LOS ANGELES— Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, has resolved its decades-long grievances against former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno.
Between 2002 and 2012, Leno made at least nine documented jokes about Koreans or Chinese eating dogs or cats. The day after the first of those jokes in February 2002, then Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC, of which MANAA is a founding member) chair Karen Narasaki and the Executive Director of Korean American Coalition had a conference call with Leno, who insisted some Koreans ate dogs. Narasaki countered, “Well, is it also true that some African Americans eat friend chicken and watermelon?” “Well, yeah…” “So are you going to make jokes about that?” “Well, no…” “Why not?” “Well, because [bandleader] Kevin Eubanks is my friend, and I wouldn’t want to upset him.”
At the end of the conversation, Leno said if he’d known how much the jokes upset people, he wouldn’t have done them.
Shortly after the phone call, then NBC Senior VP of Diversity Paula Madison met with Leno, and in 2019 told MANAA: “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.
“[I told him] 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.”
“The equivalent situation would be that whenever Leno mentioned black people in his monologue, he would only and always joke about them eating friend chicken and watermelon,” says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki. “Would he have gotten away with that for 10 years? 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. 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.”
Less than a year later in February 2003, Leno proceeded to do similar jokes at least eight more times over the next 10 years even as Aoki repeatedly asked NBC for a meeting with him. Instead, in the Fall of 2012, NBC set up a conference call with another member of the APAMC and Leno and his producers, who were very defensive about the jokes and continued doing them. NBC then denied Aoki a dialogue with the comedian.
Leno’s jokes finally ended in December of that year after members of the APAMC targeted Leno’s advertisers asking them to drop their commercials from his show. Then NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt told Leno and his producers, “The jokes will stop.” And they did…
Until April of 2019 when Leno was a guest judge on another NBC show, “America’s Got Talent.” As cameras followed the comedian around the production offices, he saw a portrait of Simon Cowell with dogs. Leno quipped—in front of an Asian American staffer–that it looked like something you’d see “on the menu of a Korean restaurant!” Judge Gabrielle Union was upset and wanted producers to report it to Human Resources, but they didn’t.
Variety reported on the incident in November 2019, and the following month, MANAA wrote a letter to NBC executives including Paul Telegdy (then NBC Entertainment Chair) and Meredith Ahr (then President, Alternative and Reality Group) asking them to cut business ties with Leno including his CNBC series “Jay Leno’s Garage.” No one responded.
In May 2020, a white-washed investigation headed by Telegdy found nothing wrong. In June, Union filed a complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. NBC launched another investigation, which ended with Telegdy and Ahr getting fired for creating a hostile work environment.
In November, two months after Jay Leno was named the host of the rebooted classic TV game show “You Bet Your Life” for Fox, Aoki wrote a letter to Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy, producers Tom Werner (“Roseanne,” “That ‘70s Show”) and David Hurwitz asking them to fire Leno or MANAA would go after their advertisers.
Aoki spoke with Werner and Hurwitz and the following day, Leno agreed to talk to Aoki. But no meeting was arranged after almost three months, so Aoki gave the three men two weeks to arrange one through Zoom. It was set up the following day with Aoki, MANAA President Rob Chan and VP Lawrence Lim.
“At the time I did those jokes,” says Leno, “I genuinely thought them to be harmless. 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. 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.”
Examples of harassment over perceptions of Koreans eating dogs during Leno’s “Tonight Show” days
During his probationary period, a Korean American FAA employee was harassed for weeks by his supervisor who made cracks like, ‘Hey, I heard that Koreans eat dogs, is that true?’ and ‘Hey have you or your family eaten dogs?’ Despite passing his written tests with flying colors, this young man did not receive a position as an air traffic controller.
After the opening of the movie Red Dawn—where North Koreans take over the United States—there were many racist tweets like: ‘After seeing Red Dawn I’m suspicious of every Asian I see,’ ‘I now hate all Chinese, Japanese, Asian, Korean people,’ ‘Kinda wanna kill some Asians right now and defend the homeland, thank you Red Dawn for sparking some patriotism in me,’ and ‘Just saw Red Dawn with the boys!…makes me wanna lock-and-load and whoop some Asian ass!’
Asserts Aoki, “These racist tweets reflect how low the threshold is for potential bullying or violence to ignite. The young people who generated these tweets prove that Asian Americans are seen as ‘perpetual foreigners.’
More recent examples of harassment
In April, someone wrote “Stop eating dogs” on the outside of a Michelin-starred Korean restaurant in New York City.
Last October, the L.A. County Human Relations Commission reported 25 hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans in 2019, the largest number in 12 years. On New Year’s Eve, “Three young Asian males were walking on the Santa Monica Pier when they were attacked by three African American males who yelled, ‘F–k North Koreans! F–k Asians!’”
Anti-Asian sentiment is at a decades-long high, primarily because of misinformation and cracks related to the coronavirus outbreak (e.g. “Kung Flu”, “Chinese Virus”). In September, the resulting increase in hate crimes prompted Congress to pass a measure that demands the condemnation of all forms of racism and scapegoating towards Asian Americans. It also calls on public officials to denounce any anti-Asian sentiment.
Says Rob Chan, “Stop AAPI Hate, a ‘national organization documenting anti-Asian bigotry,’ notes almost 4,000 ‘first-hand accounts of anti-Asian hate.’ These crimes targeting Asian Americans have taken place since March of last year, the beginning of the quarantine period.”
“In San Francisco, an 84-year old Thai man was walking outside his home when a 19-year old ran into him, killing him,” reports Aoki. “In Oakland, a man pushed three Asian American senior citizens to the pavement from behind. In a New York subway, someone slashed a Filipino man’s face with a box-cutter knife, which required almost 100 stitches. On our Zoom call, I told Jay there’s often no negotiating with these assailants. Sometimes, they don’t communicate with their victims. They 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. It’s open season on Asian Americans now with new reports coming in almost every day. Last September, the NYPD reported hate crimes against Asian Americans jumped 1900% from last year. On Facebook, people are warning others, ‘Don’t let your parents or grandparents go out alone! You go with them!’ It’s scary.
“In February, a woman in New York City was verbally attacked by a man not wearing a mask over his face, repeatedly asking, ‘Yo, why do Chinese people eat dogs?’ until she ran away from him.”
Says Leno, “I was shocked and saddened by what has been happening to my fellow citizens in the Asian community. 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.”
Rob Chan concludes, “I’m happy that Jay came around, and that we will be working together in the future. We look forward to supporting Jay’s efforts to do a better job at using his public platform to stamp out systemic racism towards the AAPI community.”
MANAA has already helped Leno find an Asian American guest for his upcoming season of “Jay Leno’s Garage.”
Founded in 1992, MANAA is an all-volunteer, 501c(3) non-profit organization that has discussed problematic content with movie studios, newspapers and radio stations. Since 1999, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), MANAA has met annually with the top four television networks pushing for more inclusion of Asian Americans. In 2015, it also promoted that vision with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm, and CAA.