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Quotes on Apu from the Simpsons in an NPR conversation
Today’s episode of Code Switch features the first public conversation between comedians Hari Kondabolu and Hank Azaria since Hari released his documentary The Problem with Apu in 2017. The film called out Hollywood’s portrayal of South Asians, doubling down on Hank, who is white, for voicing the Indian Simpsons character Apu.
Hank on how he came to voice Apu
I was about 22, 23 when I started doing voices on the show. The first voice I did was Moe the bartender. And then the following week I came back and did the voice Chief Wiggum. And then that week or the following week, there was an Apu line, and it was just written as clerk, and the producer, the director I was working with at the time said, can you do an Indian accent? And I said, yeah, I can try and did my version of an Indian accent and that was it. The only really Indian accent that I had context for, apart from guys who worked at the 7-Eleven that I was near in LA, was Peter Sellers in The Party. It was mostly an homage to that, one of my heroes.
On Hank not appearing in the documentary
Hari: It’s funny because I kind of figured you’d say no, but I was still upset about it. Like, you get to choose how you’re portrayed, and I don’t get that choice.
Hank: I was afraid. I was really freaked out. You’re a comedian. And some of your stuff is “gotcha.” It has bite to it, as it should. It’s hilarious and it makes good points. But being on the other end of that really scared me. At the time, I didn’t feel safe to have the conversation privately, let alone recorded.
On how the documentary’s release affected them both
Hank: I’m so grateful for you dragging and pushing me into this conversation.
Hari: It means a lot to hear you say that. I know you’ve told me privately the impact that I’ve made, but to hear that publicly is a really big deal to me because one of the things that frustrated me after the film came out is that I was getting death threats…Initially it bothered me that you didn’t mention me because I had to deal with all this crap to get it there…There is a history of white folks talking about what they’ve learned and sharing the knowledge without giving credit to the people of color that actually got them there. Like, you put in the work and then you get never get credit for the work. And at the end of the day, I’m talking about this way more than I wanted to.
And I know it’s a different experience for both of us, because for you it’s opened up all these new ideas and you’ve grown in incredible ways and I can see your excitement about the work you’re doing now. To me, this was old hat when I made the documentary. So it’s the double whammy of being stuck here without also getting props. So for you to say it now does mean a lot.
Hank: I apologize for not saying it earlier. It put me in a dilemma because it’s still embarrassing to me to point at the doc, although whatever I feel personally about it is a drop in the ocean compared to what your community has had to deal with.
Hari on representation
Representation has weight, but it’s not necessarily the act of violence in itself. But the person who was making [Apu] wanted a very specific effect out of the images and words that they used.
To be honest, I have sometimes thought to myself, I regret ever doing this. The documentary is about how I hate being associated with this stereotype and now I’m forever associated with it. There is a lot of irony and frustration in that. But then suddenly you speak in a college classroom, or you find out that your documentary is being used when teaching media representation or you hear from South Asian parents who talk about how much this means to them because they have children. Now I have a kid, and it feels different. My kid’s not gonna deal with a lot of this stuff.
I still get like annoyed that we gotta talk about it, but at the same time, in the broad scheme of things, I think I did right by my community. Even if they’re not all in agreement.
These quotes appeared in a conversation on Code Switch hosted by NPR.
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