Jay Leno Apologizes for Asian Jokes

His stale jokes about eating dog have drawn fire for years.

AMERICA’S GOT TALENT — “Judge Cuts 4” Episode 1411 — Pictured: Jay Leno — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Comedian and longtime “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno made a career out of lame jokes aimed at geriatrics. Now, he’s apologizing for the ones that played on Asian stereotypes.

Variety (“Jay Leno Apologizes for Decades of Jokes About Asians: ‘In My Heart I Knew It Was Wrong’“):

Late-night host and comedian Jay Leno has issued an apology for a series of jokes told over his career targeting Asian communities.

The apology comes after a nearly 15-year campaign from the activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) for remarks as recent as Variety’s 2020 report that Leno cracked about Koreans eating dog meat — a complaint that offended numerous players on the set of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

“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.”

In light of that, Leno said, “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 consuming dog meat. Long outspoken about his routines, MANAA’s Aoki said he appealed to Leno’s new employers at Fox, where he hosts the game show “You Bet Your Life,” initially offering them an ultimatum of firing the host or MANAA would approach sponsors to boycott the project.

After appealing to Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy, and producers Tom Werner and David Hurwitz, Aoki connected with Leno. A spokesperson for Leno confirmed his apology but did not comment further.

Leno, who turns 71 next month, was considered a cutting-edge humorist in his early standup days. But, by the time he took over Tonight he was delivering the same tired bits as every other late-night host, just better. Even though he’s well past retirement age and surely doesn’t need the money, he’s still doing more than 200 shows a year.

Even though it’s coming under mild duress, one presumes his apology is sincere. He was just tryin to make people laugh, not hurt anyone’s feelings.

I’m not exactly sure what it says that he felt fine making these jokes as recently as last year. He wouldn’t have made comparably stereotyped jokes about Blacks or Hispanics. While those were common well into the 1970s, our cultural sensibilities changed long ago. Leno’s whole persona was about not offending people, so one presumes he just thought these stereotypes were harmless.

That jokes about eating dog meat were the focus of the complaints, though, is a bit odd. While certainly not a common practice among Asian-Americans, it’s very much a thing in Asia. Taiwan banned it in 2017, becoming the first Asian country to do so. South Korea asked restaurants not to serve it in cities hosting Olympic events during the winter 2018 games but most refused. The first two cities in China only just banned the practice a year ago.

It is, by all accounts, a longstanding cultural tradition, based on mythologies that dog meat held properties that would bring “warm energy” during the winter, that’s mostly died out with younger generations as these countries become wealthier and keeping dogs and cats as pets has become more common. Humane Society International cites the “30 million” number of dogs and cats eaten annually as a sign that it remains a huge problem but, of course, that’s not a lot when you consider there are some 4.5 billion Asians and over a billion people in China alone.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Humor, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    I’m Team Letterman.

    4
  2. James Joyner says:

    @Teve: I found Letterman funnier, at least in the early years, but he would have been a poor choice to take over “Tonight.” His style was more acerbic and therefore better suited to the younger viewer for late-night. I do think, however, that Letterman got lazy and started phoning it in in his later years, something Leno never did.

    1
  3. JohnMcC says:

    I always thought he was fairly amusing but not in the highest ranks of comedians. First rate car museum, though.

    3
  4. MarkedMan says:

    I never really liked Leno. From the earliest days his jokes seemed stale and lazy, and yes, moronically offensive from time to time. “Chinese people eat dogs!” is just lazy watermelon jokes moved into a “safe” area. This area is off the safe list, which was actually pretty predictable. Letterman was much more talented, but I never liked him because of his propensity to find some poor schmuck and humiliate them without them even being aware of it. He was a kiss-up/kick-down kind of guy. A huge turnoff.

    5
  5. charon says:

    https://twitter.com/ianbremmer/status/1374727173534273539

    Intent to get vaccinated by religious affiliation in the US:

    Atheists: 90%

    Agnostics: 80%

    Catholics: 77%

    Black protestants: 64%

    White evangelical protestants: 54%

    White evangelicals: 45%

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @charon: What’s the difference between white evangelicals and white evangelical protestants?

  7. just nutha says:

    @charon: Who constitutes [non-Protestant] White Evangelicals? Just curious.

  8. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan: @just nutha:
    I’m wondering the same thing.

    And why was this posted in the Jay Leno thread? Just curious.

  9. charon says:
  10. charon says:

    @CSK:

    And why was this posted in the Jay Leno thread? Just curious.

    Because I didn’t notice which thread I was in.