Jay Leno Says Former ‘Tonight Show’ Employee Is Why He Stopped Telling Jokes About Transgender People

Jay Leno says the reaction of a member of his former Tonight Show staff of a joke he made about transgender people resulted in his apologies and vowed never to make transgenders the target of his jokes again.

The former TV host and comedian shared the story while appearing as a guest on the latest episode of Club random with Bill Maher. The two were discussing his tumultuous history of entering and exiting late night hosting gigs — including controversies involving David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien — when Maher began telling Leno that he’s “a victim of the terrible last viable bias in America: ageism.”

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“You have the idea in your head that you have to go to the meadow,” says the… real time host continued. “As I’m talking to you now, you’re exactly the same guy who was there then, so I don’t think your brain is impaired.”

Leno responded by saying that how he sees himself and frames his roller coaster late into the night was because he’s “a big believer in low self-esteem.”

“I think it’s the key to success because if you think you’re not the smartest person in the room, shut up and listen,” he said.

He explains that that helped keep him in check as he hosted the show for over two decades, with the former host turning to his own team to ensure he remained humble.

“When I Got” The Tonight Show“I hired the best producer I could, the best director, who I thought were the best writers. I gave them annual contracts, not 13 weeks. I said, “Do your best.” We’ve had the same crew for 22 years. When they told me the show was bad, I’d say, ‘Why would it be so bad?’ And they would tell me why it was so bad.”

When Maher steps in to ask Leno if he’s talking about someone on his staff being a jerk “to have you say that,” Leno confirms that he was listening to the thoughts of more than just the show’s senior creative team members.

“My theory was that anyone can pull the string and stop the train,” he says. “I remember one time we had a man in the basement that I didn’t know. I had made a transgender joke at the time and I heard that this man was really hurt by it. So I went down to see him and he explained the situation.”

Leno says he listened to that employee and said, “My apologies” after hearing how hurtful it was. He then made a promise about his jokes going forward, noting that “here’s the thing: you’re only as good as your last joke.”

“I said you’ll never hear a transgender joke from me again,” Leno recalls. “He was so impressed that he was able to bring this show to a halt with his only complaint. [He] turned out to be the best light man or sound man, whatever he did, we had.”

“For me,” he finished, “it worked for me.”

Leno previously apologized for making racist jokes against the Asian community throughout his career, including as a guest who judged America’s Got Talent — comments that were heavily criticized by the Asian community for years.

In a 2021 conversation with Guy Aoki, leader of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), Leno spoke of his perpetuation of stereotypes about North Korea and Koreans, dismissing that this was “another example of cancel culture” and in instead “a legitimate mistake was made on my part.”

“At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that a group was always complaining about something, so don’t worry,” said the comedian. “Every time we received a complaint, there would be two sides to the discussion: either ‘we need to fix this’ or ‘blow them up if they can’t take a joke.’ Too often I sided with the latter, even when I knew in my heart it was wrong.”

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