'America's Got Talent': Jay Leno Allegedly Made a Racist Joke While Filming, Offending Staffers

An allegation against Jay Leno is bringing to light several examples of a "toxic culture" at America's Got Talent, a talent show on NBC, Variety reports. In April of this year, the former late night host visited NBCUniversal in Los Angeles to appear as a guest judge on the unscripted program, where he reportedly made a racist joke in the presence of show judges including Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough.

While taping an interstitial segment in a production building on the North Hollywood lot, Leno made a crack about a painting on display in a hallway of Simon Cowell, the show's executive producer and judge, surrounded by dogs. Leno allegedly joked that the pets looked like something one would find "on the menu at a Korean restaurant," four people present for the taping told Variety.

The joke was offensive to individuals at the program, including those who one source described as "the very few Asian staffers" employed by the show, one of whom was present when Leno delivered the line directly to the camera.

jay-leno-americas-got-talent_getty-Justin Lubin:NBC
(Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC, NBC)

Union, who was hired for Season 14 of America's Got Talent, reportedly urged producers to report the joke to human resources at NBC, arguing that production needed to understand why the joke could be offensive. Several insiders said that despite the issue of reporting to HR being specifically raised with an NBC executive on set, it was never escalated to that department.

The joke was cut from the episode when it aired on Aug. 6.

But the incident with Leno is reportedly just one of the several examples that insiders called a "toxic culture" at the show. Similarly, sources said that Union and Hough, who were cut from the show following Season 14, received excessive notes on their physical appearance. Two insiders familiar with the set told Variety that Hough received consistent criticism on hair, makeup and wardrobe, which impacted her morale and led to tensions. Hough denied that in a statement to the publication, saying that she "loved working with the cast, crew and producers" of AGT and expressed excitement for her two upcoming NBC shows, Holidays With the Hough and Christmas in Rockefeller Center.

Union was reportedly subjected to critiques that her rotating hair styles were "too black" for the AGT audiences, a note that four sources with direct knowledge of the exchanges said she received over half a dozen times.

Another related incident included Union and other staffers expressing concern over a white male performer crossing a line in portraying people of color. While he appeared in the guise of Beyoncé, his hands appeared as black, meant to be a character accent, three witnesses to his audition said. Union reportedly recommended to producers that he be removed from the lineup, but was told, "We'll take it out later," which is reportedly a common refrain used on set. She reportedly told producers the show's live audience should not be subjected to something racially insensitive, but the performer was sent to stage and his live audition was later cut from the episode.


Nick Cannon, who hosted AGT for seven seasons, resigned abruptly in 2017 in a scathing Facebook post that condemned NBC. In a comedy special for Showtime, he joked about AGT's squeaky clean image, saying he could no longer use the N-word in his own comedy routines. He said NBC attempted to retaliate when they caught wind of the bit.

"I was to be punished for a joke ... My soul won't allow me to be in business with corporations that attempt to frown on freedom of speech, censor artists, and question cultural choices," Cannon wrote at the time. "Not to get too detailed but this isn't the first time executives have attempted to 'put me in my place' for so-called unruly actions."