When The Simpsons first turned pop culture on its head, it caused mild controversy because its rebellious child character said “damn” and “hell.” Nearly 30 years later, the animation icon has been facing a more culturally significant backlash surrounding the use of Indian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. After months without confirmed resolutions, it was recently reported that The Simpsons’ thinktank was aiming to take Apu off the show altogether. This is when showrunner and longtime executive producer Al Jean spoke up.
Al Jean mentioned Indian-American producer Adi Shankar, one of the names behind Dredd and Netflix’s Castlevania TV series, among other projects. Shankar is the one who claimed that multiple sources confirmed to him that The Simpsons was excising Apu altogether. Usually, this would be a point where fans could start assuming that Shankar was misinformed, but Jean’s tweet doesn’t exactly deny anything. Nor does it lay Shankar out to be particularly untrustworthy. It just says that Shankar isn’t a Simpsons spokesman.
The first part of Al Jean’s tweet seemed to be a jab at publications that erroneously referred to Adi Shankar as a producer for The Simpsons, which made him seem to be a lot more in the know than he actually was. Again, considering Jean didn’t outright refute Shankar’s claims, it’s interesting he addressed it on Twitter at all. Even if it was only to make that correction, it was a timely choice.
Also interesting, and perhaps to be expected, is that Adi Shankar added his voice to the dozens who commented on Al Jean’s post, in a calm way that set him apart from others. In his words:
I wish you well too. Let’s work towards common ground. Ignoring only fans the flames. The world is polarized & getting more so, and the onus is on us to bring people together. Engage in a constructive way and this matter will go to bed. I see you, now I’m asking you to see me.
At this point, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next. Al Jean could soon respond, the two could meet, and the Apu situation could work out amazingly well for all involved. Or, more likely, something else will happen.
Without getting overly speculative or anything, could it be possible that The Simpsons is indeed getting rid of Apu (even from background shots), and that Al Jean only meant to dismiss a particular portion of Adi Shankar’s claims about it? If anyone is going to adhere to written semantics, after all, it’s probably going to be a TV writer. Here’s how Shankar specifically said things:
They’re going to drop the Apu character altogether. They aren’t going to make a big deal out of it, or anything like that, but they’ll drop him altogether just to avoid the controversy.
If The Simpsons is planning on permanently writing Apu off of the show, it’s not out of the question that Al Jean took umbrage with the claim that it wouldn’t be a big deal, and/or that it would be done just to avoid the angry fans. It’s possible there will be a gigantic celebratory send-off. Or, knowing how The Simpsons works, they might introduce five alternate-universe versions of Apu as regular characters who never leave.
Adi Shankar joined the already ongoing conversation about Apu by launching a submission-based contest to find the perfect spec script to fix the “Apu problem,” a phrase taken from comedian Hari Kondabolu’s influential documentary The Problem with Apu. That documentary pulled together and solidified viewpoints than many have voiced over the years about how strong a role Apu has had in strengthening negative Indian stereotypes in pop culture. Efforts by Shankar and others have kept those talks going, with the eventual goal being a permanent change on The Simpsons itself.
Al Jean’s tweet marks the latest in relatively few instances where Simpsons cast and crew members have publicly addressed the conversational backlash that has risen around Apu. (Even South Park took shots at the longtime Fox hit over it on a recent episode.) Following one episode’s open-ended (and widely derided) response to those asking for changes to be made, co-creator Matt Groening responded to the pushback by saying that people love to get offended. But he’d also defended the character’s placement to the New York Times, though he also admitted there wasn’t a proper way to approach it anymore.
Well, I love Apu. I love the character, and it makes me feel bad that it makes other people feel bad. But on the other hand, it’s tainted now — the conversation, there’s no nuance to the conversation now. It seems very, very clunky. I love the character. I love the show.
Of course, longtime Simpsons writer Mike Reiss pointed out in May that the show technically hasn’t given Apu more than a handful of lines in the past handful of seasons. (Something that Matt Groening echoed in his interview.) He’d addressed to Vanity Fair that the writers were already aware of growing concerns about Apu since before Hari Kondabolu’s documentary was announced.
Though there’s a lot of discussion on Apu, he’s barely had a line in the past three seasons. Hank Azaria saying he won’t voice the character anymore is like Val Kilmer announcing he won’t play Batman again—no one’s asking him to.
Meanwhile, Apu voice actor Hank Azaria has been more cautious, making it clear that he isn’t trying to offend anyone, while also refraining from speaking negatively about a beloved character he’s played for over half of his life. He did say that if the character does remain a part of Springfield’s elite, he’d love to see an actor from South Asia take over the voice work.
While the actual show likely isn’t going to team up with Adi Shankar in the immediate future, the producer is moving forward with the winning contribution form his spec script contest. (It was sent in by Maryland doctor Vishaal Buch.) Shankar will be producing the short through his Bootleg Universe branding on YouTube, where he’s released other viral content like the super-violent short films centered on the Power Rangers and The Punisher.
The Simpsons airs Sunday nights on Fox at 8:00 p.m. ET. To see what new and returning shows are on the way soon, head to our fall TV premiere schedule.