On South Park, there is a recurring gag where the show bemoans the fact that The Simpsons have been around for so long that it has already done most of the possible plots for the show, with a character taunting, "The Simpsons Did It!" Well, in last night's episode, in an attempt to address the controversy over Hari Kondabolu's documentary, The Problem With Apu, The Simpsons really did it...to themselves.
In 2017, Kandabolu released The Problem With Apu on TruTV. The documentary essentially had two major criticisms over the depiction of Apu, the Indian owner and manager of the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart. The first is that having a non-Indian actor like Hank Azaria do an Indian accent for the character is akin to a white person acting in blackface. The criticism specifically notes that Azaria's performance as Apu, who Azaria based on a guy who worked at the 7-11 near where Azaria lived in Los Angeles back in the late 1980s, sounds like "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father." The second is that by making Apu such a prominent negative stereotype about Indian people, it opened up many Indian people to slurs and ridicule.
Earlier this year, Azaria promised that The Simpsons would eventually respond to the controversy, noting, ""The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased or worse based on the character of Apu on 'The Simpsons,' the voice or any other tropes of the character is distressing. And especially in post 9/11 America, the idea that anybody was marginalized based on it or had a hard time was very upsetting to me personally and professionally. [The producers] are giving it a lot of thought. We've discussed it a little bit, and they will definitely address, maybe publicly, but certainly creatively within the context of the show, what they want to do, if anything, differently with the character."
Last night, The Simpsons finally addressed the controversy head on, by having Marge decide that she needed to update a fictional book, The Princess in the Garden, to make it less controversial and more acceptable to modern audiences. However, after reading the edited book to Lisa, the pair realized that the edited book is not as good (do note that Lisa has never read the original book, so it's odd for her to make such a declaration), so Marge asks, "Well, what am I supposed to do?"
#TheSimpsons completely toothless response to @harikondabolu #TheProblemWithApu about the racist character Apu:— Soham (@sohamberlamps) April 9, 2018
"Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect... What can you do?" pic.twitter.com/Bj7qE2FXWN
This leads to Lisa turning to the camera and declaring, “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera pans to a photo of Apu at this point, which has “Don’t have a cow, man!” written on it. Marge then notes, “Some things will be addressed at a later date,” to which Lisa bluntly added, “if at all.”
Fans have reacted with anger on social media, arguing that the show took an unnecessarily arrogant and dismissive position that seemed to suggest that "political correctness" is threatening to ruin great fiction, like The Simpsons and that the show's hands are tied, as if there was a statute of limitations on when you can decide that something is offensive, and since it took over twenty five years for this to become a public issue, they're now exempt from having to deal with it now. Not only that, but the decision to put the bulk of their response into the mouth of Lisa Simpson, the character most likely to agree with The Problem With Apu, has proved to be even more aggravating to fans.
Kondabolu, naturally, also responded, tweeting, "Wow. “Politically Incorrect?” That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad." and following that, with, "In 'The Problem with Apu,' I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress."
The Simpsons producers have not responded as of yet, but showrunner Al Jean did re-tweet a tweet complimenting the show on how they handled a "non-issue."