Adil Ray on the Apu controversy: It’s not The Simpsons’ fault there are so few Asian characters on TV - that’s the job of the commissioners
The character should not be ditched, says the Citizen Khan creator - but TV commissioners need to take responsibility for increasing the representation of BAME characters on our screens
Controversy rippled through Twitter when Indian-American film producer Adi Shankar claimed that Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was being written out of the show after nearly 30 years.
Shankar told IndieWire, “I’ve verified from multiple sources now: 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.”
While Simpsons executive producer Al Jean was somewhat dismissive of Shankar's claims, Apu’s future on the show remains unclear.
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Rumours of the character’s ‘exit’ came just months after the airing of US documentary The Problem with Apu.
Written by comedian Hari Kondabolu, the film observes the negative stereotypes, racial microaggressions and slurs people of South Asian heritage have supposedly received due to the character.
Speaking in the documentary, Kondabolu explains, “Apu’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice when it’s right in front of you.”
While Kondabolu is not among those calling for the character to be removed from the show, he does suggest there are ways to improve Apu to make his representation on screen less problematic.
But not everyone feels the character needs to be remodelled. British Pakistani comedian Adil Ray says Apu’s humour comes from the exaggeration of a stereotype and that “every single comedy probably ever made plays with stereotypes" – adding that The Simpsons' status as a cartoon comedy allows it latitude that perhaps wouldn't be the case with more serious live-action shows.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Ray explains, “I think [Apu's] funny. Above all, it’s funny. I don’t believe, and I don’t think anybody believes in any way, The Simpsons were being intentionally racist or discriminating. They weren’t.
“With The Simpsons, it’s quite clear from the off – it’s a cartoon. Of course it’s two dimensional. It’s not in any way real. There’s things you can say in a cartoon that you perhaps can’t say in a real comedy. Every single character there is an absurd version of a character that we probably recognise. It plays with stereotypes. Every single comedy probably ever made plays with stereotypes."
The creator of BBC1 sitcom Citizen Khan, Ray has faced criticism himself for using Muslim stereotypes for laughs.
When the show was first broadcast in 2012, the BBC received 700 complaints, including claims that Citizen Khan “ridicules” and “insults” Islam.
In April 2016, the show was condemned by Labour MP Rupa Huq, who described the portrayal of the Birmingham Muslim family as “backward”.
While admitting that criticism of his show initially "bothered" him, Ray, 44, says he now believes it was a "good thing" that people were offended, as it opened up room for discussion and debate on both sides.
"I'd think, 'really?'" he says. "People are in control of their own offence. Just don’t be offended.
"But it got to the point that I'd think it's actually a good thing people are offended, as it makes people question. That’s the thing offence teaches us, that we can probably learn something. We learn our views can be challenged and that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.”
Either way, Ray believes it is not stereotypes that are the problem but rather the fact that characters from backgrounds like Mr Khan and Apu's are few and far between in both British, and especially American, mainstream TV.
As he sees it, if viewers were exposed to a greater range of Indian, Asian and BAME characters, their views on people from those cultures wouldn't rely on one single interpretation, so the power of Apu to define an entire group wouldn't be an issue – and that means some of the blame should be laid at the doors of TV commissioners.
"I think The Simpsons suffered from, similarly from what Citizen Khan did, the fact we were the only Asian representation on network television," he says.
“Perhaps the people we need to be reaching out to are not the writers of The Simpsons, but the people who commission shows. It’s the commissioners and the channel bosses that have to take big gambles and risks.
"Citizen Khan would have never got commissioned if a small handful of individuals hadn't broken the status quo to get my sitcom on TV and BBC primetime. I’m really grateful for that and that’s what it requires. But it shouldn’t just be Citizen Khan, it should be more and more comedies.
“We do need more Asian writers, of course we do. We need a lot more Asian writers.”
However, Ray also says that BAME writers should not be forced to write only about BAME characters, and equally that white writers should be allowed to write about minority ethnic characters, otherwise emerging writing talent is in danger of being stifled.
“We’ve got to stop advising other people how to write,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that if you’re not Asian you can’t write an Asian character. That’s absurd. If I’m currently trying to write something, does that mean I can’t write from a white person’s perspective? Everything I ever write in years to time has to be about a Pakistani Muslim, because that’s my background? I’d hate to think that’s the case.
“I really worry – we say that we need more writers. We’re also saying we want them to write in a particular way, and we want them to be aware of certain rules, and we don’t want them to write stereotypes.
“Well I’m sorry, but if you’re 15 years old in a bedroom, you will be running scared now, thinking ‘I may not write my comedy idea because it might offend people,’ so they just give up. We’ve got to allow an openness to people writing it.”
Ray adds that he fears the more near-the-knuckle British comedy of the past would never have been commissioned in today’s climate, suggesting that it's the rise in far-right politics that may be pushing people into ‘censoring’ comedy on television.
“Some of the stuff Matt Lucas and David Walliams did in Little Britain, and Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield did – they were absolutely genius, but I don’t know whether that would be commissioned today,” he says. “I don’t know whether people would allow it because it’s people doing accents. That is ridiculous.
“You go to any pub, restaurant, living room in the land, and there’s people doing jokes about other people – but it’s well intended. Because we have a rise in the far right and the rise of hate agenda, it seems the solution is censorship. But I don’t think that’s a solution at all.”
For now, it seems Apu will be staying behind the counter at the Kwik-E-Mart, which Ray says is “the right thing”.
While he believes The Simpsons shouldn’t have to “do anything” about the issue, he suggests that perhaps producers could add even more Asian characters for a greater balance of representation on screen.
“We could see Apu’s relative who’s perhaps completely the opposite to him,” he says. “Apu could meet a distant cousin who’s Indian but is as American as we can imagine. Perhaps he’s a cowboy and they both accuse each other of growing up to be stereotypes.
“You can play along with it but I don’t think they need to do that... It’s not The Simpsons’ fault that Apu is the only Asian character on TV – that’s the job of the commissioners.”