It has been over two years since anyone has heard a word from The Simpsons' Kwik-E-Mart clerk Apu — a silence that looks to be indefinite following Hank Azaria's confirmation to the New York Times on Tuesday that he will no longer voice the character.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon's transition from a classic to controversial character on the Fox series, now in its 31st season, came shortly after comedian Hari Kondabolu criticized the character for being a racist depiction of Indian-Americans in his 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu.
In the wake of the doc, a wave of criticism followed Azaria, the white actor who has voiced Apu for 30 years along with many other Simpsons characters, as well as creator Matt Groening and showrunner Al Jean. "Once I realized that that was the way this character was thought of, I just didn’t want to participate in it anymore," Azaria told The Times. "It just didn’t feel right."
But other Hollywood creators hope that the character doesn't go away entirely. "Silencing Apu is a step sideways," says Castlevania and Heaven's Forest producer Adi Shankar, who has been a vocal critic of the portrayal of the character. "It doesn’t undo the damage, address the damage, or benefit the shows 'creativity.' It just removes another brown face from TV."
Snigdha Sur, founder and CEO of South-Asian diaspora publication The Juggernaut, notes "the character of Apu really hasn't evolved" on the show, something that Kondabolu emphasized in his documentary.
"The voice is only just one of many issues," Sur tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The reason [the show] resonates with Americans is that it is trying to show the generic American life with all of its problems." But while the generalities might have worked when the show began in 1989, in America today — especially in a post-2016 election America — racist stereotypes and in this case, thick accents, are far too damaging to continue.
"I remember growing up, people would say the smartest people are behind the show," Sur adds, in reference to many of white, male The Simpsons writers holding degrees from Ivy league college. "I think that's what's the most disappointing. Supposedly an all-star creative team and some of the smartest brains in America. If they aren't evolving, aren't pushing the conversation forward, don't they have a role to do that?"
Sur and Shankar both say silencing a character as an attempt to cover up controversy is simply impossible, and there are far more better outcomes by refreshing Apu's story than removing it from The Simpsons entirely.
"Give Apu a spin-off. We’re arguing over racial constructs, this is a perfect opportunity to deconstruct it, to dissolve it, and bring our species together," Shankar adds.
Sur explains, "Once you've chosen to make some character feel seen and present, it really matters today how you are allowing that character to breathe life into who they are and what their identity is and what their actions are and what their voice is. Don't use other characters to voice something that a character needs to go through. I think that can be very problematic."
Apu's last notable speaking appearance was in season 29's first episode "The Serfsons," which aired October 1, 2017. Since then, Apu has appeared among fellow Simpsons characters but not spoken or had his own storyline — including when seen in smaller groups and all other characters have a line. For instance, in season 29's "Fear of the Clowns," Apu is cast in a play with several Springfield citizens but never speaks, even in scenes with just two or three cast members in the play.
Azaria's exit isn't a surprise, having teased it in January during the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour and in a 2018 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where he said his "eyes have been opened" by the debate. He also has distanced himself from The Simpsons' controversial response to the Apu controversy with the April 2018 episode, "No Good Read Goes Unpunished."
While looking at a picture of Apu, Lisa Simpson says in the episode, "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?"
Azaria had an answer for Lisa back in 2018 — and one that could still work today.
"I’ve given this a lot of thought, and, as I say, my eyes have been opened," Azaria said. "I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the writers room … including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do to me."
Kondabolu, who sparked a movement to address Apu's problematic portrayal on the series, said in January that he hoped the character would remain on the show and be portrayed accurately versus be silenced forever.
"If @HankAzaria is indeed no longer doing the voice of Apu, I do hope they keep the character & let a very talented writing staff do something interesting with him. If not to better the show, then to at least spare me some death threats," Kondabolu wrote on Twitter, referencing those who blame his documentary for Apu's voiceless status.
The comedian added that his goal with the doc was never "to get rid of a dated cartoon character, but to discuss race, representation & my community (which I love very much)."
"It was also about how you can love something (like the Simpsons) & still be critical about aspects of it (Apu)," Kondabolu wrote.
Sur notes that Apu could help "reflect America today," if the showrunners choose to portray the character with authenticity. "Springfield has changed. The problems Springfield faces have changed. The problems that Lisa and Bart talk about changed ... Why is it that we can't give that space for Apu to breathe and become whoever he is?"
For now, Apu's future on The Simpsons — voiced or not — remains up in the Springfield clouds. In a statement to the Times, producers noted the character is "beloved worldwide" and "we love him too. Stay tuned."