At the end of his new TruTV short documentary The Problem with Apu, Hari Kondabolu takes a final moment to wage literal battle against the racist Indian caricatures that have followed him throughout his life. In the animated scene, Kondabolu punches and stomps likenesses of Peter Sellers, who donned brownface for his role as an Indian actor in the 1968 comedy film The Party; Mola Ram, an Indian caricature from the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; and, last but not least, a scowling Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the usually happy-go-lucky shopkeeper from The Simpsons. But first of all the offenders brought to justice is Hank Azaria, the white actor who has provided the voice for Apu since The Simpsons premiered in 1989. As much anger as Kondabolu rightly harbors against the character, he seems to hold just as much — if not more — for the actor behind him.
The Problem with Apu, which aired on Sunday night, examines Apu from Kondabolu’s perspective as an Indian-American who has been taunted with impressions of the character for nearly his entire life. No matter how you slice it, Apu is a simplistic caricature. The character hits every obvious South Asian stereotype in the book: He has an exaggerated accent, he works at a convenience store, he has many children, his attempts to assimilate are hopeless. The list goes on. As Kondabolu explains in the film, representation of Asian people in American film and television was incredibly meager during The Simpsons’s height in the mid- to late-90s — more so than it is today. As a result, Apu’s representation took on outsized power to the point where impressions of the character are routinely used to ridicule and degrade South Asian people in the U.S.
Part of the film involves Kondabolu interviewing and commiserating with other successful Indian-Americans over their shared hatred of the character, and the effect he’s had on them. At one point, actor and former White House staffer Kal Penn (who, unlike Kondabolu, hates The Simpsons as a whole because of Apu) recalls being recognized by a fellow South Asian person at a bar. “Because of you everyone calls me Kumar,” the fan says, referencing Penn's Harold & Kumar film series. “Isn’t that better than Apu?” Penn replies, and the disgruntled fan couldn’t help but agree.
The other part of the film chronicles Kondabolu’s mission to find Azaria, and have a frank conversation about the character. Light spoiler: He fails. At the same time, it’s unclear just what answers Kondabolu was seeking from the actor — Kondabolu does such a thorough job exploring the character’s creation by lazy white showrunners, and touching on the ways the show can make up for the hurt it has caused, that it seems he’s only seeking out Azaria to tell him off in person. Still, by refusing to appear Azaria comes off rightly embarrassed, if not a total coward.
As popular attitudes change on what characters are and aren’t acceptable on television, so too do our attitudes about the people who portray them.
In The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu’s conflict is clear: He loves The Simpsons but hates the boring caricature they’ve promoted for so many years. But even when white actors portray non-white characters in non-offensive ways, the actors behind them still bear the responsibility of taking work away from their black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous peers. One of the accomplishments of Kondabolu’s film is that it inspires audiences to ask what other offenses have long flown under the radar in American pop culture. Kondabolu’s movie might have brought up King of the Hill’s Kahn Souphanousinphone, the judgmental and ambitious Laotian neighbor to show protagonist Hank Hill, who stands out as a natural contrast to Apu. At the time, The Simpsons and King of the Hill were both two of Fox’s pioneering primetime adult cartoons. While the former has outlasted the latter by seven years, King of the Hill begins to appear smarter and progressive as time goes on.
As Guy Aoki, founding president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) told The Outline, Kahn was an Asian character that wasn’t just set up for laughs at the expense of his otherness. “He was a character that was confident. He didn't take crap. It wasn't what a lot of Asian-Americans fear, which is the wimpy Asian guy who gets taken advantage of. This guy was totally in control,” he said, adding that Souphanousinphone did the added narrative work of showing the ignorance of the main white characters. (In his first appearance, he huffily explains that he is not Chinese or Japanese.) In 2006, when the show was in its ninth season, MANAA awarded King of the Hill their award for promoting positive representations of Asians in American culture.
Lauren Tom, the Chinese-American actor who voices Minh and Connie, Kanh’s wife and daughter, accepted the award along with the show’s executive producer, John Altschuler. Not in attendance was the voice behind Kahn, Toby Huss, who is white. For MANAA, it was a matter of the good outweighing the bad. “Lauren Tom was there, so on balance we thought it was OK,” Aoki said. (In 2002, MANAA also awarded the film Lilo & Stitch for its positive portrayal of an Asian-American protagonist, though Lilo, a Hawaiian girl in the film, was played by Daveigh Chase, a white actor.)
Compared to The Simpsons, King of the Hill, which ran from 1997 to 2010, was a relatively racially diverse show. Native actors Victor Aaron and Jonathan Joss played Native character John Redcorn; Asian-American actor George Takei played Ted Wassanasong, another Laotian-American character and villainous foil for Kahn; Latino actors Eloy Casados and Danny Trejo played Latino character Enrique. Additionally, the show had a handful of directors of Asian descent, including Kyoung Hee Lim, Cyndi Tang, Boo Hwan Lim, Ken Wong, and Anthony Chun. African-American comedian Wyatt Cenac wrote the most episodes, after series creators Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. Even so, one of the its most beloved characters — and what some consider a positive representation of Asian-Americans on television — was still a white man pretending to sound Asian. Despite his love for the character, Aoki still believes Huss should not have taken the role. In other words, King of the Hill was a representational success despite Huss’s contributions, not because of them.
As Asian representation on live-action television has improved in recent years, however, room for compromise shrinks. Apu is still among few Asian characters on American animated shows. One of the few others is Diane Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, Boston-raised protagonist on Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. By all measures, Nguyen as a character resists the stereotypes Asian characters are often reduced to — but still, she is played by Alison Brie, who is white. Aoki holds Brie to the same standard to which he holds Huss. “Alison Brie is a great actress, but she didn't have to take the role of this Vietnamese-American character,” he said. “They could have asked a real-life Vietnamese woman to play the character, whether it's Kelly Marie Tran or Maggie Q or someone that I don't even know about. Alison can afford to turn down roles. She's well-known.” Aoki brought up Ed Skrein, the white actor who was cast as a Japanese character in the upcoming Hellboy film, and exited the production after fielding criticism while offering a thorough, thoughtful explanation for his decision.
As for other ethnic minorities in animated shows, representation is only slightly less dicey than on The Simpsons and King of the Hill; the risk of pigeonholing looms large for voice actors of color. African-American actor Aisha Tyler plays Lana Kane, the only non-white main character on FX’s Archer; as with most shows, all of the many white characters are played by white actors. The same situation stands on Comedy Central’s South Park. One of the show’s only black characters, Token Black, is played by African-American artist Adrien Beard, whose only acting credit is this one character on the show for which he mostly works as a producer and in the art department. (The show’s other black character was, notably, Chef, played by late funk musician Isaac Hayes until he quit the show in 2006.)
In the commentary for the show’s fourth season, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone say they chose Beard to play Token Black “just because he was the only black guy that we had in the building at the time.” They go on to discuss how when Parker and Stone took turns doing the character they “couldn’t get the right inflection” and thus “needed a black person.” They made a conscious choice to make sure black people portrayed the black characters on their shows, but they illustrated the limits of color-conscious but unimaginative casting: the idea that people of color are best at playing people of their own ethnicities, and white people are best at playing everyone (and everything) else. Even on shows like Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, where most of the characters are not human, the actors are still mostly white. (Data on the racial and ethnic demographics of voice actors in Hollywood is as elusive as an animated show that practices both equity and creativity in casting its roles.)
In Kondabolu’s film, Azaria is held to the highest standard. If a room full of white executives trying to make each other laugh is a lousy first line of defense against entertainment’s racist gatekeeping, the actors are the last. While actors are replaceable, they still wield a visible amount of power — especially white actors, who have options their minority co-workers often don’t, and have arguably more to lose than the executives who cast them. As The Problem with Apu illustrates, as popular attitudes change on what characters are and aren’t acceptable on television, so too do our attitudes about the people who portray them. The past is rarely spared; Mickey Rooney’s disgraceful racist role as I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a stain on his otherwise lily-white legacy.
Similarly, as audiences demand more of their supposedly progressive stars, the poor choices of actors like Scarlett Johansson, who accepted the role of the Japanese character Motoku Kusanagi in this year’s live-action version of The Ghost in the Shell, will become ever more glaring parts of their filmographies. Now, Azaria’s non-appearance in The Problem with Apu threatens to cast a shadow over his work in his other roles on the show: Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, and Comic Book Guy, among others. Azaria has both expressed mild regret and demonstrated a bold embrace of his role as Apu in the past, but his silence says it all.
The Problem with Apu takes viewers down what can seem like a fruitless journey to relitigate the past. In doing so, Kondabolu pulls the curtain back to reveal the human cost of such supposedly benign portrayals: the dehumanization of an entire generation of people Apu came to represent and their continued struggle to reap the economic benefits of working in the American entertainment industry. As a result The Simpsons emerges with its progressive reputation somewhat compromised, but its authority as a cultural powerhouse reaffirmed. What happens to Azaria, on the other hand, is a warning to other actors considering taking on portrayals of people of color, a mandate actors of color have been forced to wrestle with since the American entertainment industry’s infancy: No matter how good or profitable they may seem, some roles just aren’t worth it.