Hank Azaria has voiced dozens of characters on The Simpsons for almost 30 years. Now he’s acknowledging that one of them — the convenience store owner Apu — is controversial for a reason.
“Do you understand why some Indian-American or South Asian–American actors are offended by that character?” Stephen Colbert asked Azaria on Tuesday night’s Late Show, in a vague but pointed reference to comedian Hari Kondabolu and his 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, which interviewed a variety of South Asian actors about their complex feelings on Apu.
“Yeah, not just actors,” Azaria clarified, correctly. “Of course I understand.”
He continued that while he was surprised when he “first” heard about people’s discomfort with Apu — an Indian character he voiced in the style of Peter Sellers, another white guy doing an impression of an Indian person, in the 1968 comedy The Party — he understood “over time” what proved upsetting. What’s more, Azaria told Colbert, he’d be “perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new.”
“It has come to my attention more and more ... that people in the South Asian community in this country have been fairly upset by the voice and characterization of Apu,” Azaria said, choosing his words with obvious care. He continued to say that “the idea that anybody who is 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 intention. I wanted to bring laughter and joy with this character. The idea that it’s brought pain and suffering — in any way — [or] that it’s used to marginalize people, it is upsetting. Genuinely.”
The truly noteworthy moment of this interview, however, came when Azaria admitted that “it’s sparked a lot of conversation about what should be done with the character moving forward, which is not so easy to answer.”
The Simpsons said its own piece just a couple of weeks ago, with a resigned shrug of an episode that chalked up people’s frustration to a renewed need to be politically correct.(Never mind that some have been uncomfortable with Apu from the beginning.)
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa Simpson says in the episode, her eyes flicking over to a framed picture of Apu on her nightstand. “What can you do?”
While the show made glancing attempts to say it understood, the fact that showrunner Al Jean spent the week after the episode aired retweeting people assuring him that they didn’t care and that the controversy was overblown wasn’t especially convincing on that front.
Azaria, for his (and/or his publicist’s) part, had a bit more of a considered response.
“My eyes have been opened,” he said, “and I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character, and what their American experience of it has been.”
He also took pains to point out that Apu doesn’t speak in the aforementioned episode, calling the scene “a later addition” that he says he didn’t see until “right around the same time that everyone else in America did.”
Azaria then said he’d like to see more “inclusion in the writers’ room” of those voices in particular, and that he thinks finding a way for him to step aside or transition the character into something new is “the right thing to do.”
In fairness, Azaria does so many voices on The Simpsons that the Simpsons Wiki page listing his characters spans a stunning 25 pages. So knocking one character off that list wouldn’t have that big of an impact on his job. But as he acknowledged, the impact it could have on so many other people has the potential to be much bigger.