If you’re a fan of TV’s The Simpsons (if not, keep reading anyway), you may have noticed something during this thirty-first season. Apu, the Indian-American owner of Kwik-E-Mart, may be missing. At least, vocally. Hank Azaria, who’s voiced Apu since 1990, believes the character is inappropriate. I understand. But based on two other characters I love, I disagree.
Apu, with his South Asian accent, indeed is a caricature. Yet in India, English-speakers evidence a similar accent. Only there, you have the accent. So that feature of the caricature is fact-based. Also, many non-U.S.-born Indian-Americans run convenience stores, motels and restaurants. It’s a typical immigrants’ story.
Now consider: All characters on The Simpsons are caricatures. From Homer down, they exhibit more breadth than depth. Their foibles make us laugh and sometimes cringe. Yet as each episode ends, they reveal a goodhearted humanity.
Granted, some characters have more trouble connecting with their better selves. Exhibit A: Krusty the Clown aka Herschel Krustofsky. I started watching The Simpsonsduring season three after virtually boycotting the show. I hadn’t liked what I read about it. But I saw thatThe Simpsonswould air an episode in which Krusty falls out with his father—a rabbi. I gathered the family in front of the TV. We were hooked.
Talk about caricatures! Krusty is the show-biz veteran—and ham—from Hell. He’s a serial abuser of alcohol, drugs, women and his fans. Worse, he’s not funny. Which makes him very funny.
Krusty is counterbalanced by Rabbi Krustofsky, voiced by the comedian Jackie Mason—also an ordained rabbi. Rabbi Krustofsky is kind, understanding and wise. Yet he’s a mild caricature, part of traditional Orthodoxy that’s a minority within American Jewry. Like the “Rally Rabbi” bobblehead the Giants give away on Jewish Heritage Night, he’s not typical. But so what?
Despite their caricature status, I love Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky for two reasons. First, they place me in the American cultural mirror. Growing up, I rarely saw Jewish characters on TV or in the movies unless they were unfunny caricatures—stereotypes. They weren’t me and my family or anyone I knew. Reason number two: For more than half-a-century, Americans have seen Jews take their places across public life, including non-stereotypical roles in entertainment. Anti-Semites might see us as caricatures, but a great many Americans know better.
Apu requires some perspective. In 1990, when he first appeared, South Asians were rarely seen in the media and, if so, as caricatures. If there was a time to exclude Apu from The Simpsons, that was it.
Cut to 2020. South Asians are part of the fabric of American life. Many can be seen all over the airwaves and in film. They’re news reporters, anchors, comics, actors. They appear as expert commentators through their roles in government, the justice system and technology. Nikki Haley served as governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the U.N. In short, South Asians now appear as fully developed human beings.
So, maybe Hank Azaria’s and Apu’s critics will relent. I’d love to see Apu take his place alongside Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky. Apu can be caricatured like the show’s other characters of all ethnicities, including Whites, because ultimately he comes from a group with an identity overriding all other ethnic considerations—American.
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