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Comedians Hank Azaria and Hari Kondabolu on the impact of race post-public callout

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

What happens after a public callout? For comedians Hari Kondabolu and Hank Azaria, the answer has a lot to do with race. In 2012 on Comedy Central, Kondabolu blasted Azaria, who is white, for voicing the Indian "Simpsons" character Apu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARI KONDABOLU: If I saw Hank Azaria do that voice at a party, I would kick the [expletive] out of him.

BLOCK: Then in 2017, Kondabolu released his documentary "The Problem With Apu," which went deeper in its criticism of Hollywood's portrayal of South Asians. Azaria refused to appear in the documentary. Well, now, six years later, NPR's Code Switch co-host Gene Demby sat down with the comedians for their first public conversation together, and Azaria admitted part of the reason he refused involvement in the movie was that he didn't really believe that Apu was actually harmful.

HANK AZARIA: Even more importantly than, do I keep doing the voice or not, what that was based on was, how real is this or not? I didn't really know.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: And when you say a real thing, you mean, how much energy was around what Hari was trying to surface?

AZARIA: Yeah, how true it was, how the character had done harm, all that's in Hari's documentary and what he - and in his routine and what he talks about and other things he talks about, too. I was like, is that real?

KONDABOLU: Yeah.

AZARIA: I wasn't sure.

KONDABOLU: What's funny - even after the documentary, people still say, because one guy had an issue with it, he wanted to do something with his career, so he put this out there. I'm like, if you saw the documentary, it wasn't just me. Like, I got Aziz, Hasan Minhaj...

DEMBY: Aparna.

KONDABOLU: ...Aparna...

DEMBY: Kal.

KONDABOLU: ...Kal Penn, the surgeon General of the United States...

DEMBY: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: ...Vivek Murthy. Like, at a certain point, it's like, I thought I made an argument. But that's the funny thing. I feel like a lot of people still share that opinion because they didn't bother watching the thing and thinking about it. It all became part of a larger conversation about political correctness. And here's another example of someone who just wants to kill something.

AZARIA: Yes. Yeah. And until I watched the doc and then also looked into the whole thing - because the character of Apu is just - not just - I mean, it's real. It's an actual thing, but it's also - it's sort of the tip of the iceberg. It's symbolic of a much larger dynamic. If nothing else, watching the doc, I was like, oh, I admire all these performers. A character I did - I, like, hindered them. I caused them pain. I actually actively made their path harder. That sucks. That was one of the first things that really came home to me and made me go, OK, that's real. That would be real.

DEMBY: Whenever we talk about stereotypes involving people of color, we always talk about, you know, like, real, material consequences that befall the people who are being stereotyped, like the death threats that you got. Right? Like, Hank, have you ever thought about how voicing Apu helped create a kind of, like, conceptual and cultural space for that dehumanization? Like, Hari gets death threats. That's sort of downstream from, you know, the broader dehumanization of Desi people in the United States.

AZARIA: Yeah, I've thought about that. And it's important to point out that pre-Hari Apu, I did not think about that stuff. I didn't even know it happened. I had to be told 54 times before it sunk in. I think about that all the time now, and that's kind of the main - that would be getting to what - you could argue, it's a cartoon character. Come on. It's comedy. Get off it. But that stuff's real and horrible. One doesn't exist without the other. Through my role in Apu and what I created in the Hollywood messaging - right? - which is a big deal in this country and around the world, I helped to create a pretty marginalizing, dehumanizing stereotype that makes it much easier.

In fact, some moment during all this, I read a little news blurb where a guy was attacked. It was actually a Middle Eastern guy who was attacked in his store and was called Apu while he was being attacked. I think if I had any doubts at that point, there was also - there were certain key moments in that whole is-this-real question journey I was on where I got the answer. You know, Apu had become a slur, in other words. That - a lot of times, I have conversations with my white friends and family or acquaintances or whoever, and that gets through.

KONDABOLU: When something is used in hate violence, it's pretty much the defining...

AZARIA: Pretty clear.

KONDABOLU: Pretty clear at this point. You know, like - I mean, I remember I worked at the Queens District Attorney's Office Bureau of Hate Crimes after 9/11. I was a college student. You know, reading the accounts of hate crimes and seeing accounts that, thank you; come again, or Apu's being mentioned often enough where it's like, you know - like, it's heartbreaking, especially when it's Queens, most diverse place in the world.

AZARIA: Right.

KONDABOLU: It's like this kind of stunning realization. Like, it does not matter. It does not matter. Like, ignorance is - it's so far beyond. But, yeah, it's a really bizarre thing because it is a cartoon character, you know? And I get that. And, you know, there were some - when I was on "The Daily Show" promoting the film, talking to Trevor Noah about it felt so bizarre because I'm talking about this cartoon character that affected South Asians, and I'm talking to Trevor Noah. It's like, Trevor, did you deal with racism growing up in South Africa? Apartheid - that's a weird name of a cartoon character.

You know, so there is that also realization of, like, the thing that we're talking about. I get it. It's representation. And representation has weight, but it's not necessarily the act of violence in itself. But I do think, you know, everyone - anyone who says, it's just a joke; it's just a cartoon; it's just art - not for the person who was making it. They wanted a very specific effect out of the images and words that they use. That's just - that's how any kind of art is made. So, yeah, it's just a cartoon. Yeah, it's just art. But, like, the person creating is trying to create some impact out of it.

DEMBY: So you two are talking here, and so there's a kind of resolution. You respect each other. This is your first public sitdown, but you've sat down a few times. But there is this discourse around Apu that exists outside of y'all now - right? - like, that has been, like, loosed into the world. I'm curious as to how you think about your responsibility to that conversation because y'all can't rein it in. You know what I mean? To a large extent at this point, it is not your discourse anymore.

KONDABOLU: You know, I was willing to do this, obviously, because of Hank and you and what this podcast means and represents and how you talk about what you talk about. But I'm, like, totally sick of talking about it. The story that's more interesting is the after. Hank - like, you know, his journey to here - you know, what is the difference between a person of color calling something out versus a white person calling something out? Like, that to me is interesting. You know, it's this discussion of white fragility, of the internet, of communication, of conversation - that. The rest of the stuff to me is, like, I'm so done with it. I don't know what else there is to say about the thing, you know? Yeah, but what about Groundskeeper Willie? I don't want to answer that anymore. I don't want to answer it anymore. Like, it's not - you know? I'm done. Like...

AZARIA: You can refer them to me, Hari.

KONDABOLU: I would gladly...

AZARIA: I'm not even kidding because I do owe it.

KONDABOLU: Yeah.

AZARIA: It's my amends. I need to keep having the conversation. I owe it.

KONDABOLU: Yeah.

AZARIA: Part of my amends. So leave Hari alone. Talk to me.

KONDABOLU: I appreciate that very much.

BLOCK: Those were comedians Hari Kondabolu and Hank Azaria talking with Code Switch's Gene Demby. You can listen to more of their conversation on NPR's Code Switch podcast or at npr.org/codeswitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED SHEERAN SONG, "THE JOKER AND THE QUEEN (FEAT. TAYLOR SWIFT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.