Jay Leno recently shared how feedback from his former Tonight Show staff led him to stop making jokes about transgender people.
The former Tonight Show host was a guest on Bill Maher's latest episode of Maher's podcast, Club Random. As the pair exchanged stories from Leno's time hosting late-night shows, Maher described the 72-year-old as, "a victim of the terrible last viable prejudice in America: ageism."
"You have this idea in your head that you have to go out to pasture," Maher elaborated. "As I talk to you now, you're exactly the same guy who was there then, so I don't think your brain is diminished."
In response, Leno accredited his "low self-esteem" as his "key to success." He continued by saying he believes that, "when you don't think you're the smartest person in the room, you shut up and you listen."
The comedian discussed how he hired a trustworthy crew for his talk show, so he could be held accountable on episodes on the Tonight Show.
"We had the same crew for 22 years. When they would tell me the show sucked, I would go, 'Why'd it suck?' And they'd tell me why it sucked." Leno highlighted his theory that "anybody can pull the cord and stop the train."
Recalling a story that resonated with him, Leno shared, "One time we had a guy in the basement who I didn't know. I had done at the time a transgender joke, and I heard this guy was really hurt about it. So I go down to see him and he explained the situation."
He immediately apologized upon hearing the weight of his joke. "You're only as good as your last joke," Leno told Maher, "I said you'll never hear another transgender joke from me again."
The staffer appreciated Leno's sincerity and understanding of the situation, and Leno went on to say that he "turned out to be the greatest lighting guy or sound guy, whatever he did, that we had."
Maher has been criticized previously over his comments about LGBTQ+ people, especially about trans people.
Leno has also apologized in the past for racist parts of his comedy, which included joking about the Asian community, the Hollywood Reporter notes. The outlet reports that during a 2021 conversation with Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), Leno said that the backlash from his jokes wasn't "another example of cancel culture," but was "a legitimate wrong that was done on my part."
He added that "there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don't worry about it.
"Whenever we received a complaint, there would be two sides to the discussion: either 'We need to deal with this' or 'Screw 'em if they can't take a joke.' Too many times I sided with the latter even when in my heart I knew it was wrong."