Hank Azaria apologizes for playing Apu on ‘The Simpsons’ for three decades

In a recent episode of Dax Shepard’s podcast, “Armchair Expert,” Azaria recalled feeling hurt and defensive in 2017 when “The Problem with Apu,” a documentary by Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu, launched a discussion about the character and the South Asian stereotypes he perpetuated.

Initially, Azaria said he didn’t want to “knee-jerk respond to what could have been … 17 hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn.” But he realized he needed to educate himself: “I talked to a lot of Indian people. I talked to a lot of people who knew a lot about racism in this country,” Azaria said. “I took seminars. I read.”

One conversation that particularly resonated with Azaria took place at his son’s school, where the actor spoke with a group of Indian students. One 17-year-old approached Azaria with tears in his eyes. “He’s never even seen ‘The Simpsons’ … but knows what Apu means,” Azaria explained. “It’s practically a slur at this point. All he knows is this is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country.”

The student asked Azaria to pass a message along to his industry colleagues: “Will you please tell the writers in Hollywood that what they do and what they come up with really matters in people’s lives, like it has consequences?”

“I was like ‘yes, my friend, I will tell them that,” Azaria said before turning to Shepard’s co-host Monica Padman, who is Indian American. “I said to him, and I’m going to say to you right now, I really do apologize. I know you weren’t asking for that, but it’s important,” Azaria said. “I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that.”

“Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country,” Azaria said.

“I really, really appreciate that it took you two or three years before you felt comfortable really speaking on it,” Padman told Azaria. “It wasn’t just lip service. … You really committed to learning about it.”

Azaria is one of several White actors who have been called out for voicing characters of color in recent years. Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell, who is married to Shepard, said last year they would stop voicing mixed-race characters on Netflix’s “Big Mouth” and Apple TV Plus’s “Central Park,” respectively. Mike Hale stepped down from voicing Cleveland, a Black man on Fox’s “Family Guy.”

As anti-racism protests continue, the comedy world is reckoning with its past, uncovering how racist depictions of blackface and minstrelsy feed into TV today. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“The Simpsons” initially confronted criticism over Apu with a joke in an April 2018 episode, in which Lisa Simpson makes a reference to “something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect.” The show’s message, as it cut to a signed photo of Apu on the Simpson family nightstand: “Don’t have a cow.”

The Fox show has since said it will stop using White actors to voice characters of color. Azaria, who also stepped down from voicing a Black “Simpsons” character on the animated series, called on Hollywood to cast people of color to play characters of color.

“If it’s an Indian character or a Latinx character or a Black character, please let’s have that person voice the character,” Azaria said.

Azaria said he continues to make amends for voicing the character. The actor said he has teamed with the anti-racist Soul Focused Group, which offered one of the seminars he took, to help educate others. It’s been a journey, he said, to realize that what he thought was a “funny, thoughtful” character was actually hurtful to many people.

“I really didn’t know any better. I didn’t think about it,” Azaria said. “I was unaware of how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a White kid from Queens. I never thought about this stuff because I didn’t have to.”

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