HomeKorean AmericanUPDATED: Jay Leno recycles racist joke in 2019 despite uproar 17 years...

UPDATED: Jay Leno recycles racist joke in 2019 despite uproar 17 years ago

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Photo by Alan Light via Wikimedia Creative Commons

By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent

(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional instances of Leno spouting jokes offensive to Asian Americans.)

Former late night talk show host Jay Leno is known for his collection of antique cars. He apparently likes old and outdated jokes too.

As we reported, Gabrielle Union of NBC’s America’s Got Talent recently called out Leno for joking during a taping that the dogs he saw in a photo looked like something you might find “on the menu of a Korean restaurant.”

AsAmNews has since learned this isn’t the first time Leno has been blasted for using a Korean dog joke. Back in 2002, he met over the phone with members of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition after making a similar joke on the Tonight Show.

Referring to a South Korean Olympian who had been disqualified from the short track competition, Leno said in his monologue, skater Kim Dong-sung “was so mad he went home and kicked the dog, and then ate him.”

CBS reported back then that NBC defended the joke as “irreverent comedy,” and said Leno did not intend to offend the Korean community. The chair of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition, Karen Narasaki was quoted after the meeting that Leno was gracious during the conversation and said he wouldn’t have told the joke had he known it was offensive.

It’s not known why if that’s the case, Leno chose to regurgitate the joke 17 years later. Efforts to reach Leno through his publicist were unsuccessful. Our inquiries were ignored.

This new information from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans may explain why.

MANAA has documented at least four other instances of jokes demeaning to Korean Americans and other Asian Americans, including one less than a year after the 2002 monologue. NBC finally pledged in 2012, according to MANAA, to inform Leno that such jokes would no longer be tolerated. This was only after MANAA and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition targeted Tonight Show sponsors. In the latest incident, NBC edited out Leno’s Korean dog joke from America’s Got Talent.

AsAmNews also reached out to Paula Madison who in 2002 worked for NBC as President and general manager of one of its flagship local stations, KNBC in Los Angeles. Madison referred us to her recent comments on Facebook.

“When Jay Leno hosted the Tonight Show, he regularly spoke about Koreans ONLY in the context of eating dogs. I met with him as a result of frequent complaints from the AAPI community.

“I asked him if he had Asian American writers in his writers’ room,  and if he had other joke topics to share about Koreans. His answer to both was no.

“My reply to him as NBC Diversity leader was that until his answer to those questions was yes, that he needed to stop with those jokes. I also said if he continued, I would direct the complainants to his office phone. He stopped — for a bit.

“And, given a chance, he’s back at it. There are indeed many global and domestic cultural differences among us. It’s how we highlight those differences that we must consider.”

Frank Wu, Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings, wrote about the Leno incident in 2002. Wu told AsAmNews if he had a chance to meet with Leno, he would simply tell him, ” Man, you need new material.”

“These issues never go away,” continued Wu. “From the kid doing karate moves to the kid pulling back their eyes into a slant to the common cruelties of the playground, it all has an adult version, just as powerful. The problem is for people who tell the jokes, but who aren’t always the butt of jokes, it genuinely seems trivial. They don’t comprehend the trauma. You don’t have to be a hypersensitive PC soul to be troubled — you can’t establish your equality in an environment that denigrates your ancestors.”

We also reached out to NBC which chose to not directly reply to our questions. Instead it reissued a statement it had sent to other media.

“While there will be a further investigation to get a deeper understanding of the facts, we are working with Gabrielle to come to a positive resolution,” NBC stated.

Wu hopes the network will go further.


“This is a teaching moment,” he said to AsAmNews. The joke isn’t even funny. It’s a cliche. That is what is so stupid. By now, Asian Americans have demonstrated, if there ever was doubt, that we have a sense of humor, and we can be funny too. Let’s get more Asian faces on television, in roles that allow us to flip the script.”

MANAA is asking NBC to cut all business ties with Leno. His production company is housed on the NBC Studio lot in Southern California.

AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our  Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff or submitting a story.

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