'Apu was a tool for kids to go after you': why The Simpsons remains problematic

The standup comic Hari Kondabolu talks about his documentary The Problem with Apu, which uses the notorious Kwik-E-Mart clerk as a springboard to discuss issues of representation and minstrelsy in pop culture

The words “thank you, come again” have haunted Hari Kondabolu, the Queens-born standup comic, for 28 years, he tells us at the beginning of his new documentary. Why? Because that’s the catchphrase uttered repeatedly by a certain cartoon store clerk, The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a beloved recurring character who was more or less a noxious pastiche of south Asian stereotypes.

Voiced by the white actor Hank Azaria, Apu is an unlikely subject for a documentary, having appeared in less than one-third of the show’s 623 episodes. But he’s also an appropriate case study into issues of representation, especially for a film that’s as much about the The Simpsons as it is Kondabolu’s attempt to unpack – per the documentary’s title – The Problem with Apu.

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