Jay Leno Apologizes for Decades of Anti-Asian Jokes

After a year of enduring even more hatred than before thanks to COVID-19, the Asian-American community has received an apology from a perhaps unlikely source: Jay Leno.

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) announced this week that it had settled a decades-long beef with the comedian and former host of The Tonight Show over several instances of jokes that crossed the line, including at least nine bits from 2002 to 2012 that insinuated that Koreans or Chinese people ate dogs and cats.

They initially complained to Leno after the first such joke in 2002.

“The equivalent situation would be that whenever Leno mentioned black people in his monologue, he would only and always joke about them eating friend chicken and watermelon,” says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki.  “Would he have gotten away with that for 10 years?  There is nothing wrong with anyone eating fried chicken, or watermelon, but Leno would never make a joke about African Americans eating those foods simply because they’re stereotypes that would offend the black community.  However, inaccurately inferring that most Koreans or Chinese regularly eat ‘man’s best’ friend is worse because it encourages racial hatred towards Asian Americans, as most people don’t distinguish between Asian nationals and Asian Americans.”

But as recently as 2019, when Leno served as a guest judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, one scene filmed and aired backstage showed him looking at a portrait of Simon Cowell with dogs, then observing it looked like something “on the menu of a Korean restaurant!” It was one of then-judge Gabrielle Union’s multiple complaints about the working conditions on AGT, which resulted in internal investigations and the eventual departure last year of two NBC execs: Paul Telegdy (then NBC Entertainment Chair) and Meredith Ahr (then President, Alternative and Reality Group).

Leno has a new upcoming gig as host of the revival of You Bet Your Life for FOX, as well as his ongoing series, Jay Leno’s Garage.

Leno delivered a formal apology to MANAA last month, and announced this week.

“At the time I did those jokes,” says Leno, “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. 

“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. That is why 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.”

No word if his apology covers the repeated employment of the Dancing Itos, tho.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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