The 7 Worst Scandals in Late Night TV, From Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon

“The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon apologized to his staffers this week after a damning Rolling Stone report alleged a work environment marred by his toxic behavior on set — and it’s not the first time the former “Saturday Night Live” star has come under fire for his actions. He’s previously been criticized for not paying his writers during the currently WGA strike, for instance, and for that infamously playful 2016 interview with former President Donald Trump.

Other late night hosts have also crossed the line on a number of occasions, with Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and David Letterman also issuing statements, or on-air mea culpas, asking viewers to forgive their missteps and misdeeds.

Here are some of the most scandalous moments in late night TV.

Horatio Sanz
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

“Saturday Night Live” star Horatio Sanz accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl

In 2021, the former “SNL” comedian was accused of sexual assaulting an underage fan 20 years earlier. The Jane Doe alleged that Sanz acted inappropriately with her at after parties for the NBC sketch show, where fellow castmates like Jimmy Fallon were present. Sanz eventually settled the case out of court earlier this year.


Jimmy Fallon roasted for not paying writers during WGA strike

In May, after it was alleged by one staffer that Fallon would not be paying his writers during the strike, the host was criticized after he posted on Bluesky about the new “Legend of Zelda” video game. “Jimmy Fallon thinking he could show up here while not paying his writers is, in a way, the funniest thing he’s done in a long time,” one user posted.

Jimmy Fallon messes up Donald Trump's hair on The Tonight Show in 2016

Jimmy Fallon slammed for softball Donald Trump interview

When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 2016, Fallon famously asked if he could “mess up” Trump’s famous combover. The normally apolitical host drew sharp criticism for “normalizing” the former reality show star at a time when his presidential win over Hillary Clinton seemed the stuff of fantasy.

Fallon later offered a testy apology for the appearance. “So now what? Are you happy? I’m depressed. Do you want to push me more? What do you want me to do? You want me to kill myself? What would make you happy? Get over it,” Fallon told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to make anyone angry — I never do and I never will. It’s all in the fun of the show. I made a mistake. I’m sorry if I made anyone mad. And looking back, I would do it differently.”

Jimmy Kimmel, Karl Malone
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Jimmy Kimmel shamed for past use of blackface

“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” host Jimmy Kimmel issued an apology in 2020 when videos of him doning blackface on “The Man Show” as various Black celebrities, including basketball star Karl Malone, resurfaced. “I apologize to those who were genuinely hurt or offended by the makeup I wore or the words I spoke,” he said in a statement.

“Looking back, many of these sketches are embarrassing,” he admitted, while adding that it was “frustrating” that his past missteps were being used to diminish “my criticisms of social and other injustices.”

Jimmy Kimmel

Jimmy Kimmel protested after “kill everyone in China” kids’ skit

Elsewhere on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” the host got himself into hot water after asking children what to do about America’s $1.3 trillion debt to China and considering an answer that called for violence. In the 2013 sketch, one child participant suggested to “kill everyone in China.”

“Kill everyone in China? OK, that’s an interesting idea,” Kimmel responded, which led to protests outside of his Hollywood Blvd. studios. ABC issued an apology, as did Kimmel, who said, “I thought it was obvious that I didn’t agree with that statement, but apparently it wasn’t. So I just want to say I am sorry. I apologize. It was certainly not my intent to upset anyone.”

David Letterman in 2009

David Letterman blackmailed after having affairs with female staffers

The host, who stepped down from “The Late Show” in 2015, stunned viewers and the studio audience in 2009 when he told them he’d been sleeping with women on his staff and was being blackmailed over it. The blackmailer, CBS News producer Robert “Joe” Halderman, pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny in 2010 and was sentenced to six months in jail and five years of probation.

Ryan Phillippe, Jay Leno
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Jay Leno asked Ryan Phillipe to “make his best gay face”

When “Cruel Intentions” star Ryan Phillipe was a guest on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in 2008, he nearly walked off when the host asked him to “make his best gay face” to the camera.

From 1992 to 1993, Phillippe played daytime TV’s first openly gay character on “One Life to Live.” The actor balked at the “gay face” request, saying, “Wow, that is so something I don’t want to do.” Leno said he was sorry after criticism from the LGBTQ community. “In talking about Ryan’s first role, I realize that what I said came out wrong,” Leno said in a statement. “I certainly didn’t mean any malice. I agree it was a dumb thing to say, and I apologize.” Watch the video of the interview here.

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