Aidan Smith: Is The Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willie offensive to Scots?

The 'tough guy' image of Scots has helped Peter Mullan, for example, get to play decisive, fearless and blackly humorous characters over his illustrious acting career
The 'tough guy' image of Scots has helped Peter Mullan, for example, get to play decisive, fearless and blackly humorous characters over his illustrious acting career
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Groundskeeper Willie is one of the funniest sons of Caledonia you’ll find anywhere, writes Aidan Smith.

After 28 years of loyal service behind the counter of Kwik-E-Mart, it seems that Indian shopkeeper Apu has bid his last “Thank you, come again” to the The Simpsons and the rest of Springfield.

Did I say loyal? Sorry, I meant “servile, devious, goofy”. These are the claims of Hari Kondabolu, an American comedian whose parents emigrated to the US from India. He made a documentary called The Problem with Apu and concluded that the portrayal “reflected how America viewed us”, with the character being tainted by “a little bit of the poison of racism”. Now he has it on good authority that Apu is to be written out of the greatest TV comedy of all time.

The question is: should we in Scotland feel a #MeTae moment coming on? Do we try to get Groundskeeper Willie booted as well? After all, if Apu speaks comedy Indian, then surely Willie the school jannie is using comedy Scots when he says: “Get yer haggis right here! Chopped heart and lungs boiled in a wee sheep’s stomach! Tastes as guid as it sounds!” Or, and this is his solid gold classic line, about the French: “Ya cheese-eatin’ surrender monkeys!”

No Scotsman actually talks like that. Certainly no Scotsman who could be from Glasgow or maybe Aberdeen or possibly the Orkneys or perhaps North Kilt-town, all part of a running gag about wonky continuity. But that’s okay, isn’t it? He’s funny, one of the funniest sons of Caledonia you’ll find anywhere. And he’s pretty hunky too.

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Going about his job, mopping up the kids’ puke at Springfield Elementary, you think he’s got a fat gut, doubtless from eating too many deep-fried Mars bars and other Scottish cliche heart-stopper foodstuffs. But when he doffs his shirt to exfoliate with a Brillo pad and talc up with Ajax, he reveals a ripped six-pack which would be the envy of Mel McGibson and Big Tam Connery when, respectively, they were playing the parts of a flag-faced freedom fighting Scot and a Portobello lifeguard, rescuing damsels from a lido wave-machine gone into overdrive.

Can you call women damsels anymore? Truly, these are uncertain times. The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, reacting earlier this year to the Apu controversy, said: “I think it’s a moment in our culture when people love to pretend to be offended.” Now, we can’t really rate Apu against Willie to ascertain who’s the most extreme stereotype. I cannot feel as offended by Apu as an Indian might, the same as an Indian is not able to fully empathise with the wounding blow caused by Willie wailing: “Brothers and sisters are natural enemies, like English and Scots or Welshmen and Scots or Japanese and Scots or Scots and other Scots. Scots, they ruin Scotland!” But guess what? It’s not a wounding blow. Everyone in The Simpsons is an extreme stereotype and the biggest of them is Homer, the all-American klutz. If Indians are offended by Apu – and they have had to contend with more racism than Scots – that’s unfortunate but maybe Scots are better at riding out this sort of thing. Perhaps we’re able to laugh at ourselves as others fall about guffawing at us, sobbing and gasping and bringing on fatal hernias.

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We’ve had a lot of practice of things not necessarily going our way on the big and small screen and of scandalously failing to be crowned the hero in the final reel. Indeed, in 1895’s The Execution of Mary Stuart, Thomas Edison’s ground-breaking first film to make use of special effects, the protagonist lost her crown and then her head.

Scots continue to miss out on walking off into the sunset with the girl (can you still say that without the woman appearing secondary and simpering?). A new report into TV stereotyping by regulator Ofcom confirms that we nearly always get given the tough guy parts. Maybe, though, this isn’t all bad. Peter Mullan, say, gets to be decisive, fearless and blackly humorous while an English actor like Hugh Grant could never convince in such a role, even if Mullan loaned him a sawn-off shotgun. Obviously, psychotic violence isn’t to be condoned and swearing isn’t big or clever – but Peter Capaldi as spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It is still f****** funny.

Back in 1947 Scrooge McDuck, the Walt Disney cartoon, made fun of our thriftiness. Dad’s Army, via Private Frazer, made fun of our doomy, gloomy determination never to be mistaken for a ray of sunshine – his glass was always half-empty and probably contained weedkiller anyway. In The Great Escape the American, Steve McQueen, was a stick-on for the cool guy on the flying motorbike. That gig was never going to go to the Scotsman, Angus Lennie, who was instead required to be turned into a human sieve by German bullets, a pretty sadistic pointer to his later life amid the kitchen drudgery of the Crossroads Motel.

It’s true that for a long time the roaring drunk in the corner of the pub was a Scot, although this seems to happen less now. It’s true that the heartwarming film My Big Fat Greek Wedding wasn’t called My Big Fat Scottish Wedding and that Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movies was one of us. It’s true that “Jazzer” Kelly, The Archers’ resident boozing, drugging, womanising Glaswegian car thief who liked porridge wasn’t a joke, but a character we were supposed to think credible. And it’s true we’re still waiting on a Hollywood biopic of even just one of our 1st XI great inventors. Until then, though, we must make do with Groundskeeper Willie.

A few months ago, as the Apu row rumbled, attention turned to the flame-bearded factotum. Was he perhaps over-Scottish? It sounded like yet again someone was pretending to be offended. Real Scots rallied to his defence, including Arbroath minister Martin Fair who tweeted: “How about we all lighten up and enjoy the comedy?”