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Jimmy Kimmel apologizes for ‘embarrassing’ sketches as Hollywood reckons with its use of blackface

Jimmy Kimmel, shown in May 2019, apologized for his impressions of black celebrities. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Jimmy Kimmel is the latest comedian to apologize for his past use of blackface as Hollywood continues to grapple with its history of systemic racism, an effort sparked by worldwide protests against anti-blackness. He issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it was wrong for him to wait so long to address his “embarrassing” impressions of celebrities throughout the 1990s.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

In the mid-1990s, Kimmel did a recurring impersonation of NBA player Karl Malone on the Los Angeles-area radio station KROQ. He brought it to television along with dozens of other celebrity impressions via “The Man Show,” the Comedy Central series he co-hosted with Adam Carolla from 1999 to 2003. They enlisted makeup artists to make him look more like Malone — a choice that, per his statement, he believed at the time “had no more to do with Karl’s skin color than it did his bulging muscles and bald head.”

“I believe that I have evolved and matured over the last twenty-plus years, and I hope that is evident to anyone who watches my show,” Kimmel wrote. “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.”

The statement — in which Kimmel also said he will be taking a break from hosting “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” until September, when he is set to host the Emmy Awards — arrives a day after “30 Rock” creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock asked streaming services to remove four episodes of their NBC comedy that feature characters in blackface. This included one scene in which series regular Jane Krakowski dressed up as Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann for a “black swan” Halloween costume with her boyfriend and another in which guest star Jon Hamm parodied “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

“I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images,” Fey said in a letter to companies that show “30 Rock” on their platforms. “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.”

Netflix also recently pulled an episode of “W/ Bob and David,” a spinoff of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s “Mr. Show,” for a sketch that featured Cross’s character trying to antagonize a police officer and facing no consequences until he wore blackface.

“We considered every choice we made doing our show, and always aimed to make you laugh and think, and never make an obvious or easy point...that very much includes this sketch. Our comedy is always about the human element, never about making a political point,” Odenkirk tweeted about Netflix’s decision. Cross called his character “ridiculous, foolish” and added, “The point of this was to underscore the absurdity.”

In addition, in the past week, Netflix removed an episode of FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and several British comedy shows that had white actors wearing blackface makeup, such as “Little Britain,” “The Mighty Boosh,” “The League of Gentleman,” “Come Fly With Me” and four specials from Australian comedian Chris Lilley.

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