The Problem with “The Problem with Apu”

  1. Indian Americans live better than any subgroup on the planet. We are the most affluent ethnic group in the wealthiest nation on Earth. By virtually every metric, we have made it. If we don’t have it good, then who does? This “Problem with Apu” seems a bit of a stretch. Other ethnic groups face far greater challenges: to simply name one, African Americans with police brutality and Latino Americans with deportation. We’re complaining about a cartoon.
  2. Apu’s last name is Nahasapeemapetilon, so let’s use another long word: anachronistic. Why release this in 2017 when the character is over a quarter century old? If the thrust of the argument is that there were no prominent Indians in America to respond, well, take a look at this documentary: Indians are killin’ it in Hollywood. The very fact that we have this many famous Indians to rebut Apu proves the point that the way to victory is to drown him out. If, as it’s been said, “the best revenge is living well,” then we’re clearly winning.
  3. There’s such a thing as Brown Privilege. Due to our skin color, we get to sit in the middle of racial issues: we’re not black and we’re not white. We’re like a fashion statement: Brown Is The New Grey. As standup comics, some of us get to stand up there and make jokes that white people can’t make. We do have a voice and we are fighting back.
  4. All comedy is misdirection. But the documentary itself is misdirected: it litigates a battle against Hank Azaria. As it is known in Hollywood, film is a director’s medium. Stage is an actor’s medium. And television is a writer’s medium. In TV, the writers run the show. Actors are labor and producers/creators are management. As fellow actors, we should know this. And as a civil rights activist, Hari should know you don’t go after the workers on the assembly line; you go after the people who control the means of production. Azaria is the wrong target. You want meaningful change? Pressure Creator Matt Groening.
  5. Azaria is forthcoming about perhaps his main reason for not appearing in the doc: he doesn’t trust the final edit. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 11 years and, believe me, it’s rare to get that kind of honesty. And how could he trust it? For the trailer, Hari interviews Dana Gould, who’s a writer from The Simpsons and frequenter of my local grocery store. Gould says that certain accents are funny. Then a sound is played to indicate that what Gould just said is offensive. OK, seriously. You don’t understand the Indian accent is funny to white people? And TO OTHER INDIANS? Many of us do the Indian accent in our standup acts to solely Indian audiences and they laugh. The Indian accent sounds funny in the same way the German accent sounds evil. It just does — it’s like when a smart person finally admits he finds farts funny. There’s no way a comedian doesn’t understand this concept. Hari even says he started off doing Indian jokes for the first five years of his career.
  6. We have bigger fish to fry. While I believe other minorities have it much tougher, we have a deplorable running the country. Donald Trump, a national embarrassment who is running the United States into the ground, is, to refer to Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” I’m not saying micro-aggressions aren’t a thing. Pain is relative. However, through my advocacy work, I have learned there have been over 200 incidents of violence since the 2016 election — against only South Asians. Two men were shot dead in Olathe, Kansas, and we’re arguing over a Kwik-E-Mart owner?
  7. Apu is a three-dimensional character. Yes, there are cheap shots and lame lines. But in virtually every scene displayed in the documentary, Apu is cracking jokes at the top of his intelligence, fighting against stereotypes, and experiencing a journey across the emotional spectrum.
  8. Hari and Aziz Ansari (kudos on that get) question why a show can’t be made about four Indians instead of only four white people and wonder why the latter is considered “normal.” Um. You do realize 70% of the country is still white, right? That’s how Trump won. I’d love to see a show featuring all South Asians, but how can you actually be incredulous about this? I thought we were supposed to be good at math.
  9. Indians are very new to this country. We were only allowed into America starting in 1965. There’s been much research done about the development of immigrants — from any country, to any country. The First Generation conserves; the Second Generation spends; the Third Generation wastes. That’s why so many of our parents scrimped and saved and directed many of us to become doctors — a safe profession with 100% job security. My friend and mentor, Russell Peters, went into comedy in 1989. There was no path; he macheted through the forest. Indians only started going into acting in earnest in the last 15 years; the floodgates didn’t open until the last five to seven years. As the documentary points out, as of a few years ago, there was already an Indian on practically every show. That’s incredible progress — something in which to rejoice. Let’s not play the victim. Let’s celebrate.
  10. Some of the “I’m offended” angle is played up a bit much. After my standup shows, it’s been Indians who have told me I remind them of Peter Sellers and that I should “check out this movie called The Party.” One stereotype about Indians is that we lack a sense of humor. That was the first question we received when we did press junkets throughout India: “How are you going to make Indians laugh when they can’t take a joke?” That was news to us — Indians have consistently been some of my best crowds. But the Indians in India seemed to be acutely aware of his issue. So, by going after Apu, this documentary may be attacking one stereotype but enforcing another. Now that’s irony.
  11. I think the best comedy offers solutions, even if they’re in jest. Recall Billy Crystal from When Harry Met Sally: “What they can do to make it easier is to combine the Obituaries with the Real Estate section. Say, then you have, ‘Mr. Klein died today, leaving a wife, two children, and a spacious, three-bedroom apartment with a wood-burning fireplace.’” In followup interviews, Hari has said that he thinks they shouldn’t kill the character but rather have him grow to the point where he is running a Kwik-E-Mart empire, so he’s truly empowered. I love that. But why not put that in the doc? Workshop that with some of the best South Asian comics and writers in the world. Seriously, how much fun would that have been to have seen Hari, himself an amazing comedian, brainstorm ideas with Aasif Mandvi, Aparna Nancherla, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, et al., like they’re in a writers’ room? That would’ve been amazing.

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