The Simpsons voice actor — who includes Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in his robust roster of characters — said in an interview with SlashFilm that he was personally parting ways with the character from the long-running animated Fox comedy. “What they’re going to do with the character is their call,” Azaria 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. … We all feel like it’s the right thing and good about it.”
Controversy surrounding the character has intensified in the wake of The Problem With Apu, a 2017 truTV documentary from comedian/Simpsons fan Hari Kondabolu that explains how Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a problematic stereotype of South Asian people. In April 2018, The Simpsons finally attempted to address the issue onscreen, but wound up creating more backlash on social media. A scene in which Marge was reading an edited-for-2018-standards version of The Princess in the Garden to Lisa ended with Lisa turning to the camera and saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She looked at a nearby picture of Apu that featured Bart’s catchphrase, “Don’t have a cow!” Added Marge: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” while Lisa chimed in, “If at all.”
The following day after the episode aired, Simpsons showrunner Al Jean said that the episode “speaks for itself,” and tweeted later that week: “I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right.”
Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert shortly after the episode, Azaria — who is not of South Asian descent — weighed in: “I’ve given this a lot of thought — really a lot of thought — and, as I say, my eyes have been opened. 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… Listening to voices means inclusion in the writers’ room. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers’ room, not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.”
Azaria, who also stars on Brockmire, also volunteered to stop voicing the character and supported the idea of character reinvention. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside — or help transition it into something new,” he said. “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.” A few months earlier, the actor had voiced concern that the character had become problematic. “The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on The Simpsons, or the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing, especially in post-9/11 America,” he said. “The idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally. It’s a character I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love, and joy, and pride. That certainly wasn’t the intent.”
Azaria has also asserted that he does not view Apu as a “one-dimensional” character. “I see him as having a lot of wonderful qualities and great assets,” he said. “As far as The Simpsons is concerned, it’s often a fine line between what’s comedy and what’s offensive and insulting and upsetting. The Simpsons over the years have been pretty humorously offensive to all manner of people — Republicans, Brazilians, presidents, high school principals, Italians — and they take a lot of pride over there in not apologizing for any of that. I think they’ve done a really good job of being, shall we say, uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.”
The show’s publicist declined to comment, while Azaria’s rep was unavailable for comment.
The first episode of The Simpsons aired 30 years ago last month, and the show is currently in the middle of its 31st season.