Jay Leno apologizes for racist Asian jokes, admits he 'knew it was wrong'

Jay Leno has apologized for a number of jokes he made at the expense of the Korean and Chinese communities, particularly racist stereotypes about what Korean and Chinese people eat.

“At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless. I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them,” the comedian and former late-night TV host said in a Zoom call last month with members of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, according to a MANAA release sent Wednesday.

“At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don’t worry about it,” he said, according to the release. “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.’”

The one-time “Tonight Show” host said he didn’t consider this situation to be an example of cancel culture but rather an airing of what he called a “legitimate wrong” on his part.

“Too many times I sided with the latter” — meaning the “screw ‘em” side — “even when I knew in my heart it was wrong,” he said in the statement.

Representatives for Leno did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Guy Aoki, founding president of MANAA, said in Wednesday’s statement that Leno would never make racist jokes about the eating habits of Black people.

“However, inaccurately inferring that most Koreans or Chinese regularly eat ‘man’s best’ friend is worse,” he said, “because it encourages racial hatred towards Asian Americans, as most people don’t distinguish between Asian nationals and Asian Americans.”

Leno’s history with anti-Asian jokes was put in the spotlight after Gabrielle Union — a judge on “America’s Got Talent” when Leno appeared as a guest judge — was fired from “AGT” after only one season and then alleged a racist and toxic environment existed on the show.

Union’s allegations, which included a claim that Leno saw a picture of judge Simon Cowell with dogs and cracked that it looked like something you would see “on the menu of a Korean restaurant,” prompted NBC Entertainment to open an investigation. Union and the network reached an “amicable resolution” to their dispute last year, but Leno was not mentioned.

“NBC Entertainment appreciates the important concerns raised by Gabrielle Union and remains committed to ensuring an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds can be treated with respect,” read a joint statement released at the time by Union and the network.

Leno, meanwhile, said in the Wednesday release that he hoped the Asian American community would accept his apology and added, “I hope I can live up to their expectations in the future.”

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