Hank Azaria said Tuesday he is "willing to step aside" from voicing the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on "The Simpsons," during an appearance on Stephen Colbert's "The Late Show." His animated character, a Kwik-E-Mart owner introduced in the 1990s, was recently the subject of Hari Kondabolu's TruTV documentary, "The Problem With Apu," which argued Apu perpetuates a harmful stereotype of South Asian people.
"It has come to my attention more and more--especially the last couple of years, as you say--that people in the South Asian community in this country have been fairly upset by the voice and characterization of Apu," Azaria said.
The actor added, "The idea that anybody who is young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just really makes me sad. It certainly was not my intention. I wanted to bring laughter and joy with this character. The idea that it's brought pain and suffering--in any way--that is used to marginalize people, it is upsetting. Genuinely."
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Azaria also distanced himself from the show's controversial response to the criticism. In "The Simpsons" Apr. 8 episode, "No Good Read Goes Unpunished," Marge read a book to her daughter Lisa, which had been changed from its original printing. "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect," Lisa said. "What can you do?" The show then panned to a photograph of Apu, as a sort of wink to the audience.
Amid backlash, a spokesperson for 20th Century Fox said, "The episode speaks for itself." The Simpsons' showrunner, Al Jean, tweeted in part, "I truly appreciate all responses pro and con."
Colbert mentioned the response "upset a lot of people," to which Azaria said, "I had nothing to do with the writing or voicing. Apu doesn't speak in that segment. It was a late addition that I saw right around the same time that 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 feeling that they should lighten up or take a joke better or grow a thicker skin or toughen up...yeah, that's certainly not the way I feel about it."
Azaria added that his "eyes have been opened" as he said he now believes the most important thing is to listen to those of South Asian descent about what they feel and how they think of his character, and what their American experience of it has been. "I'm perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new," he said. " I really hope that's what "The Simpsons" does. It just not only makes sense, but it just feels like the right thing to do, to me."