Jay Leno apologizes for years of anti-Asian jokes

Daniel Victor,

New York Times Service

March 26, 2021 | 11:49 AM

Jay Leno, the longtime “Tonight Show” host, apologized for a history of making anti-Asian jokes, saying that at the time he “genuinely thought them to be harmless” but now hopes for forgiveness from Asian Americans.

The comedian said in a joint statement with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a watchdog group that tracks anti-Asian comments and incidents in the media and entertainment industries, that he had an attitude at the time that “some group is always complaining about something, so don’t worry about it.” Whenever the show received a complaint, he said, the response was divided into two camps: “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 said. “That is why 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.”

It was a recent realization. In 2019, Leno, who hosted “The Tonight Show” from 1992 to 2014, made an offensive anti-Asian joke while filming a commercial for “America’s Got Talent,” actor and producer Gabrielle Union told Variety.

MANAA, the watchdog group, had complained for decades about Leno’s jokes that relied on stereotypes of Asians, to no avail. Rob Chan, the president of the group, said in the statement that he was “happy that Jay came around, and that we will be working together in the future.”

Leno is slated to host a rebooted game show, “You Bet Your Life,” starting in the fall.

Leno’s apology came as Asian Americans have endured rising discrimination and racist language during the coronavirus pandemic, while also processing the trauma of a recent mass shooting in the Atlanta area in which six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. Leno said he would be “deeply hurt and ashamed if somehow my words did anything to incite this violence.”

Some Asian Americans have long argued that their concerns about anti-Asian speech are frequently dismissed as trivial. Asian Americans have historically been underrepresented in Hollywood and in comedy, and in 2016, a bit by the comedian Chris Rock that relied on Asian stereotypes made it to the Oscars ceremony.

While late-night comedians pick a variety of targets, it’s not the first time Leno has been criticized for jokes that got laughs at the time. Recently, a documentary about Britney Spears by The New York Times brought increased scrutiny to jokes by several late-night hosts about her mental health. Leno has not apologized to the singer, though others, including Justin Timberlake and some publications, have said they regret their behavior.

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