What does the phrase, “Thank you, come again,” mean to you? Maybe not much. But if you’re Indian American or of South Asian descent, it might mean a whole lot.
“Thank you, come again" is the catchphrase of Apu, the Indian immigrant clerk at Springfield’s "Kwik-E-Mart" on "The Simpsons."
Apu is voiced by the decidedly not Indian American actor Hank Azaria. And therein, for comedian and writer Hari Kondabolu, begins the problem.
Kondabolu’s new documentary, premiering Sunday on truTV, is called “The Problem with Apu.”
In the documentary, Kondabolu traces the origins of the Apu character and examines the impact of stereotypes in Hollywood. He spoke with The Frame host, John Horn, about why he dislikes the character so much, but still can separate that from his love of "The Simpsons."
On the lack of representation of characters of South Asian descent in Hollywood:
When you only have one representation of your community — and [Apu] was the most prominent, the only regular one on television — it ends up becoming defining. That ends up being what your whole community is. There's two issues — I think one is that, the fact that there's still not a broad enough sense of representation. [This year] was a good year for South Asian men, between this documentary I made, Hasan Minhaj's "Homecoming King," Aziz Ansari's show, "Master of None," "The Big Sick" with Kumail Nanjiani. That's a good year for South Asian men, but there's tons of South Asian women whose voices haven't been heard, there's a bunch of people in the LGBTQ community who are South Asian. Each of our communities is much more diverse than we're made to believe. Because part of that — and that leads to the second problem — is, Whose eyes are these these characters being made with? They aren't South Asian eyes, they're not people of color. It's, What do white people see when they see us? And those are the writers, and this is what they see. and this is what they think other people that are like them will find humorous or interesting. So one [solution] is getting the creators to change.
On why he's still a fan of "The Simpsons," and why he understands why other people of South Asian descent, like actor Kal Penn, aren't:
I still love the show, but I understand Kal's perspective. He's also a little bit older than I am, so he had to deal with ... "Indiana Jones," that famous scene with Indian people eating monkey brains. So I think he was probably more sensitized to some degree. And also, as an actor, he was asked to do the Apu voice, so it affected his life and career more than just a childhood thing. The first major role he had in a film was the character Taj Mahal in the movie "Van Wilder." These are the absurd things you had to do when you were starting out. So I understand that. But to me, "The Simpsons" is a net gain for me, by a large margin. It was just kind of weird to love something so much and have it hurt you ... That show taught me how to be funny and smart in so many different ways, and you can criticize something and still love it.
On what he'd like to see "The Simpsons" do with the Apu character going forward:
It's been 30 years, so whatever they do with Apu at this point, it's kind of irrelevant. You know what I mean? If they do it, that's cool. But I'm more concerned with the bigger issues of how are we represented now. Because Apu is kind of like a fossil, right? For some reason, we can still see it actively, but it's a decision that was made 30 years ago in a very different cultural climate ... I don't think they should kill the character, 'cause that's lazy writing. You're "The Simpsons" — write your way out of it! If there's the idea that a stereotype has truth in it, yeah a lot of South Asian immigrants do work at convenience stores, but often they end up buying the stores after working there for a while, and then they own multiple stores and employ other people. How come Apu doesn't have that? You could have someone who could be a counter to Mr. Burns. That's certainly possible. Or you could give his kids a voice — those are young Indian Americans. You can give them a voice and you can let them speak for themselves and represent a new generation.
This is just a partial transcript. For the full interview please press the play button at the top left.