The Real Reason Why Hank Azaria Will No Longer Be Voicing Apu on ‘The Simpsons’

The Simpsons is about to make a major change.

Comedy has always been subjective. But as the world at large is becoming more aware of diversity and representation, what is and isn’t funny is beginning to change. With that, even longheld portrayals of women, the LGBT community, and people of color face the scrutiny of today’s perspective.

That means even properties as beloved as The Simpsons need to at least consider updating their sensibilities for a modern audience. The show’s Springfield has long been populated by over-the-top stereotypes and exaggerations. But by far the most criticized has been Apu, the friendly Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart. Now it looks like The Simpsons is finally making some lasting changes.

Hank Azaria at The Simpsons 400th Episode Block Party
Hank Azaria at The Simpsons 400th Episode Block Party | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Hank Azaria reveals he’s retiring from the role of Apu

For years, rumors have swirled around how The Simpsons would handle Apu in light of recent controversies. Now, in an interview with Slashfilm, actor Hank Azaria offered a definitive update on the character’s future. Azaria has voiced countless characters, including Apu, since The Simpsons debuted.

“I won’t be doing the voice anymore unless there’s some way to transition it or something,” the actor said. “What they’re going to do with the character is their call. It’s up to them and they haven’t sorted it out yet. All we’ve agreed on is I won’t do the voice anymore.”

In today’s political climate, we imagine this decision will be met with a divisive response from the show’s fans. Some may hold to the “it’s just a joke” defense, but Apu does represent a cultural caricature that feels egregiously out of place now.

‘The Problem with Apu’ and the resulting controversy

Azaria was quick to clarify it was a unanimous decision behind the scenes for the actor to vacate the role. He had previously said he would be willing to step aside, but nothing concrete ever came of it until now. Azaria apparently hadn’t realized the potential harm Apu had on the Indian community. But that changed back in 2017.

That year, the issue really boiled to the surface when comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary titled The Problem with Apu. The 49-minute film analyzes The Simpsons character in the context of how Western culture had represented Southeast Asian people. To be fair, Apu’s catchphrase “Thank you, come again” has since been co-opted as a mocking reference point.

The problem, the film argues, is two-fold. On the one hand, the character of Apu is a walking, talking bundle of stereotypes which has dominated Southeast Asian representation. On the other, that problematic depiction is compounded by the fact that Azaria — a white man — performs his voice.

Does this mean Apu is leaving ‘The Simpsons’?

Now that Azaria won’t be providing the voice of Apu any longer, the question is how The Simpsons will handle the character. Will he be phased out, or will the show recast the role? Given the outcry from the Southeast Asian community, perhaps rehabilitating the character is a step in the right direction. At the very least, a culturally accurate actor could bring his own perspective to Apu.

After more than 30 years on the air, it would be impressive if The Simpsons is able to successfully navigate the character out of this controversy. Yet, even recognizing the harm Apu had caused now is encouraging. Entertainment — yes, even animated comedy — is a reflection of the world around us.

Even unintentionally, playing to the lowest common denominator and seemingly mocking an entire community is no longer a laughing matter. Kudos to Azaria and the team at The Simpsons for recognizing that and taking some accountability.