The Simpsons’ voice of Apu says he is ‘willing to step aside’

Hank Azaria also expressed discomfort at how the writers responded to the controversy around poor representation

Since Hari Kondabolu’s eye-opening documentary The Problem with Apu, viewers have been seeing the character in a new light. The sharp takedown of the Kwik-E-Mart owner questions his accent, and the possibly damaging portrayal mastered by voiceover artist Hank Azaria.

On Tuesday night, Azaria appeared on The Late Show – one of his only scheduled interviews since the controversy – and as predicted the conversation led to a discussion about Indian representation. When asked about the controversy surrounding Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Azaria said: “Of course I understand. It’s come to my attention more and more over the past couple years.”

He continued: “The idea that anyone young or old, past or present, being bullied based on Apu really makes me sad. It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring joy and laughter to people.”

The last time Azaria addressed the criticisms was in December when he told TMZ that he thought the documentary “made some really interesting points”. “(It) gave us a lot to think about and we really are thinking about it,” he said.

Unfortunately, The Simpsons showrunners didn’t quite think hard enough and handled the backlash rather badly, opting to distort the moral compass of Lisa, one of its most understanding characters.

In a recent episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” Marge read her favourite childhood book, The Princess in the Garden by Heloise Hodgeson Burwell, to Lisa. While reading, she realised the book is more offensive and outright racist than she recalls. Marge then edits the book but finds it no longer makes much sense, which is perhaps a window into possible efforts happening behind the scenes on the cartoon.

“It takes a lot of work to take the spirit and character out of a book,” Marge said. “But now it’s as inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati… what am I supposed to do?”

Looking directly at the audience, Lisa replies: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The scene then expands to show a photo of Apu (with the caption ‘don’t have a cow’) on Lisa’s bedside table, indicating they’re directly addressing the controversy. “Some things will be dealt with at a later date, if at all,” they agreed.

Speaking about the episode, Azaria explained: “I had nothing to do with the writing or the voicing. I think if anyone came away from that segment thinking they need to lighten up. That’s definitely not the message that I want to send."

“I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it,” he continued. “I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room – including how (Apu) is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me."

Well, if Azaria refuses to voice him in fear of further backlash, then Apu as we know it might be dead. RIP!