The Fallout of a Callout : Code Switch In 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu called out Hollywood's portrayals of South Asians with his documentary The Problem With Apu. The film was also a criticism of comedian Hank Azaria, who is white, for voicing the Indian character on The Simpsons. On this episode, Hari and Hank sit down to talk publicly for the first time about that callout and everything that has gone down since.

The Fallout of a Callout

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Just a heads up, everybody - it's going to be some cussing in this here episode. You've been warned.

What's good, y'all? You are listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. On this episode - the fallout of a call-out. OK, so it all started out as a bit or an aside to a bit, really.


W KAMAU BELL: Here's "Totally Biased" writer and Indian American, Hari Kondabolu. Hari Kondabolu, everybody.

DEMBY: Hari Kondabolu - you've probably heard him on CODE SWITCH few times - was a writer on a show on Comedy Central called "Totally Biased With Kamau Bell" (ph), and he was doing a short routine about the premiere of "The Mindy Project" and South Asian representation in Hollywood.


HARI KONDABOLU: Mindy Kaling has the first-ever sitcom starring an Indian American. This is huge because, growing up, I had no choice but to like this.




KONDABOLU: Apu, a cartoon character voiced by Hank Azaria, a white guy.


KONDABOLU: A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.


KONDABOLU: If I saw Hank Azaria do that voice at a party, I would kick the s*** out of him.


KONDABOLU: Yeah. Or I'd imagine kicking the s*** out of him.


DEMBY: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. If you've seen "The Simpsons" at any point over the more than three decades that show has been on the air, you know Apu. He runs the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store in Springfield, the fictional town where all "The Simpsons" characters live.


HANK AZARIA: (As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Yes, I am a citizen. Now, which way to the welfare office? What? I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I work. I work.

DEMBY: And like so many of the denizens of Springfield, he was voiced by Hank Azaria, the prolific comedic actor who's been on "The Simpsons" almost since the beginning.

AZARIA: I was about 22, 23 when I started doing voices on the show. The first voice I did was Moe, the bartender. And then the following week, I came back and did the voice of Chief Wiggum. And then that week or the following week, there was an Apu line and it was just written as clerk. And the producer - the director I was working with at the time said, can you do an Indian accent? And I said, well, I can try and did my version of an Indian accent, and that was it.

DEMBY: Hank said his inspiration for that voice came from this old movie from way back in the 1960s.

AZARIA: The only really Indian accent that I had context for, apart from guys who worked at the 7-Eleven that I was near in LA, was Peter Sellers in "The Party."

DEMBY: In that movie, Peter Sellers covered himself in dark brown makeup to play an Indian character named Hrundi V. Bakshi.

AZARIA: I was - mostly, it was an homage to that, you know, one of my heroes.


PETER SELLERS: (As Hrundi V. Bakshi) I missed the middle part, but I can tell from the way that you are enjoying yourselves, it must have been a very humorous anecdote because the way you are laughing just shows how much you enjoyed it. I love a good laugh, don't you?

DEMBY: So Hari was kind of right. Apu was, in fact, a white dude doing an impression of a white dude doing his impression of an Indian guy. Anyway, Hari's short aside in that routine about how angry Apu made him, it grew into something much bigger - a TV documentary. It was called, fittingly, "The Problem With Apu." And in it, Hari takes a brisk tour of Hollywood's depictions of South Asians over the decades, which, up until pretty recently, was just a lot of people in brownface. And so much of the documentary's narrative momentum comes from Hari's pursuit of Hank. He wanted to get Hank to sit down to talk about Apu.


KONDABOLU: We're trying to get Hank Azaria to be in the film. He's the voice of Apu. Tweet at Hank Azaria that he should be in my movie, right?

DEMBY: When the documentary aired, it set off a wave of think pieces and then counter-think pieces. On one side, there were the people who wanted to re-imagine Apu, like, maybe get a South Asian voice actor for him or just get rid of him altogether. On the other side, there were the people who saw Hari's film as just another example of political correctness run amok and angry wokesters ruining everybody's fun. Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons," said, I think it's a time in our culture where people love to pretend that they're offended. "The Simpsons" itself eventually addressed Hari's criticism in the show, sort of. In a scene from a 2018 episode, Marge and Lisa Simpson lament that a beloved children's book had to be reimagined because of changing modern sensibilities.


YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) It's hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?

DEMBY: Then the camera pans to a photo of Apu, which, for some reason, is on Lisa Simpson's nightstand.

KONDABOLU: They could have just said, go to hell, Hari Kondabolu, and at least it would have been more direct. But it was very untrue to the character of Lisa. Lisa would have agreed with me. That's just - that's betraying the character.

DEMBY: Then there were the material consequences of the documentary's release. So while Hank was getting trashed on social media, things started to get real scary for Hari.

KONDABOLU: It wasn't great also to have, like, extra security at shows 'cause people were, like, calling in to venues. Like, it became this thing that, like, actually affected my day-to-day life and not just ruined my mentions on Twitter.

DEMBY: Hari said, look, yes, it would have made for a better documentary if Hank had sat down with him to talk, but it also might have just mitigated some of this stuff - you know, the angry fans, the vitriol - if they saw that Hank was willing to engage him in good faith.

KONDABOLU: It would have made my life significantly better, which I don't think I realized until after, 'cause I was standing by myself. When you're the one who makes the documentary and when people don't actually watch the thing, it's just me.


DEMBY: So here we are. About six years after that documentary came out, Hank and Hari got in the same room with some microphones to talk all this out. And Hank admitted, when Hari approached him to talk about the documentary way back when, Hank wasn't sure he believed that Apu was actually harmful.

AZARIA: Even more importantly than do I keep doing the voice or not, what that was based on was how real is this or not? I didn't really know, Hari.

DEMBY: And when you say a real thing, you mean how much energy was around what Hari was trying to surface?

AZARIA: Yeah, how true it was, how it - the character had done harm. All of that's in Hari's documentary and what he - and in his routine and what he talks about. And other things he talks about, too - I was like, is that real?


AZARIA: I wasn't sure.

KONDABOLU: What's funny, even after the documentary, people still say because one guy had an issue with it, he wanted to do something with his career so he put this out there. I'm like, if you saw the documentary, it wasn't just me. Like, I got Aziz, Hasan Minhaj...

AZARIA: Aparna.

KONDABOLU: ...Aparna...


KONDABOLU: ...The - Kal Penn, the Surgeon General of the United States...


KONDABOLU: ...Vivek Murthy. Like, at a certain point, it's like - I thought I made an argument. But that's the funny thing. I feel like a lot of people still share that opinion because they didn't bother watching the thing and thinking about it. It all became part of a larger conversation about political correctness, and here's another example of someone who just wants to kill something.

AZARIA: Yes. Yeah. And until I watched the doc and then also looked into the whole thing - 'cause the character of Apu is just - not to - I mean, it's real, it's an actual thing, but it's also - it's the - sort of the tip of the iceberg. It's symbolic of a much larger dynamic. If nothing else, watching the doc, I was like, oh, I admire all these performers. A character I did - I, like, hindered them? I caused them pain? I actually actively made their path harder? That sucks. That was one of the first things that really came home to me and made me go, OK, that's real. That would be real.

DEMBY: Hari, you seemed to have, like, a lot of sympathy for Hank's position at the time you approached him to be in the documentary - to speak in the documentary. Has it - have you always felt that way?

KONDABOLU: Not when I was making the documentary, 'cause my frustration was I wanted it to end with a happy ending. The hope was the conversation.

AZARIA: Right.

KONDABOLU: 'Cause at the end of the day, that's ultimately what the goal is. Like, you have this thing that you feel hurt by in some way or frustrated by, and you have a conversation with the person that you feel contributed to that. And so I think when you said no - I mean, part - it's funny 'cause I kind of figured you'd say no, but I was still upset about it. Like - well, it was the thing I said in the film, like, you get to choose how you're portrayed. And the irony of that really got to me. Like...

AZARIA: Oh, yeah.

KONDABOLU: ...I don't get that choice. And, yeah, I was upset. I was like, God, like, does he not realize what this could be?

AZARIA: I saw that, but I was afraid.


AZARIA: I was really freaked out. You know, you're a comedian, and some of your stuff is gotcha, you know, and has bite to it, as well it should. It's hilarious and it's - makes good points. Being on the other end of that really, really scared me, you know? And I - you know, like I said to you at the time, I didn't feel safe to have the - I don't know if I would have felt safe to have the conversation privately, let alone roll them, you know, we're going to record it.


DEMBY: When we come back, how has living in the wake of this controversy over the past seven years changed their lives?

KONDABOLU: You get so frustrated, as an artist and as a person. Like, the documentary is about how I hate being associated with this stereotype, and now I'm forever associated with it.

DEMBY: Stay with us, y'all.


DEMBY: Gene. Just Gene this week, y'all. CODE SWITCH.

All right, so we've been talking about the fallout of a very public call-out. In this case, it's Hari Kondabolu's critique of the character Apu from "The Simpsons"...


AZARIA: (As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Thank you, come again.

DEMBY: ...And the voice actor who brought Apu to life, Hank Azaria. After Hari released his documentary about Apu and Indian representation in Hollywood more broadly, it set off a bunch of debates and hand-wringing about that character. And all that chatter - sometimes really ugly chatter - really affected both of them, albeit in very different ways. Hari told me since the controversy, he's had to worry about his safety. He's worried about how much this mess has come to define his career, even hurt it over the last seven years. And, of course, he is now forever part of the discourse around, quote-unquote, "cancel culture."

Hank, for his part, knew that at some point, he was going to have to give some answer about Apu - whether he or anyone else should continue to voice this character. And so he has had a bit of a journey. He got put on to this organization called the Soul Focused Group, and they hold these seminars about race and power and privilege, and they have these very intense conversations. He said it was a space where he could go and ask questions and say the wrong or underconsidered thing. And he told me it felt like a safe space for him to be a beginner on race stuff and to get better. And he said he wouldn't have gotten there were it not for Hari and his documentary.

AZARIA: I'm so grateful for having - for Hari, you pushing - dragging me and pushing me...


AZARIA: ...Into this conversation.

KONDABOLU: It means a lot for you to say that. And I know you've said that to me privately, just the impact I've made. But I guess - I think to hear that publicly is a really big deal to me because, you know, one of the things that frustrated me after the film came out was, you know, I was getting death threats...


KONDABOLU: ...You know, to translate death threats in multiple languages because I realized how global "The Simpsons" really is...

AZARIA: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: ...Just to - so many different languages that - you know, I heard you on "Colbert" and also I think on Dax Shepard's podcast.


KONDABOLU: And it meant the world to me that you said, you know, I apologize. I think a brown person should be - an Indian person should be in the room, a South Asian person should be in the room when this is getting written. There should be a South Asian voice. And I heard that. And the one thing I never heard was, oh yeah, you know, it was this documentary that was made that - you know, Hari Kondabolu said this thing.

And to me, initially, I was just like, OK, it bothers me that he didn't mention me because I had to deal with all this crap to get it there. But, you know, there's a bigger movement involved. And there is a history of white folks talking about what they've learned and sharing the knowledge without giving credit to the people of color that actually got them there. This is every person of color who's put in work, right? Like, you put in the work, and then you get - never get credit for the work.

And at the end of the day, it's like, I've been talking about this way more than I wanted to. And I know it's, like, a different experience for both of us because for you it's, like, opened up all these new ideas, and you've grown in incredible ways. And the work you're doing now, which - every time you talk to me about it, I see your excitement when you talk about, like, where this could go. To me, it's like, you know, this was old hat to me when I made the documentary.


KONDABOLU: So it's like the double whammy of being stuck here without also getting props. And that always - and so for you to say it now does mean a lot.

AZARIA: Well, I apologize for not saying it earlier. It put me in a dilemma because it's still embarrassing to me. And, you know, to like, point, at the doc, I'm like - and I do, I say - so we'll look at it, and, like, now, listen, I'm the white whale in it, if you'll pardon me saying.


AZARIA: I'm kind of the Roger of the "Roger And Me" of it.


AZARIA: It's a little embarrassing. I'm not quite that bad, really. But the point is, it makes a lot of good points. And so it's still so personally embarrassing to me. And again, whatever I felt personally about it is not a drop in the bucket, a drop in the ocean compared to what you just referred to, which is how your community has had to deal with as a result of it.

DEMBY: Whenever we talk about stereotypes involving people of color, we always talk about, you know, like, real material consequences that befall the people who are being stereotyped, like the death threats that you got, right?

KONDABOLU: Yeah, man.

DEMBY: Like, Hank, have you ever thought about how voicing Apu helped create a kind of, like, conceptual and cultural space for that dehumanization? Like, Hari gets death threats. That's sort of downstream from, you know, the broader dehumanization of Desi people in the United States.

AZARIA: Yeah, I've thought about that. And it's important to point out that, pre-Hari Apu, I did not think about that stuff, didn't even know it happened. I had to be told 54 times before it sunk in. I think about that all the time now. And that's kind of the main - that would be getting to what you could argue - it's a cartoon character. Come on, it's comedy. Get off it. But that stuff's real and horrible. One doesn't exist without the other.

I - through my role in Apu and what I created in the Hollywood messaging - right? - which is a big deal in this country and around the world, I helped to create a pretty marginalizing, dehumanizing stereotype that makes it much easier - in fact, some moment during all this, I read a little news blurb where a guy was attacked. It was actually a Middle Eastern guy who was attacked in his store and was called Apu while he was being attacked. I think if I had any doubts at that point - there was also - there were certain key moments in that whole is-this-real question journey I was on where I got the answer. You know, Apu had become a slur, in other words. That - a lot of times I have conversations with my white friends and family or acquaintances or whoever, and that gets through.

KONDABOLU: When something is used in hate violence, it's pretty much the defining...

AZARIA: Pretty clear.

KONDABOLU: Pretty clear at this point. You know, like, I mean, I remember I worked at the Queens district attorney's office bureau of hate crimes after 9/11. I was a college student. You know, reading the accounts of hate crimes and seeing accounts that thank you, come again, or Apu is being mentioned often enough where it's like, you know, like, it's heartbreaking, especially when it's Queens, the most diverse place in the world.

AZARIA: Right, yeah.

KONDABOLU: It's like this kind of stunning realization, like, it does not matter. It does not matter. Like, ignorance is - it's so far, so far beyond. But yeah, it's a really bizarre thing because it is a cartoon character, you know? And I get that. And, you know, there was some - when I was on "The Daily Show" promoting the film, talking to Trevor Noah about it felt so bizarre because I'm talking about this cartoon character that affected South Asians, and then I'm talking to Trevor Noah. It's like, Trevor, did you deal with racism growing up in South Africa?


KONDABOLU: Apartheid? That's a weird name of a cartoon character, you know?

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: So there is that also realization of, like, the thing that we're talking about. I get it. It's representation. And representation has weight, but it's not necessarily the act of violence in itself. But I do think, you know, everyone - anyone who says it's just a joke, it's just a cartoon, it's just art, not for the person who was making it. They wanted a very specific effect out of the images and words that they used. That's just - that's how any kind of art is made. So yeah, it's just a cartoon. Yeah, it's just art. But, like, the person creating it is trying to create some impact out of it.

DEMBY: So, Hank, you've spent the last few years really doing a lot of soul-searching around. And you found community, was so focused. And you've really been kind of in it and doing a lot of inner work. And, Hari, I'm just curious, like, because y'all have been on sort of parallel paths after this documentary come out, who have you talked to about this? Like, how have you been processing this? Do you have a therapist? Do you, like, I mean, because...

KONDABOLU: I have a therapist. But we are so far away from the cartoon. There are so many other things to talk about first.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Oh, for sure. Right.

KONDABOLU: Like, cartoon is not even in the Top 100, I'll be honest with you. You know, I think I've spoken a lot to my friends, and especially when I get really down about it, to be honest. I sometimes have thought to myself, I regret ever doing this. Like, it gets to a point where I'm like, I'm sick of this. And, you know, it's - you get so frustrated as an artist and as a person. Like, the documentary is about how I hate being associated with this stereotype, and now I'm forever associated with it. Like, there's a lot of, like, irony and frustration in that. But then all of a sudden, you speak in a college classroom. Or you find out that your work is - particularly the documentary, is being used when teaching media representation.

Or when I meet South Asian parents who talk about how much this means to them because they have children - and now I have a kid, so I - it also feels different also to be like, my kid is not going to deal with a lot of this stuff. Times have changed. And I know I've contributed positively to that. And the knowledge - and this is the thing I always keep closest to me, is at the end of the day, I'm right. Like, that - like, if that wavers, then I'm in trouble. So now when I look at, you know, this film, I still have some frustration. I still get, like, annoyed that we got to talk about it. But at the same time, in the broad scheme of things, I think I did right. And I think I did right by my community even if they're not all in agreement, by the way. It's not universal. Definitely, I have a killjoy reputation amongst factions of my community as well.

AZARIA: Listen, it made a difference, Hari, certainly to me personally. But I can tell you, at "The Simpsons," it did, in Hollywood. Certainly everything I'm in touch with, in contact with where I work.

KONDABOLU: I'm assuming they all still hate me at the home office, though, right?


AZARIA: I haven't asked in a while. I haven't...


DEMBY: How do you think about that? The fact - not to be flip but, like, somebody had to sort of eat s*** - right? - for you to go through this journey? How are we supposed to do this kind of thing at scale, to shake people awake, without it being so costly to the person who was doing the shaking, right?

AZARIA: Yeah, it's a good point, like - yeah. So again, I get called names. Hari got death threats, right? I - this was an episode for me that I suppose if I mishandled could have gotten a lot worse. But essentially, it ultimately was a very challenging inconvenience for a long time. And for Hari, it, like, had completely defined his career, you know?

KONDABOLU: Which, by the way, I don't think I realized when I made the thing, because I - honestly, if I had realized some of this stuff, part of me, as someone who also is in a career in show business, I don't know if I would have done some of it. And it's embarrassing to say that, but it's honest. Like, when I think about, like, how many rooms was I not invited to have a meeting because I made the thing that annoyed people - or how do my fellow comics view me when I'm not there? Or do they see less of me? And, like, part of me is like, was - would I have still done it if I knew?

DEMBY: There's this fascinating dynamic. And I'm sure you both have noticed. It's like, in some ways, Hank had to figure this stuff out so that people would pay attention, right? Like, even in the way you made the documentary - and, Hank, obviously, you said you weren't in a place to have that conversation at the time. But had you been in a place to have that conversation at the time, a lot of people would have heard you saying...


DEMBY: ...The stuff you're saying today and receive that documentary completely different because it was coming from you as a white guy.

AZARIA: But I didn't know this stuff then.

DEMBY: But had you known, right?

AZARIA: Oh, it would have been good.

KONDABOLU: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Like, the documentary would have been received completely different...


DEMBY: ...Because lots of people who listen to you were not necessarily going to listen to Hari. How does that feel to each of you?

KONDABOLU: I mean, it's frustrating. Like, my buddy, Sam, he's my best friend - white dude. And on the record, my best friend is a white dude.


AZARIA: Some of your best friends?

DEMBY: Some of your best friends...

KONDABOLU: Some of my best friends. But he's a white. And...


KONDABOLU: And for the longest time, I remember in college or even when we lived together in Seattle, you know, I would be trying to make a point about race or something. And you could see the defensiveness. And it felt like Sam would basically say the same thing slightly different, and all of a sudden it was like, oh, OK. And I'm like, this is...

AZARIA: No, really. Really?

KONDABOLU: Yeah. And it was like, you know - and we'd laugh about it, but it was also kind of annoying, you know? That's one thing - at least being on stage, the laughter gets people to think, 'cause this is funny, so it must be something, you know?


KONDABOLU: But without that, it's like, you got to trust me that what I'm saying is coming from a genuine place. I'm not trying to harm you. I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable. I'm just sharing a reality with you. Like, it's almost treated like, you know, it's - everything is strategic. You're trying to put this out there because you're - like, I don't have anything to gain other than being less uncomfortable in the world. And the same is true for anybody. Like, nobody wants to deal with the discomfort of race, right? White people, people of - it's uncomfortable. It's the thing that's always there.

And the same could be true for a lot of other - you know, I mean, with gender and everything else. Like, we're three men talking in this room, so I'm sure we have a ton of blind spots in the conversation we had, you know? And that's why I think part of me also is like, you know, be humble. Like, you know, you might know some things about this topic, but there's a whole bunch of blind spots with everything else that I'm still trying to figure out.

DEMBY: So you two are talking here. And so there's a kind of resolution. You respect each other. This is your first public sit-down, but you've sat down a few times. But there is this discourse around Apu that exists outside of y'all now - right? - like, that has been, like, loosed into the world. I'm curious as to how you think about your responsibility to that conversation because y'all can't rein it in, you know what I mean? To a large extent, at this point, it is not your discourse anymore.

KONDABOLU: You know, I was willing to do this, obviously, because of Hank and you and what this podcast means and represents and how you talk about what you talk about. But I'm, like, totally sick of talking about it. The story that's more interesting is the after - Hank, like, you know, his journey to here, you know? What is the difference between a person of color calling something out versus a white person calling something out? Like, that, to me, is interesting. You know, it's this discussion of white fragility, of the internet, of communication, of conversation - that. The rest of the stuff, to me, is like, I'm so done with it. I don't know what else there is to say about the thing, you know? Yeah, but what about Groundskeeper Willie? Like, I don't want to answer that anymore. I don't want to answer it anymore. Like, it's not - you know, I'm done. Like...

AZARIA: You can refer them to me, Hari.

KONDABOLU: I would gladly...

AZARIA: I'm not even kidding 'cause I do owe it.


AZARIA: It's my amends. I need to keep having the conversation. I owe it.


AZARIA: It's part of my amends. So leave Hari alone. Talk to me.

KONDABOLU: I appreciate that very much.

DEMBY: I want to thank you both. Hari Kondabolu, Hank Azaria, thank you for having the Apu summit on CODE SWITCH.

KONDABOLU: (Laughter) I'm glad we finally did it. I'm glad we did it here.

AZARIA: Grateful. I appreciate the opportunity to unpack this in public. Bit overdue. Better late than never.


DEMBY: OK. So that's how things stand with Hank and Hari. But all right, what about Apu, the fictional dude at the center of all this controversy? Well, in some ways, he just doesn't matter as much as he did when, for decades, he was the only Indian character on the small screen. Just in the time since the documentary aired, there are a lot more South Asian stars on TV and in movies, which means no one depiction has to carry all that weight. As for "The Simpsons" itself, the show hasn't exactly figured out what to do with Apu. Hank stopped doing his voice. But if you watch the show, you might still occasionally see Apu in Springfield, posted up in the background with the rest of the people in town, a reminder of what used to slide in Hollywood - but now voiceless. Apu hasn't uttered a word on "The Simpsons" in six years.


DEMBY: All right, y'all, that is our show. You can get at us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch, all one word. If email's more your bag, ours is And please subscribe to the podcast on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. And we just wanted to give a shoutout to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate y'all, and thank you for being subscribers. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you rock with us, please consider signing up at

This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and our intern Olivia Chilkoti, with help from Diba Mohtasham and James Sneed. It was edited by Dalia Mortada. Our engineer was Ko Takasugi-Czernowin. And we would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Jess Kung, Courtney Stein, Veralyn Williams, Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella, Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry, B.A. Parker and Lori Lizarraga. As for me, I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.


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