'The Simpsons' Creator Matt Groening Stirs Apu Controversy Ahead of Landmark 700th Episode

In the thoughtful documentary The Problem with Apu, comedian Hari Kondabolu pointed out the issues with the stereotypes perpetuated by the popular character on The Simpsons, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. White actor Hank Azaria previously voiced the character, but he decided to step away from the role in the wake of the controversy, calling the situation "upsetting" and claiming that the documentary gave the show "a lot of things to think about." Azaria told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show that he would be "perfectly willing and happy to step aside" from Apu or "help transition it into something new."

"The idea that anyone, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad," said Azaria explained. "It was certainly not my intention. I wanted to spread laughter and joy." The role has not yet been recast.

As The Simpsons approaches the iconic 700th episode mark, show creator Matt Groening spoke with USA Today about what it feels like to reach such a milestone. "It is a staggering number," Groening said. "And it's another episode. It's the same amount of work. So, we're just 30 years older. (But by producing just 30 more episodes, every year) you can watch the show twice a day, one episode at breakfast and then again when you get home from work."

Groening also addressed the changes being made to Apu. "We've got plans for Apu, but we have to see if we can make the stories work," he said, claiming that while they had not cast a voice actor yet, they were "working on something kind of ambitious." Groening also went on to say that he was "proud" of Apu.

"I think the Apu stories are fantastic, and he's one of the most nuanced characters on a silly two-dimensional cartoon show," he explained. "So, yeah, I'm proud of Apu. (Pause.) I'm trying not to open up another chasm of criticism, but it doesn't matter what I say. I'll get it anyway."

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While he doesn't regret the stories that they told with Apu, he isn't opposed to moving in a new direction and will no longer be casting white actors to play non-white roles. "It was not my idea, but I'm fine with it. Who can be against diversity? So it's great," he claimed. "However, I will just say that the actors were not hired to play specific characters. They were hired to do whatever characters we thought of. To me, the amazing thing is seeing all our brilliant actors who can do multiple voices, do multiple voices. That's part of the fun of animation, However, to be more inclusive and hire more people, I'm completely in favor of that."

When asked specifically about cancel culture, Groening took care to answer cautiously. "I have to word this carefully," he said. "I think audiences are smarter than the posse gives them credit for, and people can handle nuance, except for the ones who can't handle nuance. And then there's that phrase, something them if they can't take a joke."