'It was a punch to the gut': Comedian Hari Kondabolu addresses The Simpsons' response to The Problem with Apu

Hari Kondabolu talks about the reaction to his documentary The Problem With Apu and how he's feeling about The Simpsons these days.
Hari Kondabolu's new stand-up comedy special 'Warn Your Relatives' is available on Netflix now. (Netflix)

Originally published May 10, 2018

Nearly five months after comedian Hari Kondabolu released his documentary The Problem with Apu, The Simpsons addressed his criticisms of the character on an episode of the show.

Now, in a conversation with q's Tom Power, Kondabolu has opened up about the episode, which many fans found to be unsatisfactory and dismissive, and which he says was "a cop out."

On the episode "No Good Read Goes Unpunished," Lisa Simpson glances over at a framed picture of Apu on her nightstand that reads, "Don't have a cow, Apu." (20th Century Fox)

The episode titled "No Good Read Goes Unpunished" features a scene with Marge Simpson sitting in bed with her daughter Lisa, reading a book and attempting to make it inoffensive for 2018. Lisa says, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" The shot then pans to a framed picture of Apu on the nightstand. Marge responds, "Some things will be dealt with at a later date," and Lisa adds, "If at all."

"It was a punch to the gut," says Kondabolu. "It wasn't even just a punch to the gut as an Indian-American who made a documentary that, I thought, was thoughtful in addressing that character... I was disappointed as a Simpsons fan because it was like really? You're going to throw Lisa under the bus? If there was ever a social justice warrior archetype it's Lisa Simpson."

There's a degree of white fragility that I did not expect at all.- Hari Kondabolu

Kondabolu goes on to say that this response from The Simpsons' showrunners reveals a sensitivity to criticism and what he sees as "a degree of white fragility" that he didn't expect from a show that's been on the air for 30 years. 

"You're telling me that somebody makes a documentary like 28, 27 years into your show, and criticizes one particular thing and gives the reasons for it, and you can't handle it?" says Kondabolu. "How fragile are you? You should ignore it, or you should address it. But that was a cop out. That's just an insult."

As a filmmaker, Kondabolu has faced online criticism for his own perceived sensitivity — for being too "politically correct" or "inoffensive" — but as a comedian, he says he's used to making art that takes big swings and sometimes causes offence. It's something that he acknowledges in his new Netflix comedy special, Warn Your Relatives.

"[It] makes me frustrated when I get called 'politically correct' or I get called 'inoffensive.' I'm like, I am offensive it just depends on who is the audience. Some people very much find me offensive. Some people walk out of the shows… I'm not against the idea of shock. I mean there's a lot of shock in the [Netflix] special but I like shock when it's directed toward something, when the direction of the joke is going after power or power structures."

As a comedian, Kondabolu's career has been focused on questioning institutions and stereotypes — just like the big one he covers in his documentary — but more than anything else, he just wants to make people laugh. "Making people laugh is the bottom line," he says.

His new comedy special Warn Your Relatives is available on Netflix now.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview with Hari Kondabolu produced by Vanessa Nigro.

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