After facing negative criticism for his role as Abu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons, Hank Azaria has announced that he's willing to not play the character anymore. Years of of vocal disapproval on social media and even a documentary titled The Problem with Apu has led to Azaria finally addressing issues stemming from the racially stereotypical character.
The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom on television, and its Indian immigrant character Apu, voiced by Azaria, has been the focus of widespread controversy and criticism for the past few years. Introduced in the show's eighth episode of the first season on February 25, 1990, Apu has been a supporting character for nearly three decades, with Azaria voicing other supporting characters on the show, including bartender Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, and Comic Book Guy. Recently, however, the show has come under fire for racial insensitivity, and Azaria has officially stepped forward to address how the show might help fix the problem.
While appearing as a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Azaria was asked to chime in on the controversy, which led to him offering some ideas as to how the problem might be solved. He explained that he understood why Indian-American and South-Asian individuals might be offended by his portrayal, acknowledging that "people in the South Asian community in this country have been fairly upset," but that the criticism has also "sparked a lot of conversation on what should be done with the character going forward." This ultimately led to Azaria stating that he was open to abandoning the character altogether. He said:
"I have given this a lot of thought, and as I say, my eyes have been opened. And I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people, in this country, when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character, and what their American experience of it has been. And, as you know, in television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writers' room. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the room - not in a token way - genuinely informing whatever new direction this character take, including how it is voiced or not voiced. I'm perfectly willing to step aside or help transition it into something new."
Despite Azaria's apologies to individuals who may have been offended - or even individuals in the South Asian community who were teased on account of the character Apu - Colbert addressed the fact that the show responded to the controversy in a questionable manner. In an episode released following the controversy, the character Marge Simpson is reading a bedtime story to her daughter, Lisa, when Lisa responds by saying, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" She then looks over at a picture of Apu (which includes a caption that reads "Don't have a cow") and the characters discuss whether or not certain issues will ever officially be dealt with. Azaria explained that he hopes that show moves in a more forward-thinking and inclusive direction, despite the apparent indifference.
The Simpsons is certainly entering into some precarious territory with racial insensitivity, and if they're not careful, their crowning achievement of becoming the longest-running American sitcom may end up holding very little value. Still, given that Azaria seems more than willing to make a drastic change with the show and his character, it's proof that the public opinion counts. Between the truTV documentary The Problem with Apu from comedian Hari Kondabolu and the outcry most notable via Twitter, audiences aren't simply sitting back and accepting the status quo - and the fact that they're actually being heard is a promising start.