INTERVIEW: Director Michael Melamedoff Helps Solve ‘The Problem with Apu’

Are you a fan of The Simpsons? Isn’t everyone? The cartoon first family has been unescapable for the past 28 years. The show is as recognizable as Harry Potter or Marvel/DC Superheroes – and for good reason.

The Simpsons was the first show to prove that animated shows could be for adults as well as children, and they could be smart as well. It’s no surprise that the generations that grew up on The Simpsons are the same generations that flock to Rick and Morty and Harmontown. 

Comedian/podcast host Hari Kondabolu is also a fan of The Simpsons. A big fan, in fact! In his latest documentary, The Problem with Apu, he reminds the audience often that The Simpsons is one of the biggest influences on his comedy.

So what’s the problem?

It’s that Apu, the Qwiky Mart convenience store owner, is essentially a South Asian Brown-facing. Don’t know what that means? Don’t worry; Hari’s got an expert to explain the phenomenon. Apu came out at a time before Harold and Kumar, Hasan Manaj, and Aziz Ansari. Which means that if you were South East Asian in the late 1980s or all of the 1990s, you had Apu haunting your childhood. Throughout the documentary, comedian after comedian, performer after performer, come out to talk about Apu and the struggles they’ve encountered because of depictions like Apu. 

And what’s worse? Apu is voiced by a white guy: Hank Azaria. 

This might sound like some PC-rant by some snowflake lefty, right? Hari talks about that too! But The Problem With Apu is a comical exposé on what happens when the only people allowed to create TV shows are, well, white guys like Dana Gould and Hank Azaria.

Hari gives not just the background of The Simpsons and Apu. He gives the history of blackface and minstrel shows, and how that’s trickled down to where we are today. Everything Hari does comes from a place of love for The Simpsons, and a love of his heritage. It’s always funny, it’s always light, and it never for a moment lets the audience take a rest. You’ve got to think and engage the whole time. This is Hari’s comedy style, and it’s matched by a brilliant director.

I got a chance to speak to the film’s director, Michael Melamedoff. He deftly managed to make a documentary about a serious topic into hilarious commentary. Whether you’re a fan of The Simpsons or just a fan of diverse TV, I highly recommend The Problem with Apu

And if you haven’t seen the doc yet, stop what you’re doing and check it out right now because this is your official spoiler wall!

How did you get involved with this project/what interested you about this project?

As a first generation American, and the son of Argentine immigrants, I’ve always gravitated towards stories that addressed ideas of cultural outsiderism.

Are you a fan of The Simpsons, and was Apu something you considered problematic prior to making this documentary? 

While I was a fan dating back to The Tracey Ullman Show, I stopped watching The Simpsons shortly after college. And while I admired the show deeply, it wasn’t something I gave a ton of thought to.

But when I first saw Hari’s segment dissecting representation on Totally Biased I had an, “Oh, duh!” moment. It was suddenly very easy for me to see how this character could wreak havoc in the lives of young South Asian-Americans. I think Apu is a perfect example of the seemingly innocuous “soft racism” that seems harmless, but over time mutates into something destructive.  

There’s a very David-And-Goliath feel about the film. It’s you and Hari versus The Simpsons, a beloved and established culture touchstone. And you managed to keep the film light-hearted, even when asking the serious questions. What were the conversations like when deciding how to approach this documentary?

There were a few touch points that guided my conversations with Hari, in terms of finding our story and tone. We both loved The Simpsons, and wanted to honor the show even while criticizing it. 

How important was it to get Hank Azaria, voice of Apu, in the doc? 

We have a terrific documentary, and no Hank. I would have loved to have him join the conversation. And to that end I so respect Dana Gould for having an honest and open dialogue with us. But more important than securing Hank was ensuring that Hari had every opportunity to acquit his own voice, and stand-in for the wider concerns of his community.

Follow up: Hank Azaria clearly has no problem talking about Apu and doing the voice in a public setting. There’s plenty of evidence to that point on the Internet. Why do you think he opted out the documentary when he’ll talk about Apu in other interview settings? Do you actually think he’ll talk to Hari once the film is released?

I hope Hari and Hank continue their offline conversation in a public forum. This isn’t about putting Hank on trial. It’s about creating more thoughtful environments for great talents like Hank and Hari to do the work, and hopefully work together.

To do that we need to create greater awareness around problematic representation, and work to change diversity practices on-screen and off-screen. We need more diverse writing rooms and producing teams. We need more concentrated efforts to reach minority audiences with content that is authentic, and thoughtful of their experiences. Those needs are much bigger than Hank.

I’ve raged about this very similar problem of white-washing and minstrelsy for East Asians (see: the cast of Kubo and The Two Strings). Clearly the practice of white-washing, brownface, and erasure are alive and well. Though the documentary presents clear positive progress that’s occurred since the start of The Simpsons, do you think this documentary has solved the problem with Apu? 

There’s so much work left to be done. Since the trailer for the movie has dropped, I’ve seen countless knee-jerk reactions on Twitter and comment threads that accuse Hari of being a social-justice warrior. “Social justice warrior” is just another stereotype; and the whole reason to hurl names at people is to dehumanize them, and in doing so delegitimize their point of view. I expected fans to come out passionately in defense of Apu. But I was hopeful that more people would both cite their love of the character while acknowledging that he could also be problematic.

I’m not asking anyone to disavow The Simpsons, or erase its legacy. I want people to cherish what’s great about the show even more, and then give a long hard look to how something so brilliant could still have a flaw worth examining. Change is hard, and it demands a willingness to be critical, and challenge enshrined ideas and power structures. This is a way of thinking I want to see extend past media, and into all modes of civic life.

The Problem with Apu premiered on truTV on November 19th.