Hari Kondabolu, Comedian/Writer/Podcaster – XOXO Festival (2018)


[Applause] Hi! Hi! [Applause] You guys having a good time? You happy to be here? [Cheers] Good. Good. My name is Hari Kondabolu. I’m a standup comedian and writer and I do
several podcasts, and I made a documentary that came out last year called The Problem
with Apu. Some of you have seen it? [Applause] Some of you have heard of the movie possibly, right? In brief, the film is about the cartoon character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the Simpsons,
who is the convenience store owner. He’s a caricature of an Indian-American immigrant. He is the longest-lasting Indian-American
representation in this country. 30 years and for a good chunk of that, growing
up in this country, he was the only representation I had. That was a big part of this, right? The frustration of growing up in this country
and not having something else. So that was the initial impetus for making
the film. I did a short piece on my friend W. Kamau
Bell’s old show, Totally Biased, where I talked about South Asian representation. I talked specifically about Apu, and the Apu
part clearly resonated with people. It was something they had not thought about
before. For me, the idea of making a movie seemed
ridiculous just because it seemed obvious to me. Like, you guys know this is racist, right? And people did not. [Laughter] And I’m like, but it’s a white guy doing a voice of an Indian person with brown paint. That’s kind of racist, right? The movie’s called “The Problem with Apu”
but I wanted to call it “I Have to Fucking Explain This to You?” [Laughter] It seemed kind of ridiculous to
even have to explain this, but okay. The film has a few elements. First of all, I’m a fan of The Simpsons. I’ve always been a fan of The Simpsons. Huge fan, watched it growing up. It was always tricky when the Apu parts came
on because I found it funny. It’s not that Apu isn’t funny. People sometimes will say things like, that’s
not funny, it’s offensive. Or that’s not funny, that’s fucked up. And those two things can both exist at the
same time. The content being what it is, and the effect
the content have are two thing different things, right? Like, it’s funny, right? It’s effectively funny. It makes people laugh. However, the tools it is using to make you
laugh are fucked up. Still funny, though. Like I laughed. I’d laugh and then be like, oh, my soul is
being crushed, but I was laughing. [Laughter] It’s funny, right? There is that dissonance where
you’re laughing, but you also know there is nothing else to represent me, and I’m going
to have to deal with that. And I think that was one of the most accessible
parts of the film, which is the bullying piece, which I think a lot of people not just in
this room, but probably, have dealt with the idea of not being considered the norm. Even in Queens, New York, with so many South
Asians, it was like, in this setting, I’m not a minority. In this setting, I’m surrounded by others
that have similar experience, immigrants who have a broad range of experiences. But television and media is telling me that
outside my world, in this large country, I don’t exist. I’m not meaningful. I am not special. And that gets reinforced and you can’t help
but be affected by that. I think part of, in addition to that piece
of it, is that it really wasn’t a caricature of me. It was a caricature of my parents. It was a caricature of Indian immigrants,
and I hated that. I hated the fact that I felt self-conscious
about the way my parents spoke. My parents who left everything behind and
who struggled to be here, and yet, this is how they’re viewed. I kept thinking if people find this accent
funny, when they speak at work, do people laugh behind my parents’ backs? These are my parents. Look at them! They’re people! [Applause] See that? See the thing on top? That’s supposed to be them. Okay, again, that’s a cartoon. These are the people. I think that disconnect was always there. If you don’t see those two people as, like,
part of your world view and experience on a day-to-day level, you can easily marginalize
them and make fun of them. I get that. If they’re not in front of you, you don’t
feel guilty and you go for it. It’s not to say it wasn’t funny, but I also
knew it was my parents. And there was a feeling, that disgusting feeling
that their stories are not going to be told because nobody wants to hear their stories,
because their stories have complexity and “thank you, come again” is apparently hilarious. It’s one sentence but it encapsulates the
whole thing. Images are important. And it’s not just the personal impact of it. Like the idea of this is how I view myself
as a result of how the media depicts me. This is the only way I’m seen, you don’t get
a full view. There’s that part, but there’s impact with
that. I think about post 9/11. There’s a lot of hate crimes after 9/11 against
Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Sikhs, and people with brown skin. And the connection is, at that time, the two
major representations of brown people in the U.S. at the time was Apu from the Simpsons
— a simple, harmless caricature — and terrorists. There’s a huge range of humanity between harmless
cartoon character and terrorist. It’s a bizarre thing. Am I more terrorist? Am I more Apu? It’s not a real scale, but that’s what is
presented. So after a terrorist attack, which side, if
you are someone who is not exposed to brown people, who sees them as outsiders, who sees
your world as a white world… Who do you think the enemy is in that situation? That’s why it matters. The thing is as people of color we have to
humanize white people. It’s in our best interest to humanize white
people. We have no choice. We have to get work. We have to go to school. Our teachers are white. The police officers are white. We have to function in a world that was not
made for us. So when you see media, a lot of people would
be like, “Oh, I’m not going to watch that film. The Human Torch is black? I don’t want to watch that film.” Which is ridiculous because that means you’d
rather see a white man on fire, but okay. [Laughter] Fair enough. But there is that weird thing. “I can’t relate to this. This is a black movie. I’m not going to watch this. This is a black movie.” I can’t make that choice. A lot of us growing up who are people of color
could not be like, this is clearly, this is full of white people, we can’t watch this. Then we couldn’t watch anything! You grow up and watch your teenage garbage,
Can’t Hardly Wait, or Sixteen Candles, or you watch whatever your generation is. You watch the garbage that you’re shown to
manipulate you, and my life is nothing like this. My parents don’t act like this. I don’t talk like this, I don’t have this
experience with whiteness, and yet I still can understand and relate to it. I know what it feels like to be in love, I
know what it’s like to feel heartbroken, I know what parental pressure feels like, I
know what it is to try to be popular, to have friends, to want more friends, to be stressed
by school. I relate to you as human. So when people say, “I can’t relate to this,
there’s minorities in this, I can’t relate to that person.” You’re saying I can’t relate to you as a human
being. I cannot connect with you as a human being
and I’m not going to bother because I don’t need to. That’s what it felt like growing up. I couldn’t verbalize it that way, but that’s
what it was. The only thing we had, at that point, was
a cartoon character. Think about how messed up that time is. When Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle came
out, it was seen as revolutionary. It was revolutionary that an Indian dude and
an Asian dude smoke weed. [Laughter] That’s revolutionary! Nobody’s ever seen that before! Indian people fucking made weed. [Laughter] That’s ours! “I can’t believe it, they get high too? Like people!” That’s how backwards the shit was. The other point that was important in the
film that I wanted to talk about was minstrelsy, and the fact that this is part of a larger
history of minstrelsy. Which starts, of course, I think with the
black experience in this country. The fact that black people have been marginalized
and in the media, their bodies have been used, often to sell products or for the entertainment
of white people. You see that in film, the old Vaudeville era. It was important to say it’s not the same
thing. Our experience as South Asians isn’t the same
as the black experience, but certainly there’s a lineage that comes from it. And this weird kind of hazing that all people
of color have to go through until they get accepted, which is so fucking unnecessary. I wanted to talk to someone who maybe had
experience both in entertainment and in these discussions. So I spoke to Whoopi Goldberg, as you do. Whoopi was great because she has a collection,
right? It’s a black Americana collection. I’m not going to use the word she used to
describe it, but it’s a collection of items like blackface cookie jars with stereotypical
black features, and racist advertisements, and dolls, and all this stuff that’s horrific
to look at. And she displays them in her home and I asked,
why are you doing this? And she said because I don’t want people to
forget. Because this came from a context. What we are living in now came from something
that’s not so far away. I want people to know what the struggle was
to get to this point. And I’m like, that’s what I’m doing with this
Problem with Apu movie. I’m creating my collection. I want to remind people where we were at this
point and how we got there. Whoopi said something really interesting during
it. She was talking about these racist cookie
jars, and I would say, clearly this was made to hurt black people, right? And she said I don’t think it’s that complicated. I don’t think people were like, oh, we’re
going to get ’em now! I think they were thinking, these cookie jars
are funny, people are going to buy them. That’s it. They want to move cookie jars, people like
racism, they buy the cookie jars. [Laughter] It’s really that simple. And that made me think about something that
happened in the film. In the film, I talk about all these issues. I’m also on the quest to find Hank Azaria,
the white guy who does the voice of Apu on The Simpsons. Brilliant voice actor. He does that voice. And I talked to a lot of people trying to
understand how The Simpsons decided to make this character and what their thinking was. So I interviewed Dana Gould, a long-time writer
and producer on the show. He had the courage to be the only person who
agreed to talk to me. He didn’t need to, and I think a lot of people
are angry about what Dana said, but I’m not because I thought what Dana said in the film
was very honest. He talked about, white people think the accent
is funny. To white American ears, they think this is
funny. And a lot of people said Dana Gould is such
an asshole, but no, he’s not! He’s telling the truth. White people think that shit’s funny. That’s why it lasted this long. I said, well, didn’t you ever think this was
basic, these were simple jokes and this is using ridiculous stereotype and didn’t that
ever come up? And he said the thing is, when you’re making
a TV show and have to make 20 plus episodes a year for 30 years and still be funny, you
just do it. You have a certain number of moves that you
can make with Apu, you have a certain number of moves you can make with Barney, a certain
number of moves you can make with Smithers. You use those moves and produce content. You have to push it out week after week, year
after year. I realized what he was saying. He’s saying, don’t you understand? I have to make cookie jars. I don’t have time to think about all this
stuff. We got to make 30 cookie jars a year. People like these cookie jars. And the racism of Apu in these characters
is how you make cookie jars that sell. So this movie gets made. I knew it would have some kind of impact. I didn’t know what kind of impact. It made a much bigger impact than I assumed. I was on The View, which was very surreal. [Laughter] But my mom was proud, so
I won. [Applause] I was on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, which felt weird because I was telling Trevor
about, oh, so there’s this cartoon in our childhood as young South Asian-Americans,
we all had do deal with this and it speaks to so many issues of racism… And I’m telling Trevor Noah this, and I’m
thinking how ridiculous it sounds. “So, Trevor, did you deal with racism growing
up in South Africa?” [Laughter] “Oh, Apartheid? That’s a weird name for a cartoon character.” [Laughter] The movie wasn’t just about that,
but talking to Trevor Noah, you kind of know your place in that. The film became international. It only aired in the U.S., only Americans
have access to the film currently, yet it became an international story; right? An international story. People were writing articles about it who
had not seen it. That was one thing I discovered. You can have an opinion even if you don’t
know anything. [Laughter] I don’t know why I didn’t see this
coming. I made this film that I thought critiqued
all these different things, and I expected the criticism I was going to get and responded
to it in the film, and yet I still got the criticism because no one watched the fucking movie! [Laughter] Because that required 49 minutes. [Laughter] You can reel off so much racism
in 49 minutes. I was getting tweets from all over the world. This thing became this global thing. I learned how to be called a snowflake in
so many different languages. It was just shocking. The criticisms, I realized, it doesn’t matter
what the film said because whenever you criticize anything that’s part of an establishment,
what happens is when it enters this public space, when it enters Twitter and the internet
discussion, it doesn’t matter what the content is. It just falls into the template. You criticize an establishment thing or call
something sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic, or question it, you’re called a snowflake,
everything’s too politically correct. We’re not allowed to have fun anymore. You’re a member of the thought police. Which, there’s no goddamned thought police,
so many white guys would be arrested by now. [Laughter] What are you talking about? [Applause]
So you get all that stuff. “Political correctness” is an empty phrase. It’s as empty as the word “problematic.” Tell me what it means. Why is this a problem? What issue do you have with it? You don’t like minorities talking? Oh, I get that. That’s what it is. Let’s not complicate this thing. There are no specifics. Just falls right into place. Then I started getting, you know, criticized
with things I clearly answered. Why is it that people find this offensive
now, after 30 years? And the truth is I found it to be an issue
before, I just couldn’t say anything because I was 9. [Laughter] What are you talking about? And also, I’m not offended by this, you know
what I mean? I don’t like the word “offended.” It’s misleading. Like, I didn’t come home from school like,
“Mom, this kid offended me!” When you’re being bullied, you’re not being
offended. You’re being insulted. It’s a completely different thing. It’s not my sensibilities that were offended. I was pissed off. The other thing I kept hearing was that The
Simpsons makes makes fun of everyone. How about Groundskeeper Willie? First of all, there’s other Scottish representations. There’s a range. Secondly, when you are Scottish in the America
context, you become white. That’s the thing about whiteness, it eats
up ethnicity. You trade in ethnicity and culture for the
phrase “white.” White’s not a real thing. Europeans were killing each other for thousands
of years. At no point were they like, what are we killing
white people for? [Laughter] There wasn’t… “Oh my god, I didn’t know! You’re white too?! What are we doing?” [Laughter] No, that’s not what happened. People give up ethnicity when they come into
this country and whiteness disappears. There’s the Bumblebee Man. People said, what about the Bumblebee Man? The Bumblebee Man is based on a real character,
however, if I was a Mexican-American, I would probably be pissed about that too. But I’m not Mexican-American, so I wanted
to make a film that spoke to my actual feelings on the issue. People say it’s an equal opportunity offense
and I don’t believe in equal opportunity offense, because there aren’t equal opportunities. You say some shit and I can’t tell you to
go fuck yourself, that’s not equal opportunity. [Applause] If I can say fuck you back to you,
we’re good, but I’m not allowed to. I wasn’t allowed to. So only the ethnicity, a person with the ethnicity
of the character can do the voice? That’s not fair. So only an Indian person can do an Indian
voice? And Harry Shearer, who’s a famous comic and
voice actor tweeted how that seemed ridiculous to him. So you’re saying Mel Blanc couldn’t do the
voice of Porky Pig? Now, here’s the difference. [Laughter] See, Indians are people. [Laughter] And pigs are pigs. You get it. [Laughter] Then I got, oh, you’re just trying
to be famous making this movie. This is just a way to be famous. Fuck, yeah! [Laughter] What are you talking about? [Applause] So let me get this, this is entertainment. That’s the game. That’s what I’m in it for. So you’re allowed to use racism to get famous,
but if I criticize racism, I’m doing something wrong? You got to use that character to make money. I got some money from this and it’s… far
less. [Laughter] So this happens, and I deal with
all this frustration. There was a ton of other things. There was a lot of racism stuff, a bunch of
stuff that was crueler than that. These were the most somewhat-understandable
comprehensible criticisms, the criticisms I could comprehend even if they were stupid. So The Simpsons actually responded after two
years, which is shocking to me. I’m not a troll. I made a heartfelt film, a love letter to
my community. I wasn’t trying to troll The Simpsons, but
they responded to me. You’re not supposed to respond to me, because
if I was a troll, I fucking won! And what they did was they had an episode
where Marge has a favorite book and she reads it, and she realizes this book she liked is
actually really racist and messed up, so she tries to change it in order to make it something
more relevant and relatable, and it ends up being terrible because it doesn’t work the
same without all those messed up pieces. So she’s talking to Lisa, and then Lisa says
this.>>MARGE: What am I supposed to do?>>LISA: It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was
applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?>>MARGE: Some things will be dealt with at
a later date.>>LISA: If at all.>>Yeah, what the fuck!? [Laughter] When did The Simpsons become establishment? Did you hear what they said? I clearly heard them say “fuck you, Hari Kondabolu.” [Laughter] I’m pretty sure I heard it. Fuck you, Indian people. Also, it’s ET Canada that broke the story. [Laughter] Anyway. They threw Lisa under the bus. If there was ever a social justice warrior
in American television, it’s Lisa Simpson. [Applause] What are you doing? But the old rich white men that now make the
show. They were just white men before, now they’re
old and rich white men which is, you know, a fatal combination. [Laughter] Not fatal for them, for us. And they, apparently even with all that money
and fame, they have thin skin. It’s white fragility. Someone’s complaining on a cable network,
in a movie that nobody actually watched but criticized but were offended about it, so
I’m going to make an episode, I believe it was titled “Fuck You, Hari Kondabolu.” Al Jean, who’s the showrunner of the show,
ended up retweeting a bunch of right-wing, conservative articles supporting the idea
of political correctness has run amok, and things of that nature. Mike Reiss, one of the long-time writers of
The Simpsons, wrote a book where he said I made “a nasty little documentary” and he said
that I should have watched the episode of the The Simpsons they made two years ago,
where they actually resolved this by having Apu’s nephew on a show. The thing is, I did watch that episode, and
it’s covered in my movie that you didn’t fucking watch! Based on this response, none of the writers
of The Simpsons saw the movie, the head of The Simpsons didn’t see the movie, Mike Reiss
didn’t see the movie, but they all have fucking opinions. Watch the fucking movie! [Applause] Hank Azaria, who I tormented looking for throughout the film, who did not agree to be in the film,
he did watch the movie. I know he watched the movie because he was
on Stephen Colbert, and the headline says that Azaria is willing to step aside from
the controversial Apu role. That’s a headline, of course, so it doesn’t
properly show what he said, because what he said actually had a great deal of depth. He said, and this is on broadcast television,
on CBS. “I think the most important thing is to listen
to Indian people and their experience with it. I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers
in the writers room… including how [Apu] is voiced or not voiced. I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do.” That’s somebody who saw something, questioned
himself, and questioned the arguments he’s been making to defend himself and said it
is not worth it. This is wrong and it makes sense. That is someone who learned from their mistakes. Should he have said it in the movie when I
tried to get him on the film? Probably. [Laughter] But at the same time, I’m glad
it was finally said. It’s sad that that is seen as success. “Brown people are human beings with feelings
and emotions and experiences.” Holy shit, white guy, how’d you come up with
that? “I saw a movie a brown guy made! A brown guy had to make a whole movie for
me to get a very basic point about humanity.” And then the big one happened. Matt Groening responded. Matt Groening, who created the Simpsons, finally
responded. It was at Comic-Con and he has a new show
called Disenchantment on Netflix, and they’re asking him questions about Apu because this
thing had not gone away. And he said, “People love to pretend that
they’re offended.” Okay, whatever. [Laughter] And he said the whole argument
is tainted about Apu because it’s not nuanced. This argument we’re having is not nuanced. He also said he was trying to pay homage to
the character “Apu” based on Satyajit Ray, the Indian art-cinema filmmaker from the 1950s,
he was trying to pay homage to his Apu Trilogy, one of the great films in world cinema. Right. Did you know that I did know that, that he
was doing that? Do you know why I knew that? Because I did research when I made the fucking
movie. [Laughter] That is covered in the movie. Matt Groening didn’t watch the fucking movie. [Laughter] So, in conclusion, for a long time
I felt very sad because my heroes are pieces of shit. [Laughter] [Applause] Meaningful conversations
were replaced with internet garbage that was ill-informed. No effort was made to have a genuine discussion,
genuine dialogue. No one watched the fucking movie, and the
irony is that after all these years of not wanting to be connected with Apu, I made a
film and now I’m forever connected with Apu. [Laughter] But there’s positive in this, and
this is the positive in this. Because Andy told me to be positive at the
end, so let me be positive at the end. [Laughter] It’s not my natural disposition,
by the way. I feel like I made a love letter to my community,
like I said before. I made something that so many people in my
community related to and felt connected to and it felt cathartic for them. I made a film where a lot of young people
felt like somebody older than them stood up for them.That was a big deal. I was able to get Hasan Minhaj, Aparna Nancherla,
Aziz Ansari, and Aasif Mandvi, and so many notable people in a room to be able to talk
about this stuff. We all had the same experiences, right? That is a cathartic feeling, right? I love the fact that I was able to criticize
The Simpsons, which is something that nobody’s ever done, which is wild, isn’t it? The only criticism is that it isn’t as good
as it used to be, which isn’t criticism. It’s true. [Laughter] That is a fact. We’re just humoring our grandparents, that’s
all it is at this point. We’re being polite watching the show. I love the fact that this film is being used
in college classrooms to talk about race and media. This film is being used in high school classrooms
to talk about race and media. I love the fact there are kids who are watching
this film and are going to make stuff that is more complex, is multifaceted, is thinking
about race and all the dynamics and all the context that we come in with. The context and that baggage we as Americans
come in with. There’s going to be kids who make stuff that
is far better than what we see today and I know this contributed it. They’re going to be making different types
of cookie jars. See how I did that? [Laughter] All the way around. And I know at the end of it I will not be
the bad guy, I’m not going to be the bad guy at the end. There is no way at the end of it, I’m going
to look like the asshole. It’s just not going to happen. [Applause] I think, in closing, I would say
to all of you in this room, who have waited patiently through a very long closing address,
watch the fucking movie! [Laughter] Thank you. [Applause]

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