“It’s come to my attention more and more, especially over the last couple of years, that people in the South Asian community in this country have been fairly upset by the voice and characterization,” Azaria, who is white, told Stephen Colbert.
He continued: “It’s sparked a lot of conversation about what should be done with the character going forward, which is not so easy to answer.”
The Simpsons fans took to Twitter on April 8 after the episode No Good Read Goes Unpunished aired, which saw Marge and Lisa indirectly discussing the portrayal of Apu. The mother and daughter talk about a new edited version of The Princess in the Garden and how it had been altered to be acceptable and inoffensive in 2018.
Lisa explained, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
A framed photo of Apu was also shown, with the words “Don’t have a cow, man” — Bart’s once-ubiquitous phrase — written underneath.
Fans criticized the way the show dealt with the controversy, with many commenting on social media to say how disappointed they were.
The episode comes after the documentary The Problem with Apu was released in November 2017.
The movie, directed by Michael Melamedoff and written by Hari Kondabolu, examines the East Indian cartoon character and his exaggerated mannerisms and catchphrases.
In response to the controversy, Azaria told Colbert that he just wanted to “spread laughter and joy with this character.”
“And I’ve tried to express this before: You know 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. “It was certainly not my attention, I wanted to spread laughter and joy with this character. And the idea that it’s brought pain and suffering in any way, that it’s used to marginalize people, it’s upsetting, genuinely.”
He also discussed The Simpsons‘ handling of the Apu controversy in the No Good Read Goes Unpunished episode.
“I had nothing to do with the writing and the voicing. Apu doesn’t speak in that segment,” Azaria said of the bedtime story scene with Lisa and Marge. “It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time everybody else in America did, so I didn’t know it was going to be in it until I saw it. I think that if anybody came away from that segment thinking that they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin … That’s certainly not the way I feel about.”
Simpsons showrunner Al Jean declined to comment on the controversy, only to say the next day that the episode “speaks for itself,” before tweeting later in the week: “I truly appreciate all responses pro and con. Will continue to try to find an answer that is popular & more important right.”
As for his own opinion on the future of Apu, Azaria said, “I think the most important thing is we have to listen to the South Asian people, the Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and what they think of this character, and what their American experience of it has been … In television terms, listening to voices means inclusion in the writers’ room.”
He said that he “really wants to see South Asian writers in the room, not in a token way, but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.”
He also volunteered to stop voicing the character saying, “I’m perfectly happy to step aside or help transition it into something new. I really hope that’s what The Simpsons does. It not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do, to me.”
After Azaria’s Late Show appearance, Kondabolu tweeted, “Thank you, @HankAzaria. I appreciate what you said & how you said it.”
Watch Azaria on The Late Show in the video above.
—With files from ET Canada