Jay Leno Breaks Silence on Gabrielle Union's AGT Firing After Allegedly Objecting to His Joke
Gabrielle Union reportedly took issue with a racial joke the comedian made during an appearance as a guest judge on America's Got Talent
“I love Gabrielle Union. She’s a great girl. I really enjoyed working with her,” he told TMZ. “She’s really good.”
When asked if she was treated fairly on the hit competition series, Leno said, “I don’t know … but I think she’s a great girl.”
News broke on Nov. 22 that Union and Julianne Hough — who joined the season 14 AGT judging panel in February, replacing Mel B and Heidi Klum — would not be returning for the show’s 15th season. A day later, a report by Variety claimed that while working on the show, Union had expressed concerns over racially insensitive situations during her time as a judge, including a joke Leno allegedly made during a stint as a guest judge that was later edited out of the episode.
According to Variety, Leno allegedly joked about a painting on the wall that featured Simon Cowell — who serves as a judge and executive producer — surrounded by his dogs. Sources on the series told the outlet he joked the dogs looked like something one would find “on the menu at a Korean restaurant,” alluding to the stereotype that all Asian people eat dog meat.
Multiple people who were on set during the joke, Variety reported, including one Asian staffer, were offended and made uncomfortable by it.
Union also soon learned of the joke and allegedly urged producers to report the joke to NBC’s human resources department in an effort to bring awareness to the problematic issue, three sources told Variety. Despite her push, several insiders told the outlet that it was never addressed by HR. It was eventually cut by producers from the Aug. 6 episode.
Representatives for Hough, Union, and Leno have not responded to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.
Syco Entertainment, NBC and Fremantle said in a statement to PEOPLE on Sunday: “We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture. We are working with Ms. Union through her representatives to hear more about her concerns, following which we will take whatever next steps may be appropriate.”
Along with racial insensitivities, Union and Hough, 31, were also both subject to “excessive notes” on their physical appearance, sources alleged in Variety‘s report. In one instance, Union was reportedly told her ever-changing hairstyles were “too black” for AGT‘s audience, while Hough reportedly received constant criticism on her hair, makeup and wardrobe.
However, in a statement to Variety, Hough denied that she had a negative experience working on the show. “I had a wonderful time on America’s Got Talent, I loved working with the cast, crew, and producers. I am happy to continue my working relationship with NBC,” said Hough, who is set to star in two upcoming NBC Christmas specials. “I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”
Union broke her silence on her controversial departure Wednesday, thanking her followers for their support. “So many tears, so much gratitude,” she tweeted. “THANK YOU! Just when you feel lost, adrift, alone… you got me up off the ground. Humbled and thankful, forever.”