Analysis

The real problem with Apu? There's not enough diversity in the writers' room

The Simpsons voice actor Hank Azaria this week called for better diversity among the animated show's staff. But comedy writers with diverse backgrounds say still face institutional barriers.

Recent comments from a Simpsons' actor are a sign of progress, but some say much more work needs to be done

The longtime character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is at the heart of a controversy about diversity on The Simpsons. (Animation on Fox/YouTube)

Hank Azaria says his eyes have been opened. 

The voice of Apu — and many others — on the long-running animated series The Simpsons finally said what so many were waiting to hear. 

"We have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character," Azaria said during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  

What's more? He says he's willing to stop performing the character altogether.

In the nearly 30 years that The Simpsons has been on air, the character of Apu has gone from trailblazer to painful cliché and pastiche of stereotypes, at a time when the landscape includes more nuanced portrayals of South Asians on comedies like The Mindy Project and Master of None.

In his recent documentary, The Problem With Apu, comedian Hari Kondabolu explored how the fictional Kwik-E-Mart owner has affected the lives of real South Asian Americans.

When Apu first debuted, he was seen as a pioneer. He was one of a few South Asian characters on television, according to Chris Turner, author of the book Planet Simpson.

But Azaria's comments this week were surprising, Turner said, since the actor "had not co-operated with the making of the documentary, which put forward the problem." 

"Maybe needing to change the voice of a character is a sign it's time to retire," he said.

Chris Turner, author of Planet Simpson, says Apu has no place in a show once known for its progressive politics. (CBC / Da Capo Press)

A lack of authentic voices

In the world of television, "listening to voices means inclusion in the writers' room," Azaria said on The Late Show.

"I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the room — not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction [Apu] may take."

The lack of diversity among TV comedy writers is a difficult reality for Canadian screenwriter and actor Amanda Joy, co-creator of the comedy Second Jen.

"That's just my life," Joy told CBC News. 

Actors Samantha Wan, left, and Amanda Joy co-created and star in the Canadian sitcom Second Jen, which follows a pair of young women growing up in immigrant families. (Rogers)

She points to a common practice she calls "masquerading" — when characters of colour are clearly penned by white writers. "I turn on the TV and [say]: 'Really? They did that?'" 

Inevitably, she said, what these characters lack is a specificity of voice that a writer of colour would bring.

While there is a burgeoning group of diverse writers on today's comedy scene, the challenge remains simply getting into the room. "There are a lot of institutionalized practices and a tendency to hire people that you know," Joy said. 

In the United States, the success of such shows as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat have proven that shows starring, created and written by people of colour can be popular. 

In Canada, productions are still playing catch up. For instance, CBC's popular series Kim's Convenience is led by an Asian-Canadian cast, but the show's creator, Ins Choi, is the only Asian-Canadian writer on staff. 

According to Joy, hiring diverse writers is too often seen as a risk. 

"I think in Canada there is a reticence because of our limited funding. A lot of that comes just from fear, versus taking a risk on somebody else."

Making their own connections

Meanwhile, as they wait for cracks in institutional barriers, some of these writers are creating their own networks to help and promote one another. 

BIPOC TV & Film is a grassroots organization of black, Indigenous and people of colour that is dedicated to increasing diversity both in front of and behind the camera. The group has spent the month of April highlighting writers working in the industry today. 

Last year, the Writers Guild of Canada created a diversity committee, with its first initiative promoting a monthly script by its members. 

The heart of the issue, according to Joy, is not a lack of diverse writers, but rather the amount of available opportunities. 

"I could pick up my phone right now and call 20 of my friends who are very talented," she said, noting that opening doors in world of TV and film can too often feel like it's only about knowing who's in the club. 

"But maybe there's a new club coming in," she said. 

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Arts reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national arts reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.