In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. As part of Simpsons Week, we’re picking our favorite songs from the show.
“You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs,” Homer muses to Marge in the season-12 episode “Poppa’s Got A Brand New Badge.” He proceeds to rattle them off: “boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, baby proofer, trucker, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carny, mayor, drifter, bodyguard for the mayor, country western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochie, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe, and missionary.”
That’s the privilege of being Homer Simpson. You get a fun new job every time the plot demands it. But a supporting character like Apu enjoys no such luxury, especially during the show’s early years. Apu is the Indian clerk at the convenience store, and that’s the extent of his persona. The job is the character. Why would it be any more complicated than that? After all, when The Simpsons began, the producers couldn’t have imagined that their series that would become so popular, long-lived, and sprawling that viewers might care about the guy behind the Kwik-E-Mart counter.
Yet in season five, “Homer And Apu” gave us a reason to care by deepening Apu beyond the realm of caricature. When the episode begins, Apu is still merely an avatar for jokes about the callous consumerism of roadside retail. He sells a 29-cent postage stamp for $1.85; he scratches out the sell-by date on a pack of long-expired lunchmeat. That latter bit of customer abuse lands Homer in the hospital with food poisoning, and Apu’s humanity emerges as he works to repay a karmic debt to his friend and loyal customer.
Yet the episode isn’t satisfied to show that Apu has a heart; it also wants to answer the question of why Apu is the Kwik-E-Mart clerk in the first place. That question is posed rather directly with “Who Needs The Kwik-E-Mart?” the musical number that serves as a bridge between the second and third acts. Apu leads the Simpsons family in song as they mock his convenience store stomping grounds with lyrics about its sticky floors and rancid food. “Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? Not me!” Apu chirps to bring the ditty to a close. Yet moments later, the family catches Apu perched on the roof, gazing at his old workplace as he literally changes his tune: “Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? I do.”
This is the moment when Apu goes from 2-D to 3-D, when The Simpsons shows that Apu is the Kwik-E-Mart clerk not by default but rather because he loves his work—and, as “Homer And Apu” reveals, because he’s actually quite good at it. While it’s hard to imagine a guy who could love the Kwik-E-Mart with its scum bucket and its leaky Squishee machine, Apu is that guy. The store gives him a purpose and pride he can’t duplicate anywhere else. With one song and a poignant coda, we glimpse the soul of a character who, for all intents and purposes, never had one before.