Jay Leno Apologizes for Decades of Jokes About Asians: ‘In My Heart I Knew It Was Wrong’

Matt Donnelly
·2-min read

Late-night host and comedian Jay Leno has issued an apology for a series of jokes told over his career targeting Asian communities.

The apology comes after a nearly 15-year campaign from the activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) for remarks as recent as Variety‘s 2020 report that Leno cracked about Koreans eating dog meat — a complaint that offended numerous players on the set of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

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“At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless,” Leno said in a joint press release with MANAA leader Guy Aoki. “I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them.”

Leno continued, “At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don’t worry about it. 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.”

In light of that, Leno said, “I am issuing this apology. 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.”

Entertainment and media has been increasingly vocal about and horrified by a wave of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., which many attributed to Trump era rhetoric and blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus. Last week, a lone gunman killed eight people at three spas in Atlanta. Six of the eight victims were Asian women, which has inspired rallies nationwide standing against hate crimes and supporting the AAPI community.

The majority of Leno’s old jokes perpetuated stereotypes about Asian communities consuming dog meat. Long outspoken about his routines, MANAA’s Aoki said he appealed to Leno’s new employers at Fox, where he hosts the game show “You Bet Your Life,” initially offering them an ultimatum of firing the host or MANAA would approach sponsors to boycott the project.

After appealing to Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy, and producers Tom Werner and David Hurwitz, Aoki connected with Leno. A spokesperson for Leno confirmed his apology but did not comment further.

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