Jay Leno Apologizes for Past Racist Asian Jokes: "In My Heart I Knew It Was Wrong"

Jay Leno
Jim Spellman/WireImage

Leno has been criticized for over a decade by Media Action Network for Asian Americans for his racist jokes against Asian communities.

Comedian and former Tonight Show host Jay Leno has apologized for jokes targeting Asians.

Throughout his career, Leno has told jokes that perpetuate stereotypes about Asian communities consuming cat and dog meat, jokes which have been criticized for over a decade by activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA).

"At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless," Leno said in a conversation 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."

Added Leno, "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."

The most recent incident occurred in 2019 when Leno served as a guest judge on NBC's America's Got Talent and made a racist joke regarding Koreans eating dog meat. While the joke was cut from the variety show's broadcast, it was included in a report examining Gabrielle Union's complaints that the show fostered a toxic workplace culture during production of season 14 (The Hollywood Reporter confirmed the joke was uttered). Union was dismissed after one season on the competition series alongside fellow freshman judge Julianne Hough.

"I do not consider this particular case to be another example of cancel culture but a legitimate wrong that was done on my part," Leno continued. "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."

Aoki shared in a statement with The Hollywood Reporter that he was able to secure a meeting with Leno after the comedian was named host of the rebooted game show You Bet Your Life. Last November, Aoki wrote a letter to Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy and You Bet Your Life producers Tom Werner and David Hurwitz asking for the firing of Leno or else MANAA would go to their advertisers. Months later, a meeting was arranged via Zoom with Aoki as well as MANAA president Rob Chan and vice president Lawrence Lim.

Leno's apology comes amid an outpouring of support for the Asian community following a surge in violence against it — including the recent mass shooting in Atlanta, where six women of Asian descent were among the eight killed. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 149 percent in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020 according to an analysis of official preliminary police data by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for incidents targeting Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups since March of last year.

The first spike occurred in March and April 2020 amid a rise in COVID-19 cases and negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic. Former President Donald Trump and senior members of his administration were criticized continually during his time in office for referring to COVID-19 as a "Chinese virus," despite the World Health Organization's warning against using geographic locations when naming illnesses.

The rise in crimes targeting Asian Americans was emphasized by Aoki to Leno on the Zoom call. "I told Jay there’s often no negotiating with these assailants. Sometimes, they don’t communicate with their victims. They see an Asian face and — instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt that they might have things in common — only see them as foreigners to whom they attach negative stereotypes, and attack them."

On the call, Leno shared he was "shocked and saddened" by what was happening to the Asian community. "I would be deeply hurt and ashamed if somehow my words did anything to incite this violence. With MANAA’s help, I would like to do what I can to help the healing process."

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Leno's rep for further comment.

March 25, 9:30 a.m.: A previous version of this post inaccurately attributed a quote to Rob Chan.