A good response…a bit late, but good


Hank Azaria has responded to the Apu controversy on The Simpsons. Recently, people woke up to the fact that the character is a terrible stereotype (Hari Kondabolu made a whole movie about it), and Azaria finally thought about it and publicly recognizes that Kondabolu is right, and that the show should change.

They need real representation in the writer’s room? Yep, that’s always true. If you’re going to feature an ethnic character, you better talk with someone of that ethnicity.

He could have gone the Mickey Rooney/Breakfast at Tiffany’s route.

Rooney, who occasionally shows the Mr. Yunioshi clip as part of his traveling stage show, added, that “Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it — not one complaint. Every place I’ve gone in the world people say, ‘ … you were so funny.’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey you were out of this world.'”

Don’t worry. Rooney forgave people who were offended.

Rooney said that if he’d known people would have been so offended, “I wouldn’t have done it.”

“Those that didn’t like it, I forgive them and God bless America,” he said. “God bless the universe, God bless Japanese, Chinese, Indians, all of them and let’s have peace.”

Azaria’s response is real progress.

Comments

  1. jakebardon says

    Wow. Sensible, measured, not vilifying or chest-thumping or excuse making, just… a moment of reasonable acknowledgement that some more honest listening would be good.

    Seems there’s hope after all.

    …and under that (the late show’s) tweet, comments shrieking about how nothing’s allowed to be funny anymore and this is the death of all humour and PC culture bwah bwah bwah bwaaaaah….

    …sigh.

  2. Saad says

    jakebardon, #1

    …and under that (the late show’s) tweet, comments shrieking about how nothing’s allowed to be funny anymore and this is the death of all humour and PC culture bwah bwah bwah bwaaaaah….

    Yeah, those are the most ridiculous defenses.

    It’s very possible to have a funny Indian character. What these people don’t say explicitly is that that is not what they want.

  3. lakitha tolbert says

    Can I point out that I do not care how funny Chinese people thought Mr Rooney’s stereotype was? Chinese people don’t give a flying hot damn if you’re stereotyping Japanese people in a movie. You know who does care though? Japanese people probably, but for sure, Americans of Japanese descent!

    How magnanimous of him to forgive people for calling him on his bullsh*t.

  4. hemidactylus says

    The Problem with Apu was great. I didn’t realize how bad an issue it was until that documentary. Partly it was an appropriation and stereotype. It was also lack of representation. Adding Whoopi’s collection of memorabilia was a nice comparison for how we have always done this sort of thing in the US.

    Kal Penn has played some regrettable characters, including a terrorist in 24 but has done some good stuff too. I recall Dude Where’s the Party as offering some perspective on multigenerational immigrant experience. There are more portrayals of Indian Americans now. And they are done by actual Indians. Dr. Neela Rasgotra on ER was good, but I am unsure of Raj Koothrappali on Big Bang Theory.

  5. says

    Yeah, this was a case I think of getting too meta in their humor. They were thinking that by presenting the stereotype in a cartoonish version they were actually mocking the stereotype, but that’s asking too much of the audience. You can do it if you make it very clear that’s what you’re doing, but just throwing it out there without any framing is insensitive. The Simpson’s does this all the time — e.g. their trips abroad, or even to Boston — but in those cases you understand what’s going on. Apu is a regular character, so it doesn’t work. But that’s how I think they meant it.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    The thing is, the Simpsons have shown in the past that they don’t mind making permanent shifts in their galaxy before. The death of Mrs. Flanders, Lisa becomes a vegetarian, Sideshow Bob going to jail (haven’t watched the show in years, and maybe things reset, but I don’t see why they shouldn’t change for good.)

    How hard would it be for Apu to get a big inheritance, sell the Quick-E Mart, and become a real estate tycoon who competes with Mr. Burns or something? Just put him in a non-stereotypical role. It might get some good publicity and revive some interest in the show while they’re at it.

  7. Callinectes says

    It might be late because he was properly thinking about it before discussing it.

  8. says

    It took an entire documentary for him to think about it and come around. Hey, that’s how to fix racism and cultural stereotypes: let’s make a documentary about each and every one of them. Christfuck it’s as though there is something wrong with white people! Why are they so fucking stupid?

  9. Danny Husar says

    >If you’re going to feature an ethnic character, you better talk with someone of that ethnicity.

    Why?

    So if you’re writing a book, or a screenplay or a script and you include a Lithuanian-American character, you better talk to a real Lithuanian-American (any Lithuanian-American, or a ‘representative’ one)?

    >They need real representation in the writer’s room? Yep, that’s always true.

    Again, why? Why can’t you write Lithuanian-American characters without a Lithuanian-American writer in the room?

    Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a diverse writer pool. Talent comes in all shapes and sizes but why do you intrinsically need ‘real representation’? Either the character and writing is genuine or it isn’t. If it is, what does it matter what the gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity of the writer is? And if it isn’t, then the problem is the art you created sucks.

  10. says

    It took an entire documentary for him to think about it and come around.

    An article, a documentary, and dozens of people on Twitter asking him to say something.

  11. cartomancer says

    Ethnic stereotypes can be the source of great humour, but it has to be done right. Almost always this means letting comics of that ethnicity write the jokes. One of the funniest sketch shows on the BBC in the 90s was the British Asian comedy Goodness Gracious Me, which lampooned the whole range of stereotypes, from stereotypes held by non-Asian British people about British Asians (“going for an English”, the charlatan yogi, Bombay Television with its English intern), to stereotypes within the British Asian community itself (Buddhist pest control, the Kapoors (pronounced “Cooper”), “All I need is a small aubergine”), to parodies of Bollywood, the Raj, attitudes to naturalisation, and, yes, even the traditional Indian Corner Shop.

  12. woozy says

    I kind of don’t get it.

    Apu was obviously an ethnic stereotype in 1990 and the humor obviously was that even though stereotypes can be seen as offensive they are still kind of funny to the target audience despite, or maybe because of, the potential offense. I honestly don’t see that *anything* has changed in 27 years.

    I can understand and accept, “As time goes on the supposed virtue of the humor seemed too weak to justify the offense that became more and more grating” or “you’re right; it really is unacceptably offensive” but I can’t accept anything like “we had no idea what we were doing and it didn’t occur us that a broad stereotype was offensive” or “well, it was more acceptable in the attitudes of the time” (that’s, unfortunately, true of Mickey Rooney’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s [… maybe… That was before my time and maybe I am mistaken about the attitudes of the times; and as I get upset when people misrepresent the attitudes of the 80s or 90s, it’s only fair I be aware I may be equally misrepresenting the attitudes of the 50s and early 60s] but it is not true of 1990).

    Or, maybe I’m wrong. And Azaria and the writers *were* clueless. In which case I’m honestly surprised.

    @6 “Apu is a regular character, so it doesn’t work.”

    I don’t think Apu was originally intended to be a regular character and so was intended to be a broad joke, like Herman the weapons fetishist or the comic book guy (or Cletus the Slack-jawed yokel). Oddly, Apu expanded (without necessarily deepening).

  13. chrislawson says

    Callinectes@8–

    The criticism of the Simpson’s treatment of Apu goes back a long way before the documentary. Kondabolu started working the theme into his stand-up routine in 2012 and Azaria was interviewed about Indian school kids being called “Apu” back in 2015. I think we can commend the way the Simpsons team has decided to go on this without giving them unwarranted retrospective brownie points.

  14. chrislawson says

    cervantes@6–

    Slightly OT, but I just watched an awful movie last night (“The Similars”, a low-budget Mexican movie) that I believe was trying to parody 50s/60s Twilight-Zoneish horror. Unfortunately, in making a bad film as a parody of bad films, the filmmakers just made a bad film.

  15. hemidactylus says

    One problem with Apu is that he was voiced by a non-Indian which makes whatever stereotypy involved even more problematic. If there had been voicing and character development input from an Indian things could have been different, but the typecasting of Indians such as Kal Penn in productions such as Van Wilder says otherwise.

    Yet for comparison sake what about Tony Montana in Scarface? That role may have projected seriously negative vibes of Cuban immigrants in a time when the war on drugs was ramping up and was played by a non-Cuban. I wonder to what degree negative portrayals of Latino men have to do with popular perception of immigration from Latin American countries. Did Tony Montana come to mind when Trump mentioned bad hombres?

    There have been other Cuban-American portrayals in US media previous to Scarface. Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo comes to mind. I do not have the ability to culturally unpack I Love Lucy. It seemed benign and had the positive outcome of facilitating Star Trek, given Lucille Ball’s subsequent stature. Not all Cuban men are band leaders, but that sure beats being portrayed as psychopathically murderous drug lords by far. Even my favorite show Miami Vice put forward quite a few of those sorts of negative Latino characters, but that was more than offset by that wondrously mysterious man of few words Lt. Castillo (pbuh).

  16. nomdeplume says

    “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is simply unwatchable because of Rooney (he appears very early). What a stupid man he must be to still not get the problem, not to see the awfulness of what he did.

  17. chrislawson says

    Danny Husar@10–

    Speaking as someone who has written characters well outside my own demographic…

    1. It depends on the character. If you write someone who just happens to be Indian or Lithuanian-American and it is not central to the way they’re portrayed, then you’re probably on safe ground as a writer even if your knowledge of that group is minimal (although I’d question why you need to do this if the matter is inconsequential).

    2. If your character’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other descriptor is important to the characterisation (e.g. Apu), and you have little knowledge of that person’s experience then you’re treading on thin ice.

    3. Even inclusive, progressive writers can perpetuate harmful stereotypes without realising it. Getting an informed perspective is a good thing, especially if that perspective is an integral part of the creative team rather than a tacked-on last-pass review.

    (I should say that by and large I’m happy with the way I’ve portrayed characters very different to me, but there are still some changes I would make in hindsight. There are also stories I never finished because I wasn’t confident that I was portraying the characters as fairly as I would like.)

  18. hemidactylus says

    On the topic of ethnic portrayals in media, that most progressive of shows The Walking Dead has introduced Siddiq into the storyline this season. He is a Muslim of uncertain (to me) heritage befriended by Carl and brought into the group during the tail end of the Savior War. He has medical skills.

    Bring on the skin wearers!

  19. anbheal says

    This is an excellent comment thread. Nuanced and sympathetic and critical all at once. As a longtime Simpsons fan (until the writers’ strike was busted, and all the network talent headed to deep cable, and network TV, including The Simpsons, has never recovered — hence, the reality deluge on the networks, with Breaking Bad on deep cable), I liked the character of Apu. He was likeable. So at least there’s that — he was not denigrated for his ethnicity, per se — and episodes such as Apu’s Wedding were perhaps a bit condescending toward Hindus, but no moreso than portrayals of Ned Flanders’s Christianity, or Dr. Nick’s Latino quackery…..which is actually pretty similar.

    Still, once I started hearing white punks on dope say Thank You Come Again to 7-11 clerks, around 1994 or so, I thought they should have let his character evolve. @7 Brucegee1962 makes an excellent point — why couldn’t Apu have taken courses in programming and become a videogame developer, or been hired by BCG or Bain as a brilliant Ph.D., hitherto unrecognized due to racial bias?

    I don’t agree that only a man can write a man’s character or only a Canadian can write a Candian character (otherwise we’d have no literature), but it’s long overdue for Apu to be voiced and written and nuanced by someone who’s been there, lived that. The series is nearly 30 years old.

  20. ragdish says

    I applaud Hari Kondabolu’s documentary in regards to Indian stereotypes. Growing up I felt similar discrimination as the only brown kid on the block. Yet he turns a blind eye to all the other stereotypes on the show. I can’t remember the exact article but I’ve read that he is a Monty Python fan. No outrage from Hari when Jews are stereotyped as “big nose”

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JAVvEQvnDm0

    I’m not down with “no bigotry against me but it’s all right for thee”

  21. Clovasaurus says

    #10 @Danny
    “Why?”
    Because they would be taking something that doesn’t belong to them without asking.

    “So if you’re writing a book, or a screenplay or a script and you include a Lithuanian-American character, you better talk to a real Lithuanian-American (any Lithuanian-American, or a ‘representative’ one)?”
    Yes. Otherwise, it’s theft.

    “Again, why? Why can’t you write Lithuanian-American characters without a Lithuanian-American writer in the room?”
    Because writers who do that, aren’t able to check, or course correct for biases.

    “Either the character and writing is genuine or it isn’t.” Correct! And I’d bet there are very talented Lithuanian-American writers who would love to share their genuine experiences for some of those profits, accolades, awards, grants, and what ever else gives writers more room to keep writing.

  22. hemidactylus says

    One side issue I have thought about before, but this thread has really brought it out for me after mentioning Pacino’s portrayal of a negative Cuban character is where is the limit drawn for authentic ethnic casting and could I be overthinking it being white OR risk turning a blind eye. I had mentioned the character Siddiq from The Walking Dead. Going on what the Wikia page says he is supposed to be Arab-American:

    http://walkingdead.wikia.com/wiki/Siddiq_(TV_Series)

    Yet he is portrayed by an Indian American actor.

    One of the most compelling characters in Lost was Sayid Jarrah a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard. He was portrayed masterfully by Naveen Andrews, an Indian. Lost wound up becoming an abomination in itself, but not because Sayid. Lost eventually got renamed Hawaii Five-0 🙃

    Both Siddiq and Sayid are interesting and important characters and the acting going into their portrayal is top notch, but is it problematic the actors are not themselves Arabs? This is outside my scope of ability to process effectively.

  23. rgmani says

    If you’re going to feature an ethnic character, you better talk with someone of that ethnicity.

    As someone of “that ethnicity,” I don’t see why. I came to the US shortly after the Simpsons started its run and I have enjoyed the show from time to time. Frankly, I don’t think the issue is who voices the character. Neither do I want Indians to be involved just because there is an Indian character on the show – it is after all an animated show. And what if there was an Indian involved and he said it was OK? I certainly wasn’t bothered by it and I know several American-born people of Indian origin who say it didn’t bother them. What if one of them was a consultant on this show? Would that count as “talking with someone of that ethnicity?”

    I think the problem is not the portrayal of Apu in the show. Yes, the accent is quite offensive but then pretty much everything on that show is calculated to offend and none of the other characters are shining examples of humanity. Yes, it stereotypes Indians but it stereotypes everyone else too. I think the bigger issue is that it was the only portrayal of Indians on TV for a long time. If there was a diversity of characters of Indian origin on TV at the time the show came out then the portrayal of Apu would not have been that much of an issue.

    – RM

  24. archangelospumoni says

    Remember a few years ago when an Asiana 777 had trouble at SFO? Some intern (I dimly remember) at the NTSB made up a “news release” on his last day (I think it was) stating that the cockpit crew were named:
    Wi Tu Lo
    Sum Ting Wong
    Bang Ding Ow
    Ho Li Fuk

    Various news outfits read the NTSB “news release” over the air and some intern probably had the last laugh as when the news talking head looked up at the camera, you could tell they were thinking “WTF did I just say?” I worked with a bunch of Asian folks who thought it was hilarious . . . WAY MORE of them liked it than I ever would have thought.

  25. says

    Just google “indian convenience store attacked” and it becomes impossible to defend broadly stereotyping Indian convenience store owners.
    I stopped watching The Simpsons because I thought the character of Apu was really shitty – either it was playing to a negative stereotype, or if it was “homage to Indian storekeepers” it was faint praises indeed.

    The first items in my google return:
    “Mar 11, 2018 · LOUISANA (TIP): Chad Horsley who was arrested for ramming his pickup truck through the window of a convenience store owned by a Sikh American on March 3, admitted that he …”

    “Mar 12, 2017 · A Florida man tried to set a convenience store owned by people of Indian descent ablaze, in yet another attack on Indian- Americans in the country. St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara …”

    “3 days ago · A 43-year-old Indian- origin convenience store owner, Harnish Patel, was shot dead outside his home in Lancaster County, South Carolina on 2 March. A day later a 39-year-old Sikh was …”

    “Mar 5, 2017 · On Thursday, a convenience store owner was fatally shot in South Carolina. An investigation is ongoing, but authorities said they have not seen evidence of a hate crime. [ Trump ‘finally’ …”

    Hahahaha The Simpsons sure are funny hahahahaha … uh. No, that’s bullshit. The Simpsons writers were a bunch of hipster douchebags who came up with the character of Apu because they were not very good at the “being funny” bit. It’s just bad humor. Like when stupid bad British comedians complain that they aren’t funny now that their humor has been ruined by political correctness. No, in fact, they were cringe-worthy all along. So was The Simpsons. And, if you didn’t see it, you were probably cringe-worthy, too.

  26. says

    By the way “they laughed at it too” is the first excuse that every racist, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise just plain bad comedian has made for their bad jokes. It ignores the fact that some people will laugh at anything – so some people have shitty senses of what’s funny; that’s hardly an excuse to be a shitty comedian, is it?

    Ethnic jokes are cheap shots, bad comedy, lazy, and they inevitably eventually blow up in the comedian’s faces.

    Start making jokes about what a collection of assholes comedians are and how they all like to jerk off in flower pots and suddenly you’ll discover they reject that bad stereotype and “not all comedians” etc.

    Ethnic humor is bad comedy because it’s barely funny even when it’s cleverly done. It doesn’t age well. For fuck’s sake, haven’t Humor Scientists figured this out yet?

  27. hemidactylus says

    @26- Marcus

    Can those attacks be blamed on a frickin cartoon? I interact with an Indian convenience store owner almost daily and he seems to have a decent rapport with the local poor white, black and hispanic folk who probably watched The Simpsons religiously. There’s gotta be more at play than a shallowly developed character. After 9-11 Sikhs were targeted. That was plainly vindictive anti-Other bigotry vaguely aimed at brown people not Apu. He was arguably a bad stereotype. But a causal factor in violent attacks?

    I started watching the Simpsons after Tracey Ullman. It was subversive and anti-authority. I “graduated” to Beavis and Butthead then South Park. I stopped watching highbrow Simpsons. I also watch Archer and Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Therefore I cannot really come down on The Simpsons too hard because Apu. I am a horrible person defined solely on what I choose to watch on TV.

  28. hemidactylus says

    But for some reason I cannot “get” Family Guy. There is perhaps some chance for redemption deep in my soul.

  29. chigau (違う) says

    I don’t care about the physical configuration of a voice-actor.
    Bart has stayed a 10-year old white boy for 30 years.
    His voice is a 30 to 60 year old woman. Nancy Cartwright.
    When ザ・シンプソンズ is dubbed into Japanese or Los Simpson into Spanish, are the voice actors selected by ethnicity?

    The A problem is not the configuration of the voice actor, it is with the configuration of the script-writing team.
    A bunch of middle-class, white, American males writing jokes for the speech of an immigrant, brown, Indian female character is pretty much doomed to be funny only to …

  30. chrislawson says

    chigau@30–

    I agree that in an ideal world it shouldn’t matter which actor plays which part. We shouldn’t care about a white actor playing a black part or other ethnic variations for the same reason we don’t usually care if a British actor plays an American part. But this is not an ideal world and there are two strong reasons why we definitely should care.

    1. The history of blackface is one of oppression and vilification of African-Americans. The term “Jim Crow” derives from a blackface character popular on the American stage in the 1820s-30s. It’s almost impossible to separate a modern performance from its historical baggage. Maybe a generation or two after the genuine death of racism, i.e. not any time soon.

    2. Minorities are still woefully under-represented in the media. When the handful of prominent ethnic roles in TV/film go mainly to white actors–particularly anti-stereotypical roles like Diane Ng on Bojack Horseman–it rubs salt into the wound.

  31. says

    hemidactylus@#28:
    Can those attacks be blamed on a frickin cartoon?

    Maybe the cartoon can be blamed on the attitude that caused the attacks.

  32. killyosaur says

    Ragdish@21 That’s a bit of a stretch you are making regarding the “stereotyping of Jews” as all having big noses in that sketch. It’s pretty clear that that the character played by Eric Idle is insulting the Michael Palin character directly, and also Brian (Graham Chapman), and no mention of this being a necessary trait of all Jews is stated or even really implied. (also considering that particular Palin character, I believe, shows up later in the film and is stated to be a Samaritan, it really causes problems with your case). That being said, there are some instances of Monty Python mocking ethnic/racial minorities in the show (there is a sketch with John Cleese playing a Chinese person from Monty Python’s Flying Circus that does play up some stereotypes), but this particular case is not one of them.

  33. Saad says

    Who knew that white people doing a comical exaggerated accent of a minority and the public using one of his catchphrases to make fun of that group would be considered wrong? Damn es jay double yoos.

  34. says

    hemidactylus@23 Pacino’s co-star in Scarface, Steven Bauer, is a Cuban, born in Havana. I wonder what he thinks of Pacino’s portrayal now. When the film was made he was a young actor who would have been reluctant to rock the boat too much.

  35. anon1152 says

    @22 said:
    “So if you’re writing a book, or a screenplay or a script and you include a Lithuanian-American character, you better talk to a real Lithuanian-American (any Lithuanian-American, or a ‘representative’ one)?”
    Yes. Otherwise, it’s theft.

    ***
    Is “theft” the best category to use here?

    Is there a distinction we should make here between “cultural appropriation” (or misappropriation) and the expropriation of property?

  36. Derek Vandivere says

    #24 / rgmani:

    I think the bigger issue is that it was the only portrayal of Indians on TV for a long time. If there was a diversity of characters of Indian origin on TV at the time the show came out then the portrayal of Apu would not have been that much of an issue.

    I think you’ve precisely identified why the character is a problem right there.

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