Even though it’s been around since pre-Twitter's Vanilla Ice-age, The Simpsons is just now coming up against a burgeoning cultural-sensitivity kerfuffle for dealing directly with its humorous affection for the character of Apu, the Bengali Kwik-E-Mart proprietor whose lingering Indian accent has provided an endless supply of good-natured comedy over the course of the show’s 29-year run.
Following this season’s airing of an episode entitled “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” Simpsons showrunner Al Jean used his Twitter account to engage critics who blasted the episode’s treatment of Apu’s long-held place in Simpsons lore.
Jean kept things simple and tight, thanking people on all sides of the online conversation and pledging to resolve the controversy in a way, he said, that is both popular and, more important, “right.”
The furor lies in the episode’s fourth wall-breaking smirk at the shifting tides of what passes as comedy in the still-emerging days of a new pop culture landscape increasingly swayed by social media's collective opinion.
In “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” brainy Lisa sits down with Marge to read a book that’s been given the cultural sensitivity revisionist treatment — something the free-thinking Lisa, for all her character’s built-in progressivism, isn’t exactly a fan of.
“Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect... What can you do?” Lisa deadpans, before a photo of Apu (who's voiced by Hank Azaria) flashes on the screen to drive the point home.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek message that got a vocal chorus of Twitter tattlers talking almost instantly. And while some were incensed over the show's willingness to directly acknowledge its own comedic stereotypes, others came to The Simpsons' defense, lauding the humor to be found not only in Apu, but also in characters like Groundskeeper Willie (a Scotsman) and Krusty the Clown (who hails from an Orthodox Jewish background).
The outcry also comes on the heels of last year's social comedy documentary The Problem with Apu, which uses the character as an entry point for comedian Hari Kondabolu's critical commentary on Indian stereotypes.
After days of Twitter back-and-forth over the relative merits of incorporating good-natured tropes into a family comedy that, at the end of the day, always closes ranks among its diverse inhabitants, Jean finally tweeted out his promise to find a resolution that — he hopes — will please most people.
If you’ve missed the whole skirmish, it’s easy to get caught up. “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” is free to stream — along with the rest of Season 29 of The Simpsons — over at Fox’s landing page.