“Thank you, come again!”
That phrase, made famous by “The Simpsons,” has haunted Hari Kondabolu for nearly 30 years. Though “taunted” may be the better word.
The Brooklyn-based stand-up comedian and child of Indian immigrants can’t even recall the first time he heard the jeer hurled his way. “When it happens so regularly,” he says, “it’s like asking me, ‘Can you remember specific times you took the subway?’ ”
“Kids were looking for some angle to make fun of somebody, and you don’t know much about Indian people, so what are your options?” he muses.
The guy who served monkey brains for dinner in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
Or Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian-born convenience store clerk on “The Simpsons.”
In the hit Fox show’s sea of yellow-skinned Springfielders, Apu stood out for his brown skin. (And probably for the Ganesha statue gracing his Kwik-E-Mart counter.) But mostly, Apu imprinted himself on the viewer’s psyche with his accent, a clucking singsong that made “Thank you, come again!” a meme before memes existed.
At first, it didn’t seem so nefarious to Kondabolu, who is now 35.
The TV shows of the era didn’t “look anything like where I grew up,” he says. “So being able to see an Indian face, even if it was a cartoon, that’s all I wanted: to exist.”
But now, Kondabolu, whose comedy album, "Mainstream American Comic," reached No. 2 on the Billboard comedy charts last year, is examining whether the chattering cartoon immigrant did more harm than good as a representation of Indian Americans. He's taking on the slushee-slinging shopkeeper in "The Problem With Apu," debuting on TruTV on Nov. 19. The hour-long documentary includes interviews with actors and comics of South Asian heritage, who discuss not only the cartoon character but also how their lives have been affected by the stereotypes of South Asians swimming around in the pop culture pool.
Kondabolu, who also is an executive producer of the film, talks with Kal Penn of “Harold and Kumar” fame (who immediately voices his contempt for Apu); “Master of None” star Aziz Ansari; and actress Whoopi Goldberg, who maintains a collection of racist depictions of African Americans from a not-so-distant past and quickly begins to see Apu’s place in it.
The comedian is keenly aware that taking on Apu is akin to dragging “The Simpsons” behemoth itself. And that the millions of Americans who have glowing memories of Bart and Co. will bristle at the idea they may have laughed at something racist.
But he wants viewers to see how insidious such characterizations can be and how they continue to thrive.
“You start to feel embarrassed to be an Indian,” he says. “Because there’s only one representation.”
A not-quite-normal universe
Apu didn’t appear until a few episodes into the first season of “The Simpsons,” but from its 1989 debut, the show was a cultural touchstone. A biting prime-time satire disguised to look like a Saturday morning cartoon, it appealed to both adults and kids, as if it spoke two languages at once.
In many ways, what makes it difficult for Kondabolu to argue that Apu is a particularly stereotypical depiction is that the show is teeming with caricatures: blithering drunks, soulless billionaires, closeted gay men, fleabag clowns — you get it.
Kondabolu is bracing for the tidal wave of, “Oh, you’re a killjoy, and you hate comedy and you hate ‘The Simpsons’ because you criticize it.”
“That’s not true,” he says. “I was raised on ‘The Simpsons,’ and ‘The Simpsons’ critiqued popular culture. So what I’m doing is in the tradition of ‘The Simpsons’ as far as I’m concerned.”
Through a spokeswoman, “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and actor Hank Azaria, who voices Apu, declined requests for comment on Kondabolu’s film.
From the opening credits, the world of 'The Simpsons' was full of cues that "things aren't quite normal," says John Ortved, author of "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History."
The animators designed a universe of people who were banana yellow, with blue hair and exaggerated features. “These aren’t people who represent humanity, who represent the culture,” Ortved says. “They’re obviously not going for a human look.” But there were exceptions: Dr. Hibbert, modeled after Dr. Huxtable from “The Cosby Show,” was clearly African American; Apu was brown; and a slew of odd characters who turned up from time to time were also clear reminders that race exists, even in “The Simpsons.”
The show may not have looked like the real world, but its story lines and themes smacked of it. Apu has been mistaken for a terrorist at the border, he has revealed that he’s an illegal immigrant and has faced the threat of deportation.
And he has been a cheap huckster, selling spoiled goods at the Kwik-E-Mart and shooting at customers with a rifle. He submitted to a marriage arranged by his parents and became the father of eight squirming brown babies. And he is never without his accent, which isn’t exactly traceable to any actual region of India.
Apu, says Michael Melamedoff, director of the documentary, arrived on the air at a time when South Asians were becoming more visible in American life — a major boom in Asian immigration occurred in the 1980s and ’90s.
"The Simpsons" came only a few years after sex-hungry Long Duk Dong in "Sixteen Candles"; "Big Trouble in Little China," which was filled with Asian gangsters and Orientalist mysticism; and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
“So of course he comes to life in the guise of a stereotype,” Melamedoff says. “Was this kind of race-baiting humor more acceptable in American culture then? One-hundred percent.”
Bringing up Apu
Apu was on the air more than two decades before Kondabolu decided to call the character out.
In 2012, Mindy Kaling had just landed her own show, the first starring a woman of South Asian descent, and Kondabolu, then a writer for W. Kamau Bell’s FX show, “Totally Biased,” set out to explain why her success mattered to others. It meant talking about the biggest Indian character on television up to that point. It meant bringing up Apu.
“Talking about this stuff felt kind of corny. To me, it felt like it had been done to death,” Kondabolu says. Bell saw it differently. “Kamau said, ‘Your community has been talking about this for 20 years. The rest of the country doesn’t notice it, doesn’t think it’s a thing. This is new.’ ”
So Kondabolu began by describing to the show’s audience what Apu looked like to him: “A cartoon character voiced by a white guy. A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
Azaria has won a handful of Emmy awards for his work on “The Simpsons.” Three times, his work as Apu was cited in his win.
The original writing room was “very reflective of late ’80s-early ’90s writing rooms,” says Ortved. “It was a lot of white men.”
“Do I think ‘The Simpsons’ was ignorant or intentionally racist? No,” he says. “I also don’t think when they were thinking about the voice of Apu, they were thinking too strongly about the South Asian American communities and how they might react to it.”
Kondabolu says his goal isn’t to shame the show or demand Apu’s erasure.
“It’s already been 30 years,” and the impact has already been made,” he says. “For me it’s about getting more diverse roles. It’s about writing rooms being more diverse, people actually sharing their own stories as opposed to other people sharing it for them.”
“The Problem with Apu,” says Melamedoff, whose own family emigrated from Argentina, is about “how we succeed and fail representing minority voices, and elevating minority voices so they can represent themselves.”
“I spent a lot of time revisiting Apu episodes,” he says. “Of course, the character has moments of real wit and insight, because the writing team at ‘The Simpsons’ was great. But a lot of those moments are also blanketed by very cheap jokes that come at the expense of South Asian culture and South Asian experiences.
“Apu, I just can’t look at him the same way anymore.”