Hank Azaria says he has seen the documentary “The Problem With Apu,” about the stereotypes embodied by the character he has voiced for almost three decades, and that the producers of “The Simpsons” are weighing how to proceed with the character going forward.
“The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu … it’s distressing,” Azaria said at a Television Critics Association panel Friday about his IFC series “Brockmire.”
He added: “The idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally.”
“As far as what is going to happen with the character going forward, it’s really not just up to me,” he continued, adding that the show’s producers have also “given it a lot of thought.”
“They will definitely address — maybe publicly, but certainly within the context of the show — what they want to do, if anything, with the character,” Azaria said.
Azaria has voiced Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian immigrant character on the animated Fox comedy, since 1990. The character has long been criticized as a stereotypical representation of Indian-Americans, particularly given that Azaria himself is not Indian and puts on a heavy accent to play the part.
Directed by comedian Hari Kondabolu, “The Problem With Apu” features conversations with people of Indian descent discussing their relationship with Apu over the last several decades, with most objecting to the stereotypical representation. Azaria and “The Simpsons” executive producer Dana Gould also appear in the truTV film.
“I think it’s really important when people express themselves about racial issues — what they feel is unfair or upsetting or distressing, what makes them angry — the most important thing to do is listen, try to understand, try to sympathize,” Azaria said. “Which is what I’m doing.”
But Azaria said that he doesn’t see Apu as simply a one-dimensional stereotype, and instead he sees a character with “a lot of wonderful qualities and great assets.”
“It’s a character that I’ve done for 29 years now, and I’ve done it with a lot of love and joy and with pride,” he said. “That certainly wasn’t the intent. The intent was to make people laugh and to bring joy. So to cause any kind of pain or suffering in any way is disturbing, actually.”
Azaria also tried to attribute the offense caused by the character to the show’s sense of humor. The actor described the show’s goal as trying to be “uniformly offensive without being outright hurtful.” He added that it has offended a wide range of people.
But at the end of the day, Azaria noted, “There’s often a fine line between what’s funny and what’s offensive.”