The Simpsons is making changes to their hiring process for actors they cast to voice non-white characters. The show had been a long-running hit for 20th Century Fox before the Disney acquisition of their entertainment properties. Now the series, after 31 seasons, is owned by Disney and is looking to bring diversity to its voice acting cast.
The Simpsons producer Les Eisner released a statement saying, “Moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.”
Apu was the First Criticism
This move comes not only in the wake of a number of Hollywood producers removing white actors from playing mixed or black roles, but also after The Simpsons’ faced backlash against the character of Apu Nahasepeemapetilon.
The Simpsons began facing significant backlash for its depiction of Apu following an episode of FX’s “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell where comedian Hari Kondabolu took issue with the depiction of Apu as well as the way Azaria voiced him.
He stated, “Apu, a cartoon character voiced by Hank Azaria, a white guy. A white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
He added, “If I saw Hank Azaria do that voice at a party, I would kick the shit out of him.”
Kondabolu followed up that criticism with the production of the documentary The Problem with Apu in 2017.
The Creatives Response
The Simpsons would argue against the criticism of Apu in an episode ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’. The scene in question features Lisa Simpson saying, “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?”
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening would also address the controversy telling USA Today in April 2018, “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.”
He would later speak to The New York Times, “Well, I love Apu. I love the character, and it makes me feel bad that it makes other people feel bad. But on the other hand, it’s tainted now — the conversation, there’s no nuance to the conversation now. It seems very, very clunky. I love the character. I love the show.”
He then elaborated on his comments to USA Today, “That wasn’t specifically about Apu. That was about our culture in general. And that’s something I’ve noticed for the last 25 years. There is the outrage of the week and it comes and goes.”
Groening added, “For a while, it was, believe it or not, kids were stealing quarters out of their mothers’ purses in order to go to the video arcade, and that was going to bring down civilization. No one even remembers that, because that lasted a week.”
He then stated, “I think particularly right now, people feel so aggrieved and crazed and powerless that they’re picking the wrong battles.”
While Groening would defend Apu, Azaria would make an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where he indicated he would step aside. Azaria stated, “I’m perfectly willing to step aside. It just feels like the right thing to do, to me.”
Mike Reiss, who originally wrote for The Simpsons, indicated that Azaria’s comments were empty. They had already benched Apu from the show at this point.
He explained to Vanity Fair, “Though there’s a lot of discussion on Apu, he’s barely had a line in the past three seasons.”
Reiss added, “Hank Azaria saying he won’t voice the character anymore is like Val Kilmer announcing he won’t play Batman again—no one’s asking him to.”
“There is all this hoopla about Apu, and the fact is we were cued into this three or four years ago. We did an episode then to address it.”
Reiss detailed that Apu had barely been seen on the show following that episode, “Much Apu About Something.” He then added, “People are saying, ‘Get Apu off the show.’ Well, he’s not on.”
The controversy seemed to die down, but back in February 2020, Azaria noted that he would no longer be voicing the character at all.
Speaking with SlashFilm, Azaria explained his decision, “I won’t be doing the voice anymore, unless there’s someway to transition it or something.”
He added, “What they’re going to do with the character is their call. It’s up to them and they haven’t sorted it out yet. All we’ve agreed on is I won’t do the voice anymore.”
Azaria stated it was a mutual decision to step away from the character. In that they, “All made the decision together. We all agreed on it. We all feel like it’s the right thing and good about it.”
Other Non-White Characters
While Apu has been sidelined it’s unclear what will happen to a number of their other characters.
It definitely appears that they will have to replace Hank Azaria given he voices a number of the non-white characters on the show. He voices the Hispanic Dr. Nicholas Riviera.
He also voices Pedro Chesperito/Bumblebee Man, a Spanish Language television star.
Azaria also voices Carlton Carlson Jr, a black character in the show, and one of Homer Simpson’s regular drinking buddies who also works at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. There’s also Officer Lou, also voiced by Hank Azaria.
Azaria won’t be the only voice actor to get replaced. Harry Shearer will also be replaced. Shearer voices Dr. Julius Hibburt. He has a recurring role in the series, oftentimes providing less than sound medical advice.
Blackface and Black Characters
The Simpsons decision is lockstep with other recent moves in Hollywood that have seen shows remove voice actors from non-white roles, request shows featuring blackface be removed from streaming services, and even seen voice actors quit roles where they voiced non-white characters.
We recently reported that Apple TV’s Central Park series would no longer have Kristen Bell voice a mixed race character named Molly Tillerman.
Jenny Slate actually quit the voice acting role of Missy on Netflix’s Big Mouth animated series.
It is unclear how these shows will address episodes that have already aired with the characters in question.
While Bell and Slate are no longer voicing their roles, The Office indicated they have edited out scenes depicting blackface.
Netflix pulled an episode of Community where Ken Jeong’s character cosplayed as a Dark Elf during an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game.
More recently Hulu pulled a Golden Girls episode featuring blackface performances.
Scrubs and 30 Rock pulled respective scenes with the performers using blackface.
Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Howard Stern have all come under scrutiny recently since they previously performed in blackface for skits or shorts in the past.
But what do you think of The Simpsons white voice actors no longer voicing the roles of non-white characters? Sound off in the comments below! Or find us on social media and let’s talk about it!