Hank Azaria said he will no longer provide the voice on “The Simpsons” for convenience-store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, whose thick accent and penny-squeezing ways have led to criticism that the character was a racist stereotype.
It was not clear what Azaria’s decision, first reported Friday by the website Slashfilm, meant for Apu, which Azaria had voiced since the character was created in 1990. The producers of “The Simpsons” and Fox, its network, would not comment on whether Apu would get a new voice or perhaps be retired from the show.
In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu” forced Azaria, who is white, to reckon with his portrayal of the Kwik-E-Mart owner who speaks with a pronounced Indian accent. The film attempted to trace the origin story of Apu and put the character in a broader context of Hollywood depictions of Indians.
In the documentary, Kondabolu, who is of South Asian descent, called Apu “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” Others featured in the film recounted how the character Apu provided bullies with fodder when they were young.
Kondabolu and Azaria weren’t able to agree on a way for the voice actor to participate in an interview for the documentary, but Azaria was faced with even more questions after its debut.
Kondabolu, a lifelong lover of “The Simpsons,” said in a series of tweets Friday that his documentary was not intended to result in the removal of Apu as a character but to start a discussion about race and representation. He said that he hopes the show keeps Apu in the fictional town of Springfield.
“Let a very talented writing staff do something interesting with him,” Kondabolu said. Alluding to some of the Apu-defending vitriol that met his film, he added: “If not to better the show, then to at least spare me some death threats.”
In reaction to the growing controversy around the character, Azaria said two years ago that he found the situation “upsetting” and that the documentary gave the show “a lot of things to think about.” Months later, Azaria said in an interview with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show” that he would be “perfectly willing and happy to step aside” from the character or help transition it into something new.
“The idea that anyone, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad,” said Azaria, who also voices other characters on the cartoon, like Moe the bartender and Police Chief Wiggum. “It was certainly not my intention. I wanted to spread laughter and joy.”
The show itself has not expressed any misgivings. “The Simpsons” addressed the controversy dismissively in a 2018 episode in which Lisa Simpson, the character who is the show’s moral centre, spoke directly to the viewer and said: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” As Lisa glanced at a picture of Apu, her mother Marge Simpson said, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.” Lisa added, “If at all.”
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