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Hank Azaria says he understands why people are offended by the character of Apu in The Simpsons

Hank said he is happy to step aside to ensure development of the character.

SINCE ITS DEBUT in 1989, The Simpsons has enjoyed enormous international success, with cast members winning more than 30 Emmys and characters securing stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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However, characters and narratives within the long-running animation have been put under the spotlight in recent years, and viewed through a lens which was perhaps less evolved at the time of the show’s launch almost 30 years ago.

As a result, the show has been criticised for both its portrayal of certain ethnicities and its contribution to racial stereotyping – something cast member, Hank Azaria, discussed during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

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Hank, who voices the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon among dozens others, said he was concerned to hear that people had taken offence by the portrayal of the Indian American character.

Of course I understand why people are [offended by the character]. It’s come to my attention more and more, especially over the last couple of years, that people in the south Asian community have been fairly upset by the voice and characterisations of Apu.

When asked if this surprised him, the 53-year-old actor admitted that he understands it more in recent years, but was initially taken aback.

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It did [surprise me] when I first heard about it, absolutely. It sparked a lot of conversation about what should be done with the character going forward. And I’ve tried to express this before, you know, the idea that anyone, old or young, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu just really makes me sad.

He goes on to say that this was never his intention.

I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character and the idea that it has brought pain or suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalise people, it’s upsetting, genuinely.

Earlier this year, The Simpsons creators responded to the controversy with an episode entitled ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’, which was met with further criticism by viewers.

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In the episode, Marge realises that a popular children’s book is full of antiquated  stereotypes which gives rise to a moment in which Lisa faces the audience and addresses the controversy.

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“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”

A photo of Apu can be seen in the background of the scene, Marge replies: “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.”

Hank distanced himself from that scene, telling Stephen he had nothing to do with the writing or voicing of that scene.

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Apu doesn’t speak in that segment. It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time as everyone else in America did. So I didn’t know it was going to be in it until I saw it.
I think that if anybody came away from that segment feeling like they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin or toughen up… that’s certainly not the way I feel about it. And that’s definitely not the message I want to send.

So, what does the future of Apu look like?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, really a lot of thought. And as I say, my eyes have been opened. 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, how they think about this character and what their American experience of it has been.

Hank goes on to say that he believes inclusion in the writers’ room is the way forward.

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In television terms listening to voices means inclusion in the writers’ room. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writer/ writers in the room. Not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever  new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.

Indeed, Hank says he is happy to ‘step aside’ or help transition the character into something new.

Hank’s response was met with rapturous applause from the audience.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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