Hari Kondabolu used to laugh at The Simpsons’ Apu. Then he got angry.

“When I talk about racism, it’s not political. It’s survival.”

The Simpsons is Hari Kondabolu’s favorite TV show. He even liked the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the convenience store owner — at first. At age 9, Kondabolu was so eager to see representation of an Indian American in the media that “even if it’s brown paint, you’re glad there’s something,” he told me.

After 9/11, Kondabolu, who had been relying on some of the same stereotyped depictions of South Asian Americans that The Simpsons writers had used in creating Apu, realized he could no longer perpetuate the stereotypes and remain true to what he believed in. He began adopting a more critical, aggressive voice in his comedy. He called out stereotypes and pressed audiences to question their internal biases.

As Kondabolu developed his own brand of clever and piercing comedy, he returned to address his childhood nemesis, Apu. The result is his new documentary, The Problem With Apu, which aired on TruTV on Sunday. The film includes interviews with Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aparna Nancherla, Russell Peters, Sakina Jaffrey, and Maulik Pancholy about their experiences as South Asian Americans in the entertainment industry. Whoopi Goldberg makes an appearance, speaking on how the stereotyped representation of Apu has parallels with minstrelsy.

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Kondabolu has appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and other shows. He wrote and reported for Totally Biased with comedian W. Kamau Bell. He recently returned from a tour opening for Chris Rock.

I spoke with Kondabolu about how he developed a way to integrate race and politics into his comedy, the relationship between art and activism, and whether he would ever work with comedian Louis C.K. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

You’ve said that the character of Apu, the convenience store owner in The Simpsons, nagged on you as a child. When were you able to pinpoint what was wrong?

Hari Kondabolu

There wasn’t a clear moment. Initially, it was exciting. When you don’t exist, and all of a sudden you do exist in the media, then it’s incredible. Even if it’s brown paint, you’re glad there’s something.

Around early middle school you realize, “Oh, people are watching the show like I am, and people are talking about it, like I am … except that they can use that one character against me.” It’s strange. People will say, “What about the Scottish character who’s stereotyped?” Well, I don’t know that many Scottish people in America. I know a lot more brown kids. There’s a personal impact.

After a while, you realize that you’re embarrassed about your parents’ accents. I don’t want people to hear them, because then they could use it against me or them. You feel less American. You realize that this wasn’t made for you. As a kid, you think you’re all part of it. Then all of a sudden, you get signals that racialize you, and you realize it’s not so clear-cut.

Hope Reese

After 9/11, you realized you wanted to address racism in your comedy. Can you talk about how that change happened?

Hari Kondabolu

One thing I learned from The Simpsons was that Indian accents work. Kids were laughing at me, so it was effective. So I used that — I applied it — I basically did an impression of Hank Azaria’s impression. It made people laugh. I always was decent at writing jokes, but the writing was very hacky at the time.

After 9/11, I saw what was happening in my community. I saw the cost of hate crimes, deportations, and detentions across the country. All of a sudden I’m onstage, in college in Maine, thinking, “What am I talking about?” Especially on [the Bowdoin College] campus. It was a very white setting. I’m one of the few brown people there — and this is how I choose to represent myself? When the media has done a fine job of representing us up until this point? It didn’t feel honest.

With the responsibility of a microphone, it didn’t seem that [drawing on stereotypes of Indian Americans] was the right decision. My perspective began to develop after that point. I didn’t have a political perspective. After that, it became political, and I wanted my art to reflect that.

Hope Reese

In your documentary, you interview Dana Gould, a producer of The Simpsons, about Apu’s accent. Here’s his response: “There are accents that by their nature, to white Americans, I can only speak from experience, sound funny.” How did you feel when he said that?

Hari Kondabolu

I was shocked not because of the content — I knew that already, that’s the problem, and that’s what the film is about. What shocked me is that he had the guts to say it. Dana was the only honest person from that side. He’s the only one who told the truth. Was he supposed to sugarcoat it? No. I’ve heard the sugarcoating. That was blunt. I thought, “Thank you.” Thank you for saying it, for not cleaning it up. That’s what we need.

Hope Reese

When you began to shed the accents in your comedy and try out a more political version, was it uncomfortable? How did audiences react?

Hari Kondabolu

It was kind of schizophrenic. I mixed the old stuff that was accented and simple and exploited identity with the stuff that was politically minded and aggressive about race and class. I didn’t know how to use it, and it split the crowd. But I learned that splitting the crowd wasn’t a bad thing.

I was experimenting on a campus that wasn’t particularly politicized. Where discomfort wasn’t a regular part of being there, unless you were queer or trans. And if you were an upper-class white person, especially a man, that was your territory. There were people who liked me, regardless, because I made them laugh. And there were people who stopped coming.

Hope Reese

What do you see as the role of politics in comedy?

Hari Kondabolu

There’s a long tradition of comics who really forced people to think. That could be Richard Pryor. Bill Hicks. George Carlin. Now there are still a ton, like John Oliver, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock. I don’t see this as politics. I don’t see this as outside of myself. I see this as integral. When I talk about racism, it’s not political. It’s survival. It’s the survival of people I love. That’s not political; it’s practical. It’s fundamental to my identity.

Hope Reese

You’re a comic who is also active on Twitter. Do you feel the need to act out a certain persona? How do you manage your identity on these different platforms, from Twitter to standup to your podcast, Politically Re-Active? Is there pressure to always be funny?

Hari Kondabolu

When I’m onstage, there’s pressure to make people laugh. When I do my podcast, my goal is to inform people and find humor in between, just so it’s more digestible. On Twitter, it’s a mix of both. I want to make people laugh, but at the same time it becomes an open journal. It’s an opportunity to share thoughts that I often don’t share.

Hope Reese

Can social media be a space for activism? Do you see yourself as an activist?

Hari Kondabolu

I don’t see myself as an activist. I see myself as an artist. I don’t like combining the two. There’s enough egomania that comes with standup that I don’t think adding “changing the world” is a good idea. I try to separate the two worlds. My views will inform the work and shape the work, but I don’t want anything other than laughter to shape the work.

Hope Reese

A piece [by Steve Almond] in the Baffler argues that “high-tech jesters” like [Stephen] Colbert and [Jon] Stewart “congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.” And that by simply watching these shows, viewers might think they’re doing more than they really are. What’s the role of entertainers in motivating activism?

Hari Kondabolu

Generally speaking, no piece of art is individually going to spur a movement. It’s the collective consciousness of people over time. If you have art that’s critical, and also becomes popular, it will sway opinions. There’s a reason people have always been afraid of art. When they have a regime that’s authoritarian, the idea of art that challenges their authority — they don’t want that. Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comedian, started a version of The Daily Show in Egypt. He had to leave. Even though it was popular there, it questioned the regime there. He had to leave the country. That doesn’t happen unless art really questions authority.

There’s a reason why Trump doesn’t like SNL. He doesn’t like being made fun of, but it’s also influencing how people think. Popular opinion can sway with that stuff. Art often does that because your guard is down. With music, people don’t always know the words. With comedy, you can’t hide laughter. That can be a scary thing for people who don’t want to be challenged. I don’t think it, alone, causes revolution, but all art and all media [has an] impact.

Hope Reese

After it surfaced that comedian Louis C.K. had been [accused of harassment], you tweeted: “Men have forever used privilege & power to elevate themselves at the expense of women. The system is set up for us.” Was this directed at C.K.? What does this incident reveal?

Hari Kondabolu

It’s my feeling about the responsibility of men. This isn’t about Louis C.K. This isn’t about Roy Moore. It’s about the culture that allows for this. For all those men that criticize the concept of “rape culture,” saying it’s not a thing — it is a thing. A culture that allows men, especially men in power, to think they can do whatever they want is a poisonous culture. It’s patriarchal. You can say it’s better or worse than other places, but that’s irrelevant to our conversation.

Hope Reese

Would you ever work with C.K. after this?

Hari Kondabolu

I’d have a tough time saying yes at this point. I didn’t know any of this stuff before, and now I do. That’s going to shape my view of him. I believe in safe spaces for women to actually be able to be on equal footing and contribute and move up. Based on what I know, that doesn’t feel like a safe environment for women.

Hope Reese

Many people have commented on the Apu documentary before it’s even been released, calling you “PC” and tweeting things like “stop getting so offended.” Have you been surprised by the reactions?

Hari Kondabolu

When I tell people verbally, it’s always the same reaction: “I can’t believe I missed [the racism]!” Or, “I can’t believe that never annoyed me!” These are thoughtful people. For everyone else, what am I supposed to do? The movie hasn’t come out, and people already hate it, and hate me. That’s the country. We don’t like to be challenged. It’s terrible. I’m upset not because of the critiques — I can respond to every single one of them — what bothers me is: at least do the goddamn work. Watch the movie. Read the reviews. Have something constructive to say.

Hope Reese

Part of the problem with Apu is that he is voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria. In creative work, who should choose how others are represented? Do you see a problem with HBO’s forthcoming show Confederacy, created by [D.B.] Weiss and [David] Benioff from Game of Thronestwo white men?

Hari Kondabolu

I’m not going to speak for Confederacy, because I haven’t seen it. But generally speaking, I think that white creators trying to give voice to people who don’t have their experience is tricky. It’s rarely done well or with humanity. It requires listening, it requires friends with a broad range of experiences, and a writers’ room and a bunch of executives and creators who are diverse.

Apu is the creation of white creators. This is how they view us. This is not how we view ourselves. So when I watch The Simpsons, those are the moments that take me out of it. When I see a racist character, doesn’t even have to be the Indian one, I’m reminded “Oh, right, this isn’t for us. This was made for another audience.”

That’s why it’s really frustrating when white people creating things say, “This isn’t believable. An audience wouldn’t like a person of color in this role.” What that says to me is that a white audience can’t handle the idea of relating to a person of color. They can’t see us as equally human in the same way as a white character. That’s extremely hurtful. And it’s true. Even though there are all these racist characters, I internalized it, I was shaped by those unfortunate things, but I still learned to love these characters that had nothing to do with me. That’s the idea of good storytelling.

Hope Reese

With shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, are white audiences getting to see a new version of lead characters? Something they’re not used to?

Hari Kondabolu

Absolutely. Aziz’s show complicates a lot of things. He’s us. He’s depicting a version of us that did not exist before. He controls it. He hires the writers. It’s huge. It’s not an Indian show; it’s a generational show. It’s great to have something that’s mainstream like that.

We need more of that for other communities. People see diversity in such a straightforward way — like, “We have people of color.” Well, what about queer folks? Women? All the identities within that identity? There’s a rich palette. The fact that we do remakes? That’s laziness. We have untapped resources, and they’re a good portion of the population that we silenced.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.