Comic Hari Kondabolu was 12 when the character of Apu from The Simpsons began to bother him. That hadn’t always been the case. “Initially, I was excited that we had something,” he recalls. “It’s us,” he told his mother, who emigrated from India with Kondabolu’s father. “We’re represented.” There wouldn’t be another significant depiction of Indian Americans in pop culture for a long, long time. Apu became “all we had, the only thing,” Kondabolu says. Then came the realization that his parents would be mocked for their accents, and as much as he worried for them, he was embarrassed, too. And so a character that had once felt like a welcome — the inclusion of South Asian immigrants in the archetypical American town — suddenly felt like a weapon targeted at the people he represented.
Kondabolu isn’t alone in having had childhood bullies use Apu against him. In The Problem With Apu (truTV), the comic’s extraordinarily thoughtful documentary, just about every stand-up comedian of Indian descent that you can think of concedes that the phrase “thank you, come again” was an inescapable blight growing up. Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi, Russell Peters, Hasan Minhaj, Aparna Nancherla, and others reflect on what Apu meant to them (spoiler alert: nothing good) in scenes that resemble informal therapy sessions. Actor Kal Penn ribs Kondabolu for the comic’s onetime love of The Simpsons, regardless of the scourge that was Apu. So “you hate yourself,” Penn teases. “Hey!” Kondabolu fires back, “I get called Kumar all the time because of you!”
Now 35, Kondabolu first spoke out against the arrange-married, hyper-fertile convenience store cashier in a segment for the short-lived Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, where he was a writer. If The Problem With Apu sounds like a polemic against a cartoon character, well, it is. It’s also a Roger & Me–style chase after Hank Azaria, who voices Apu, as well as a meditation on comedy ethics and the role of accents in the pursuit of laughter. But above all, it’s an origin story of Kondabolu as a brown comedian in a comedy world that’s too often felt like white men making jokes for other white men at the expense of everyone else.
Growing up in Queens as the son of medical-lab technicians, Kondabolu had easy access to the local comedy scene. “In New York, the audience really gets to be part of the process,” he says. Kondabolu and his friends were regularly given seats right in front of the stage “with the other brown people.” At first, he thought, “They must’ve given us these seats because we’re teenagers, how cool.” Those clubs, it turned out, had far less altruistic motivations. “The comedians needed a target,” he says, “and brown people were that.” Sick of being the punchline, Kondabolu decided to become the joke-teller. “There was never going to be a performer who had the perspective that I had,” he says, so “I got to be the one who complicated the picture, the one who made other people uncomfortable.”
The Problem With Apu demonstrates the necessity of that diversity in comedic points of view. Part of the doc is spent searching for the person or people responsible for making Apu such a “servile, devious, goofy” stereotype. (Longtime viewers know that every episode in which the Simpson family travels to another country is essentially a nonstop series of stereotypes.) As for Apu himself, Azaria and Simpsons creator Matt Groening have played the blame-deflection game when it comes to who’s responsible for making the character so hackneyed, according to Kondabolu’s retelling. Groening says Azaria came up with Apu’s Indian origins, while the actor says he was encouraged by the (overwhelmingly white) writers to make the Kwik-E-Mart clerk as stereotypical as possible.
One of the documentary’s most shocking moments finds Simpsons writer and producer Dana Gould justifying this flagrant embodiment of Indian clichés by declaring that all of the show’s characters are stereotypes. According to Gould, there’s no difference between making fun of millionaires via Mr. Burns and making fun of first-generation immigrants via Apu. “Honestly, it was really shocking,” Kondabolu says of Gould’s summary of the writers room’s ethos. “When he said that, there was a part of me that was salivating, like, ‘Oh, that was a mistake!’ because I was like, ‘Really? That’s so ridiculous.’ ” But, he continues, “it also makes tons of sense. Like, if that’s the prevailing attitude [behind the scenes], that would explain why the show is the way it is.”
Kondabolu was less surprised by another of Gould’s blunt assertions, that some accents just sound funny to “white Americans.” The ostensible hilarity of the Indian accent, Kondabolu conjectures, is about emphasizing Otherness: “That’s not the sounds we make. That is how those people talk.” In the documentary, he compares Azaria’s voice performance to the minstrelsy of yore. But as a teenage comic, Kondabolu himself played with accents because he knew it’d get laughs. “How did I know that?” he asks. “Because I watched The Simpsons.”
In a famous season one episode of Master of None (“Indians on TV”), Ansari exposed the frequency with which Indian American actors are asked to perform with an accent, when they’re asked to play themselves at all. (The Netflix series calls out Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit 2 and Ashton Kutcher in those Popchips commercials for their use of brownface.) But Kondabolu addresses an even more dispiriting aspect of casting directors’ accent requests. “When these actors go to audition and they do an accent,” he claims, they’re told, “No, not that accent, not the accent of your parents or the ones that are authentic — [do] the Apu accent.” In other words, the industry wants Indian American performers to exemplify not real Indianness, but a white interpretation of Indianness. His voice growing harder, Kondabolu continues, “There’s a reason for that. Hollywood doesn’t take risks. They repeat the same things over and over until they don’t work anymore.”
Apu isn’t solely an object of mockery on The Simpsons. In one of the several excerpts shown in The Problem With Apu, he gets to be the clever one, telling a distracted-looking Homer, “Please, feel free to paw through my Playdudes and tell me to go back to a country I am not actually from.” Apu may always be a foreigner, but he can also throw pointed barbs about American xenophobia. The documentary doesn’t give this side of Apu much credit, but Kondabolu doesn’t think he should have to. Sure, Apu’s funny, but at the end of the day, he says, every aspect of that character “is [still] viewed through the lens of his being Indian.”
Real-life Indian American comedians, of course, have made great headway in recent years: Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project just wrapped up its five-year run, Ansari’s Master of None is a critical darling, and Peters is one of the most successful stand-ups in the world. Perhaps all of this visible success adds to the perception in some circles that Kondabolu’s an SJW killjoy, but he’s sticking to — and sticking up for — his values.
Punching up, he admits, isn’t for every comic, but it’s an imperative for him, and, he says, it makes for better art. A strong sense of ethics onstage doesn’t mean never offending anyone. “I talk about things that anger people,” Kondabolu says. “I’ve seen enough people walk out of my shows. I have a bit on my last record called ‘White People Are Demons.’ So if political correctness means that I just don’t like to go after people with less power, that just means I’m not a dick.” Apu and Mr. Burns are both caricatures, but only one of those characters represents a community that’s historically been marginalized. So Kondabolu’s happy to lay down a new comedy rule: “There is no equal-opportunity offending in a world without equal opportunities.”