“The Simpsons” creators may erase Apu, and with him, a chance at improvement

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Illustration courtesy of Alice Feng
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The long-running animated comedy “The Simpsons” may remove the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the television series after mounting controversy regarding accusations of stereotyping Indian-Americans. According to Adi Shankar, a filmmaker who is not involved in the production of “The Simpsons,” the leadership behind the show wants to erase Apu from future episodes, as opposed to changing the character, in order to circumvent the controversy altogether.

“It’s not a step forward, or step backwards, it’s just a massive step sideways,” Shankar said in an interview with Indiewire.

Controversies surrounding Apu came to the forefront with the release of the 2017 documentary “The Trouble with Apu.” Produced by Hari Kondabolu, a comedian of South Asian descent, the documentary examines how Apu — a character known for a stereotypically thick accent and exaggerated mannerisms — contributes to derogatory views of Indian-Americans.

The allegation came months after Hank Azaria, the actor who is the voice of Apu, indicated in a late 2017 interview with TMZ that the team behind the show was looking into ways of addressing the concerns of stereotyping.

“I think the documentary did make some really interesting points and gave [the cast and crew of] ‘The Simpsons’ [something] to think about,” Azaria said.

Azaria, who is white, also acknowledged in a separate interview with Stephen Colbert that he would be willing to leave the role if it were written out of the show, or to reimagine the role as something less offensive.

“I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside, or help transition it into something new,” Azaria said.

The showrunner for “The Simpsons,” Al Jean, later promised in April of this year that the show would seek to alleviate the issue in a thoughtful manner.

However, Shankar’s observation suggests otherwise. As opposed to rectifying a problem, the showrunners are avoiding it altogether.

The potential decision to ignore the suggestions of adjusting Apu’s character runs in line with the rhetoric of the show’s creator, Matt Groening. According to Groening, the backlash against Apu represents a greater trend towards overreacting to potentially offensive content rather than a valid criticism of the show.

“I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended,” Groening said in an interview with USA Today.

In an interview with the New York Times, Groening elaborated on his statement from the USA Today interview.

“[The comment] was about our culture in general. And that’s something I’ve noticed for the last 25 years. There is the outrage of the week and it comes and goes,” Groening said.

While Groening never explicitly showed any interest in removing Apu from the show, such an action would reinforce his stance that the show has committed no offense with the character. However, such an action seems to suggest that the show is unwilling to change to suit the interests and desires of its audience. Furthermore, according to Shankar, the decision reads as hypocritical.

“If you are a show about cultural commentary and you are too afraid to comment on the culture, especially when it’s a component of the culture you had a hand in creating, then you are a show about cowardice,” Shankar said.

Groening’s aversion to change suggests that caving to pressure from critics would compromise the show’s comedic value. And yet, a common theme among many critics of Apu is their own fondness for the show. Both Kondabolu and Shankar remain fans of the show, despite their criticisms. As opposed to bringing the show down, both seek to improve it.

“Loving ‘The Simpsons’ is like loving America, right? So there’s certain things about it I disagree with, so I protest,” Kondabolu said in an interview with Indiewire.

In an attempt to incite change regarding Apu, Shankar launched a script-writing competition, in which participants could submit scripts that, according to Shankar, should subvert, frame, transition out or evolve Apu in a manner that is both culturally sensitive and funny. The competition ultimately sought to see the winning episode produced and broadcasted, but despite the competition finding what Shankar called “the perfect script,” that possibility seems unlikely given the current allegations.

Whether or not Apu leaves “The Simpsons” remains up in the air. For a series now in its 30th season, it is astounding to observe how much it has changed, or rather, not changed. While Groening argues that to change Apu would damage the show, it may also be worthwhile to consider the damage that can come out of failing to change or avoiding it altogether. Fans and critics like Kondabolu and Shankar want nothing more for the “The Simpsons” than for it to succeed. By removing Apu, “The Simpsons” may lose an opportunity to not only further the cause of appropriate representation in film and television, but also to consolidate its claim in being a series built on cultural commentary.