Actress Gabrielle Union, who was let go as a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” recently revealed that in April, she complained about guest judge Jay Leno making a joke about Koreans eating dogs after seeing a picture of judge Simon Cowell with dogs.
In response, Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) issued the following statement.
MANAA has been well aware of Leno’s habit of making these jokes about “man’s best friend.” Over a 10-year period, we and other members of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (which has met with the networks since 1999/2000 to push for better inclusion and depiction of Asian Americans) met and corresponded with NBC executives about this.
Then-NBC Executive Vice President of Diversity Paula Madison also had a confrontation with the then-“Tonight Show” host, but the matter only got resolved after the APAMC’s second attempt to go after Leno’s advertisers in 2012.
“It took two conference calls, countless meetings with NBC executives, even admonishment from a high-ranking NBC executive and two advertiser campaigns to get Jay Leno to stop after 10 years,” says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki. “Given that after all this time, Leno has been an unrepentant repeat offender and still has a bizarre fixation with Asians eating dogs, MANAA is asking NBC to end its business relationship with him.” (CNBC has aired several seasons of “Jay Leno’s Garage.”)
In a December 2012 letter to “The Tonight Show” advertisers, Aoki explained the significance of these jokes: “Many Americans are unable to distinguish between persons of Korean heritage living in North Korea, South Korea or the U.S., or between Asians and Asian Americans generally. Therefore, when Mr. Leno jokes about North Koreans and the consumption of dogs and cats, he perpetuates a persistent belief held by many Americans that Asian Americans and Korean Americans are perpetual foreigners who bring their objectionable dining habits to the U.S…
“We are not accepted as real Americans; rather, we are subjected to ridicule, disdain and abuse, which has resulted in a rise in racial profiling and hate crimes against Asians, Asian Americans and immigrants.
“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 recent 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!’
“These racist tweets reflect how low the threshold is for potential bullying or violence to precipitate. The young people that generated these tweets prove that Asian Americans are seen as ‘perpetual foreigners.’
“A double standard exists in contemporary American culture. There is nothing wrong with anyone eating fried chicken, collard greens or watermelon, but Mr. Leno would never make a joke about African Americans eating those foods because it’s a stereotype that would offend the black community.
“In 1997 after Tiger Woods won the Masters, a controversy ensued after a competitor joked that Woods would be serving chicken and collard greens at the Masters Champions dinner. That golfer, Fuzzy Zoeller, lost endorsements because of this comment. Yet for more than a decade, Mr. Leno has had no problem perpetuating the impression that it’s a widespread practice for Asians to eat ‘man’s best friend’ (it’s not).”
A timeline of events follows.
On Feb. 26, 2002, after South Korean skater Kim Dong Sung lost the gold medal in the 1,500-meter short-track skating competition to Apolo Anton Ohno, Leno joked on “The Tonight Show,” “He was so mad, he went home and kicked the dog, and then ate him!” **The L.A. Times** reported about 48,000 people launched an email campaign at NBC.
The following day, leaders of two Asian American groups spoke to Leno on a conference, including Karen Narasaki (then-chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition). On Feb. 28, NBC issued a statement saying, “We want to assure the Korean community that it was not the intent of the show, Jay Leno or NBC to offend them.”
The day after that, Narasaki shared with Reuters her conversation with Leno, saying that explained that context was everything and that such humor amounts to ethnic stereotyping. “We said for example that while it’s true that some African Americans eat fried chicken and watermelon, you wouldn’t make a joke about it. [In the end, Leno] didn’t say, ‘I apologize.’ But he 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.”
Unbeknownst to MANAA, Paula Madison now reveals to us that she met with Leno shortly after that article appeared: “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. [Now,] 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.”
Less than a year later on Feb. 10, 2003, in his monologue, Leno said: “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.”
The following night, in a mock game show called “Name That Sound,” Gilbert Gottfried played North Korean leader Kim Jong-il while others impersonated President Bush and Joe Millionaire. Leno played a recording of a dog howling. “Kim” buzzed to answer. “My dinner howling at the moon!” Leno: “That’s correct: Your dinner howling at the moon! Dog howling — that’s correct!” The show ran footage of Kim eating dog and the audience groaned in disgust.
On Feb. 19, 2003, in a conference call with NBC executives, MANAA President Aki Aleong wanted a public apology from Leno and NBC, the jokes to be edited out of future broadcasts and DVD releases, and a Korean American guest on “The Tonight Show” to discuss race issues and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Koreans in America.
After an Asian American group wrote a letter to NBC protesting the jokes, an executive defended the comedian, writing that his humor “falls well within the parameters of what ‘The Tonight Show’ regularly does… Regarding the dog-eating joke, it is documented that, while perhaps not widely accepted, eating dog is an open practice in Korea.”
On April 11, Narasaki’s group, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (now Asian Americans Advancing Justice), and another Asian American organization announced that they and the APAMC had sent letters to nine of the show’s sponsors asking them to “raise concerns about Mr. Leno’s objectionable references and portrayals.”
On June 10, in a meeting with NBC and the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition (which includes NAACP, Latino and Native American groups), Aleong and Narasaki raised the issue.
In early March 2005, NBC held a “Diversity Day” seminar where the heads of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition informed NBC writers and producers of ethnic stereotypes and what they’d like to see instead. After the advocates left, the creative people were shown videos of various stereotyped things, including Leno joking about Koreans eating dogs. If the creative people didn’t understand why something was offensive, it was explained to them.
In late August/early September 2011, just three months after Madison left the company, Leno joked on the “Tonight Show” that the economy was so bad, “My cat sold my dog to a Chinese restaurant.” On March 26, 2012, Leno joked about President Obama’s meeting with South Korea’s president. “Obama was made to understand that it’s a man-eat-dog kind of world.”
Despite repeated requests for a meeting with Leno, Aoki was denied.
On April 13, 2012, Leno talked about North Korea’s failed missile launch: “Kim Jong Un was so upset, he went home, kicked his dog, then ate him!” On July 24: “A North Korean man has announced that his dog has given birth to a kitten. A half dog and half cat. Or as they call that in North Korea, a combo platter. Kind of a mixed grill.”
On Oct. 2, Leno referred to a Chinese restaurant in Kentucky that was closed after a roadkill deer was found in the kitchen (the owner said he was taking it home to eat and wasn’t going to serve it to customers). Leno’s joke wasn’t based on the facts: “Did you hear? The owner’s explanation for the dead deer was that … ‘We ran out of cat!’”
This led to a member of APAMC speaking on a conference call with Leno and the show’s producer. Another dog-eating joke followed on Dec. 3, and on Dec. 6, 2012, APAMC decided to once again target Leno’s sponsors. By Dec. 18, an NBC executive manager responded to letters from advertisers and groups saying he’d communicated with Leno and his staff that the dog jokes were “not acceptable,” and he was assured they would stop.
They did until Leno’s appearance on “America’s Got Talent” in April.
In January 2017 on his talk show, Steve Harvey made a racist crack expressing disbelief that any woman of any race would find Asian men attractive. Based on that one incident, MANAA asked NBC to cancel his show. Given Jay Leno’s repeated insistence on doing jokes about Koreans and Chinese eating dogs or cats for almost two decades, MANAA is asking NBC to cut its business ties with Leno.
We thank Gabrielle Union for her courage for standing up to this and many other important issues regarding her AGT experience.