Former late night host Jay Leno issued an apology for racist jokes he made throughout his career that were aimed at Asian communities.
The comedian’s racially fueled wisecracks, including suggesting Korean people consumed dog and cat meat, perpetuated harmful stereotypes. The jokes were criticized for over a decade by the activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), Variety reported.
“At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless,” Leno said in a join press release with MANAA leader Guy Aoki, according to Variety. “I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them.”
“At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don’t worry about it,” he added. “Whenever we received a complaint, there would be two sides to the discussion: Either ‘We need to deal with this’ or ‘Screw ‘em if they can’t take a joke.’ Too many times I sided with the latter even when in my heart I knew it was wrong.”
The announcement of the apology comes amid a cultural reckoning spurred by the mass shootings at Atlanta-area spas last week that killed eight people, six of them Asian women. In the past year, hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 150% in the nation’s largest cities, according to a California State University analysis of police records that was released earlier this month.
Leno made an offensive joke about Asians as recently as 2019, when he served as a guest judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Although the line was cut from the show’s broadcast, it was included in a report by Variety about actor Gabrielle Union’s concerns with the toxic workplace environment at “AGT” while she served as a judge on Season 14 of the show.
According to Union, Leno made an offensive quip while looking at a portrait of “AGT” judge and co-creator Simon Cowell with his dogs, noting that the canines looked like food items at a Korean restaurant. The Hollywood Reporter also confirmed that the incident occurred.
Leno said that his apology was genuine.
“I am issuing this apology,” he said. “I do not consider this particular case to be another example of cancel culture but a legitimate wrong that was done on my part. MANAA has been very gracious in accepting my apology. I hope that the Asian American community will be able to accept it as well, and I hope I can live up to their expectations in the future.”
Last November, Aoki wrote a letter to Fox Television Stations and “You Bet Your Life” producers after Leno was named the host of the rebooted game show, according to a statement Aoki sent to THR. The letter asked that Leno be fired, or MANAA would go to their advertisers. In response to his letter, Aoki was able to secure a Zoom meeting with Leno.