Jimmy Kimmel apologizes for wearing blackface in resurfaced 'Man Show' sketches

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Amid social media cries to #CancelKimmel, late night host Jimmy Kimmel took a break from his summer vacation to apologize for recently resurfaced routines where he portrays basketball star Karl Malone in blackface. “I have long been reluctant to address this, as I knew doing so would be celebrated as a victory by those who equate apologies with weakness and cheer for leaders who use prejudice to divide us,” Kimmel said in a statement. “That delay was a mistake. There is nothing more important to me than your respect, and I apologize to those who were genuinely hurt or offended by the makeup I wore or the words I spoke.”

Kimmel went on to explain that his impression of Malone started when he was a personality on KROQ radio in the late 1990s, an act he reprised as he moved into television with series like The Man Show. “We hired makeup artists to make me look as much like Karl Malone as possible,” his statement reads. “I never considered that this might be seen as anything other than an imitation of a fellow human being, one that had no more to do with Karl’s skin color than it did his bulging muscles and bald head.” Kimmel also acknowledged the other Black celebrities he’s impersonated over the years, including Snoop Dogg and Oprah Winfrey, emphasizing that they were similarly performed without malice at the time. “Looking back, many of these sketches are embarrassing, and it is frustrating that these thoughtless moments have become a weapon used by some to diminish my criticisms of social and other injustices.”

Kimmel concluded by pointing to his evolution and maturation as a comedian and a citizen in the two decades since The Man Show, and made it clear he would continue to push back against those eager to score political points off of his past mistakes. “I know that this will not be the last I hear of this and that it will be used again to try to quiet me. I love this country too much to allow that. I won’t be bullied into silence by those who feign outrage to advance their oppressive and genuinely racist agendas. ... Thank you for giving me an opportunity to explain and to those I’ve disappointed, I am sorry.”

Kimmel released his statement on the same day that Tina Fey requested that four episodes of her hit series 30 Rock be removed from streaming services like Hulu and Amazon Prime, as well as iTunes and Google Play. Two of the episodes in question feature Jane Krakowski — who played flamboyant actress Jenna Maroney — in blackface, while recurring guest star Jon Hamm wears blackface in another. “As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation,” Fey wrote in her letter. “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologize for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for honoring this request.”

On Twitter, Fey came under fire for her Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which features an episode where series star Tituss Burgess plays a Japanese geisha. Krakowski also has a prominent role on that series as a character who is revealed to have Native American ancestry.

Kimmel and Fey are the latest comedians to apologize for racially insensitive material that’s once again in the public eye following the ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May. Last month Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon apologized for wearing blackface to impersonate Chris Rock on an episode of Saturday Night Live from 2000. The British comedy series Little Britain was removed from three streaming services — Netflix, BritBox and BBC iPlayer — based on multiple sketches that featured white stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams playing ethnic characters. Comedy writer Megan Amram recently apologized for offensive tweets about Asian-Americans and Jewish people, and Robert Downey Jr.’s controversial performance in the 2008 satire Tropic Thunder has been regularly cited on the social media platform as offensive, although the actor still hasn’t issued a formal apology.

“Ninety percent of my Black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great,’” Downey remarked on Joe Rogan’s podcast earlier this year. “It’s an interesting and necessary meditation on where is the pendulum? ... You know, there’s a morality clause here on this planet and it’s a big price to pay and I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, ‘Yeah, I effed up.’ Again, not in my defense, but Tropic Thunder was about how wrong that is.”

For now, Tropic Thunder remains available to stream until July 1 on HBO Max, which recently pulled Gone With the Wind from its catalogue and will reissue the 1939 film with a newly taped introduction that places its stereotyped depictions of Black characters in historical context. Similarly, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is still viewable on Netflix, and Fallon is making new episodes of The Tonight Show, while Kimmel is on his long-planned summer hiatus. But their apologies alone won’t quell the controversy that’s accompanying the comedy world’s larger reckoning with its past. Indeed, speculation is already growing on Twitter about who will be the next public figure to apologize for an ill-judged past joke that attempts to use blackface as a source of humor.

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