Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Problem With ‘The Problem With Apu’

What ‘The Simpsons’ can teach us about nationalism, identity, and the American future

Liel Leibovitz
December 15, 2017
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for truTV
Hari Kondabolu.Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for truTV
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for truTV
Hari Kondabolu.Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for truTV

As if we needed another reminder that American life these days is a bubbling cauldron of rage and resentment, comedian Hari Kondabolu, who is South Asian American, has given us a new documentary that takes aim at one of the few things that isn’t yet broken about our culture: The Simpsons.

More specifically, Kondabolu’s film, which debuted last month on TruTV, focuses on Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, one of the show’s most beloved characters. In The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu argues that having a white actor, Hank Azaria, portray the Indian Apu with an accent exaggerated for comedic effect is akin to blackface minstrelsy, and that Apu—for years the only South Asian character on American television—only reinforced negative stereotypes that ended up haunting the childhoods of too many South Asian American kids. Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, and other South Asian comedians, actors, and entertainers appear on camera to share their own reservations about Apu, adding weight to Kondabolu’s indictment.

Even those with little tolerance for the tendency to see in innocuous utterances evidence of intractable societal ills are likely to be moved by Kondabolu’s documentary. He and his interviewees may be hilarious, but the reality they describe—of having Apu’s inane catchphrases shouted at them by sniveling classmates at the playground, say—is serious and touching and all the reason anyone should ever need to engage in a meaningful discussion about media representations of minorities. But watching the film, I found myself afflicted by the following niggling thought: If there’s a problem with Apu, there’s a problem with Krusty as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fanatical fan of The Simpsons. Growing up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, I had relatives in America record each episode and mail me the VHS tapes, which I would then watch repeatedly and study as some do the Mishna, poring over each joke as if it contained a sliver of the meaning of life. And while American humor has changed considerably since the show debuted in 1989—in large part, thanks to its immense influence—I remain one of those dreadful bores who have a Simpsons quote for every occasion. “Don’t make fun of grad students,” I said to no one in particular as I was lining up to take the stage and accept my doctoral degree; “they just made a terrible life choice.” What, then, am I supposed to make of Krusty?

Born Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky on the Lower East Side of Springfield, the show’s celebrated clown is the son of a rabbi, Hyman; he chose a career in show business over a life dedicated to the Torah and the Talmud. That itself is a stereotype—see under, Jazz Singer, The—but Krusty, if you’re so inclined, can seem an awful lot like a walking, cackling blood libel: He is avaricious, frequently endorsing products he knows to be death traps only to make another quick buck; he is lustful, a skirt-chaser who would feel at home among the sleaziest of Philip Roth’s ravenous male characters; and he is the embodiment of shtick, a hack whose humor is nothing more than a string of low-rent Vaudeville bits. When he’s finally permitted a moment of real introspection, he turns into a more animated Lenny Bruce, spitting out a staccato of inconvenient truths while sucking on a cigarette. Soon enough, though, he returns to his overbearing self, a self that is voiced by the Italian-American Dan Castellaneta.

Should you be outraged? How you answer the question depends on how you see America. Do you consider it, to borrow British journalist David Goodhart’s helpful terms, a somewhere or an anywhere? If you think America is a somewhere—a specific place with a specific culture and specific traditions—you likely don’t care very much about such things. Somewheres look at Krusty—and at Apu, and at the Polish lowlife Moe Szyslak, and at the philandering Irish-Catholic Mayor Quimby, and at the buffoonish Italian chef with the unimprovable name of Luigi Risotto, and at all the other cheerful stereotypes that pack the Simpsons’ Springfield—and understand that they are, first and foremost, Americans, no matter their ethnicity or their sexual orientation or even their religion.

To somewheres, all of the pieces that make up the mosaic of our identity are checked at the national door. Which is not, of course, to say that they no longer matter, but merely to argue that they’re secondary to the collective ethos we all cherish and the ideals, however ephemeral, that make us all come together, in what can often seem like a quasi-mystical union, as a nation. Anywheres, on the other hand, are suspicious of all talk of national character, which they see as nothing more than a prelude to xenophobia, racism, and other ills. Instead, they believe that people are everywhere the same, which is why Springfield may very well be just south of Portland or slightly west of Paris or not far from Perth: To anywheres, we all share one global economy, and can pick up and relocate whenever a better opportunity comes along, roots and communities be damned. The only real sin in this interconnected, globalized vision of sameness is calling attention, maliciously or otherwise, to the disparities of identity.

To anywheres, a white man doing an Indian accent, say, or an Italian-American oy-ing and ah-ing like a Herschel Shmoikel, isn’t just disrespectful—it’s a reminder that differences still exist, which, barring the unifying gravitational pull of national identity, is a great threat to the egalitarian idyll to which we must all strive and which, terrifyingly, is not policed by anything more forceful than the kindness of strangers.

Jewish American comedians have traditionally been somewheres. Theirs was an America in which you could change your name from Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz to Jon Stewart, call your stand-up special “Unleavened,” stack it with jokes about gullible American Jewish girls getting conned into sex with manipulative Israeli soldiers, and emerge from the crucible of self-mockery as the most trusted man in media. Kondabolu and Ansari, both talented comics, take a different approach. They’re anywheres, which is why the masterful second season of Ansari’s Master of None begins with the protagonist, fed up with life in New York, decamping to Modena, where he learns to make tortellini and forget about his ex-girlfriend, who is licking her own wounds in Japan. These cities, in the anywheres’ vision, are interchangeable, as are their inhabitants, which is why pointing out their differences, even in an animated show on TV that has long championed progressive values, is perceived as a real aggression. Ironically, this ideology of radical uniformity is being marketed as “diversity,” a joke not even the sharpest Simpsons writer could pull off.

The problem, then, isn’t with Krusty, or with Apu. It’s with us. The task at hand is one we rarely faced in the last hundred years. Are we somewheres? Anywheres? Something else? Our politicians seem unable to guide us toward an answer. Maybe our comedians can.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.