Hank Azaria stepped away from voicing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons more than a year ago but in a revealing new interview on Dax Shepard and Monica Padman’s Armchair Expert podcast, Azaria is officially apologizing for voicing the characters and regrets that his decision took so long.
Azaria says during the podcast that “I’ve had a date with destiny with this thing for about 31 years” and then he personally apologizes to Padman, the daughter of Indian immigrants, for portraying a character who has had such a negative impact on the community for so long:
“I know you weren’t asking for that, but it’s important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do when it comes up.”
Azaria’s decision to no longer voice Apu did create a larger sea change in the show’s vocal cast as well as within the casts of other animated shows. Last summer, producers announced that white actors would no longer voice characters of color on The Simpsons. This resulted in Alex Desert taking over for Azaria as the voice of Carl Carlson on the animated series and Kevin Michael Richardson taking over the role of Dr. Julius Hibbert from Harry Shearer. Other animated shows also followed suit, most notably on Family Guy when Mike Henry stepped away from voicing Cleveland Brown and was eventually replaced by Arif Zahir.
During the half-hour conversation on the podcast, Azaria also revealed how he ended up voicing the character. This took place during an early recording session for The Simpsons back in 1988. Azaria says “It’s 1988, and somebody says to me, ‘Hey, can you do an Indian accent?’ It was, like, one line. I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ And Apu comes out. We’re like ‘OK, that was funny and we all laugh. So that keeps going from there, and over the years it develops.” Azaria further explains that he modeled the vocal performance after Petter Seller’s portrayal of an Indian character in the 1968 comedy The Party, which has also been viewed as controversial.
“When I saw that movie, there was no difference between how funny Peter Sellers is as a French guy [in the Pink Panther movies] or a German guy in Dr. Strangelove or as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. It’s just funny. I’m an aspiring voice guy, and I can do this accent, so there’s no difference to me either. What I’m not realizing, of course, is that I can feel that way as a white guy, because I’m not living with the consequences of those things at all.”
Azaria began to change his mind about voicing the character after the release of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu. Azaria says “I got called out publicly, I got canceled, however you want to put it. And really intensely.” Azaria admitted that if this would’ve happened earlier in his career he would’ve responded to being canceled with a lot of “defensive feelings, a lot of hurt and a lot of anger” but his time in Alcoholic Anonymous gave him the perspective on how to proceed moving forward:
“I needed to shut up…and listen and learn. And that took a while. This was not a two-week process: I needed to educate myself a lot. If I had not gotten sober, I promise you it wouldn’t have taken much wine for me to be in my feelings one night and fire off a tweet that I felt justified in firing off. Some kind of defensive, white-fragile tweet. Boy, was I glad I had a system in place where I could look at this thing.”
Azaria has continued to educate himself during this three-year learning process. The voice actor attended seminars by the Soul Focused Group and he is currently training to become a seminar leader himself. Azaria has also spoken with many Indian-American colleagues, including Utkarsh Ambudkar, who voiced Apu’s nephew on a 2016 episode of The Simpsons. Perhaps Azaria’s most revealing conversation came after speaking with a 17-year-old high school student who broke down to him while talking about how Apu has shaped perceptions of Indian culture in a negative way. Azaria says “With tears in his eyes, he said to me, ‘Will you please tell the writers in Hollywood that what they do and what they come up with really matters in people’s lives, and it has consequences?’ I was like, ‘Yes, my friend, I will tell them that.”
It was a combination of all of these voices that made Azaria confront how Apu was “an example of structural racism” in the entertainment industry, no matter how well-intended the character was. Azaria says “There were very good intentions on all of our part [with Apu]. We tried to do a funny, thoughtful character. Just because there were good intentions doesn’t mean there weren’t real negative consequences that I am accountable for. Part of my amends for all this is that I’m continuing to educate myself.”
There are going to be varying opinions on this but kudos to Azaria for taking the time to educate himself and owning up to his accountability in it. It’s easy for someone like me to say that this character has been a part of our lives and pop culture for so long and he has made me laugh on numerous occasions so why didn’t this happen earlier? That’s the point though. I personally don’t realize how problematic the character could be because I’m not living it. I’m not Indian and it’s easier for me to see the humor rather than the negative perceptions of the stereotype. Things like this create larger conversations that are sometimes uncomfortable but they’re usually very necessary.
What are YOUR thoughts on Hank Azaria’s apology?