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The Problem with Apu, which landed on truTV in November, interviews South Asian comedians and actors to try and get to the bottom of how a TV character can be both groundbreaking and damaging at the same time. For the unfamiliar, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a regular fixture in the Springfield universe. He runs the Kwik-E-Mart, has too many children to count, and for some reason is able to maintain a soft spot for Homer Simpson despite his many shortcomings.
On the one hand, a show with a prominent Indian character staying on the air for 29 seasons is a historical landmark for representation in American TV. But on the other, if the character feeds into racial stereotypes and also happens to be voiced by a non-Indian actor doing an impression of an Indian accent, is Apu doing more harm than good? It’s a complex knot of social issues to try and untangle, and The Problem with Apu takes the task head-on.
Kondabolu ran into one slight hiccup during production, though: Azaria, who voices dozens of characters on the show including Apu, refused to be interviewed. Throughout the movie, Kondabolu worries that his documentary won’t make sense without an Azaria interview. He travels around talking to people like Kal Penn and Whoopi Goldberg, all the while trying and failing to get in touch with Azaria. “I didn’t want to grill him,” Kondabolu said in a November interview. “I wanted a conversation because, ultimately, it’s the awkward conversations that actually move us forward.”
It looks like Azaria ended up playing himself by avoiding the conversation, though, because TMZ reporters found him at an airport this weekend and asked him for his thoughts.
“I think the documentary made some really interesting points and gave us a lot to think about and we really are thinking about it,” Azaria told the cameraman. “Definitely anybody that was hurt or offended by it, or by any character or vocal performance, it’s really upsetting that it was offensive or hurtful to anybody… I think it’s an important conversation worth having. We’re still thinking about it. It’s a lot to digest.”
The Problem with Apu is available to stream on truTV’s website.
Christine Friar is a writer and editor in New York who focuses on streaming entertainment and internet culture. Her work has appeared in the Awl, the Fader, New York Magazine, Paper Magazine, Vogue, Elle, and more.