‘I’ve had death threats about The Simpsons – I don’t want to be a martyr for Apu’
Comedian Hari Kondabolu dared to say he had a problem with the character’s caricatured Indian accent
For the past year, US comedian Hari Kondabolu has been receiving death threats from people angry about a film they haven’t seen.
“It’s absurd,” he tells me, rolling his eyes. “I don’t want to be a martyr for a cartoon character. I have a list of things I will die on a hill for and Apu is not one of them.”
In 2017 Kondabolu made a lighthearted, satirical film about The Simpsons for a US cable channel called The Problem with Apu, criticising the show’s pot-bellied shopkeeper as a lazy ethnic caricature.
The 36-year-old is a lifelong fan of the show, but grew up feeling like he was being stalked by Apu. Whenever he faced racist bullying, there was a fair chance the bullies would be doing impressions of the character. Interviewing other actors and comedians from South Asian families, he found that they had similar experiences. Later, auditioning for roles, some of them would be asked to do "the Apu voice".
The titular “problem” isn’t so much that the character is a stereotype – Kondabolu readily admits that all The Simpsons’ characters are stereotypes. “Apu’s a funny character,” he says. The problem was that for a long time Apu was all Indian-Americans had.
“I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, which is a Little India,” he says. “I didn’t see anyone like us on television. It was weird. I remember every little character, because we had nothing. Fisher Stevens put on brown face-paint to play an Indian guy in the film Short Circuit 2 – I shouldn’t have to remember that! Christopher Guest did an Indian impression on Saturday Night Live where he talked about vindaloo, and I was excited to hear an Indian accent, even if it was terrible, because it was something.”
So in 1980, when an Indian character (albeit one with a ropey accent based on Peter Sellers in The Party) was introduced to a new TV show with almost 30 million viewers, the young Kondabolu was thrilled. “When you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything.”
“It’s not about being offended,” he says, and it’s clear he’s not a fan of the word. (Earlier this year, The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening was asked about the documentary in an interview in USA Today. Groening dismissed it, saying “people love to pretend they’re offended”.)
Kondabolu continues: “When I was six, I didn’t say ‘mommy, mommy, I was offended at school, the bully offended me.’ I’d say it sucked. I’d say I was insulted, or I was hurt. That’s what it felt like as a kid. A lot of us grew up being embarrassed about our parents and how they talked. I didn’t want to bring friends over because my parents had that accent they made fun of.”
His parents, who are both physicians, make an appearance in the documentary. Though they weren’t expecting their son to make a living cracking jokes about them, they’ve supported him along the way. “My parents thought of it as a hobby, as a phase, which it could have been. I hadn’t intended on doing it as a career. I was an immigrant rights activist in Seattle, I was connecting people with lawyers, supporting families. I did comedy at night.” But when he took a year off from performing to study for a masters degree in human rights, “I realised I really couldn’t function without it – I can’t imagine doing anything else”.
His small made-for-TV documentary struck a nerve. Debates on social media led to headlines around the world. There were countless think-pieces in magazines from Vanity Fair to Forbes. It was given airtime on national TV news shows. Even Canada’s CBC weighed in with a list of “The problems with The Problem with Apu.” Kondabolu started receiving odd, abusive messages. (“The weirdest thing is people sending me images of beef. I like beef!”)
No one from the show sent him a formal response after it aired, but Hank Azaria, the white actor who voices Apu, offered to meet Kondabolu to talk about it in a public forum – such as a public event, or an interview mediated by someone else. Kondabolu says he agreed, and is still hoping to take him up on the offer, but it hasn’t yet happened.
Things escalated further last April when a scene was written into the sitcom responding to the furore. In the scene, Marge Simpson reads her daughter Lisa an old children’s book filled with racial stereotypes.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa shrugs, as a picture of Apu appears onscreen. “What can you do?”
It didn't go down well, with viewers complaining that the scene rang hollow. “Even the Simpsons fans who disagreed with my documentary thought they did a shit job of addressing it,” says Kondabolu. “You think Lisa would say that? Have you seen the show? Lisa’s a social justice warrior! She’d be the last person to bring up ‘political correctness’. Lisa would agree with me, though Homer and Bart might not.”
Even Azaria criticised the scene, which he said had been written into the show without his knowledge. In a TV appearance, he said he would be “willing to step aside” from the role, or “help transition it into something new”.
Things died down for a while, until a few months ago, while October film producer Adi Shankar claimed “multiple sources” had told him Apu was going to be written out of the show entirely.
“Based on that rumour all of a sudden these people started sending me threats – more so than when the film initially came out, because it was coming from other countries now,” says Kondabolu. “There was a whole campaign – especially in South America, strangely enough.” Kondabolu says he stumbled across a Photoshopped tweet, which invented a fake quote to suggest he had specifically badmouthed Argentinian and Peruvian fans of the show.
“I’ve been getting death threats in Spanish for months now. It’s everywhere! If I have a show at a theatre or a school, that theatre or school gets messages. I had to get extra security at several gigs – over a fucking cartoon character!”
Due to licensing difficulties with its original broadcaster TruTV, outside the US the film is only available in Australia and a couple of Scandinavian territories. But around the world it was being vehemently attacked and defended by people arguing over a muddied third-hand idea of what it might be about. “I don’t care if people bootleg it!” Kondabolu says, exasperated. “Go steal it! You can still dislike me after watching it, but at least you’ll know why.”
It’s a striking portrait of the internet outrage machine in action. Anything that touches on a hot-button issue such as racism is recycled to produce as many inflammatory responses as possible.
“I realise it has nothing to do with the film – I was just the flavour of the month,” says Kondabolu. “It has to do with this larger belief in ‘political correctness’, fear of censorship, a feeling that freedom is being restricted, that you can’t say anything any more. I’m a comedian – freedom of speech is what I do! I have no authority to restrict it, nor would I. I’m using my freedom of speech to question how someone else is using theirs.”
For this reason, Kondabolu doesn’t mind people saying his work is terrible. Engaging with something critically, he continues, “is valuing it … it’s saying this is an important cultural thing, and I’m going to review it. It’s not a sign of disrespect, and it’s certainly not a restriction of free speech. It’s the best of free speech.
“There are other people who’ve made documentaries – there’s one called The Problem with The Problem with Apu. If you don’t like mine, do that! But a death threat? You’re lazy. That means you don’t want to do work. You scared me, great, but now what? You didn’t add anything to the culture.”
Kondabolu is particularly annoyed when people claim – inaccurately – that his documentary was calling for The Simpsons to be censored or cancelled. Much like The King, Eugene Jarecki’s recent documentary about Elvis, The Problem with Apu used an instantly recognisable piece of US pop culture – the country’s longest-running sitcom – to ask questions about the national identity.
“The Simpsons is this weird kind of time capsule,” says Kondabolu. “It’s current, but it’s also like a mosquito in amber.”
Speaking in the documentary, Whoopi Goldberg sees Apu as part of an older tradition of racist “minstrel” characters.
“I was asking, what does this tell us about the history of minstrelsy in America – and what are our next steps to creating a fuller identity?” says Kondabolu. “That’s what it’s about! I don’t want The Simpsons to get cancelled, I don’t want to get rid of Apu!” He slips into the voice of an anxious TV producer: “‘Oh, we have an issue with the immigrant. What do we do? Get rid of the immigrant?’ NO! Don’t get rid of him, change the conditions. Make it more interesting.”
This mock-lecture is delivered with a laugh over coffee in a London hotel, a short walk from the Soho Theatre, where Kondabolu was performing his latest stand-up show American Hour.
Though he is best known for his trenchant political comedy – as seen in his punchy Netflix special Warn Your Relatives – American Hour is his attempt at something more introspective. Rather than spouting opinions, he wants the audience “to understand who the person with the opinions is … Whether it’s something as silly as liking mangoes or as personal as my depression, which I’ve never talked about on stage before.”
That said, he still enjoys making political comments likely to put the cat among the pigeons. “It’s always great when I hear about relationships ending because of my shows,” he says, with a wicked chuckle. “It’s happened at least four or five times right here.”
When one partner laughs uproariously about a political barb, and another sits fuming in silence, new couples sometimes realise they have irreconcilable differences. “There’s a sick joy that I get out of it, to be perfectly honest. And a sense that I’ve done my duty. They’re out of a bad situation. I’m glad I was a litmus test!” For a jobbing club comic, it’s also a couple of extra ticket sales. “There’s something enjoyable about taking a racist’s money. If I have it, they can’t buy tiki torches with it.”
• Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives is on Netflix now.
- © The Daily Telegraph