Hari Kondabolu hated being called Apu growing up. Now, as an adult, the character will never escape his life.
Last November, the Brooklyn-based comic launched The Problem With Apu, a controversial documentary that calls into question the racial legacy of a beloved character on The Simpsons, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, described by Kondabolu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” The one-hour feature explores the origins of the stereotype character while tackling larger issues of minority representation in the mainstream media with some of the biggest names in showbiz, including Aziz Anzari, Hasan Minhaj and Whoopi Goldberg.
The documentary sparked perhaps one of the most heated public racial discussions in recent years. Last month, Hank Azaria, the white actor who voiced Apu, said he was “perfectly willing and happy” to give up the role after calling for more South Asian or Indian writers to be included into the show’s writers’ room. The Simpsons creators, meanwhile, continued to shrug off the criticisms.
“Matt Groening didn’t watch the documentary,” Kondabolu told Newsweek. “It just feeds into this empty rhetoric about political correctness from people who don’t even engage in the nitty-gritty of the issues.”
In Kondabolu’s new special, Warn Your Relatives, the comedian is not afraid to be confrontational and aggressive with issues that make people sweat—racism, sexism, classism, colonialism and white privilege—while putting his vulnerabilities onstage through jokes and anecdotes that turn discomfort into laughter. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the stand-up special, which took place at the Neptune, in Kondabolu’s old Seattle neighborhood, premieres May 8 on Netflix
Read Newsweek’s interview with Kondabolu below. (The interview has been condensed for purposes of length.)
Hari Kondabolu takes the stage during his new Netflix special, “Warn Your Relatives.” Netflix
Congratulations on your new Netflix special. It’s hilarious!
How do you think your comedy has evolved over the years? From your early stuff to Warn Your Relatives?
I feel like that it’s finding a nice balance now. Very early on, I was focusing more on political messages rather than on how to make it funny. I want people to get to know who I am and that the things I believe come from a place, come from experiences. I’m not an ideologue, I’m a human being who has ideas that are shaped by life experiences. I feel like with this special, it’s certainly more balanced in a lot of ways in terms of what I’m trying to say versus who I am.
Do you often find that your audience tends to skew towards people of color?
Whenever people say, “Your crowds are amazing, it’s mostly people of color,” I look into the audience and I’m like, “No it’s not, it’s like a third or a half.” We’re so used to seeing all white everywhere that even a little bit of color seems like a lot.
A good audience to me is pretty split up. I have communities from everywhere, and I think that’s important because there are a range of opinions and a range of cultures. With some jokes, there will be white folks who laugh and get it, but some of it is cathartic and personal. The laughter from people of color sometimes is more than just “This is a funny joke,” it’s a “Oh god, I needed that.” That’s a different kind of laugh. You feel it.
Last November, Kondabolu released the controversial documentary “The Problem With Apu.” Netflix
You often tell stories about your mom, who has become one of my favorite characters in comedy. Do you think she’s trying to be funny or is she just being herself but she just so happens to be hilarious?
A little bit of both. It’s almost a question of: Are you born funny or is it something that you develop. I think that she has great comic timing and instinct. She grew up in a household where my grandfather was really quick, and my grandmother is also very funny.
She has this incredible defense mechanism. I think it’s very intentional, and it’s also so ingrained in her. She’s not actively, like, “I’m going to be funny now.” My father is funny by accident, he’s funny because he doesn’t realize how ridiculous he can be. It’s that obliviousness that’s funny. My mom’s witty, quick and funny with words.
In the Apu documentary, you talk about how there were so few South Asians in the mainstream media when you were growing up. What do you think about representation today?
The progress is incredible—in terms of the variety in actors and perspectives—but it’s still not where it’s supposed to be. I talk about Apu in the film, but there’s nothing wrong with being a convenience store owner or cab driver. I would like to just hear that authentic experience. I would like to actually see a story that was fair.
So much of this change really has to work behind the scenes. It’s not just “We wrote better roles”… but who’s writing those roles? How accurate are they? Who is green-lighting them? Who are the executives and directors in charge, who are all the people that have their lens be a part of the story?
Let’s talk about The Problem With Apu. How do you feel about Matt Groening and Hank Azaria’s response to your documentary?
With Hank, it felt great because what it meant was that someone actually listened and understood that we’re human beings. He said that Indians in America have their own experiences, in such a nuanced and thoughtful way. I really think he meant it, based on things he said in the past.
I spoke to him off camera, on the phone, during the filming of the documentary. He told me how much he respected the work I was doing, how important it was, and the fact that he was even taking the phone call was an indication to me that he was really thinking about it. Why else would you take it? He said, “I know how documentaries work, and I don’t know if I feel comfortable being at the mercy of someone else’s edit, and that’s something that I need to think about.” Ultimately, he decided not to.
For The Simpsons to react in the way they did was terribly disappointing. Not only that they reacted the way they did, but they also threw Lisa under the bus, which broke my heart because I’m a Simpsons fan.
Lisa would be the last Simpsons character to say that. [In an attempt to address the racial controversy, an episode in Season 29 showed Lisa saying: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera then pans over to a photo of Apu with the caption “Don’t have a cow.”]
Lisa would agree with me. Lisa would be the one that was fighting for us, saying, “This is ridiculous.” It’s totally calculated [that they made her shrug off the documentary]. It’s also gutless, and it shows white fragility.
[Matt Groening] didn’t watch the film. I couldn’t imagine anyone who watched the film saying that. They fed into a larger argument about political correctness. Which is very empty, it doesn’t acknowledge any of the discussion points, it doesn’t actually make a nuanced argument. It just feeds into this empty rhetoric about political correctness from people who don’t even engage in the nitty-gritty of the issues.
“Warn Your Relatives” comes out May 8 on Netflix. Netflix
Are you satisfied with what you accomplished?
I think that Hank’s response [further proved that the documentary] was heard and it was able to shape a discussion. I contributed to that. I know that I made this discussion happen publicly and that’s incredibly satisfying, and at the same time there’s an irony of me hating being associated with Apu as a kid, and now as an adult I’m forever associated with Apu.
Oh the irony.
For all the people who were, like, “You got your 15 minutes of fame.” This is not the fame that I wanted. I want to make critical art. I want to make things that are special and unique. And that’s why I’m excited about the Netflix special.
This is actually what I do. The Problem With Apu is a criticism of art and culture, which I think is valid. But I really make art and culture. The Netflix special shows a South Asian person with a different perspective. It shows who I am. It shows me as a member of a family, as a critical member of society, as somebody who can be funny and silly and talk about really aggressive, painful things.
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