Since The Simpsons premiere in 1989, Hank Azaria (The Simpsons, Brockmire) has lent his voice to the most characters in the show’s storied history including the bartender Moe, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy and, most controversially, Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. While Azaria had voiced other non-white characters on the long-running Fox animated series – such as Carl Carlson, who has since been replaced by Alex Désert (Better Things, The Flash) – Apu was seen as particularly egregious, standing as a monolith of racist Indian stereotypes in a sea of otherwise sparse representation. Azaria, who once laughed-off such criticisms, alongside The Simpsons creator Matt Groening (Futurama), finally issued an apology for his contribution to the role on Monday’s episode of Dax Sheppard’s (Idiocracy, Bless This Mess) podcast Armchair Expert.
— Armchair Expert Podcast (@ArmchairExpPod) April 12, 2021
“I realised I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years,” Azaria admitted on the podcast, via BBC. The actor had first furloughed this date with destiny in 2017, when he a Groening came to the defense of the character after Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu how The Simpsons character’s impact on the Indian-American community.
While Azaria referred to himself as being “cancelled”, for lack of a better word, in wake of the documentary, he admitted he was not yet ready to accept the legitimate issues raised by Kondabolu and the interview subjects of his film, via CNN. To be clear, Azaria used the word cancelled only to refer to the blow-back he received, as the documentary had no direct impact on his ability to continue playing Apu and other non-white characters on The Simpsons. In fact, Azaria only stepped down from the roles of his non-white characters a year ago, a decision he reached of his own volition.
While Azaria’s former character Carlson has since been replaced with a Black voice actor, as has the character of Dr. Hibbert, BBC reports that “Apu is currently sidelined while another actor is found to play him.” The soul-searching process that brought Azaria to accept the “structural racism” inherent to Apu’s character has also made the actor an advocate for representative voice casts in animation in general, via BBC. “I have people say to me, ‘Oh does this mean you can’t play Wiggum because you’re not a real cop?’ That’s just ridiculous,” Azaria responded to people trying to defend his role as Apu “if it’s a character of colour, there’s not the same level of opportunity there […] let’s not take away jobs from people who don’t have enough” (BBC).
On the Armchair Expert podcast, Azaria personally apologized to co-host Monica Padman and further expressed a desire to apologize “to every single Indian person in this country” (BBC). Azaria further acknowledged that this apology was a form a personal responsibility, and that people in the Indian community were under no obligation to accept it. “It’s not about congratulating me for the response because I’m a big part in creating the problem to begin with,” Azaria emphasized on the podcast, via CNN.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 12, 2021
While some certainly have not accepted Azaria’s apology, feeling it comes more than a-little-too-late, others are relieved to see Azaria finally acknowledging the racism of Apu’s character. Kondabolu, who’s documentary first gave mainstream attention to the inherent issues embedded in Apu’s character, expressed his respect for Azaria’s ability to “learn & grow” on Twitter.
The long-term impacts of Apu can still be felt on the Indian-American community, as Azaria recently recounted a conversation he had with a 17-year-old Indian boy who had never seen an episode of The Simpsons but had heard the name Apu be used as a slur, via BBC. Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation) observed the lasting impacts characters such as Apu have had on Indian actors and entertainers in a 2015 episode of his possibly-returning Netflix dramedy Master of None entitled “Indians on TV”, which featured a clip from The Simpsons in its opening sequence.
Azaria’s apology and advocacy for actors of color to be included in animation comes at a time when multiple animated series are facing a similar reckoning with structural racism. Over the summer Jenny Slate (Zootopia, Bob’s Burgers) stepped down from the role of Missy Foreman-Greenwald on Big Mouth – issuing and apology on social media – and was subsequently replaced by writer and comedian Ayo Edebiri (Sunnyside). Actor Mike Henry (The Cleveland Show, The Orville) likewise stepped down from the role of Cleveland Brown on Family Guy and was replaced by Arif Zahir (Eraser).
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Azaria argues that steps like these not only provide jobs for actors of color, who are met with less opportunity in the entertainment industry overall, but that “it’s more authentic, they might also bring their experience of their culture to it” (BBC). Having more representation in all departments of television production may help prevent characters who perpetuate harmful or demeaning stereotypes from making it to air in the first place.