In an interview on Friday, Azaria told Slashfilm, which was first to report the news, that he will no longer voice Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who has become a controversial character on the Fox television franchise. Throughout the longest-running scripted series, many argued that Apu perpetuates racial stereotypes and should not be voiced by a white actor.
“All we know there is I won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s someway to transition it or something,” Azaria, 55, told the outlet.
“What they’re going to do with the character is their call,” the actor said. “It’s up to them and they haven’t sorted it out yet. All we’ve agreed on is I won’t do the voice anymore.”
Azaria added: “We all made the decision together. We all agreed on it. We all feel like it’s the right thing and good about it.”
It was unclear from Azaria’s comments what the decision will mean for the character of Apu on the show. Fox had no comment when reached by PEOPLE.
Controversy has surrounded the character since the release of a 2017 documentary called The Problem with Apu, in which writer Hari Kondabolu argued Apu perpetuates racial stereotypes through mannerisms and an exaggerated accent. Apu has been a character on the Fox television series since 1990.
“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 intention. 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 was used to marginalize people, it’s upsetting. Genuinely,” the actor said.
“I am perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new,” Azaria added. “I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does. It not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”
The Simpsons addressed the controversy on the show itself, during a 2018 episode that featured a scene of Marge reading a favorite childhood book with daughter Lisa. However, she suddenly found the story about a tyrannical slaveowner much more racist than she remembered and tried to edit it to fit modern standards of political correctness.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asked.
“It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa responded, looking directly at the camera before the shot zoomed in on a photo of Apu with the message “Don’t have a cow.”
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge said before Lisa added, “If at all.”
The response drew even more criticism as many fans thought the scene fell flat. Azaria told Colbert in the 2018 interview he had “nothing to do with the writing or voicing” of the scene.
“Apu doesn’t speak in that segment,” Azaria said. “It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time that everybody else in America did, so I didn’t know it was going to be in [the episode] until I saw it.”
“I think that if anybody came away from that segment feeling 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,” he continued. “That’s definitely not the message that I want to send out.”