether) to celebrate a lazily written character from their own group. Is poor representation a stepping-stone on the way to accurate, humanizing treatments down the road? Is it better than no representation at all? In any case, a short bit about Apu elicited the strongest response from viewers, so Kondabolu decided to explore it further.

Initially, Kondabolu’s reaction to Apu as a kid was gladness at simply seeing a South Asian face on TV — even an animated one.  As he grew up, that began to change.

“Around middle school, I realized that this is a weapon in some way, and people will make fun of me, and I didn’t want people to meet my parents because I was embarrassed about their accents,” he says. “A lot of people of color have that experience, where they realize you love something, but it’s not built for you. When Apu makes a corny joke, you realize this is what white writers think of you, and it takes you out of the show for a moment.”

Apu’s accent is funny only to white people, says Dana Gould a writer and producer on The Simpsons, who appears in The Problem with Apu. (And, as the Simpsons wiki elaborates upon, Apu appears to be a rather artless amalgam of various Indian ethnicities and castes.) Kondabolu appreciated Gould’s honesty. He wanted people influential in the creation of the show, he said, and considered Gould a huge get. He understands there is some formula in comedy, he says, but that shouldn’t be all there is. Part of what bothers him about Apu, Kondabolu says, is how hackneyed and clichéd the character is.

“The punch line to every joke is he’s Indian,” Kondabolu says. “I mean, how many jokes do I need to hear about multi-armed gods and arranged marriages and how many people there are in India?”

Kondabolu, who worked as an immigrants’ rights organizer before becoming a comedian — his boss at one time was Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle activist who is now serving her first term in Congress — thinks one solution is diverse views in creating media.

“White men control a lot of it and there are certain skills or views they don’t have,” he said. “If there were different people, then the jokes would be better.”

The Problem with Apu, premiered on truTV Sunday, Nov.19 at 10 p.m.

Hari Kondabolu, Friday, Dec. 1, 8 p.m., at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $29.50; thefoxoakland.com

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