Jay Leno Apologizes for History of Racist Asian Jokes: ‘I Thought Them to Be Harmless’ at the Time

Leno "hope[s] that the Asian American community will be able to accept" his apology.
Jay Leno
Jay Leno
AP Photo/Reinhold Matay

Jay Leno has issued a statement apologizing for his decades-long history of making anti-Asian jokes both on and off air (via Variety). The former host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” came forward with an apology during a Zoom interview with Guy Aoki, the leader of activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). Leno’s history of anti-Asian jokes includes a report from last year that he joked about “Koreans eating dog meat” while on the set of NBC’s competition series “America’s Got Talent.”

“At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless,” Leno said. “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.”

Leno continued, “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.”

According to Variety, MANNA leader Aoki reached out to Leno for a meeting through Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy and the producers of Leno’s Fox game show “You Bet Your Life,” Tom Werner and David Hurwitz. MANNA has campaigned against Leno’s history of anti-Asian jokes (including many centered around “Asian communities consuming dog meat”) for nearly 15 years.

Leno’s apology was made following last week’s Atlanta spa shootings. Eight people were killed in the incident, including six Asian women. The shooting resulted in the “Stop Asian Hate” movement becoming a national talking point following a rise in hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans throughout 2020.

A spokesperson for Leno confirmed his apology but did not comment further.

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