Hank Azaria is ready and willing to step away from voicing Apu on "The Simpsons" in response to outrage from fans who consider the Kwik-E-Mart clerk a racially insensitive character.
"I really want to see south Asian writers in the room, not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced," the actor told Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" Monday. "I'm perfectly happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. It not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me."
The comment from Azaria, who has voiced the character for decades, comes after the release of comedian Hari Kondabolu's documentary "The Problem With Apu," which uses "The Simpsons" as a gateway into the problematic representation of south-Asian people on the screen, overall. The long-running Fox animated series (about to become the longest-running TV series ever, in fact) issued a much different response several weeks ago, inciting even more outrage.
In an episode about Marge censoring a beloved children's book to make it more politically correct for her daughter, writers used Lisa to respond to the backlash. "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect," Lisa told Marge. "What can you do?" Then she looked to a picture of Apu next to her with the words "Don't have a cow" scribbled on it.
"It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time everybody else in America did," Azaria said about the controversial scene. "So I didn't know it was going to be in it until I saw it. I think that if anybody came away from that segment thinking that they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin ... That's certainly not the way I feel about it and that's definitely not the message that I want to send."
Although Azaria declined to speak on camera for the "Problem With Apu" documentary, he was more than happy to dive into the subject when Colbert asked about the backlash.
"It's come to my attention more and more, especially over the last couple of years," Azaria said. "As you say, that people in the south-Asian community in this country have been fairly upset by the voice and characterization."
"And I've tried to express this before," the actor continued. "You know the idea that anybody –- young or old, past or present –- was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad. It was certainly not my attention, I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character. And the idea that it's brought pain and suffering in any way, that it's used to marginalize people, it's upsetting, genuinely."
Azaria, who voices 20 to 30 characters on the animated comedy, understands that something must change. "It's sparked a lot of conversation about what should be done with the character going forward, which is not so easy to answer."
"I've given this a lot of thought. My eyes have been opened," Azaria said. "I think the most important thing is we have to listen to the south-Asian people. The Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and what they think of this character, and what their American experience of it has been… In television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writers' room."
Those who have criticized Apu in the past, or were not happy with how the show addressed the issue, seem pleased. Adi Shankar, the showrunner for Netflix animated series "Castlevania," gave TooFab the following statement: "Hank Azaria, thank you for leading by example. You're a gentleman. Hopefully your employers will follow suit."
Even the filmmaker behind "The Problem With Apu" tweeted his appreciation. See his response and more below.
I'm so proud of my friend @harikondabolu for the years of work he put into pushing The Simpsons into acknowledging the harm they've done with Apu. I wish he & so many other South Asian people didn't have to fight so hard & so long for this basic recognition of their humanity https://t.co/rsGFJYwP7s
So Hank Azaria wants to stop doing the voice of Apu. Now can we agree that its a stereotypical character and that its not right? Or do i need to hear more about how its not racist bc some indian-americans have convenience stores?
Full disclosure: when I was a kid, Hank Azaria used to leave messages on my answering machine as Apu, because he knew I loved the character. He is a gentleman and I am glad he is willing to look at this situation in a mature way. Bravo to him. https://t.co/eueNKWCG5E