'The Simpsons' Voice Actor Hank Azaria Finally Apologizes For Apu

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Matt Miller
·4 min read
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Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

In 2017, Hari Kondabolu's documentary, The Problem With Apu, explored how The Simpsons character perpetuates South Asian stereotypes and launched a larger conversation about whitewashing and racist voice casting that has boiled into the mainstream over the last few years. "I can’t get over that ridiculous voice that’s unrealistic and goofy and the setting he’s in and the fact that there are about ten jokes that repeat themselves, like gods with multiple heads and arms, curry, the Kwik-E-Mart, go to the Himalayas," Kondabolu told me at the time. For most of The Simpsons's 30-plus years on TV, Apu was a fixture of the series, voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. Now, four years later, after stepping away from the role in early 2020, Azaria has apologized for the harm this character caused the South Asian community.

After the documentary aired in 2017, The Simpsons and the show's producers, struggled to respond to the growing outrage over one of the most racist TV characters of all time. In April of 2018, The Simpsons seemingly brushed the widespread fury off in an episode with an embarrassing interaction between Marge and Lisa, which Kondabolu described as a jab at "what many of us consider progress."

In response to the outrage over the episode, Azaria went on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and said that he was willing to step aside from the character.

"I’ve given this a lot of thought, and as I say my eyes have been opened," he said. "I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room…including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me."

In early 2020, Azaira officially announced that he would no longer be voicing the character.

“I won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s some way to transition it or something,” Azaria told the website SlashFilm. “We all made the decision together. We all agreed on it. We all feel like it’s the right thing and good about it.”

Since then, The Simpsons has still not recast Apu. Meanwhile, producers announced last year that white actors would no longer be voicing non-white characters, including Azaria's Carl Carlson, Lou, and Dr. Nick Riviera, along with the Harry Shearer-voiced Dr. Hibbert. But the show has still not officially apologized for years of whitewashing and racist casting, with series creator Matt Groening maintaining that he was "proud" of the character Apu.

"I really do apologize," Azaria told Dax Shepard and Monica Padman on Armchair Expert. "It's important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do."

The actor described a number of interactions over the last few years, that he's had that illustrated how harmful the character was.

"I was speaking at my son's school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input," Azaria said. "A 17-year-old … he's never even seen The Simpsons but knows what Apu means. It's practically a slur at this point. All he knows is that is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country."

It's still unclear what The Simpsons producers plan to do with Apu going forward. And it's shocking that it took this long for anyone to apologize for the character. Azaria's words are long overdue, and The Simpsons producers remain largely silent on the issue. Maybe they can take the advice of Kondabolu, who had a pretty good idea when I talked to him in 2017:

What I think they should do is give him some upward mobility. If you’re saying satire is built in reality, there’s a lot of South Asians who run convenience stores, that’s accurate. However, they often end up owning the place, buying more of them and then employing other people. They become like little moguls. If you’re saying this is the truth. Then complete it. Let him be someone who competes with Burns. It’s been 30 years.

Or, better yet, maybe just put Kondabolu in the writer's room...

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