Fat Tony. The Pizza Guy. Disco Stu. Stereotypes, all.
But what about Apu? Was an Indian man working in a deli a stereotype?
Before you answer, let’s think of some more Simpsons characters:
Ned Flanders. Reverend Lovejoy. Grounds-keeper Willie.
See any more stereotypes?
Certainly, a large component of humor in the Simpsons lies in poking fun at everyone. But is it offensive?
Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American stand-up comic, wrote and starred in a 2017 documentary called The Problem With Apu. According to Kondabolu, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, one of the first South Asian characters appearing on TV, either in a cartoon or a non-animated show, presents a negative stereotype about people of Indian and South Asian heritage.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is an immigrant form India who is a convenience store proprietor, a recurring character on The Simpsons. Apu’s first appearance was on an episode entitled, “The Telltale Head”, which aired on February 25, 1990. Hailing from Rahmatpur, West Bengal, Apu is a naturalized U.S. citizen. In fact, he’s far more educated than most of the Simpsons characters, holding a Ph. D. in computer science.
A married vegan with children (a daughter named Pahasatira, and a son named Jamshed), Apu was once a member of a barbershop quartet, advised by his manager to use a stage name, choosing “Apu de Beaumarchais,” showing that not only is Apu well versed in the language of machines, but in literature as well, Beaumarchais having penned The Barber of Seville. All in all, quite a laudatory past, and Apu is clearly a respectable and erudite member of the Spingfield community.
In fact, Apu represents the American Dream, fulfilled. He has a wonderful family, owns his own business, obtained a higher education, and is a first-generation American. How much more positive can you get?
What about Fat Tony? Where is the redeeming quality there? Maybe the fact that he’s always articulate and well-dressed (in dark tones)? If South Indians can complain, then so should Italian-Americans. And Jewish people. And Christians.
Disco lovers, even! And really, the Stonecutters are a tad bit too close to the Freemasons. (“Homer the Great” is the twelfth episode of The Simpsons’ sixth season. It originally aired on the Fox network in the United States on January 8, 1995. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_the_Great) Both are ancient secret societies. Both engage in volunteer work in the community. Starting to see the connection?
While Kondabolu cites The Simpsons as a strong influence in his own comedic development, he strongly believed that Apu misrepresented his family’s culture, stating, “[Apu’s] funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.”
Fine. We can all accept that as truth, but what about how Italian-American Springfielders are represented? Should these characters disappear from the show as well? What about all the other stereotypes, of which there are many? Once we rid the Simpsons of its stereotypes, what will we be left with?
Kondabolu even went so far as to attack Hank Azaria, the voice actor who has brought Apu to life for now decades as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” In actuality, Azaria is of Sephardic Jewish ancestry, a sub-group of the Jewish people maligned throughout history, suffering at the hands of many other groups. Incidentally, that includes European white people.
The Simpsons is rife with many, many stereotypes of all sorts. Jewish stereotypes are among them, and Dalton, Mazur, and Siems, in God in the Details, a collective work written by all three, describe Krusty the Clown, another longtime Simpsons character, as “a gross caricature of a stereotypical secularized Jew corrupted by wealth and fame…[who]…dislikes children…[and]…finances his lavish debt-ridden lifestyle by over-marketing his own image unabashedly.”
We can all agree that, perhaps, “Thank you, come again” and Apu’s other antics are stereotypical representations of people from India. While Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, is not planning to write Apu out of the longest running show on TV, Azaria expressed that he “…won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s some way to transition it or something.”
Matt Groening had this to say in an interview with USA Today, “I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” Whether we agree of disagree with Groening’s statement, we can all agree that comedians (and of course, comedy shows) are having a far rougher time these days, as even one misstep can cost them followers.
If you’re going to be offended, then be offended for us all, not just your own group. Why? In not doing so, you’re committing the offense of feeling that stereotypes of your group’s particular stereotype is somehow worse than other stereotypes. How can you like the Simpsons but not like Apu? You’re either disgusted by it all, or you get it. It’s humor.
Younger people can’t possibly accuse The Simpsons of not being “woke” enough. Lisa Simpson has always provided a progressive voice to the show, on everything from women’s rights to the environment. Some might say Lisa was “born” a few decades too soon.
And, referencing stereotypes humorously can be healthy, as it fosters dialog and discussion. Humor can always work wonders to defuse tensions.
In The Simpsons episode entitled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”, first aired on April 8, 2018, As Lisa Simpson and her Mom gaze upon a photo of Apu, Lisa reflects wistfully, “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
This was in reference to a book Marge, Lisa’s mom, had been fond of as a child, but contained elements that Marge discovered might be considered offensive today. After editing out those aspects of the book, Marge felt the story’s “emotional journey” was lost. Obviously, it was also a reference to the ongoing debate about Apu.
It’s certainly true that society’s mores change with time. Styles change, also. Hemlines go up, hemlines go down. We seem to cycle back and forth between liberal and conservative leanings, as a society. It’s impossible that everything that was made in yesterday’s social climate would be considered acceptable today. But what of artistic license? What about the idea that humor is in a domain above criticism, and that mockery, especially self-mockery, is just part of the big picture?
Why do we laugh? Why do we want to laugh, even? It’s a way of lightening tensions, both psychological and emotional. It’s a way of relating to material that might otherwise be threatening, but it’s also so much more. Life on Earth can be hell for us all. Levity is heavenly, in that it can restore our faith in a bigger picture.
Apu is among Springfield’s most respectable characters. That is a fact. If Apu were the only character depicted humorously, while everyone else on the Simpsons were straight-laced and serious, Apu would be nothing more than a jester, and that would not be OK.
But in reality, the Simpsons is comedy, and everyone and everything is fair game for a laugh, within good taste. As stated above, it is this author’s belief that if the Simpsons lose Apu, they should also can Fat Tony and company, Krusty the Clown, and most of the other characters on the show. And what about Homer, the bumbling, ever-loving, ever-confused Dad, husband, and friend? The Simpsons has ruined it for any man with that name in the United States for three-plus decades now!
What would we be left with then? It might be politically correct, but in no way would it be any sort of expression of freedom or creativity, and it’s doubtful that such a show would be funny. Maybe a little bit of irreverence is a good thing, as long as it’s distributed equally among us all.
With all that said, maybe it is time for Apu to graduate from the Kwik-E-mart? Maybe he could innovate a software company that catalogs Kwik-E-Mark inventory, better keeping track of Butterfingers (remember when Bart was pushing those chocolate delights?), Squishee syrup, and sundry goods? But then again, that would be yet another stereotype! Maybe being a store owner is not such a bad thing after all.
Here’s an interesting question. How many convenience store owners were from India in the 1980s? Was it a rarity? What about now? If you know more than one person from India, can you honestly say you’ve never met anyone working in “I.T.?” What about people of Italian heritage? How many of those you’ve encountered were mobsters? In reality, this group comprised a far smaller number of Italian-Americans than Indian people who owned stores, and the imagery is likewise far worse.
But who’s complaining? Let the Simpsons live on, because after all, regardless of how the show’s been panned by some media outlets in recent years, watching the latest episodes of The Simpsons still affords the best opportunity to laugh ’til your belly hurts. And then laugh some more.
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Addendum: No doubt humor has changed. Some of what was once considered funny is now plain crass and rude. The following “humorous” anecdote, found in the November 14, 1868 edition of The Staten Island Leader, A Weekly Journal of News, Literature, and Politics, is one such example.
No one alive today can deny that this is not funny. Thankfully, our culture has changed. But do Hari Kondabolu’s claims about Apu rise to this level of shame? Hardly.