Inside Turner: Lesley Goldman on “The Problem with Apu” and elevating strong comedic voices

After 28 years of trying to ignore it and at the risk of being labeled a PC civil justice warrior, comedian Hari Kondabolu decided he can no longer stay silent while his “nemesis” Apu Nahasapeemapetilon continues to parade on television. Better known as the Indian convenience store owner on “The Simpsons,” Apu is the subject of Kondabolu’s comedic documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” in which he outlines how this controversial character was created and why he continues to persist in popular culture – despite his offensiveness.

Turner sat down with Lesley Goldman, SVP – Development & Original Programming for truTV, to talk about the decision behind making this documentary, how it’s starting a conversation about race and media representation, and truTV’s mission to provide a platform to strong comedic voices.

This project is a milestone for truTV in that it’s the network’s first foray into documentaries. How did it come about?

Hari Kondabolu has a great reputation within the comedy community. Marissa Ronca, truTV’s head of Original Programming, met with Hari in Los Angeles and learned about his incredible background, including how he was an activist for many years before transitioning into comedy.

Within that conversation, Hari brought up his “nemesis,” Apu, and their decades-long conflict stuck with Marissa. It stuck with the rest of us at truTV, too, when we learned about Hari’s issue with this beloved – and perhaps iconic – character. It made us reflect on how we all have blind spots, and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to try a documentary and help a strong comedic voice tell his story.

So, there’s going to be a part two; right? We’re still hoping that Hari finally has that conversation with Hank Azaria, the voice of Apu.

That was the goal of the film initially. But as we dove deeper into the story, including Hank in the documentary became less of a priority. This is not a witch hunt. This is an important conversation, and we wanted the focus to be on how we are moving forward rather than looking back on a dated character.

This documentary is funny, but it also touches on an important social issue. What responsibility does truTV have in sharing stories that advance society?

First and foremost, we want to elevate strong comedic voices. That’s our main goal. There is pride, however, in the fact that we are helping Hari tell this story. We want to help start these conversations, and this film is sparking meaningful dialogue during an important time in our history as Americans.

Will this be the first of many documentaries for truTV?

We’re evaluating that right now. Essentially, it’s all about the story. As we find interesting voices with a specific point of view, their story dictates the way through which we’ll share it.

What have you enjoyed most about helping drive this project from an idea to feature-film-length documentary?

Working with Hari was the most rewarding part of this project. He could have made this film on his own, and yet he allowed us to participate in the process, even though we have different points of view. I think his willingness to collaborate allowed us to make a better film. I’ve learned so much from him.

Like what? Share one thing you’ve learned from working with Hari Kondabolu.

He reminded me that, yes, comedy at its core can be offensive. But in pushing the boundaries, there must be thoughtfulness to the characters we create. They must be well-rounded and full, not just stereotypes that service a joke.

 

“The Problem with Apu” airs Sunday, November 19, at 10/9c on truTV and will available to watch on VOD and the Watch truTV app following the premiere.


Want to read more about “The Problem with Apu”? Check out what these major publications are saying about truTV’s first documentary:

The New York Times: You Love ‘The Simpsons’? Then Let’s Talk About Apu

The Washington Post: Apu and Cultural Appropriation

AV Club: Hari Kondabolu on loving The Simpsons, but hating Apu (and making a movie about it)

Interview Magazine: Riz Ahmed Talks The Simpsons’ Race Problem with Comedian Hari Kondabolu

TIME: Comedian Hari Kondablou Is Fed Up with the Stereotype of The Simpsons' Apu