Episode 102: Representations, Humblebrags and Awkwardness

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Hari Kondabolu
Comedian Hari Kondabolu. Photo Credit: Rob Holysz

“The Simpsons” has been on TV for nearly 30 years. Comedian Hari Kondabolu feels that after all these years, it may be time to update some of the jokes. Also, a sister shares the heartbreaking story of losing Harris Wittels, a rising star in comedy. And, an exploration into awkwardness with “Cringeworthy” author Melissa Dahl.

Featured in this Show

  • Sister Shares The Enduring Loss Of Comedian Harris Wittels

    Comedian Harris Wittels. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wittels Wachs

    On Feb. 19, 2015 the comedy world lost one of its brightest stars when writer and actor Harris Wittels died from a heroin overdose. At the time, he was one of the most sought after writers in the industry.

    Wittels wrote for the hit NBC comedy series “Parks and Recreation,” Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program” and even penned a few jokes for former President Barack Obama — all before the age of 30.

    In the wake of his death, many mainstream comedians honored Harris and his work. His friend and colleague, comedian Aziz Ansari wrote: “His jokes were so weird, unexpected, often brilliantly dumb, that they were in that ultra-exclusive club of ones that made comedy people laugh — and laugh hard.”

    Wittels’ sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, joined “BETA” to discuss her raw and unflinching memoir “Everything is Horrible and Wonderful” which Ansari penned the foreword for. The book is a frank look into the struggle of living with, attempting to help and losing a loved one to addiction. It also offers insights into what made Harris so special.

    “You know from the time Harris could speak, he was making jokes. And he always was funny and he always wanted to be funny and he knew that’s exactly what he wanted to do,” she said.

    Wittels was also scheduled to write, produce and act in Ansari’s acclaimed Netflix series, “Master of None” before he died. Wittels Wachs laughs at the memory of Harris’ discomfort with having to audition for a character he created.

    “He literally wrote the part and named it Harris and then he had to audition for it,” she said.

    Wittels Wachs’ relationship with her brother was always close. They told each other everything. And days before her wedding, Wittels informed his older sister that he was addicted to the pain medication he had been taking for his back.

    Stephanie Wittels Wachs and her brother Harris Wittels. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Wittels Wachs

    “I tried to stay calm. I tried to be supportive. I didn’t want to jump to judgment or to make him feel like he couldn’t confide in me,” she said.

    It wasn’t easy for Wittels Wachs though. Her brother had put her in a tough predicament.

    “He also made me promise I wouldn’t tell my parents, and so I was put in this really difficult position – which he would continue to put me in – where I was protecting him. But, then in protecting him was I also threatening him in terms of his life? It was tough. It was a really hard time,” she said.

    This was far from the only frustration Wittels Wachs would have with her brother. After a stint in rehab, she received a text from her brother that he was going to check himself into another facility because his addiction to pain pills had graduated to heroin. On the now posthumously tragic episode of comedian Pete Holme’s podcast “You Made It Weird,” Wittels divulged some harrowing anecdotes from his struggles with addiction.

    “I was learning all of this as he said it to this guy I didn’t know and as it was being aired to the world,” Wittels Wachs recalled.

    But she was troubled most by Wittels’ false posture on his recovery.

    “The real issue with that is that he had already relapsed by that time. And nobody knew that. So, he was talking about how he understands what’s at stake for him. He was saying, ‘If he goes out again, he’s going to destroy his family,’ you know, all of these things and I knew he already had done it. So I was really, really angry with him after hearing that,” she said.

    Wittels Wachs would be the one to receive the devastating news about Harris. She would also have to break the news to her parents, writing in her book that “that would be the most horrific moment of my life.”

    Due to Wittels’ celebrity, Wittels Wachs’ grief would play out in public. She had to find her parents quickly before the gossip site TMZ published an article announcing Harris’ death. At first the online attention on social media was a tonic for the family.

    “There was a sense of comfort that I had that everybody was talking about Harris,” Wittels Wachs said.

    However, as she explains, celebrity mourners can be fickle and a few days later, “Star Trek” legend Leonard Nimoy passed away, “And then what happened is what happens on the internet with trending topics, which is that they end. And people move on to the next story. And when that happened, it was devastating.”

    Wittels Wachs and her mother were invited to the 2015 Emmy Awards to honor Wittels, something Wittels Wachs was not looking forward to.

    “I told her, ‘You know mom, this isn’t a vacation for me. We’re going because Harris died. This isn’t something I wanna do,’” Wittels Wachs said.

    Her ambivalence shifted to joy though as she began to share stories of her brother with his colleagues at “Parks and Recreation” (nominated for best comedy series), and learned how talented they thought Harris was and how much they admired him.

    “It ended up being a really positive experience that I expected to be a really negative experience,” she said. “I felt really proud of him, and I felt like this is a way we can honor him.”

    Wittels Wachs plans to always honor her brother through his hilarious output.

    “The couple of years leading up to Harris’ death were really tumultuous and tragic and hard, but the rest of his life wasn’t,” Wittels Wachs said. “He was funny and he worked really hard and he produced a lot of incredible stuff and my goal is always to continue to celebrate that.”

  • What's 'The Problem With Apu'?

    “Thank you, come again.”

    It’s a phrase that is widely associated with Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the convenience store cashier from the legacy animated sitcom, “The Simpsons.” But as a South Asian growing up in Queens, it’s one that still grinds comedian Hari Kondabolu because it was often weaponized as an insult to his ethnicity.

    Kondabolu’s TruTV documentary, “The Problem With Apu” explores the concept of cultural representation in the media landscape, and more importantly, who is creating and in control of those representations.

    “There were no brown people making Apu, right. White comedy writers, white executives, you know, white voice actor. So that’s clearly a problem. The idea of being depicted without your say,” Kondabolu told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Kondabolu argues in the film that in the case of Apu, the bigger problem might be under-representation. Apu was the only South Asian character on television. And it wasn’t a very flattering portrayal.

    “He’s heavily accented in an inauthentic accent and he’s in this position of service, never being able to be move upward,” Kondabolu said, “You know, those are not necessarily the most positive things.”

    According to Kondabolu in the film, the character was forging a view in American audiences that all Indians were similar: “servile, devious, goofy.”

    “We don’t have that kind of other identity where we can be identified, it’s basically — especially at that time — it was the ridiculous Indian immigrant and that stood in for all of us,” said Kondabolu.

    “The Simpsons” has long dabbled in stereotypes (think the Italian Chef Luigi Risotto and Groundskeeper Willie) for mining humor, but as Kondabolu points out, there was no shortage of other Italian or Scottish representations on TV and “those ethnic identities end up turning into whiteness.”

    If we lived in a culture where there was equal opportunities for representation, then equal opportunity offense is fair,” Kondabolu said.

    For many South Asian actors, the lack of representation led to a disturbing kind of typecasting where they were asked to perform what “House of Cards” and “Homeland” actress Sakina Jaffrey dubbed “patanking.” As she describes it, “patanking” is an exaggerated Indian accent made popular by characters like Apu. What’s more painful in this case is that Apu is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria.

    “I don’t think it’s ‘patanking’ just because he’s not South Asian,” said Kondabolu. “So for him it’s … straight, you know, clowning a group of people.”

    The bulk of the documentary follows Kondabolu’s quest to track down and have a conversation with Azaria — who claims he crafted the voice of Apu after Peter Sellers’ performance in the film, “The Party.”

    Toward the end of the film Kondabolu receives an email from Azaria stating he’d like to connect after the film’s release, but not participate in it directly.

    Off camera, Kondabolu says he actually spoke to Azaria on the phone and Azaria proposed a joint interview on a platform such as “Fresh Air” or the podcast “WTF with Maron” so that the conversation would be in a controlled setting without one party having command of the final edit.

    “I said absolutely,” Kondabolu said. “If that’s what you need for us to do this, let’s do it. And he still said no.”

    For his part, Kondabolu was ready to let the film and subject matter stand — hoping people would see the film before jumping into the conversation.

    “I think a lot of people, especially on the internet, critiqued it without ever seeing it,” he said. “It just became a stand-in for these larger issues about political correctness and representation that people, you know, were frustrated by, but they haven’t actually seen it.”

    While Kondabolu never had a conversation with Azaria, “The Simpsons” recently addressed the controversy in an episode titled, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” where Marge rewrites a childhood book for Lisa to be less offensive. For Kondabolu, the message missed the mark. He tweeted a response the following day:

    Kondabolu added that in the process of not addressing Apu’s flaws, the show fundamentally altered the one seemingly flawless character on the show.

    “In order to make it clear they weren’t going to change Apu in any way, ‘The Simpsons’ changed Lisa,” Kondabolu stated in a tweet. “That’s some serious spite.”

    Hari Kondabolu will be appearing live in Madison from Thursday, April 19 through Saturday, April 21.

  • The Upside of Awkwardness

    Melissa Dahl is obsessed with awkwardness.

    Born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, when Dahl moved to New York City, she took her interest in “cringeworthiness” with her.

    Now Dahl has transformed her interest in awkwardness into a book called “Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.”

    Dahl defines awkwardness as: “Self-consciousness with this undercurrent of uncertainty, like, you know, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do.”

    In her book, Dahl explores “the growing edge,” a phrase she discovered while working on her book.

    “If we’re saying that the things that make us cringe are the things that kind of highlight that gap between the you you think you’re presenting to the world, and the you the world is actually seeing, then maybe one way to understand these moments where we feel awkward are the moments that can … kind of push us toward who we think we are, who we wish we were,” Dahl said. “They can push us toward that idealized version of ourself we have in our heads.”

    Many of the interviews Dahl did for her book focused on what people typically call awkward: jokes that fall flat, having a bad hair day or spilling coffee all over your shirt. But she also realized that the word is also used for heavier topics.

    “The word has just kind of become a catch-all for anything we find uncomfortable, from small things to really big things,” she said.

    Dahl talked about a ‘New York Times’ article she came across titled ‘Why We’re So Awkward.’ The headline alone was enough to draw her in. Instead of an article about small examples of award moments, she discovered a video about racial bias.

    Citing another example of the word awkward being used for complicated topics, Dahl mentioned an ad campaign by Scope, a disability advocacy group.

    “They run these PSAs called ‘End the Awkward’ where they argue that people who don’t have disabilities feel so awkward around people who do that sometimes they just avoid interacting with people who have disabilities,” Dahl said.

    Searching for more examples like this, Dahl discovered The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, who coined the phrase “your growing edge.”

    The group brings people together to discuss conversations about race and racism in the United States — a topic that can often be deeply uncomfortable. That discomfort, that awkwardness is something the group calls “your growing edge.”

    “They say those moments that you feel uncomfortable, it’s so tempting to just check out … Or just to kind of shut down, kind of get defensive, and if you think about it, that’s kind of often how we react to situations we call ‘awkward,’ too,” Dahl said. “We want to avoid uncomfortable topics, we want to avoid awkward conversations. But their whole thing is when you feel like that, that can mean potentially that you have some growing to do. That means that it could be that instead of something to shut down from, instead of something to avoid, it could be an opportunity.”

    Because of this, Dahl sees an upside to awkwardness.

    “If we are saying that it’s about sensing that gap between who you think you are and how other people are seeing you, what a nice thing to be the kind of person who’s sensitive to that sort of thing … And if you’re sensitive to these moments, then an upside of being sensitive to that, is you, when appropriate, can use this feeling to improve yourself,” she said.

    “I started off writing this book as kind of a guide to banish awkwardness forever. I never wanted to feel like this again and I wanted to just dig into the scientific literature and just come up with ways to stop myself from ever feeling this way again. It’s an emotion that kind of reminds me of just the sheer absurdity of the human experience, you know. It’s these moments where we can kind of see through the cracks of someone’s impeccable self-presentation. To me, they became moments that can really lead to some true connection with each other.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Stephanie Wittels Wachs Guest
  • Melissa Dahl Guest
  • Hari Kondabolu Guest

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