In the ’90s, it seemed as if I was always defending Jay Leno. When the Emmy nominations were announced, his name was usually missing, but less funny critical favorites like David Letterman would get the nod not just for “Best Show” but “Best Writing.” I rolled my eyes.
No matter how well Leno did in beating Letterman week after week since 1995, the press would only focus on the weeks when Dave did better than usual. They dismissed Leno as an everyman comedian with no edge, safe for the masses.
Screw that. Joke for joke, he was funniest. Letterman fooled everyone with his curmudgeon personality. His material was rarely funny. I gave up switching to watch his Top 10 lists when I realized, on average, only two of them were funny (the rest often made no sense at all).
Leno also seemed to be progressive in his humor. When the O.J. Simpson case was inescapable, most comedians couldn’t help themselves — they focused on the fact that Judge Lance Ito was Asian. With the exception of one skit — “Ito” called the lawyers in for a conference and then did a Benihana routine — Leno’s jokes focused on what happened in court that day. I appreciated that. He wasn’t a predictable simpleton like so many of the others.
In 1998, at an anniversary party for Dick and Kari Clark at their home in Malibu, I expressed my frustration to Leno, saying the critics never gave him a break and that he was funnier than Letterman. He appreciated it but quickly reminded me that Letterman was funny too.
I told him how much I appreciated him not focusing on Ito’s ethnicity. “Aw, naw, naw,” he said in his much-imitated whiny voice, “dere’s no need fo dat!” Also that when he did skits with children, he featured kids of all ethnicities, Asians included.
In 2000 when NBC held its Diversity Seminar for all their writers and producers, Leno was the lunch speaker, and he said he was always mindful about including a mix of people in everything he did. I reminded him of our conversation and thanked him again for being a good example of getting what diversity’s supposed to be all about.
But beginning in 2002, I caught Leno making jokes about Chinese restaurants serving and Korean people eating dogs. After South Korean skater Kim Dong Sung lost the gold medal in the 1500-meter short-track skating competition to Apolo Anton Ohno, Leno quipped, “He was so mad, he went home and kicked the dog, and then ate him!”
Karen Narasaki and Charles Kim of Korean American Coalition had a conference call with Leno, who said he researched it and some people in Korea did, in fact, eat dog. Well, he was asked, is it also true that some blacks eat fried chicken and watermelon? Well, yeah… Are you going to do jokes about that? Well, no… Why not? Because [his then-bandleader]Kevin Eubanks is his friend and Leno wouldn’t want to upset him.
No, because the NAACP would’ve called for your firing the very next day.
See, that would’ve been the equivalent: Every time a black person is in the news, make a joke about him eating fried chicken and watermelon. Leno wouldn’t do it not because there’s anything wrong with that activity but because it’s a stereotype against black people.
But the preponderance of jokes about Asians eating dog created the false impression that it was that common and encouraged resentment against “savages” who would eat man’s best friend. Big difference. And because the jokes involved Koreans nationals but also Chinese restaurants in the States, people weren’t going to distinguish between foreign Asians and Asian Americans.
Narasaki told Reuters that Leno “said he didn’t intend to offend anybody or hurt anybody, and if he had known then what we were telling him he wouldn’t have told the joke.” But knowing that it did, Leno still persisted.
The following year: “Oh, in Colorado, state legislatures there announced they want to change the legal status of cats and dogs from property to companions. Dog and cat would be a companion rather than property. Very similar to legislation in North Korea, where they changed the status of cats and dogs from appetizer to entrée.”
In 2011, Leno joked that the economy was so bad, “my cat sold my dog to a Chinese restaurant!” In 2012 on North Korea’s failed missile launch: “Kim Jong Un was so upset, he went home, kicked his dog, then ate him!”
Later that year: “A Chinese buffet restaurant in Kentucky has been closed after a dead deer was found in the kitchen… I mean, road kill that was found on the highway was being brought into the kitchen and was being prepared! I love this! Oh yeah!… Did you hear? The owner’s explanation for the dead deer was that … ‘we ran out of cat!’”
Over the years, I’d asked NBC to let me meet with Leno. I wanted to remind him of my previous praise for him but to explain why these dog-eating jokes were problematic. Although it was promised to me, it never happened. Instead, in October 2012, an executive let another civil rights leader speak to Leno and his producer on a conference call. The comedian was extremely defensive, and it settled nothing.
In fact, the following December, Leno reported: “North Korea’s official news agency now claims to have discovered a unicorn lair… And most citizens in North Korea had the same response when they heard about the unicorns: ‘Hey, can we eat ’em?!’ … Today, North Korea released video of the unicorn. You be the judge, here it is, take a look. Yeah, see that? [A video of a bulldog dressed in a pink outfit with a unicorn horn on top is shown.] I’m not buying it.”
This time, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, which annually meets with the networks pushing for diversity — and of which I was co-chair for two years — had enough. Its various members wrote letters to “Tonight Show” sponsors asking them to raise the issue with NBC. They did. Some even told NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt they’d consider pulling their advertising unless these kinds of jokes stopped. Greenblatt called Leno and told him the dog-eating jokes would end. Finally, they did.
In a sense, I’m still defending Leno today. Quit blaming him for Conan O’Brien’s failure as his replacement. It wasn’t Leno’s idea to leave or return — NBC forced him out then asked him back. Why did the network fire Leno twice — in 2004 (when they gave him five years’ notice) and in 2013 when he’s still #1 in viewers as well as in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 age range? Why doesn’t CBS give Letterman the boot instead? He’s always in second and third place.
Leno was ready to retire anyway? Hell, Johnny Carson talked about leaving “The Tonight Show” for more than a decade before he finally did. On a professional level, I believe Jay Leno should remain at his current gig. (Yes, his replacement, Jimmy Fallon, creates music performances that go viral. But the guy’s just not funny. “Thank-you notes?” Oh, puhleeze. Annoying. And he’s only got four or five jokes in his monologues to Leno’s 20-30. Conan O’Brien was hilarious, and we all know what happened to him.)
But on a personal level, I’m disappointed that the man I thought was better than the rest was, in many ways, the worst of them. Hopefully when history looks back on his dog-eating jokes, it’ll be with a sad shake of the head, and he’ll be regarded as part of an ignorant, older time when comedians uncaringly — and defiantly — perpetuated stereotypes against a group of people even when asked not to.
Leno’s final “Tonight Show” airs tonight. Bye, Jay (shaking my head sadly).
“Indulge Me a Bit…” Department: That was the way Joy Yamauchi began her editorials in The Tozai Times beginning February 1992 in place of Publisher Chet Yamauchi. She reported her father was fighting cancer, which he unfortunately succumbed to in May of that year. I was saddened to learn Joy herself passed away from that same disease this past Jan. 8 at the young age of 58.
Tozai Times was the first publication where I wrote about Asian American subjects (most of the time, I interviewed pop music artists and wrote album reviews for magazines like Music Connection and BAM). I covered everything from the “King of Origami” to filmmaker Steven Okazaki’s “Living on Tokyo Time” (1987) to George Takei’s then-impending star on Hollywood Boulevard (1986).
In 1988, I outlined my concerns about “The Image of the Asian Male” in the media, saying something had to be done to change things. I didn’t quite know what at the time, but four years later, I co-founded MANAA.
The most heartfelt, important piece I wrote was about being part of NCRR’s 1987 lobbying delegation to Washington, D.C. fighting for passage of the redress bill. I remember talking to Joy on the phone after she read it. “Wow, Guy, very sensitive!” She was moved.
When I bumped into Chet after dropping off another article on a Saturday afternoon in their East L.A. offices right next to his Classic Catering business, he offered his encouragement as well: “Hey, that was a great article you did!” Unfortunately, it was almost ruined in the editing process with bizarre changes of tenses here and there and ungrammatical insertions.
Still, I appreciated being allowed to hone my writing skills for the tabloid-sized monthly. Writing for it and Music Connection helped me get a gig at The L.A. Times in 1988 (Joy told my inquiring future boss: “Yeah, Guy never misses a deadline!”).
In a way, some of the spirit of Tozai continues on as regular columnists Wimpy Hiroto and Warren Furutani and cartoonist Neal Yamamoto are nowadays found right here in The Rafu Shimpo. Thanks, Joy.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.