Culture Crash 17-49: The Simpsons’s Apu Problem

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine american culture. What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

The Simpsons is a cultural touchstone for countless Americans. Spanning what is now 29 seasons and having aired over 600 episodes, it is the longest-running American scripted primetime television program ever and has given us a whole town full of memorable characters, like Homer and Bart, Krusty the Clown, and Mr. Burns.

But maybe the most problematic character is Apu, the clerk at the simpson’s local convenience store, the Kwik-E-Mart.

Apu is an Indian character, or caricature. Almost every joke made at Apu’s expense has to do with indian culture. Even his voice is meant to elicit a laugh, an exaggerated Indian accent voiced by white actor Hank Azaria.

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Apu is a character that has been dreaming of being a “real American” with his thick accent for years and now, comedian Hari Kondabolu is bringing his objections to the character forward in his documentary The Problem With Apu.

In it, Kondabolu talks to strangers on the street and fellow actors Kal Penn, Whoopi Goldberg, Sakina Jaffrey, and others about racism in our culture and how characters like Apu or old-fashioned racist minstrel shows came about and impacted the culture.

Actor Utkarsh Ambudkar explains in the documentary that a basic problem with Apu is that for a long time, before Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, or Dev Patel Apu was the only South Asian representation on TV.

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The documentary investigates how this lack of representation developed, how racist characters are hurtful, and what the legacy of Apu has meant for Indian-American actors trying to break through in Hollywood.

For a more in-depth look at these issues and more, The Problem With Apu is available to stream on Trutv dot com.

I’m Evan Rook.