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OK, Apu is funny -- but there's still a big problem

In comedy, stereotypes can be funny. Very funny.But they are tricky, and they change.Which is why Apu, ...

Posted: Apr 27, 2018 9:23 AM
Updated: Apr 27, 2018 9:23 AM

In comedy, stereotypes can be funny. Very funny.

But they are tricky, and they change.

Which is why Apu, the fictional Indian-immigrant character in "The Simpsons," has sparked a backlash against America's longest-running sitcom.

Now, I find Apu to be a funny character who has made America laugh for a long time. Yet, while America has changed, Apu has not.

Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria, a white actor who uses an Indian accent based on another white actor doing an Indian accent in a previous film (a caricature of a caricature). "The Problem with Apu," a documentary by Hari Kondabolu, shows why the character has been so offensive to many Indian-Americans and other South Asians for so many years.

South Asian performers make this clear in the documentary: Kal Penn says he "hates" Apu, while Aziz Ansari says he was taunted about Apu growing up. Similar moments of backlash have occurred regarding the constant portrayal of South Asians and Middle Easterners as terrorists.

Azaria this week told Stephen Colbert, "I wanted to bring laughter and joy with this character. The idea that it's brought pain and suffering - in any way - [or] that it's used to marginalize people, it is upsetting."

A recent episode of "The Simpsons" dealt with the issue by having its characters talk about "political correctness." But that misses the point.

Of course, the show has every right to continue portraying Apu as it has been over the past three decades. But in doing so, it runs the risk of making lazy, irrelevant comedy.

The fact is that "The Simpsons" is an iconic franchise. In reaching households around the world with its unique brand of comedy, the show represents who we are as Americans. The question is, does the show represent who America is today?

When it comes to the community Apu represents, America is more different than ever. Just over 20 years ago, there were more than 1.9 million South Asians living in the United States. The population grew 81%, the fastest growth of any major ethnic group, to reach more than 3.4 million South Asians living in the United States in 2010.

Today, Indian immigrants are younger, more educated than native-born Americans, and they work disproportionately in science, technology, engineering and math. When American students go to college, they study with Indians, who are the second-largest group of international students in the United States.

Some South Asian Americans run convenience stores, but others, like Sundar Pichai, run Google. Indeed, the contributions of South Asians to the United States, since Apu was created nearly three decades ago, fall across the labor market, helping create the most dynamic and innovative economy in the world.

Let's be clear: We can, and should, continue making fun of one another. We live in a complicated and changing society. Humor remains a critically important communication tool.

But we can do humor with more respect. As actor Kumail Nanjiani put it, "Norms evolve. Societies grow. We learn. We acknowledge mistakes as a society. Something that was acceptable in the past may not be acceptable now."

Good comedy challenges stereotypes by acknowledging stereotypes. Bad comedy perpetuates stereotypes by pretending they don't exist.

In our polarized America, where it is harder and more important to be funny than ever, writers and actors with a diversity of life experience lead to a sophistication and depth of comedy that is missing in Apu.

"The Simpsons," and the entertainment industry writ large, are better off creating shows that both challenge and represent America. This is only possible if the shows are run, written and acted by people who represent a diverse collection of gender, race and religion.

Because if there was ever a time we need to laugh at and with one another with respect, it is now.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 261167

Reported Deaths: 5713
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17561191
Hinds16687329
Harrison14050202
Rankin11102217
Jackson10729188
Lee9014143
Madison8495168
Jones6607114
Forrest6135122
Lauderdale6067192
Lowndes5490120
Lafayette511794
Lamar499865
Washington4904125
Bolivar4087109
Oktibbeha403581
Panola380981
Pontotoc374757
Monroe3651106
Warren3649103
Union353263
Marshall352069
Neshoba3464154
Pearl River3422105
Leflore3090109
Lincoln304287
Sunflower290373
Hancock288461
Tate279062
Alcorn270754
Pike268180
Itawamba266662
Scott256048
Yazoo253756
Prentiss251153
Copiah247649
Tippah247550
Coahoma245954
Simpson241471
Leake236167
Grenada222471
Marion220273
Covington219072
Adams212370
Wayne208432
Winston205870
George203539
Newton197346
Attala196461
Tishomingo193861
Chickasaw188444
Jasper177838
Holmes171368
Clay164237
Tallahatchie155635
Stone149525
Clarke144762
Calhoun139922
Smith127725
Yalobusha121134
Walthall114037
Greene112929
Noxubee112225
Montgomery111236
Carroll106422
Lawrence105617
Perry104031
Amite100826
Webster95424
Tunica88221
Claiborne87825
Jefferson Davis87727
Benton84823
Humphreys84224
Kemper80020
Quitman7049
Franklin69617
Choctaw62513
Wilkinson59625
Jefferson56520
Sharkey44817
Issaquena1606
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 436087

Reported Deaths: 6486
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson63969994
Mobile31211565
Madison27851208
Tuscaloosa21233271
Montgomery19698326
Shelby19093130
Baldwin16981188
Lee13036105
Morgan12526134
Etowah11987179
Calhoun11441206
Marshall10357123
Houston8886158
Limestone827876
Cullman8203108
Elmore8120104
DeKalb7828103
Lauderdale7798103
St. Clair7763125
Talladega6394111
Walker6002177
Jackson594644
Colbert545276
Blount543986
Autauga532761
Coffee456762
Dale406883
Franklin372448
Russell349212
Chilton342873
Covington336068
Escambia330144
Dallas312096
Tallapoosa3120107
Chambers301170
Clarke293336
Pike261131
Marion251558
Lawrence250752
Winston232742
Bibb221248
Geneva208746
Marengo206529
Pickens199031
Hale182742
Barbour179337
Fayette177029
Butler172459
Cherokee164330
Henry158224
Monroe151320
Randolph144336
Washington140127
Clay129146
Crenshaw122944
Macon120937
Cleburne120724
Lamar119721
Lowndes113736
Wilcox106622
Bullock102228
Perry99118
Conecuh96821
Sumter90026
Greene76823
Coosa63215
Choctaw51724
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