As he has done numerous times in the last year, writer, actor, and Monty Python co-founder John Cleese on April 13 again defended comedy and free expression from the cancel mob, this time taking a kind-hearted, humorous approach to actor Hank Azaria’s apology for voicing the character of Apu on “The Simpsons.”
During an appearance on the “Armchair Expert” podcast, Azaria recently related an experience he had that made him reconsider voicing Apu – one of the dozens of voices he has handled on the Fox cartoon series.
According to John F. Trent, of BoundingIntoComics:
While discussing an encounter he had with a 17-year-old who had never seen ‘The Simpsons,’ Azaria stated, ‘I said to him, and I’m going to say to you right now, I really do apologize.’
He continued, ‘I apologize for my part in creating that. In participating in that. You know, part of me feels like I need to go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize.’
For context, Apu is depicted as an Indian immigrant living in the Simpson’s hometown, and he runs a convenience store, something that actually reflects the reality of many people who emigrated from India to the US and have worked hard owning or managing convenience stores. One of my local acquaintances did the same thing, and now, after years of hard work, he’s reaped great financial rewards.
But, just as other archetypes that might verge on caricature could offend certain people, Azaria’s Apu was swept away by Cancel Culture and phased out by “The Simpsons” staff. And Azaria himself appears to feel remorse for unwittingly making anyone feel bad.
That’s valid. Apu appeared on the series for more than two decades, and so the caricature could have become iconic, almost a fictional shorthand that Azaria worries might be associated with a too-limited view of Indian immigrants.
But Cleese’s response and entertaining interaction with witty Twitter users offer wider views of life, of comedy, and of the societal human condition.
First Mr. Cleese Tweeted:
Not wishing to be left behind by Hank Azaria, I would like to apologise on behalf on Monty Python for all the many sketches we did making fun of white English people.
We’re sorry for any distress we may have caused.
Not wishing to be left behind by Hank Azaria, I would like to apologise on behalf on Monty Python for all the many sketches we did making fun of white English people— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) April 13, 2021
We're sorry for any distress we may have caused
Warms the heart to see this
The best jokes are those that don't make fun of gender, age, physical appearance, race, religion, nationality/culture/language, or personal habits. Also, any jokes about sensitive current events are totally unnecessary.
So, without rancor, Mr. Cleese respectfully set him straight.
Actually all jokes are unnecessary
But a few people get pleasure from them, although only if they have a sense of humour
Soon, another cringing Twitter user expressed upset at caricature, writing:
Much as I love Python and that era of comedy, it’s pretty painful to look back at stuff like Eric Idle in blackface on the show, or Bonzo Dog Doodah band’s similar antics on ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.
I expect you'll recover eventually
As a descendent of a Welshman, I feel left out and humiliated.
And Cleese offereda classic response that virtually anyone familiar with British culture would appreciate:
You don't understand
That's how all Welsh people feel
I don't agree
All humour is critical of human foibles, except for wordplay
But criticism, in the form of affectionate teasing, is not painful at all.
To pretend that it is is gross exaggeration
It’s a pleasure to see a person offer some balance to a Western culture that has discarded much of what made Western culture enjoyable. John Cleese’s humor has covered a wide spectrum of approaches, and behind them all is an understanding that humor – even what might be seen as “cutting edge” humor – need not be viewed as a sociopathic attack.
While Azaria certainly is free to feel remorse for playing the role of Apu, perhaps Cleese’s points are important to remember, because they remind us to take a wider view of comedy and how Cancel Culture is a muzzle on creative expression.
Most of the characters on “The Simpsons” are caricatures, from Homer, to Bart, to Joe, and on and on. The point is that, within those caricatures, writers, actors, and artists have given them dynamics that not only allow audiences to laugh, but allow audiences to realize they are caricatures who offer more.
Are all the characters on the show to be eliminated? Should only Indian people try to do Indian accents for cartoons? Should only tall people voice “tall” characters?
Cancel Culture cannot answer these questions, because the process of cancelation for “offense” is infinite and can apply to all.
Cleese’s approach, to see absurdism, irony, sarcasm, or caricature-based humor for what they are, and to try to be more tolerant, is ironically needed today, in a world where the self-proclaimed “tolerant” are the least tolerant in the West.
For the sake of comedy, let’s hope more people take to heart Mr. Cleese’s approach.