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The Simpsons creator Matt Groening declined to be drawn into the discussion about racial stereotyping in the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian immigrant who runs Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart on the long-running Fox series.
“I’m proud of everything we do on The Simpsons,” he said.
The questions came Sunday during a scrum with reporters following a Television Critics Association summer tour session for Groening’s new Netflix series Disenchantment. Asked more generally why women have been marginalized in comedy, Groening offered a vague defense: “I would like to think that with Futurama (his other Fox show) and with Disenchantment that we actually treat women equally in that we rough everybody up.”
The Apu controversy came to a boil earlier this year when Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu examined the racial stereotyping and slurs disseminated by the character in his 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. The Simpsons addressed the controversy through the character of Lisa, in what many felt was a ham-fisted attempt to attribute the flare-up to political correctness run amok.
“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad,” Kondabolu tweeted. “In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”
Comedian W. Kamau Bell also weighed in. “I think the fact that they put this ‘argument’ in the mouth of Lisa’s character, the character who usually champions the underdogs and is supposed to be the most thoughtful and liberal, is what makes this the most ridiculous (as in worthy of ridicule) and toothless response,” he wrote on Twitter.
Al Jean, showrunner on The Simpsons, issued a contrite statement in response to the controversy: “I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right.”
Hank Azaria, who has voiced the character for over two decades, said he understands why people would object. “Of course I understand. It’s come to my attention more and more over the past couple years,” he told Stephen Colbert during an appearance on CBS’ The Late Show. “The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad,” the actor went on. “It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people.”
Azaria also said he would be “willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do.”
He added: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and, as I say, my eyes have been opened. I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room … including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced.”
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