Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday, the actor responded to the recent backlash surrounding Indian shopkeeper Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who has been a character on the Fox television series since 1990.
Controversy has surrounded the character since the release of a documentary last year called The Problem with Apu, streaming on truTV.com, in which writer Hari Kondabolu argued the character perpetuates racial stereotypes through mannerisms and an exaggerated accent.
Azaria, 54, told Colbert, 53, that he understands the criticism.
“It’s come to my attention more and more, especially in the last couple of years, that people in the South Asian community in this country have been fairly upset by the voice and characterization of Apu,” he said.
“It sparked a lot of conversation about what should be done with the character going forward, which is not so easy to answer,” he continued. “And I’ve tried to express this before — the idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad. It was certainly not my intention. I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character, and the idea that it’s brought pain and suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalize people, it’s upsetting. Genuinely.”
The Simpsons addressed the controversy in an episode earlier this month with a scene of Marge reading a favorite childhood book with daughter Lisa. However, she suddenly found the story about a tyrannical slaveowner much more racist than she remembered and tried to edit it to fit modern standards of political correctness.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Marge asked.
“It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Lisa responded, looking directly at the camera before the shot zoomed in on a photo of Apu with the message “Don’t have a cow.”
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge said before Lisa added, “If at all.”
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The response drew even more criticism as many fans thought the scene fell flat. Azaria told Colbert he had “nothing to do with the writing or voicing” of the scene.
“Apu doesn’t speak in that segment,” he said. “It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time that everybody else in America did, so I didn’t know it was going to be in [the episode] until I saw it.”
“I think that if anybody came away from that segment feeling that they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin … that’s certainly not the way I feel about it,” he continued. “That’s definitely not the message that I want to send out.”
Colbert pushed the actor for his thoughts on how the show should approach Apu moving forward.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought. As I say, my eyes have been opened,” Azaria said. “And I think the most important thing is we have to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country, when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character — and what their American experience of it has been.”
“Listening to voices in television means inclusion in the writer’s room,” he continued. “I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the room, not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced. I am perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does. It not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do to me.”