Comedian Hari Kondabolu will host a screening of his searing new documentary, “The Problem with Apu” at Northwest Film Forum on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 10 p.m. The documentary also premieres on truTV.com at the same time.
Can one love “The Simpsons” but loathe some of its stereotypes — namely, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Springfield’s “Kwik-E-Mart” clerk?
In a special, Seattle-only appearance, Kondabolu (whose comedy career started taking off in Seattle) will host a simultaneous live screening at Northwest Film Forum, followed by a Q&A with NWFF board president Sudeshna Sen.
In “Apu,” Kondabolu (who worked as a human-rights organizer and earned a graduate degree at the London School of Economics) says “The Simpsons” was one early inspiration to become a comedian. The show was smart, funny, subversive — with one blistering, Apu-shaped flaw.
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Apu’s generic, South-Asian-immigrant stereotype (servile but scheming, eager to play the buffoon) started haunting Kondabolu in middle school, when kids used the accent to make fun of him and his family.
That sting became sharper when Kondabolu learned that Apu’s sing-song “thank you, come again” tagline, which hecklers have shouted at Kondabolu’s comedy sets as recently as 2015, was voiced by Hank Azaria.
Or, as Kondabolu puts it: “A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
“Apu” features comedians and actors of South Asian descent (including Aziz Ansari, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Aparna Nancherla), former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Kondabolu’s parents, and an interview with Whoopi Goldberg about whether Apu fits the “minstrel” tradition in American show business.
White performer, brown paint, stereotypical voice? Goldberg’s verdict: “It has all the qualifications!”
Apu wouldn’t have been such a burden, “Apu” argues, if there were some other South Asian pop-culture reference points besides deli workers, cab drivers and the occasional doctor.
“The problem is,” Ambudkar argues, “we didn’t have any other representation.” It was all deli workers, cab drivers, the occasional doctor — and, the most famous of all, Apu.
Kondabolu has been making this point, in smaller ways, for years. In 2009, he made his motion-picture debut in “All About Steve” starring Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper. His role: a guy in a suit taking a cab.
Kondabolu used the occasion for new, barbed jokes. “Exciting right?” he wrote in one blog post after the film’s release. “An Indian male playing a bit comedic part in a major motion picture and I’m in the BACK of a cab. Progress! I am the reverse Rosa Parks of the Indian community. Never to the front again!”
What kind of backlash has Kondabolu gotten since the “Apu” preview articles started popping up, from “The Guardian” to “Vanity Fair”? Has Hank Azaria come out of hiding? What will Kondabolu say the next time he hears a “thank you, come again” heckler?
Show up at Northwest Film Forum — you can ask him yourself.