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Comedian Hari Kondabolu on the response to his documentary The Problem With Apu

“It’s not a good feeling to get hate mail every single day, but you know that it resonated with people.”

Warn Your Relatives
Hari Kondabolu appears in his Netflix special, Warn Your Relatives.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Hari Kondabolu identified a problem.

The 2017 documentary, The Problem With Apu, which aired on TruTV and which he hosted and produced, discusses how The Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon created a caricature of South Asians and perpetuated a stereotype that hung over South Asian kids like Hari and followed them into adulthood. The documentary isn’t a call for Apu to be removed from the show or fired into the sun or anything like that. No, it’s an earnest discussion of how these types of stereotypes can still hurt people.

But The Problem with Apu has come to define Kondabolu’s work in a way that is both deserved — it’s a really good little documentary — and maybe a little unfair. See, Kondabolu is also a tremendously funny stand-up comedian, someone who tells jokes about racism and the divisiveness of American politics, all the while making you laugh at the way many of us have only built up those divides. In his new Netflix special Warn Your Relatives, he jokes about race, homophobia, the Trump administration, and the time he got heckled by fellow comedian Tracy Morgan.

That’s why I was so excited to be joined by Kondabolu for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. We talked about all manner of topics, but as somebody who’s so interested in political humor, I wanted to ask him, in particular, if he thought comedy could play a role in changing people’s minds when it comes to their political perspectives. And not only has Kondabolu thought a lot about this, but he also has direct experience, thanks to the reception of The Problem With Apu.

I’ve excerpted that section of our conversation below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

There was this idea in the 2000s, at the height of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, that good political humor might bridge the gap between liberal and conservative. And we’ve realized that it doesn’t quite work that way! What are your feelings on humor as a political tool for persuasion?

Hari Kondabolu

When I create art, I don’t think about that. You can’t think about that. Then you’re going to make something that might be righteous politically but not funny and therefore ineffective. Art is as political and persuasive as it is effective. If it’s not good art, it’s not effective for any purpose. So if I have that in my head, I’m not going to create the best work.

Just focus on the jokes. What is the story I want to tell? What is my perspective? And it has to be honest. If you’re doing something just because this is a good talking point, the audience smells phoniness. I really do believe they’ll figure out a phony, unless they’re really looking the other way, which honestly could be possible. But I feel that you have to be funny so I don’t think about it as persuasive.

That being said, certainly it has impact — not so much for people who have their points of view. That’s a harder shift. But for the people kind of in the middle and children — which is a weird thing to say, “If you’re an undecided voter, apolitical, or a child” [Laughs] — then that’s when it has impact. Especially with young people.

I learned so much about the world from stand-up comedy, because even though I grew up in Queens, New York, and it was a multicultural, multiracial, global place, and I was a fairly well-educated [kid], I was sheltered in it. But when you see stand-ups, you get a sense of, “These are people who have lived. These are people who have traveled.” There’s no production value. It’s somebody telling you straight-up, “This is what it’s like.” That was exciting to me. It’s still exciting to me. And direct and accessible, and I understood it.

There’s a generation of young people who are following stand-up, and I think it’s the same thing for them. Maybe there’s value in a clip exposing an idea going viral and people spreading it around, but I really do think there’s an echo chamber sometimes and we think things are having influence when it’s just being repeated in our circles over and over and over again.

I know that my documentary and my stand-up is being used in high school, college, and grad school classes, which is certainly not the goal, but I’m happy that’s the truth. And that certainly has some impact. But I don’t think that every comic should be thinking, I gotta get this in curriculums! Nah, just make the people laugh and see what happens.

This is how you know when things made an impact: When you start getting hate mail and death threats. That’s when you know, “Wait a second! This went viral!” This isn’t an echo chamber, because people hate it. That’s how I knew my documentary, The Problem With Apu, did well. When I checked iTunes and I got a three [star rating] cumulative, but when I looked, it was all 1s and 5s. That means it was good! That’s exactly what you want it to be. I want it to be in the middle because I hit both ends. It’s not a good feeling to get hate mail every single day, but you know that it resonated with people. Most people didn’t, I think, watch it, but just the questioning of the status quo created something. It hit a nerve.

truTV Presents: ‘The Problem With Apu’ DOC NYC Screening And Reception
Hari Kondabolu at a screening for The Problem With Apu.
Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for truTV

Todd VanDerWerff

When I watched that documentary, I went into it skeptical, and I came out convinced that we should at least be talking about the subject. Maybe nothing changes, because that’s how television works, but at least we’re having that conversation. But a lot of people did seem really threatened by that. What was your takeaway from that?

Hari Kondabolu

I’m talking about a cartoon character from a long time ago, and I’m talking about something that happened for a good part of my youth. At this point, we’re a bunch of adults.

I feel like the story isn’t, “What do we do with this Apu character?” The point of the whole story was really to do what Whoopi Goldberg did. Whoopi Goldberg, she’s not saying go and destroy all the blackface artifacts from the past. She’s saying let’s talk about it and put it up out front. Let’s recontextualize these things and put it in front of you and talk about them. This was my “Minstrel Black Americana” collection. She calls it her “Negrobilia.” This is what it was for me.

If they get rid of Apu, if they change his voice — I don’t care. At the end of the day, that affects me 0 percent. Well, that’s not true because people will message me, like, “You killed Apu! You killed this fictional cartoon character of a show we haven’t obsessively watched in 15 years!” So it does nothing for me.

Really, it was more for, let’s look at something that’s so deep in America’s DNA. The Simpsons is big. In terms of media of the last 50 years, it’s lasted 30 of them. It has such a big impact. It’s so important, and it’s still current, and even there, there’s something that there’s a little bit of the poison of racism.

Not the whole character! The character isn’t the worst character in the world. The character comes from this faulty base that gets exacerbated when there’s nothing else. But that’s nuanced. That’s not easy to say in a few words. But that’s what it is.

My honest opinion with the character is: Keep him. Keep him and maybe complicate his stuff a little bit. Let his kids talk. I thought it would be funny if his kids came home one day upset because everybody makes fun of their father. I’m, like, “Yeah, that’s kind of my experience. Everybody’s making fun of my father because of the cartoon.” That could be a fun episode. Who knows? There’s a bunch of possibilities.

But at the end of the day: I don’t care. That’s why The Simpsons’ reaction really surprised me. They reacted really negatively. It’s, like, don’t react at all! What are you doing! I’m on basic cable, and I made a documentary. You’re The Simpsons! How fragile are you where you’re upset about this?

That’s why I liked Hank Azaria’s heartfelt reaction, which wasn’t an apology — it was an acknowledgment. Apologies don’t mean anything. An acknowledgment, though, like, “They have real experiences, and they should be heard, because this is a community that exists. They have an American experience, and it’s different.”

That’s perfect! That’s all everybody wanted is to exist and acknowledge that those years weren’t spent in a void but are lived experience.

For much more with Kondabolu, including his thoughts on working more personal material into his stand-up, on telling jokes about Trump, and on confronting white liberal hypocrisy through humor, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

Correction: Kondabolu produced The Problem With Apu, but he didn’t “self-produce” it. The production company was Marobru Productions.