Jay Leno Apologized for Making This Racist Joke About Asians Repeatedly

Following years of criticism, the comedian is recognizing his "legitimate wrong."

After years of criticism, Jay Leno has apologized for his past racist jokes about the Asian community. During a recent conversation with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the 70-year-old comedian recognized the "legitimate wrong that was done on [his] part" in making one particular joke again and again about Asians. The apology came after years of pressure from MANAA and other organizations, the press release explains. Leno was contacted about an offensive joke in 2002, and MANAA said they tried to reach him several times since.

Read on to see what Leno finally had to say. And for another comedian who recently apologized for an insensitive joke, check out Sarah Silverman Just Apologized to Paris Hilton for This Old Offensive Joke.

Leno had made jokes about Asian people eating dogs or cats for decades.

Jay Leno appearing on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon/YouTube

MANAA explains that Leno repeatedly made jokes about Korean and Chinese people eating dogs or cats on The Tonight Show, which he hosted from 1992 until 2014, and allegedly on America's Got Talent on which he was a guest judge in 2019.

As mentioned by MANAA and previously reported by CBS News, Karen Narasaki of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition contacted Leno after a joke in 2002, and he defended himself by saying some Koreans do eat dogs. Narasaki then said, "Well, is it also true that some African Americans eat friend chicken and watermelon?" which Leno confirmed he wouldn't joke about.

"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," MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki explained in the press release. "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."

NBC had previously defended Leno.

Jay Leno on "America's Got Talent"
Talent Recap/YouTube

In 2002, Leno made a joke about South Korean Olympic speed skater Kim Dong-sung eating dog meat. At this point, NBC issued a statement defending Leno, saying, "People have different opinions about where the lines should be drawn."

The MANAA statement explains that Leno's jokes would stop periodically after he spoke with critics or with the NBC senior vice president of diversity, but that they kept coming back. In 2019, actor and America's Got Talent judge Gabrielle Union claimed that Leno made a joke about Koreans eating dog meat in front of her.

Read about another offensive earlier talk show moment with This Resurfaced Oprah Interview With Mary-Kate and Ashley Has Fans Livid.

Leno said at the time he "genuinely thought [the jokes] to be harmless."

Jay Leno at a Jaguar car event in 2016
Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

MANAA says they were able to have a conversation with Leno after saying they would "go after" the advertisers for his new Fox game show You Bet Your Life. And when Leno had his discussion with Aoki, he did apologize.

"At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless," he said, according to the press release. "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."

He now recognizes it was "a legitimate wrong" on his part.

Jay Leno receiving a lifetime achievement award from the city of Burbank
Dan Holm / Shutterstock.com

Leno noted in his apology that he does not feel like his situation is a part of "cancel culture," but rather him taking accountability for something he did wrong.

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

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Leno said he would be "deeply hurt and ashamed" to learn his words helped incite violence against the Asian community.

Jay Leno at a charity event at the Santa Monica Airport in 2004
Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com

MANAA wanted to make it clear to Leno that his jokes can be directly harmful to Asian people. This past year has shown an increase in the number of hate incidents against Asians, including the most recent shootings in Atlanta. Aoki notes that stereotypes like the ones Leno has promoted are a problem because criminals "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."

"I was shocked and saddened by what has been happening to my fellow citizens in the Asian community," Leno said. "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."

MANAA now says that it accepts Leno's apology and will continue to work with him, including helping him find an Asian American guest for his show Jay Leno's Garage.

For a famous member of the Asian-American community speaking out against hate, read "Lost" Star Daniel Dae Kim Says His Sister Was the Victim of a Hate Crime.

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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