The Simpsons is one of the longest-running shows in television history, having aired continuously since December 1989. But society has changed over three decades and things nobody really considered in the early 1990s are hot button issues now. Specifically, the show’s habit of racial stereotyping and having white actors play non-white roles.
It all came to a head in 2017 when comedian Hari Kondabolu released the documentary The Problem with Apu, using the series’ cheerful shop owner as the focus of a look at casual racism in American TV and film. The Simpsons responded with the 2018 episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” in which Marge realizes a children’s book she enjoyed has offensive elements, but says changing it spoils the “emotional journey.”
Even the show’s resident liberal scold Lisa pushed back against the criticism, gesturing to a picture of Apu and saying: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The episode was widely criticized, is now seen as a major misstep, and the show has since gone on to try and make amends.
Veteran Simpsons actor Hank Azaria stopped voicing Apu and has recently apologized for the role in an interview with the Armchair Experts podcast. He said he wished he’d quit playing the character sooner and stated:
“I’ve had a date with destiny with this thing for about 31 years. Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize, and sometimes I do when it comes up.”
Azaria explained that his Apu voice was inspired by 1968 Peter Sellers comedy The Party, saying:
“When I saw [The Party], there was no difference between how funny Peter Sellers is as a French guy [in The Pink Panther], or a German guy in Dr. Strangelove, or as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. It’s just funny. I’m an aspiring voice guy, and I can do the accent, so there’s no difference to me either. What I’m not realizing, of course, is that I can feel that way as a white guy, because I’m not living with the consequences of those things at all.”
He also goes on to reveal that the criticism in the documentary hurt him, especially as he considered himself as coming from a positive place.
“If I had not gotten sober, I promise you, it wouldn’t have taken much wine for me to be in my feelings one night, and fire off a Tweet that I felt justified in firing off. Boy, was I glad I had a system in place, where I could look at this thing. … We tried to do a funny, thoughtful character. [But] just because there were good intentions doesn’t mean there weren’t real negative consequences that I am accountable for.”
As you surely know by now, Azaria will no longer play Apu, though continues to voice many other residents of Springfield. The show itself is still ticking, too, and in the wake of the Disney purchase of Fox, The Simpsons currently resides at the House of Mouse, where it’s been renewed until season 34.