Jay Leno, the man whose offensive joke kicked off an avalanche of backstage drama at America’s Got Talent, has finally spoken out about the controversy. The Daily Mail interviewed Leno on camera after his set at a Los Angeles comedy club on Sunday night. While Leno refused to answer any questions about his quip, which compared a photo of Simon Cowell with his dogs to something you’d see “on the menu at a Korean restaurant,” he did speak out in praise for ousted judge Gabrielle Union. He called the star a “great girl,” but again, only mimed silence when pushed about his own contribution to the controversy.
News broke last week that Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough were fired from America’s Got Talent after enduring what Variety called a “toxic culture.” In Union’s case, the dismissal was particularly controversial. Not only did she receive a number of notes about her appearance, most notably ones complaining that her hair was “too black,” but she pushed to report Jay Leno’s offensive joke to human resources.
In April 2019, Leno swung by America’s Got Talent to film an interstitial segment along with Union and Hough. It was during this shoot that Leno made the joke comparing Simon Cowell and his dogs to Korean food. Variety reported that multiple staffers found the joke offensive, including one of America’s Got Talent‘s “very few Asian staffers,” who was in fact present for Leno’s joke. Union immediately requested that the producers of the show report Leno’s comments to human resources so that there could be a conversation about why comments like his could be hurtful or offensive. At the time, her request was not escalated to that department, but the joke was cut from broadcast.
Union’s dismissal from America’s Got Talent was surprising given how Variety also reports that she was the most popular judge based on figures from Nielsen Social. About half of the last season’s 25 million social media impressions were engaged directly with Union. Last week, Union’s husband, Dwayne Wade tweeted about his wife’s dismissal and implied she was fired for “standing up for what she stands for.”