Hank Azaria has said he will no longer provide the voice for Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian American Kwik-E convenience-store owner on “The Simpsons.” Azaria has been the voice of the thickly-accented Apu for the last 30 years. The Fox show is said to be television’s longest-running prime-time scripted series.
Azari’s decision to step down was first reported on Jan. 17 by entertainment news blog Slashfilm. No details have yet been provided on whether Apu would get a new voice or would be retired from the show.
"All we know there is I won't be doing the voice anymore, unless there's some way to transition it or something," Azaria said, according to Slashfilm. "What they're going to do with the character is their call," the Slashfilm report quoted Azaria as saying. The actor, however, said that the decision to remove Azaria from voicing Apu was mutual. "We all agreed on it," he said. "We all feel like it's the right thing and good about it."
The show, which has been airing since 1990, has come into limelight since comedian Hari Kondabolu released his documentary “The Problem With Apu” in 2017. Kondabolu’s documentary began a conversation about racial stereotyping.
In his feature-length documentary, Kondabolu, who had said that he stayed mum for 28 years about his dislike of Apu, deconstructed the show’s “most offensive character” and explored the racism behind the show. He has, however, confessed to a lifelong lover of the show.
“The Simpsons” first hit screens in 1989, at a time when ethnic minorities were not represented on television. Faced with a lack of Indian characters, Apu became the face of Indian-Americans and all references to them were made through the cartoon.
But it’s a stereotype that has endured, according to many of those interviewed by Kondabolu for his documentary including actors Kal Penn and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Several also remember being called “Apu,” used like a racial slur. Kondabolu said in the film that Azaria’s rendition of Apu was more like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
A January 2014 article in the Huffington Post by Mallika Rao said that although the world has moved on and accepted Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri or Mindy Kaling, in fictional Springfield, Apu is still selling hot dogs with a funny accent. “Endearing and occasionally wise he may be, but his legacy is one that continues to thwart Indian actors looking to play three-dimensional characters,” Rao wrote.
A few months after Kondabolu’s documentary released, “The Simpsons” responded in an April 2018 episode to the backlash over Apu. In the episode, the young Lisa Simpson said, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Lisa then glanced at a framed photograph of Apu inscribed with the message, "Don't have a cow."
A few weeks after that episode aired, Azaria told the host of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" that he'd be happy to step aside from Apu and disagreed with how the show handled the criticism. "The idea that anybody -- 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 voices other characters on the show. "It was certainly not my intention," he said. "I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character, and the idea that it's brought pain and suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalize people, it's upsetting."
Meanwhile, responding to the news of Azaria quitting the show, Kondabolu wrote on Twitter that he hopes "The Simpsons" keeps Apu and lets "a very talented writing staff do something interesting with him." He wrote: "My documentary 'The Problem with Apu' was not made to get rid of a dated cartoon character, but to discuss race, representation & my community (which I love very much)," Kondabolu wrote. "It was also about how you can love something (like the Simpsons) & still be critical about aspects of it (Apu)."