The Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria, who has voiced the Indian shopkeeper Apu throughout the series’ run, has now responded to concerns that the character normalizes South Asian stereotypes — and he thinks that it may be time for someone else to take on the character.
“My eyes have been opened,” he said on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert Tuesday night, when asked how he plans to proceed following outspoken criticism of the Indian character’s portrayal. That backlash started earlier this month, when comedian Hari Kondabolu called on The Simpsons to address the impact the character has on South Asian-Americans. Apu’s portrayal, which Kondabolu sees as both stereotypical and damaging, was used as the key example in his November 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu.
“I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and what they think about this character and what their American experience of this character has been,” Azaria continued.
Part of that requires having a more inclusive writers’ room, Azaria said; The Simpsons currently lacks any writers of South Asian descent. But the actor said that the smartest choice in 2018, when fans are far less afraid to call out offensive plots or portrayals, may be for him to let go of the character.
“I’m perfectly willing to step aside or help transition [Apu] into something new,” Azaria told Colbert. “I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does. It just feels like the right thing to do to me.”
The Simpsons has already responded to fans’ issues with Apu — who has a thick, stereotypical accent, lives in the U.S. illegally and has myriad kids. When comic Hari Kondabolu, whose 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu argues that characters like Apu have negative effects on media representation of South Asians and other marginalized groups, called out the show for continuing to propagate stereotypes through the character, a recent episode indirectly clapped back.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” said Lisa in an episode that aired earlier this month, hanging a lampshade on the media firestorm. “What can you do?” She and Marge then looked directly into the camera, putting a finer point on Lisa’s comments.
Showrunner Al Jean retweeted several laudatory replies after the episode aired, with many of them praising the show for how it handled the “non-issue.” Since then, Jean has said that he hopes to find a solution that will please everyone.
“Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular and more important right,” he tweeted earlier this month.
Watch Azaria’s full response to Colbert below.