Hank Azaria, the actor who voiced Apu on The Simpsons, has apologised “to every single Indian person” for his characters racist depictions.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was a much-loved fixture on the iconic cartoon series until 2017, when criticism emerged that The Simpsons writers and producers had relied on outdated, offensive stereotypes.
Azaria, who is white, infamously voiced the Indian American convenience-store clerk for three decades since the show’s inception in 1989, but stood down from the role last year. Now, Aaria has said he’s willing to be held accountable for the characters “negative consequences.”
On Monday, 56-year-old Azaria spoke on the Armchair Expert podcast, hosted by Dax Shephard and Indian American actress, Monica Padman, saying that while he believes the show was founded on good intentions, it contributed to the “structural racism” in the US.
Yes, Apu is just a joke. But you start with Apu and you end with racist violence directed at South Asians. That’s the spectrum from “it’s just a joke” to all kinds of physical and verbal violence.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen (@viet_t_nguyen) April 12, 2021
Azaria, who voices a range of other notable characters in the series, including Moe, Comic Book Guy, and Chief Wiggum, noted he had also taken some time to realise that his portrayal of Apu was offensive to the Indian American community.
“I really didn’t know any better,” he said.
“I didn’t think about it. I was unaware how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens.
“Just because there were good intentions it doesn’t mean there weren’t real negative consequences to the thing that I am accountable for.”
Azaria also said he spent the better part of a year “doing the work,” in which he “read, spoke to people who knew a lot about racism, spoke to lots of Indian people and went to seminars”.
“I realised I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years.”
If @hankazaria feels compelled to apologize for voicing Apu, would it not stand to reason that the entire The Simpson’s team would have to apologize for scripting Apu?
— Viva Frei (@thevivafrei) April 13, 2021
When criticism of the character first emerged and went viral, The Simpsons producers tried to laugh off complaints, which were sparked by the documentary The Problem With Apu by Indian American comedian, Hari Kondabolu.
In tweets about the podcast, Kondabolu welcomed Azaria’s apology but also remarked on the need to properly listen to people of colour.
“The ‘Apu Controversy’ is not real. Racism isn’t ‘controversial’, it’s a constant,” he wrote.
“Unless you think People of Color finally standing up for themselves is ‘controversial’. However, I suppose a word like ‘controversy’ is more clickable than ‘comeuppance’.”
Despite initially trying to blame the ‘over-woke left‘, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening told BBC Radio in February this year, that he was “trying to make it better”.
“Bigotry and racism are still an incredible problem and it‘s good to finally go for more equality and representation,” he said.
The show’s producers are now recasting all non-white characters who are currently portrayed by white voice actors.
Apu, an immigrant from West Bengal with a doctorate in computer science, runs the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store in Springfield. The character has frequently been at the centre of contentious storylines and tone-deaf jokes that heavily rely on his Indian ethnicity, faith, and culture.
I’m Indian and from the U.K. and my generation grew up watching this show. I would often get teased about Apu’s accent and asked why he spoke like that. I was always asked why I don’t speak like that etc. It made me feel embarrassed and I’m glad it’s gone.
— punam kumari (@punamku66044012) April 13, 2021
While speaking on Armchair Expert, Azaria also apologised directly to Padman for participating in the racist portrayal of Apu for over 30 years.
“I really do apologise. I know you weren’t asking for that but it’s important. I apologise for my part in creating that and participating in that,” he said.
“Part of me feels I need to go round to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologise.”