The man who voices The Simpsons‘ character Apu says he is willing to give up the iconic role amid controversy over racial stereotyping.
Hank Azaria addressed growing criticism on an American talk show, and told host Stephen Colbert his “eyes have been opened” and he was “perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new”.
Controversy surrounding the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner with a thick accent came to prominence in Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu.
“Everything with Apu is like this running joke,” Kondabolu said last year. “And the running joke is that he is Indian.”
The show briefly acknowledged complaints in an April episode of The Simpsons, which was met with mixed reviews.
“The idea that anybody, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu – it just really makes me sad,” Azaria said on the Late Show.
“It was certainly not my intention … the idea that it’s brought pain and suffering in any way, that it was used to marginalise people, it’s upsetting, genuinely.”
Azaria said he wanted to see Indian and South Asian writers join The Simpsons‘ fold, to help shape the character’s development and portrayal.
“Not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.
“It not only makes sense but it feels like the right thing to do to me.”
‘What can you do?’
Azaria also distanced himself from the show’s stance on the issue.
On the episode No Good Read Goes Unpunished, Simpsons’ matriarch Marge tries to share books from her youth to daughter Lisa – only to realise they now seem politically incorrect.
“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa says.
“What can you do?”
The young character looks towards a picture of Apu on a table nearby, as Marge says, “some things will be dealt with at a later date”.
“If at all,” Lisa replies.
Azaria said he was not involved in the scene.
“I think that if anybody came away from that segment feeling that they should lighten up, or take a joke better, or grow a thicker skin … that’s definitely not the message I want to send.”
Azaria also voices up to 30 regular characters on the show, including bar owner Moe Szyslak and Police Chief Wiggum.