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Jay Leno Apologizes for Long History of Racist Asian Jokes

"At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless"

Jay Leno
Jay Leno, photo via NBC
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Jay Leno has issued an apology for his long history of racist jokes about Asian communities.

For years, the former Tonight Show host has made wisecracks about North Koreans and other Asian populations consuming dog meat, which is an offensive stereotype with subhuman and/or morally inferior implications. According to Variety, the activist group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) has spent the last 15 years lobbying for Leno to stop and apologize for his remarks, which he reportedly continued to make as recently as 2020 on the set of America’s Got Talent.

Now, one week after the Atlanta spa shooting that left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent, Leno has decided to come forward and apologize for his egregiously offensive attempts at humor. “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 (via Variety). “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,” he continued. “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 70-year-old then delivered a preemptive rebuke to prospective defenders who will inevitably label this “cancel culture” and treat it like a situation in which free speech is being suppressed. “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,” he continued. “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.”

Although Leno seems earnest enough in his statement, it reportedly wasn’t something that he crafted up on his own accord. As Variety notes, MANAA’s Aoki, who had spent years condemning Leno’s jokes, approached Fox, where Leno currently hosts You Bet Your Life, and proposed an ultimatum: either they fire Leno from the game show, or MANAA would solicit the show’s sponsors for a boycott.

Eventually, Aoki was put into contact with Leno and obviously convinced him to issue the apology we have today. A spokesperson for Leno confirmed to Variety that Leno was involved with the statement, but he didn’t offer any further comments.

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