The Simpsons has tried to respond to the controversy surrounding Apu, but in doing so the show has only made things worse. The Problem with Apu is real, and they've just shut their way out.
It's hard to oversell the impact The Simpsons has had on the past 30 years of pop culture. Its first ten seasons remain, to many, the greatest television ever made, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a contemporary American comedy that wasn't in some way influenced by Matt Groening's Emmy winning juggernaut (its creator is able to leverage a Netflix deal off its success).
Much has been made about the debated decline of the series in its latter half, but few could argue that it's still one of the Fox Network's biggest stars. The show is also coming up on its 636th episode, which would make it the longest-running prime-time series ever, surpassing Gunsmoke. This is a show ready for a return to the spotlight. Indeed, it happened on Sunday, but not for the reasons they probably wanted.
What's The Problem With Apu?
Last November, the comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary, The Problem With Apu. In it, he talks to various celebrities and public figures about the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, and his ultimate impact on how South Asians are represented in media. When the show started in 1989, Apu was one of the few South Asian characters American viewers could see regularly on TV. Kondabolu, and figures like Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn and Hasan Minhaj, detail childhood anecdotes of being bullied as kids who used Apu as a means to berate them.
He then goes into great detail on how the character being voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria, is comparable to blackface minstrelsy. While Kondabolu, a self-confessed fan of The Simpsons, acknowledges his appreciation for the series as a cultural and comedic institution, he ultimately emphasizes the need to have this often uncomfortable conversation about how the media we love can be used in negative ways to malign minority groups.
In the documentary, Kondabolu hoped to have a meeting with Azaria himself, which did not manifest, as Azaria allegedly feared that anything he said in that context would be manipulated in the editing process. After its release, Azaria acknowledged Apu's impact as fodder for racist bullying against South Asian individuals. A discussion between him and Kondabolu was pitched, but Azaria revoked his initial offer.
The Simpsons' Response To Apu
It seemed inevitable that the show would respond to the Apu problem. After all, The Simpsons has a long history of responding to real-life criticisms of the series. During a speech on family values in 1992, then President George HW Bush said that American families needed to be "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." The following week, the show responded by having the family watch the scene, then Bart responded, "Hey, we’re like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the depression, too." In a later episode, Bush became the Simpsons' neighbor, and Homer got into a fist fight with him.
In the episode "No Good Read Goes Unpunished", the show eventually responded to the Apu problem. The story revolves around Marge discovering that a book she loved as a child has been updated to remove some problematic elements that have come to be classified as culturally offensive in the years since its initial publication. Lisa then says, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Marge then says, "Some things will be dealt with at a later date", while Lisa adds, "If at all." The pair look directly into the camera when saying this. By Lisa's bedside is a photograph of Apu, with the caption "Don't have a cow!"
Kondabolu responded to the episode via Twitter, saying, "Wow. “Politically Incorrect?” That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad." Prior to its airing, executive producer Al Jean teased fans on his own Twitter account with the message, "New Simpsons in five minutes. Twitter explosion in act three." He has since retweeted various messages of support, although critically, the episode has gone down less successfully.