The Simpsons might not be ready to address the problem with Apu, but Hank Azaria, who has played the character for nearly 30 years, says he is. Comedian Hari Kondabolus 2017 documentary sparked a conversation around the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor, an Indian man who speaks with a heavy accent—and the chatter has given Azaria a lot to think about. Though the actor ultimately decided not to participate in the documentary himself, he has been ruminating on the subject at least since last winter—and on The Late Show Tuesday, he told host Stephen Colbert that he understands viewers frustration.
“Ive tried to express this before,” Azaria said. “You know, the idea that anybody was—young or old, past or present—was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad. It was certainly not my intention; I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character, and the idea that its brought pain and suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalize people, its upsetting. Genuinely.”
Earlier this month, the long-running comedy attempted to address the controversy—but ended up leaving some fans even more frustrated. In the episode, Marge read Lisa an old book that had been re-written to be less problematic—but Lisa was unmoved. When Marge asked if there was a solution to this problem, Lisa broke the fourth wall: “Its hard to say. Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” she said, before turning to face her nightstand, where a framed photo of Apu sat. It was captioned with an old Simpsons catchphrase: “Dont have a cow!”
Azaria told Colbert that he was not involved in writing or filming the episode, and worked to distance himself from it on Tuesday. “If anybody came away from that segment feeling like they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin . . . thats certainly not the way I feel about it, and thats definitely not the message that I want to send them,” he said.
What does Azaria suggest, then? “Ive given this a lot of thought—really a lot of thought,” the actor said. “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—what their American experience of it has been. As you know, in television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writers room.”
Azaria said he doesnt want to see South Asian writers working on The Simpsons “in a token way,” but instead hopes that they would be able to contribute and inform whatever new path Apu might forge. He also wants them to express thoughts on how the character gets voiced—even if that means stepping down from the role himself. “Im perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new,” Azaria said. “I really hope thats what this instance does. It just, it not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”
Last year, Kondabolu suggested a few remedies for Apu, including providing him “some upward mobility” or perhaps adding another character of South Asian descent to the show, someone whose socioeconomic background is different from Apus—perhaps, say, a billionaire like Mr. Burns. Another option? Give Apus kids a more prominent role on the series. “Have them represent us,” Kondabolu said. “Have writers who can write to that voice.” It sounds like Azaria has come around to that idea; now its up to the Fox comedy to follow.
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Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.