Akaash Singh and His Case for Bringing Back Apu
When “The Simpsons” stopped using the Indian convenience store owner Apu in new episodes, many saw it as a hard-won victory against cultural stereotypes. The Indian American comic Akaash Singh was not one of them. In fact, he was upset about it — and as stand-ups do, he brought that onstage.
“Here is a brown man married to a beautiful brown woman, owns his own business, selling overpriced products to unwitting white people,” he said, building momentum at the start of his 20-minute debut special, “Bring Back Apu,” released on YouTube a month ago. “Apu is not racist. He’s the American dream.”
Singh, 38, hit a nerve, racking up one million views in a week. (It’s now approaching 1.5 million.) The special never mentions the comic Hari Kondabolu by name, but it is a response to a public conversation kicked off by his cutting critiques of “The Simpsons,” which did more than anything else to lead to the removal of the character. Kondabolu started criticizing Apu on late-night television in 2012 and, five years later, built it into a documentary, “The Problem With Apu,” fleshing out the argument that Apu was a modern-day minstrel figure. After avoiding the issue for a while, Hank Azaria, the white actor who voiced Apu for decades, apologized and refused to play the character.
Even a decade ago, there were few South Asian voices getting attention in mainstream American comedy. Not only are there more now, but there are enough to reflect sharp divides among them. In a 2019 special, Aziz Ansari mocked the fact that Apu being played by a white person was only lately becoming controversial. “Why didn’t anyone say anything 30 years ago?” he asked, then answered his own question. “Because Indian people could only say something like four years ago, OK? We’ve had a slow rise in the culture.”