A seemingly benign phrase has haunted comedian Hari Kondabolu since 1989.
“Thank you. Come again.”
It was the catchphrase of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, repeated to the glee of American audiences for decades to come.
“Twenty-eight years later the words ‘Thank You. Come Again’ follow me wherever I go,” Kondabolu states in his new documentary The Problem with Apu, airing November 19 on TruTV.
In the beginning, Hari Kondabolu wasn’t too keen about making The Problem with Apu, a sharp, poignant and funny hour-long film.
The Brooklyn-based comedian, 35, born in the Bronx to immigrant parents from India, had moved on from The Simpsons character who had followed Kondabolu like a minstrel bogeyman throughout his young life, doling out fodder to bigoted bullies and acting as a prolonged slap in the face to the plight of his parents and their peers.
Kondabolu found success, critical acclaim and fame with his comedy albums (Waiting for 2042, Mainstream American Comic), appearances on Conan and Late Night with David Letterman, a writing gig for FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and currently co-hosting the popular podcast Politically Re-Active with Bell.
It was Bell, Kondabolu tells A Beautiful Perspective, who pushed him to confront Apu.
“When Kamau asked me originally do to the piece [for Totally Biased], I found it corny in some ways. It had been talked about to death,” Kondabolu says of the 2012 bit that lead to the documentary. “There’s nothing new about the points of view in this film.”
Maybe in your circles, Kondabolu remembers Bell responding, “but most Americans don’t think about it.”
Bell was right. In spite of its subversive heart, The Simpsons, at 29 seasons running, is a beloved thread in American culture and an international phenomenon, its bulbous characters even making cameos in French car commercials. Outside of the former fans who say The Simpsons is past its prime, the show hasn’t been the target of much sticking criticism.
“It’s an institution, and people freak out when you criticize any institution,” says Kondabolu, predicting the coming backlash to his dismantling of an Indian stereotype voiced by white actor Hank Azaria. “But I think there’s a need to discuss these things. The history of minstrel in representation and the impact of this representation.”
Azaria, in the doc, is the white whale to Kondabolu’s Ahab, and he tries to secure an interview with the actor but —spoiler alert—to no avail. (More on that in a minute.)
As many fans will point out, The Simpsons skewers anyone and everyone: No one is safe from becoming a stereotype, from jazz musicians to closeted single men of a certain age.
And let’s be clear: Kondabolu is a huge fan of the show.
“Look man, I don’t hate The Simpsons. In fact, I have always loved The Simpsons,” he says to the camera strolling around the show’s theme park at Universal Studios. “It’s one of the main reasons I knew you could be smart and funny and political at the same time. It taught me about Pablo Neruda and Gore Vidal and Stanley Kubrick. It shaped me into the person and the comedian I am today.”
But, as the documentary illustrates, the stereotype of Apu was starkly different for Indian Americans. “The problem is: We didn’t have any other representation in this country,” actor Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect) explains in the doc.
“It’s the danger of a limited number of representations,” Kondabolu tells ABP. “There’s the Apu stereotype—the harmless servile figure—and on the other end, this terrorist figure; when you think about the post 9/11 backlash and the fear of brown people.”
He continues, “When you minimize a large group of human beings there are consequences.”
In a powerful scene in the film, Kondabolu asks a group of prominent Indian-American actors and comedians—including Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show and Aparna Nancherla of HBO’s Crashing—who among them had been bullied with the Apu character growing up. Everyone raises their hand.
For a show as self-aware as The Simpsons, one might think that they would have, by now, evolved the character of Apu, cut his patanking accent or changed something. But as former Simpsons writer and producer Dana Gould explains of the perspective of the writer’s room in the documentary: “There are accents that, by their nature to white Americans—I can only speak from experience, sound funny. Period.”
When I ask Kondabolu about this, he remarks, “In Hollywood, if one thing works they keep doing it over and over again.”
And in a way, Kondabolu defends Gould’s take.
“I don’t think Dana has that blind spot completely. I see him as somebody who actually has the guts to step up and talk about it,” he says. “I think he’s like, ‘This is how this works.’ At a certain point, it’s a machine. If they did it now, they probably wouldn’t make that character like that.”
Which brings us back to Hank Azaria. The doc quickly sets the premise that if Kondabolu can speak with Hank Azaria face-to-face, perhaps he can convince the prolific voice actor to stop doing the voice. The meeting, to Kondabolu’s deep chagrin, never materializes.
“It was frustrating that he was too afraid to do it,” Kondabolu says. “It’s frustrating that he wasn’t willing to put his butt on the line.”
In an email to Kondabolu, however, Azaria offers to meet after the documentary has wrapped—“finding a mutually acceptable forum for us to have a conversation about this,” Azaria writes.
With the release of The Problem with Apu approaching, Azaria and Kondabolu have not found that forum.
“I’m still hoping it happens,” Kondabolu says. “The goal of a film like this is it leads to something positive. I hope that he’s still willing to have a public conversation.”