Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The problem with The Problem with Apu is that not enough people are going to see Hari Kondabolu's terrific documentary

This is the last all-new blog post before this blog's absolute final post in December 2017.

Fuck all these (predominantly white) superheroes fighting motion-capture-enhanced (and often boring) supervillains on the big screen. The movies I'm way more eager to see are documentaries about ordinary Asian Americans fighting stereotypes. It's a fight I've been a part of in some capacity. Nearly everything I do (even something as insignificant as writing a barely-being-read-by-anybody post for this insignificant and soon-to-go-completely-inactive blog) is some sort of clapback against Asian stereotypes, which have been a pain in my ass since junior high. Filmmaker Salima Koroma's Bad Rap, a doc about Asian American rappers, was the movie I wanted to see the most last year, and now The Problem with Apu, a 49-minute doc directed by Michael Melamedoff and hosted and produced by comedian and Politically Re-Active podcast co-host Hari Kondabolu, is the 2017 film that, despite its skimpy length and non-theatrical status, I've been anticipating the most, much more so than Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The Problem with Apu chronicles the Indian American comedian's love/hate relationship with a little-known Tracey Ullman Show spinoff called The Simpsons. Kondabolu's a Simpsons fan who loves everything about the animated franchise that was brought to life by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and the late Sam Simon, except for one character. That would be Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian convenience store owner who, since the show's premiere in 1990 (not counting a 1989 Christmas special that was actually the eighth episode in the first season's production order, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"), has been voiced by a white guy, longtime Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria. The character is, as Kondabolu describes him in the doc, "servile, devious and goofy." Apu's shtick on the show is, as Kondabolu memorably said in an extremely funny 2012 Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell segment about his delight over the rise of Indian American representation on TV, basically "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father!"

The most interesting tidbit about Kondabolu's Totally Biased rant about Apu, which went viral and ended up being shown in high school and college classrooms, is that Kondabolu was initially reluctant to write and perform the segment because he was so tired of complaining about Apu. I like how Bell--the now-defunct FX late night show's titular host and Kondabolu's boss in the Totally Biased writers' room--had to talk Kondabolu into doing it, as if Kondabolu were Logan being dragged out of his dead-end limo driver job to unsheathe his adamantium claws one last time and protect some runaway mutant kid.

Just like how people who have food-shamed me (for the Filipino meals either I like or my Filipino parents made for me) or would tell me dumb shit like "Why are you talking about race so much? You're the racist!" are the bane of my existence, Apu is the bane of Kondabolu's existence. Ever since The Simpsons became a smash hit, he's been called "Apu" or subjected to the character's "Thank you, come again!" catchphrase by bullies and, in his adult life, hecklers at comedy clubs. In The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu interviews other Indian American comedians or actors--they range from Aziz Ansari to the non-comedic Sakina Jaffrey, who started out in clichéd roles where she would play "the weeping ethnic mom of potential rapists and murderers" and has become known lately for her non-stereotypical roles on House of Cards, Mr. Robot and Timeless--and he discovers that being lumped in with Apu is, sadly, a common experience for them too.

Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu and Sheetal Sheth raise their hands to point out if someone else has ever referred to them as "Apu" in The Problem with Apu.

While Kondabolu loves The Simpsons despite Apu, Kal Penn from the Harold and Kumar movies (and currently, ABC's Designated Survivor), whom Kondabolu also interviews in the doc, interestingly hates The Simpsons solely because of Apu. In fact, Penn's vocal disdain for Apu back when he starred in the Harold and Kumar flicks was, long before Kondabolu's Totally Biased rant in 2012, the moment that made me begin to dislike both Apu and the Simpsons writers' refusal to acknowledge how racist and outdated their Apu shtick is.

The Problem with Apu weirdly doesn't mention that one of the most crowd-pleasing and enjoyable moments of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle has Kumar retorting "Thank you, come again!" while he steals a truck from a pack of racist white bullies who previously hassled an Indian liquor store owner with the same line. I wouldn't be surprised if the reclamation of that Apu line that so haunted Penn for years--whether as an Indian American outside of showbiz or as a struggling actor--was actually Penn's idea and his form of retaliation against The Simpsons.

We've all been guilty of doing that Apu voice--or, as Jaffrey calls the Apu voice in the doc, the act of "patanking," a term that sounds like an Urban Dictionary sex act where someone does oral sex that sounds kind of like Mandy Patinkin whenever he sings a show tune. Those guilty folks include Kondabolu himself--who, in interviews, has expressed his regret over imitating his parents Hank Azaria style during the earlier (and cornier years) of his stand-up act--and non-Indian people of color too. In drama class in high school, my classmates and I had to do an improv game called "Dubbing," and when it was my turn to grab the mic and redub someone else's voice on the theater stage for an improvised convenience store scene, I redubbed a black classmate so that he sounded like Apu. My one public moment of patanking is one of many examples of why I wish I could retcon 99 percent of my time in high school.

When you're a teenager, you're not aware at all how offensive Apu is to Indian Americans. You don't question enough the frequently problematic shit you're subjected to from the screen. That's mostly because Kondabolu wasn't around back then to entertainingly flame examples of minstrelsy like Apu and change people's minds like my own stupid teenage mind. Kondabolu was just an 11-year-old kid when I was taking drama class in high school.

The Problem with Apu is airing on the odd and unexpected platform of truTV, a channel that started out as Court TV and weirdly morphed into the Turner networks' answer to Comedy Central. (Oh yeah, and I almost forgot that the Turner folks rebranded TBS into their Comedy Central long before they did the same to truTV. But present-day TBS, with its reruns of lowbrow Seth MacFarlane cartoons uneasily sharing space with Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, is more like Comedy Central in the mid-'90s, back when CC was thirsty to be taken more seriously by TV critics, so it started spending more cash on original programming, yet it wasn't above recycling Benny Hill Show reruns). The only people who are aware of truTV's existence are comedy nerds and reality TV junkies who are carryovers from truTV's years of branding itself as a home for reality programming, and only comedy nerds are going to see The Problem with Apu.

I really want more than just comedy nerds to see this doc. It deserves a bigger platform. And, of course, it ought to be shown in high school and college classrooms just like Kondabolu's Totally Biased rant was. Still, I'm satisfied that truTV was willing to take a chance on this doc ("I think that some people were just afraid of pissing Fox off, and truTV wasn't," said Kondabolu to the A.V. Club) and that this project Kondabolu has been talking about for such a long time on his Twitter feed (a couple of years, to be exact) is finally getting out there to viewers.

Whoopi Goldberg adds an Apu action figure to her house's collection of racist "Negrobilia" in The Problem with Apu.

I want this doc to be able to stop some Simpsons-watching kid somewhere from becoming another me who does the Apu voice just to score some cheap laughs. Apu is a relic of a different and much less enlightened time, back when there were no Indian American writers or comedians who were around on TV to react against a lazily written Indian stereotype like there are today, in this present era of streaming service hits from Indian American stars/showrunners like Ansari's Master of None and Mindy Kaling's recently concluded Hulu show The Mindy Project. He's a privileged white person's idea of an Indian immigrant, with none of the nuance an Ansari or a Kaling would have brought to such a character (sure, Azaria or the Simpsons writers often try to hype up Apu's reputation in Springfield as one of its kindest and most decent citizens, but that's like if someone from Bonanza stepped on out in the early '70s and said, "Hop Sing's a nice guy! Orientals should be proud, goshdarn it!"). The Problem with Apu entertainingly also looks at what led to the creation of Apu. The doc reveals that--and despite being a fan of The Simpsons' first eight seasons, I never knew this--Simpsons staff writer Mike Reiss told the rest of the Simpsons crew not to make a convenience store clerk character Indian in a first-season Simpsons script because he felt it was clichéd, but then Azaria defied Reiss by ad-libbing an Indian accent at the script's table read, to the delight of the other staff writers, and so Apu was born. The Problem with Apu delves into why the show's mostly white writers have insisted on keeping Apu as a presence on the show, despite so many criticisms from the likes of Kondabolu, who, throughout the doc, attempts to get a bizarrely reclusive Azaria to talk in front of the camera about Apu.

This rather short doc--Azaria's refusal to be interviewed and the participation of only one Simpsons veteran, comedian Dana Gould, who no longer writes for the show, are the reasons why it's so damn short--about The Simpsons' biggest flaw turns into both a thoughtful and passionate call for the need for more people of color to write for the screen and an intriguing statement about immigrant children's love/hate relationship with this racist country their parents are weirdly more enamored with than their kids are, despite how badly the country treats those parents. The doc is also funny as fuck. The Problem with Apu has resulted in the most press Kondabolu has received in his comedy career, and I hope the doc leads to bigger things for him. I first became a fan of Kondabolu's comedy stylings when I saw some of his visual essays on YouTube, a couple of years before he landed the Totally Biased correspondent gig. And he's amazing on Twitter, whether he's slamming gentrification, Trumputo supporters, Lena Dunham, right-wing Indian American politician Bobby Jindal or, as Desus and Mero amusingly like to call racist or lily-white behavior that's done by ignorant white people, "Yakubian shit."

The Problem with Apu is as sharp and funny as Kondabolu's tweets often are. He's precisely the kind of provocative and progressive Asian American stand-up I wanted to be, back when I considered dabbling into stand-up, but then I wisely backed off from it because I know that if I ever had to deal with a racist heckler like Kondabolu does in the 2015 comedy club clip that opens The Problem with Apu, my way of dealing with that heckler would likely end with that guy being stabbed multiple times and me being in jail.

I'm just like this guy when it comes to the racism that's been normalized by Trumputo's America:

Kondabolu handles racist hecklers a lot more calmly than I would have. Like many other stand-ups of color (or female stand-ups who have to deal with lewd or misogynist hecklers), he does it the professional way, and that is to turn around and roast them with a vengeance from the stage.

And I don't know how Kondabolu's able to similarly prevent himself from losing his shit and punching somebody when Simpsons fans attack him for making a doc that's critical about some of the writing on The Simpsons, before they even bothered to watch the doc on truTV.

The tweets from Simpsons stans who can't handle Kondabolu's criticisms about Apu are another problem that's worthy of its own 49-to-60-minute doc. It ought to be called The Problem with Apu Defenders (or Defenders of Any Animated Franchise Who Are as Thin-Skinned and Fascist as Trumputo). We saw this problem a couple of months ago when the toxic side of Rick and Morty fandom soured many viewers' enjoyment of the third season of Rick and Morty, whether that toxic side was in the form of Reddit trolls who doxxed and harassed the show's new female staff writers simply because they don't think women are funny or the form of irate fans who flocked to McDonald's for a Rick and Morty-inspired Szechuan sauce giveaway that went awry and then stupidly unleashed their rage on McDonald's employees who didn't deserve that kind of treatment. There's even a recent A.V. Club article where the writer discusses why he's hesitant about getting into anime because many anime fans are part of the scummy 4Chan crowd, the same cesspool from which Nazi troll Milo Yiannopoulos, who himself is an anime fan, crawled out. And now a certain segment of Simpsons nerds is being hostile to Kondabolu and is unable to understand that Kondabolu is voicing his criticisms because he loves The Simpsons and he wants it to be better, just like how criticizing America doesn't mean you hate the country, and you're doing so because, like Tom Tomorrow once said, you want America to live up to its potential and be a better place than it is. Those Simpsons fanboys are proving once again that animation fans on the Internet are the worst, and they're turning out to be a lot more conservative and right-wing than I expected to see from a fanbase for a largely left-leaning animated show.

The best way to get through an animated franchise like Rick and Morty or The Simpsons without letting your enjoyment of it be ruined by the behavior of its most right-wing or racist fans is to not engage those fans and simply put them on mute. Those right-wing fans need to go walk in traffic. They're basically old men who are afraid of change and progress, and they're way too attached to the mentality of "Nobody should be exempt from being made fun of. Also, Apu should remain the same because everybody on The Simpsons is a stereotype!" That "Nobody is exempt from being made fun of because I'm an equal opportunity offender, and if you're too sensitive to handle being the butt of a joke, get out" argument in the comedy world in 2017 is bullshit. It's trash. It's cowardice. It's an excuse for lazy-as-fuck comedy writing and an excuse for white men to use comedy to throw their limp dicks around and continue to discriminate against (or shut out and alienate from the comedy world) members of oppressed groups or anyone who isn't a white male. Even Tina Fey, whose writing I used to enjoy before her work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt made it clear that she has a blind spot when it comes to handling race, is fond of backing that bullshit argument. Comedy is more effective when it's punching up instead of punching down, and The Problem with Apu offers the suggestion that if the Simpsons writers aren't going to ever consider the idea of punching up when it comes to humor involving South Asians, maybe it's time for The Simpsons to die like the racist grandfather it so resembles lately.

Sakina Jaffrey in The Problem with Apu

In 2016, The Simpsons attempted to address Indian American viewers' resentment of Apu during "Much Apu About Something," an episode credited to writer Michael Price, the creator of the Netflix animated series F Is for Family. The episode guest-starred Pitch Perfect's Utkarsh Ambudkar--who said in 2013 to Huffington Post writer Mallika Rao, another woman Kondabolu interviews during the doc, that he hates Apu and the racial slurs that resulted from the character's presence on The Simpsons because "It totally fucked with my childhood"--as the voice of Jay, Apu's accentless nephew and the show's first-ever Indian American character. Jay takes over Apu's Kwik-E-Mart and clashes with his uncle when he attempts to modernize the Kwik-E-Mart and attract the health food demographic. At one point, Jay lashes out at Apu and says to him, "You're a stereotype, man!"

Vox TV critic Todd VanDerWerff praised "Much Apu About Something" for expressing some self-awareness about Apu's outdatedness as a depiction of Indians, but in The Problem with Apu, Ambudkar feels differently about the final result when Kondabolu interviews him about his Simpsons guest shot. He basically says The Simpsons had an opportunity to change things about its depiction of South Asians and bring more nuance to the stereotype he hated since childhood, but the show blew it. In the end, Jay leaves Springfield, the status quo is restored and, as Ambudkar says to Kondabolu with a bit of weariness, "The Simpsons wins."

Utkarsh Ambudkar in The Problem with Apu

Apu and his fully assimilated nephew Jay (voiced by Ambudkar) in "Much Apu About Something"

So if inserting a scene where somebody calls Apu a stereotype to his face isn't satisfying enough, what should The Simpsons do with Apu? The Problem with Apu doesn't really settle on a solution, other than "Maybe it's time for the show itself to die" (I always thought Apu should be quietly retired, like how after Phil Hartman's death, his Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz characters were written out of the show without any fanfare or explanation for their disappearances). But while promoting his doc, Kondabolu has said killing off Apu (like how the show killed off Maude Flanders back in the 11th season) would be a terrible and lazy solution, and he would rather see the show give a lot more screen time to any of the eight children Apu and his wife Manjula are raising off-screen. "I hope they create something with him, whether he's owning other businesses, or his kids get to talk so you can hear an Indian American voice appear regularly on the show," said Kondabolu to GQ.

This explains a lot of shit.
That's not going to happen, as long as Al Jean, who's been the Simpsons showrunner since the 13th season (the show is currently in the middle of season 29), is still in charge. Under Jean's watch, The Simpsons has become stagnant and stale--it's gotten to the point where the couch gag is often more satisfying than the episode that follows--and it lost its longtime composer Alf Clausen. For fans of Clausen's inventive scoring work on The Simpsons, the show's firing of Clausen earlier this season is as big a loss as Harry Shearer's exit would have been had Fox not met Shearer's salary demands in 2015. Sure, there have been occasional half-hours where The Simpsons regains much of its pre-ninth-season creative spark, like 2015's "Halloween of Horror," a rare Halloween episode that broke away from the show's traditional "Treehouse of Horror" format and was scripted by one of its few female staff writers, Carolyn Omine (I hope her experience as a female Simpsons writer has been a lot different from that of "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" writer Mimi Pond, whose discussion of the misogyny of first-and-second-season Simpsons co-showrunner Sam Simon, who "didn't want any women around because he was going through a divorce," went viral earlier this year). But otherwise, The Simpsons is not the sharply written show it used to be. And if it's having a hard time trying to retain the satirical energy it once had and attempting to keep up with the acclaim that's been surrounding The Simpsons' much younger--and more diverse-in-the-writers'-room--Fox Animation Domination schedule neighbor Bob's Burgers, it's certainly not going to consider bringing any changes to its handling of the show's only few Indian characters, not when Jean is still controlling things.

In order for changes to take place, like the things Kondabolu has in mind for the Nahasapeemapetilons, The Simpsons needs to have new blood in the showrunning department. And that new person needs to hire more writers of color. It's as simple as that. (Rashida Jones and her regular writing partner Will McCormack, who, together, walked away from a writing gig for Toy Story 4 after what they described as "creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences," best summed up the current state of the world of writing for animation when they put Pixar and its work environment on blast, possibly for refusing to listen to the Angie Tribeca star's input on the Toy Story 4 screenplay, in a press statement yesterday. The duo said, "Women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.")

And who should one of those new writers of color for The Simpsons be? It ought to be Kondabolu. The man who famously wanted to kick the shit out of Hank Azaria for doing an impression of a white guy making fun of his father would now get to boss Azaria around and tell him what to say. And it definitely won't be "Thank you, come again!"

An animated graphic from The Problem with Apu

The Problem with Apu currently airs on truTV and its mobile app. Next time here on a.k.a. DJ AFOS, I finally walk away from this blog after 10 years of typing out a bunch of shit nobody ever fully reads. I explicitly said right from the start of a 2009 blog post that I interviewed Gerald Fried on the radio in 1999, and yet this motherfucker says the interview took place in 2009. Again, nobody ever fully reads my shit.

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