“What a journey it’s been,” Hari Kondabolu says when he calls The Daily Beast from St. Louis, Missouri where he’s about to perform a weekend of stand-up gigs.
Over the past six months, the 35-year-old comedian from Queens has weathered more controversy than ever before because of a one-hour documentary he produced called The Problem with Apu. In the film, Kondabolu makes a compelling case for why the character of Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons — as voiced by Hank Azaria — made life a living hell for him and his fellow Southeast Asian-American kids growing up as second-generation immigrants in the 1980s and ’90s.
This past month, The Simpsons responded to the documentary with a dismissive scene that found Lisa, the show’s most liberal character, essentially telling Kondabolu to stop complaining. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa said into the camera. “What can you do?”
At the time, Kondabolu called the attempt to address the problem “sad,” tweeting, “The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”
And while he does see glimmers of hope in Azaria’s recent thoughtful comments on the controversy, Kondabolu thinks it’s probably “too late” for Azaria to “step aside.” The damage has been done. Now, he says, The Simpsons needs to come up with more “creative solutions” to the problem.
Kondabolu’s new Netflix special Warn Your Relatives, which starts streaming Tuesday, was taped before The Simpsons controversy blew up, so you won’t see him cracking wise about the show’s response on stage. Instead, the new hour features intelligent and often hilarious takes on race, politics and other issues in a vein familiar to listeners of Politically Re-Active, the podcast Kondabolu co-hosted with CNN’s W. Kamau Bell.
The comedian, who self-deprecatingly describes himself as looking “like a Muppet getting a PhD” in the special, is ready to move on from being defined by a stereotypical Indian cartoon. But he still has a lot to say about it.
Did you get a heads-up that the The Simpsons would be responding to your documentary ? How did you find out about it?
I had no idea. I found out after it happened because people started tweeting me, “The Simpsons just responded to you.” And it’s freaky to hear that. Like, what the hell does that mean? To be honest, I haven’t watched the show on a Sunday in a very long time so I had no idea. Somebody had put up a video within the hour of that piece and I saw it and then I saw the whole episode after.
What were your initial thoughts? Were you at least happy that they responded in some way?
No. Some people were like, “Isn’t it great that they at least acknowledged that they saw it?” And I’m like, “No!” That’s like, isn’t it great that a bully just picked on me? The bully knows I exist. They basically said, “We heard you and we don’t care and shut up.” It was a punch to the gut. And the punch to the gut was not to the Indian-American part of me, oddly enough, it was to the Simpsons fan part. You just sacrificed Lisa? Lisa’s me, man. Lisa’s me reading troll comments when I shouldn’t and feeling like the world is such a terrible place. Lisa’s me and you’re telling me that Lisa would say that? As a Simpsons fan, they really had to go on a bit of a journey to justify that. They had to find some way for themselves to be like, “You know what? We’re just going to nip this in the bud by using this character to say something she would absolutely not say.” And from what it sounds like, Hank [Azaria] said he didn’t know that was going to be in the episode because it wasn’t in the script, it was a last-minute addition. So that probably means [showrunner] Al Jean or somebody heard about it and was like, “OK, let’s just put this in there. And that’ll show him.” The whole thing is petty and sad and the downfall of a show I loved for so long.
I didn’t expect a response. If they kept the character forever I would not care. It’s too late and it is what it is and they built as much nuance into the character as they could considering the origin. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about bigger issues. So the fact that they addressed it in the way that they did seems absurd. The level of white fragility is kind of shocking. Like, really? Some kid makes a movie on a cable network and you’re the biggest comedy of all time, and you get criticized really for the first time ever and you can’t handle it? We get made fun of three decades and I get this film out and you’ve been king for three decades and one criticism and you fold. I didn’t make this film to be a troll. I made this film because I wanted to share a perspective that hadn’t been shared that a lot of people in my community have, experiences that feel valid and part of the American experience. I wasn’t being a troll, but if I was being a troll, I just won. You’re not supposed to respond to me! In the moment it obviously felt terrible, but at the end of the day, I know I’m right. And I know it’ll be this disappointing thing when people study this great show later. Like, “Ooh, that was ugly. That doesn’t look good.” It also makes their intentions seem terrible. Because in the film, it was always unclear what their intentions were. Why did they do this? It doesn’t make sense, they knew it was a cliché. But there was never a sense that there was an overt meanness about it. There was an insensitivity or a thoughtlessness maybe…
But now it’s like they almost made it worse?
Yeah, because it makes you all of a sudden think, is this who makes the show? Is this how they view things? And when they made the character, were they being mean? All of a sudden it feels different. It’s like when you start to question satire. Is that person being satirical or do they mean it? When you start thinking the purposes are kind of nefarious, it ruins it a bit.
And Matt Groening didn’t really help things when he said in a recent interview that people just “love to pretend they’re offended.”
Oh god. The irony is that as a result of making this documentary is that I’m now connected to the cartoon character. I kind of took one for the team. There’s that frustration with that, but each time I try to let it die, it feels like it comes back. Also, it was really confusing, because I had read all these great things about Matt Groening, that he would keep notes in the margins of scripts like, “That’s mean-spirited, that’s not what the show is about, we’re not doing that. We’re not making fun of people that way.” I think to some people he came off as kind of a P.C. killjoy, which is why I wanted to interview him for the film and ask, “Why did some of these choices get made and others did not?” It’s a response that made me think he didn’t see the film. The Simpsons’ writers’ response is a response of people who didn’t see the film. That’s what I mean about fragility. I’m trying to have a nuanced discussion and they’re acting like the trolls on the internet who don’t read or watch anything and then question it.
It does seem like Hank Azaria watched the film and has thought about it a lot. At least that’s the impression I got from his interview with Colbert.
I think he’s genuine.
What did you make of him saying that he’s willing to “step aside” from playing the character? Do you think that’s something he should do at this point?
I mean, personally, I think it’s too late. I think he can have the voice, but what can you do to make it more current, to make [Apu] more upwardly mobile? How about his kids’ voices? I think it would be funny if Apu’s kids were made fun of at school because of their father. Ultimately, there are creative solutions they haven’t explored and it’s bullshit to say they can’t change. I don’t think you do a different voice, what’s the point? The show is 29 years old. What good does that do? The thing that would benefit all parties would be for the show to be more creative. The show has been less than interesting for a long time. I don’t think adding these new twists and having more depth to the characters can hurt them.
For you personally, I think it’s safe to say this has been the thing that has gotten you the most attention of anything in your career. Are you happy to be known for this now? Are you eager to stop talking about Apu?
I’m happy that I made something that affected a conversation. And I know for Hank to have made that statement on Colbert that suggests he had to have seen the documentary and followed my work. Even if him saying that isn’t an institutional change, it means a lot for someone to acknowledge that we exist. That’s all that anybody wants. They want to exist and they want to be respected. And that was a sign of both those things. So that feels good. This movie was about how painful it is to be associated with Apu and as a result of making this movie I will always be associated with Apu. That irony is not lost on me. That kind of sucks. That’s not what I wanted. But you can’t choose what happens with your career. You just make the best thing you can make. This special, to me, is of course more what I want my legacy to be. I’m a stand-up comic. This is who I am.
You say in your special, “My stand-up isn’t for everybody.” Who do you think it is for?
It’s for people who are willing to have an open enough of a mind to not see comedy as one kind of thing, to not see Americans as one kind of thing, to not see their experience as the only experience. If you’re willing to do those things, I think my comedy will work for you. I feel like I wrote something that’s an interesting piece of art. If you’re somebody who says, “There’s too much of this” or “I don’t like how he’s talking about race,” then you’re not getting it. You’re not even trying. So I think it’s for people who are willing to try.
I love that you included the story about the time you were heckled by Tracy Morgan for being too smart.
Oh man, Tracy. When it happened, I knew I had something. But it took me a while to get it right. And also, Tracy had his accident after that happened so I also felt really sensitive to that. Everybody loves Tracy Morgan, I love Tracy Morgan. Once I saw he was doing better and appearing on things, I felt better about bringing that story back and finding the right way to frame it.
Do you think he had a point at all, that you were being too smart for your audience or do you feel like you always strive to not talk down to your audience?
If I talk down to my audience, it’s intentional. Like, “Can you believe how condescending he’s being?” Let that be the joke. It’s almost like playing the character of “condescending dick” and I acknowledge that it’s happening. But no, the intention isn’t to be that way. I think about all the great teachers I loved. They were able to take complex things and explain it to me. The goal is to explain it so it doesn’t lose all its complexity and it’s still funny and interesting. So to me, if I give you a path, we’ll get to the punchline together. And sometimes the path is long, and sometimes the path feels like it has no end, and sometimes you’re too drunk to follow it. But there is a path and there’s a joke at the end and I hope you enjoy it on the way. If there are things people don’t know, I want to tell them about it and make jokes about it. Just because you don’t have a piece of information doesn’t mean I can’t provide it for you and we can’t be on the same page after that. That’s my job.
There’s a good amount of material about Trump in the special. How has touring the country changed for you since he was elected?
I mean, I tried to keep the Trump material somewhat down. I was careful not to be too topical, because I didn’t even know he was going to be president by the time this came out. But one thing I think it did is galvanize a lot of people, people who weren’t necessarily political. I think it got a lot of people motivated. It got a lot of people angry who never marched before. I think that reflects at shows. There are more people who are willing to listen, because how did we get here? Maybe this person on stage has some answers. “Sir, how did we get here? And can you be funny while you explain it to us?” I feel like there’s more of that. And people willing to listen and laugh about it. There’s a desperation that I didn’t feel before. It’s hard to deny racism when you have a president who says what he says and videos of black people being murdered. It’s hard to deny sexism when you have a president who says what he says and you hear all these accounts of what these famous men have done. There’s a democratization of information now that I think can only help a comic who wants to talk about a lot of these topics.
This interview has been edited and condensed.