TV

What “The Simpsons” Doesn’t Get About Its Apu Problem

“For those of us involved in the respectful war against Apu, this week’s episode is one more explanation of why we shouldn’t stop talking”

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Growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Texas, I became accustomed to my point of origin doubling as a punch line. Jokes came from two ends — from bullies, of course, but from friends too. I remember the pain I felt when one of my closest friends, a white Texan girl who felt like a sister, made fun of my family’s characteristically joined brows in front of a bunch of boys we all wanted to impress. Other friends mimicked my parents’ accents, which I hadn’t even been aware of until the white people around me performed imitations. A friend recounts a curry joke told under similar circumstances, with boys as the audience, by one of her besties, another second-gen kid, but one not as evidently “different” — her parents having immigrated from Iran. 

When even your friends see the facts of your existence as comedic material, you can start to turn against the terms of your life. My recourse was to join in. Though I loved my parents and unibrowed brother in private, I saw them as enemies in public, holding against my mother her tendency to keep her bindi on at Taco Bell after a temple visit or wear a sari to one of my junior high school events, as if she chose such options expressly to endanger me. As I grew older and more inclined to get ahead of a story, playing my family and especially my parents for laughs became second nature, to the point that when I finally got a starring role in a high school play — a Molière joint — the theater director suggested I convert the character, play her with that funny Indian accent I did.

I think back on that performance more these days than I could have expected. I carried it out according to instruction, even as my internal radar for honor, my sense of losing respect for myself, thrummed madly in my belly. On a grander scale, we see brown Americans doing the same, even today. Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani American actor behind the mainstream indie rom-com The Big Sick, told me years ago about an audition at which he was asked to put on an accent, despite the fact that he has an authentic Lahori one. At the time he and I spoke he was just making waves on HBO’s Silicon Valley, not yet an Oscar nominee, with room enough to escape the bind. “I already have a Pakistani accent, but they want me to do ‘the Apu accent,’ ” he told me. “A lot of people think of that as being the go-to comedy Indian accent.”

Such days may seem far behind, but as the writing staff of The Simpsons pointed out this week, some among us long for them still, including people from which one doesn’t expect such nostalgia, given the bent of their industry’s politics. On an episode that aired Sunday night, Lisa dropped a line during a bedtime story that’s since been replayed all over the internet. At the time, her mom, Marge, reads aloud a re-edited version of a fictional children’s book, The Princess in the Garden, neutered to reflect the politics of 2018 with the excision of jokes about the Irish and South Americans.

“Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect,” Lisa muses at one point. “What can you do?” The camera pans to a framed photo on Lisa’s nightstand of the Simpsons character who owns the Kwik-E-Mart — Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — signed with the phrase, “Don’t have a cow.”

For those of us involved in the respectful war against this long-named cartoon relic, the scene is one more explanation of why we shouldn’t stop talking. The influence of the character known as Apu runs deep and wide. I first became aware of its extent when reporting an article lately seen in the 2017 documentary against which this new Simpsons episode seems directed, The Problem With Apu, helmed by the comedian Hari Kondabolu. The documentary aims to situate Apu inside a larger tradition of minstrelsy in American culture. (Full disclosure: I’m in it.) 

To my mind, though, Apu stands as unique in the canon of American caricatures, because of the position of his real-life analogs in this country. Voluntary immigrants of the 21st century don’t fit neatly into the country’s canonical narratives of otherness. And so we struggle to tell our story, working as we are with somewhat new text. Compound the slipperiness of our tale with our broad philosophy to jet-propel rather than rock a boat, and you arrive at the strange place in which we keep finding ourselves: where even the people programmed to try to understand you instead throw in with the bullies. Viewed as wealthy and educated, we are also seen as fair targets; that we started out by playing to expectations, making fun of ourselves, only complicates the current moment.

The dismissal of criticism by Asian Americans comes regularly these days from a certain strain of should-be friends: white comedy veterans. Tina Fey epitomized this stance when she dedicated an episode of her Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to the humiliation of an organization of activist Asian bloggers, after the show’s sole Asian character, a silent man named Dong, drew criticism in the real world. The minds behind the Oscars ceremony validated this line of comedy a few years ago, with a bunch of jokes about Chinese kids threaded into an otherwise grave parade of #Oscarssowhite protestations. And the Simpsons has by now perfected the non-apology apology, this latest grumble at critics coming after a parallel episode that aired in 2016, soon after Hank Azaria spoke to me about feeling bad for the first time about Apu after watching Kondabolu complain about the character on Comedy Central. In that Simpsons episode, Apu reveals a with-it, American-accented nephew, played by one of the angriest sources in my story, the actor Utkarsh Ambudkar. What seems a mea culpa twists by the end to once again validate the sanctity of Apu and write off critics as a bunch of whiners. As Ambudkar bemoaned years later in the Kondabolu doc, “the Simpsons always wins.”

A story about a story can tell a lot. I wonder why, in this country, “friends” value the comedic potential of certain among us over our psychic health. I recall a line told me by another second-gener, making sense of a liberal white dude with power who once told us to stop angling for space to write our stories because “Asian Americans aren’t minorities. You’re just like white people.” My friend theorized that the guy didn’t want another group to feel bad about. In the case of established comedy writers, I’d wager an emotional stasis also plays a role. Once you accept that your definition of comedy isn’t funny anymore, where are you? Make space for new people who don’t look like you, and what do you lose?

We might pose similar calculations to ourselves. Whether making fun of or explaining our lives, we’ve spent a lot of energy on the needs of people who don’t really care about ours. The good news is our parents taught us to try really hard, as a Simpsons writer might tell you. The demographics of the inner chambers are changing; we’re selling our own shows, and everyone knows the underground party is better than prom. It’s probably time to stop trying to get titans to listen and just keep writing so hard the ones who know what’s best for them have no choice but to hear.

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