2017 | Unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | Documentary | starring Hari Kondabolu | directed by Michael Melamedoff | 49mins |
Despite being advertised as a feature film, The Problem with Apu runs 49 minutes. There is a debate about whether or not Buster Keaton’s classic Sherlock Jr. is even a feature length movie and it runs longer than this thing. Left without a distributor and debuting on TruTV in November of 2017, Problem is comedian Hari Kondabolu (Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell) attempting to highlight supposed racial insensitivity of The Simpsons and the damage the stereotypical character of it’s resident convenient store clerk Apu has done to a generation of Indian-American kids. It’s a clumsy, border-line incoherent mess that doesn’t even fully articulate it’s points before leaping to the next prong of attack. It seems so blinded by anger and angst that it can’t make it’s own case.
The film opens with what we’re to assume is a typical set for Kondabolu where he tells some race-based joke and is heckled by a member of the crowd shouting out in Apu’s accent. Despite claiming to hear this his whole life, Kondabolu has no witty retort, instead launching a cringe-worthy, rehearsed lecture about how being bullied by guys like that as a kid inspired him to try to be the best comedian he can be. It’s a desperate plea for audience sympathy without a stitch of humor, and it’s the kind of sanctimonious moralizing he will spend the next 45 minutes arguing that one of the greatest comedies of all time should be emulating. Like Dear Mr Watterson and a handful of new millennial documentaries, Problem with Apu isn’t about it’s subject, it’s about it’s maker’s own feelings.
Kondabolu claims to be a fan of The Simpsons with a one-line explanation that it introduced him to the likes of Pablo Neruta and Stanley Kubrick, but it’s unclear what he actually got out of the show. It certainly wasn’t it’s wit, storytelling ability and razor sharp satire where everyone takes their licks and nobody and nothing is off limits. Instead Kondabolu argues that a velvet political rope be tossed around comedy, where the ethnic demographics of the entire pop culture landscape dictate who it’s ok to make fun of. The rich, Italians, French, alcoholics and any number of the politically divided groups The Simpsons pokes fun at are fair game – but not his ethnicity. He takes Apu personal to a shocking degree, continually insisting that Apu is making fun of his own parents. He suggests that he wouldn’t have been bullied by kids on the playground were it not for the creation of Apu. It’s not an informative movie about the power of representation as much as it comes off like a raving therapy session for a sad person who seems to lack self-awareness, has turned a TV character into a scapegoat for all of life’s hardships and decides to pick a fight with a 30 year old show. Because The Simpsons was the only show at the time to depict a first generation Indian character as part of the recurring cast at all (a step one could argue was a necessary one toward more representation even if at first it was handled with clumsiness and ignorance) he hoists the entirety of Hollywood’s stereotyping of Indian characters on to the show and claims it is responsible for the actions of racist a-holes who misuse it to mock him. He’s picked a target that’s big enough that he can ride it’s coattails to outrage culture relevance.
Instead of using the character as a springboard to talk about representation in American pop culture, Kodabolu’s myopic obsession with taking down Apu, and particularly Emmy-winning voice actor Hank Azaria, sucks up an insane majority of the film. Which is a shame because there are legitimate grievances here that Indian actors have with Hollywood stereotyping. The humiliating routine of being forced by agents and studio execs to play cab drivers and deli workers and affect over-the-top cliché Indian accents was happening until very, very recently (and I suspect still does). But a quick comparison between this movie and the masterful Master of None episode “Indians on TV” in which Aziz Ansari highlights and satirizes this exact topic – only effective and funny – shows Kodabolu’s sloppy handling of the material. In another blind spot, our host spends the entire film interviewing other Indian actors, but never once steps out of that bubble to talk to any Indian person who isn’t an actor. We hear a lot about acting from actors, but is the average Indian on the American street really offended by Apu? You won’t know by watching this movie because Kodabolu doesn’t talk to a single one. Compared to someone with similar material like Ansari, Kodabolu doesn’t have the wit, creativity or filmmaking discipline to mount this case. He’s not the guy to tell this story and simply being offended by Apu doesn’t make him the guy. He’s deeply unfunny and the movie is full of light comic asides that just hit the floor with a thud. It’s an embarrassing watch.
Why do I think he’s not the guy? Because The Simpsons is a pop culture sponge and it’s characters are all collages of several references. Azaria and creator Matt Groening explain each point of reference for the character from the name coming from The Apu film trilogy to the voice being an homage to Peter Sellers in The Party, but Kodabolu visibly can’t keep up with the show’s deep bench of film knowledge, actually bringing in a film historian to explain The Apu Trilogy. He dismisses the explanations as quickly as he claims The Simpsons dismisses Indians. Many of his very nuanced and adult responses to the show consist of a hard cut to him going “f**k you”, “bullsh*t” or “No sh**”. The Simpsons can craft a dense two minutes of comedy packed with sight gags, pop culture parody and literary references and Kodabolu’s idea of a well-landed zinger is calling someone a white guy.
Indian-American representation in Hollywood is worth calling out and discussing. What isn’t really up for debate, however is the accusation that Apu is a 1-dimensional stereotype that The Simpsons doesn’t bother to humanize. A charge Kodabolu and others toss around like it’s true. This film focuses a lot on Apu’s voice and how it’s done by a white man and how the character was conceived. What it conveniently dodges is how Apu was fleshed out over the course of The Simpsons’ first 8 seasons from a stereotype into a living, breathing 3 dimensional member of the cast. Apu is married (albe it with an arranged marriage, which if it’s a stereotype than that makes The Big Sick one big stereotype), he has kids, he owns his own business, he is a member of the volunteer fire department, he constantly fights off burglars and never misses work, he defends his religion against the ignorance of the town yokels, he’s friends with Paul and Linda McCartney and he taught Lisa about vegetarianism. That is not – objectively – a one-dimensional caricature. That’s a character. In a show where everyone is depicted as a buffoon at one time or another, one that still has caricatures like Comic Book Guy, Bumblebee Man and Rich Texan and is set in a fictional town that riots and tears itself apart at the drop of a hat, The Simpsons went out of it’s way to give Apu depth and dignity that it doesn’t afford a lot of it’s cast.
Here’s where things start to get ugly. In The Problem with Apu, Hari Kondabolu deliberately chops quick clips from The Simpsons out of context to re-cast Apu as a 1-dimensional stereotype of a crooked convenience store clerk. For every one clip shown where Apu seems to con someone, there are several from many years of the show that tell a completely different story that get left in pieces on the cutting room floor.
Worse, in a TV show that often has it’s characters break into song, where getting a song is a badge of honor, Kondabolu edits around the musical number “Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart” from “Home and Apu” so it looks like only Apu is singing and dancing and then says it is no different than a black-faced minstrel show. It’s here where the movie ceased to be a discussion with someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about and became a more malicious propagandist hit piece. It’s a deliberately dishonest piece of work and Kondabolu’s methods here only obscure the reality here instead of enlightening it.
The “3rd act”, if this jibberish had a structure, of this movie turns over to Kondabolu’s attempts to chase down and shame Azaria like a lazy Roger & Me era Michael Moore who can’t be bothered to get off his laptop. It’s unclear what Kondabolu’s goal is or how getting Azaria on film would further it other than the nakedly obvious “get” such an interview would be for the movie he’s making. In the end Azaria requests a meeting with the conditions of his choosing and Kondabolu laments how ironic and privileged Azaria is to be able to choose how he is depicted. Except in Kondabolu’s rush to make himself a perennial victim and continued lack of self awareness, he doesn’t seem to notice that he’s made a 50 minute movie that depicts Azaria like a jerk. Ultimately, Kondabolu admits he can’t think of a solution to the problem with Apu, while still condemning every solution The Simpsons has tried to come up with as not good enough. He simply wants to “kick the ass” of Hank Azaria. And we’re supposed to take this infantile rant seriously.
This would be a radically different movie if Kondabolu had chosen to pick a fight with a much more serious show that attempted to reflect reality, like the bit players of Law & Order or Raj on The Big Bang Theory. Going after The Simpsons was the wrong hill to plant this flag on. He continually says it’s bigger than The Simpsons, that it’s also about the window of time the show took place in – and then goes back to banging on The Simpsons. In a lot of ways his argument is bigger the show. It’s about comedy and two very different views of comedy. He continually wants the show to stop being a comedy around Apu. To continue to tell racial stereotype jokes, just not about him. To do a sincere, public and dramatic mea culpa and not punctuate it with a joke – like it’s a comedy or something. He wants The Simpsons to follow the political comedy rule of punching up but not punching down, which is fine for real people but when you try to apply it to the incubator created in The Simpsons fictional universe where everyone is a satirical reflection of a crazy world and every character from the school groundskeeper to the mayor is a crook, punching up or down has no meaning. Kondabolu recites the punching up/down logic to writer Dana Gould who responds that in the Simpsons writer’s room all characters are funny for their own reasons. One comic doctrine treats people differently based on collective groups, another treats everyone equally as individuals with their own individual traits.
The Simpsons is long past it’s prime. It hasn’t been relevant or up to its hilarious high in literally 20 years. But I will happily side with it any day of the week up against Kondabolu’s restrictive, mechanical, authoritarian view of comedy where being nice, following a set of rules and making statements is more important than crafting a joke. Nobody should turn the comedy rulebook over to someone who lumps Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s together with Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. The Problem with Apu is infuriating, factually wrong, deceptive, poorly reasoned, lazy and just to top it off deeply, deeply unfunny.
So, is that everything?