Homer Simpson is one of the biggest stereotypes on the program. The show is based on them.
Homer Simpson is one of the biggest stereotypes on the program. The show is based on them.

Let’s stop trying to kill off comedy

LAST week The Simpson's star Hank Azaria said he'd be willing to step down from playing Apu.

It's the latest in a long-running saga about whether the character - an Indian American who owns the Kwiki-Mart convenience store - is a racist portrayal.

Azaria's comments broke with the position of the show's writers and might spell the end for the beloved character.

The controversy began when comedian Hari Kondabolu questioned the merit of having a such an obvious stereotype in his documentary The Problem with Apu which was released last year.

Sure, Apu is a stereotype.

Apu is an Indian man running a convenience store. Obviously a stereotype. But he’s not the only caricature on the show.
Apu is an Indian man running a convenience store. Obviously a stereotype. But he’s not the only caricature on the show.

But so are many other characters that appear on the show.

Homer is the useless, lazy husband. Marge is the embarrassing, yet caring mother. Mayor Quimby is the sleazy and corrupt politician. Mr. Burns is the conniving millionaire. The list goes on ... and on ... and on.

Chief Wiggum is the useless police officer eating doughnuts off the barrel of his own gun.

Groundskeeper Willie is the aggressive, patriotic Scotsman. And Apu is the cost-cutting, sleep-deprived Indian convenience store owner.

Caricatures exaggeration and stereotypes are inseparable from comedy. New shows will replace old ones - they might look different, but they'll be funny for the same reasons. Saturday Night Live and Modern Family are good examples. While they're not cartoons, they clearly use stereotypes to land a lot of their punchlines.

While our comedy tastes might change, there are plenty of people still watching The Simpsons. It's now in its 29th season, and while ratings have fallen, there are still many people who love it.

Closer to home a similar debate about the merits of comedy raged this week.

Rodney Rude - who was a popular comedian in the 80s - spoke out this week about the PC brigade, believing he has been shut-out by the industry who see him as un PC.

While he still has his followers, it's clear Rude's brand of abrasive material hasn't got a strong audience anymore. People just don't find it as funny.

But while The Simpsons has been around almost as long, many people still find it really funny.

I think that's why I have a problem with The Problem with Apu.

The documentary is having a go at the genre more than the program itself.

Cartoon comedy requires voice actors to exaggerate. That's what they do.

So yes, Apu's voice might not sound like a 'real' Indian in America.

But the voice actors on cartoon shows are responsible for dozens of different characters, and they're all exaggerations - that's what lies at the heart of most cartoon comedies.

Every accent on The Simpsons is exaggerated, including the Australian one.

And in Apu's case, if he's a stereotype, he's a pretty good one. He's a jolly, polite and hardworking character. He's a beloved and important citizen of Springfield with an extremely touching backstory.

He moved to the USA on an academic scholarship, earning a PhD in computer science. He then took a job at the Kwiki-Mart to pay back his student loans and provide for his unexpectedly large family.

He's an immigrant success story; a humble working class hero. What's demeaning about that? Is there something wrong about owning a convenience store?

I was amazed Kondabolu didn't interview a single first-generation Indian immigrant who owns a convenience store. He somehow only interviewed successful Hollywood comedians, as if their opinion is representative of the entire Indian community.

Maybe Kondabolu was afraid Indian convenience store owners would actually see some of themselves in Apu. Or that they wouldn't see Apu as shameful, but a funny caricature of themselves.

The idea that Indian convenience store owners are some protected species that should be excluded from comedy isn't just condescending and boring, it's also divisive. Joking about someone is often a sign of friendship and acceptance, not hatred.

One of Kondabolu's gripes with Apu is that he's voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man. Azaria is one of Hollywood's most talented voice actors, voicing dozens of other characters on The Simpsons, several of whom speak with an accent.

Did you know that the Sea Captain (who's from Bristol) is also voiced by Azaria? Or that Cletus the redneck and the Italian Luigi Risotto are both voiced by Azaria as well? Or that Willie (who's Scottish) is voiced by an American?

Family Guy's Hispanic housemaid Conseula and Cleveland Brown, an African American man, are both voiced by a white man. Cleveland's wife is voiced by Alex Borstein, a white woman. Japanese reporter Tricia Takanawa is also voiced by Borstein.

Yes, these characters are stereotypes, but in Apu's case in particular, he's not a bad person.

Do people assume things about Indian Americans because of Apu? Of course. Could I imagine Indian American kids being bullied into say Apu's catchphrase "thank you come again"? Definitely. The documentary highlighted how Apu armed the bullies of Indian Americans with a range of demeaning insults.

No one's denying that's terrible behaviour.

But should we really throw the baby out with the bath water? Can't we condemn racist behaviour without condemning the essence of comedy and cartoons? Or do we don't have to dismantle cartoons to cater toward society's racist idiots?

There's a goldmine of stereotypes in cartoons like Family Guy and South Park that have the potential to cause a backlash which will threaten the entire genre.

Will the anti-Apu crowd be consistent in condemning all the other stereotypes? Or are they aware that their consistency will kill off cartoons for good?