When former America’s Got Talent judge Gabrielle Union called out the show and Simon Cowell for a toxic, racist and sexist workplace environment, one of the incidents involved Jay Leno.
According to Gabrielle, the former Tonight Show host told a racist Asian joke that involved Koreans eating dogs. Gabrielle complained, but didn’t get the response she was looking for from the higher ups.
On the second floor of a production building on the North Hollywood lot, Leno taped an interstitial segment in the presence of show judges including Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough. While taping, Leno made a crack about a painting on display in a hallway of Simon Cowell, the show’s executive producer and judge, surrounded by his dogs. Leno joked that the pets looked like something one would find “on the menu at a Korean restaurant,” four people present for the taping told Variety.
Gabrielle urged AGT producers to report the joke to human resources at NBC, sources told Variety. She argued that production needed to understand why the joke might offend the staff and audience of the show. However, although the issue of reporting to HR was specifically raised with an NBC executive on set, it never was escalated to that department.
Leno apologized after advocacy group approached his new employer, FOX
But now, as anti-Asian violence has risen over the past year, culminating in the murder of 8 Asian women in Atlanta recently by a gunman, Leno is apologizing for that joke, and others that he’s told over the years.
“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.”
“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.”
The majority of Leno’s old jokes perpetuated stereotypes about Asian communities eating dog meat. Long outspoken about his routines, MANAA’s Aoki said he approached Leno’s new employers at Fox, where he hosts the game show You Bet Your Life. He offered them an ultimatum of firing the host or MANAA would approach sponsors to boycott the project.