Interview Corner

Interview – Jess Salomon

Jess Salomon is a Canadian comedian now based in New York, who has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Her debut album, “All the Best Choices” with the label, 800 Pound Gorilla Records was released in 2019. She’s written for the award-winning sketch comedy show “Baroness Von Sketch” (IFC/CBC) and her comedy has aired on television in Canada on CBC and radio shows like SiriusXM’s “Canada Laughs” and CBC’s “LOL”. Jess also performs as part of the beloved comedy duo, “The El-Salomon’s” with her wife Eman El-Husseini. Their comedy special, “Marriage of Convenience” recorded at Just for Laughs, is streaming in Canada on Crave TV. The El-Salomons are also the hosts of the popular BBC World Service podcast, “Comedians vs The News” which was recently renewed for a second season.

Fun fact: Before comedy Jess was a U.N. war crimes lawyer. The jury is still out on whether this was a good move.

Q. Hello, it’s a pleasure to have you with us! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your experience at law school?

Sure. I am from Montreal, Canada. I have been out of law for a while. It was probably 11 years ago when I left the legal field. I did an undergraduate degree in International Relations at Tufts University in Boston. In the last year of my undergrad, I was in a program called EPIC – Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship. It was an experiential type of year-long program. Over two semesters, the students are meant to put together an international symposium. Every year, it has a different theme. The theme that year was refugees, migration, and global security. We studied these topics from the perspective of different academic disciplines and learned who top people in the field were. We then invited those people to participated in our international symposium. That was my introduction to human rights. At the time, human rights wasn’t necessarily a class that was taught in undergrad, even in international relations as a stand-alone thing. So it was through he lens of refugee issues and this programme that I first learned about the international human rights system and became interested in pursuing that as a career. One of the speakers at the symposium was Irwin Cotler, a professor and lawyer who was teaching at McGill and is from my city, Montreal. I was completely blown away by him and the way that he spoke. He had famously advocated and argued for the release of several prisoners of conscience, including some Russian Jews (Refuseniks). After graduation, I did an internship with him at the law school. It’s not that I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, watching Law & Order or other TV crime procedurals or courtroom dramas and thinking, like, oh, that’s what I want to do. It was more that I became inspired to do good for the world (or at least try to). I knew that I was not someone who was good at science or math. I wouldn’t be good at building water systems or homes. I could not be a doctor, because I could faint if I see blood. Human rights work seemed like something that was more up my alley skill set wise. Working with Professor Cotler, I was very inspired by what he was doing and I was trying to figure out, is there a way I could do this work without going to law school, and I couldn’t really see a way for me, do it. I felt like I had to study law if I wanted to be taken seriously in the human rights world. I could be completely wrong about this. But this was truly my impression at the time – it was, either you become a lawyer or you become a forensic investigator which would include digging up mass graves. I thought those are my options. So I decided on studying law at McGill where I had worked as an intern for Professor Cotler. At McGill, when I started, there was a new curriculum they called “Trans-systemic”. It meant studying Civil Law and Common Law simultaneously. Previously you’d choose one or the other for 3 years and then stay for a fourth year if you wanted to add the other degree. In Canada, we have both legal systems. In Quebec where McGill is, Civil Law is used but in the rest of English Canada it’s the Common Law. So when I started law school the new idea was that you could study both systems simultaneously and come out with a Common Law degree and Civil Law degrees in 3 years – which was crazy – or you could do it in 3 1/2 years which was more my speed and what I did. Practically the way it worked is that in courses where it was possible to teach systems at the same time like in Contract and Torts, you’d get a fact pattern in the exam and you’d have to solve it according to both systems. I’m not sure that I ended up learning either especially well. It was kind of like when you learn more than one language at a time and don’t speak either exactly fluently. Regardless, having both degrees meant that I could practice anywhere in Canada.

Q. You had previously worked as a War Crimes Lawyer with the United Nations. What was that experience like and what was the initial motivation behind the same?

In my last year, I was able to choose some classes. I chose human rights law and international humanitarian law. I especially liked international humanitarian law. The thing that spoke to me was assigning individual criminal responsibility to a person which felt very concrete as far as consequences go. Rather than in international human rights law where you’re going after a State. The mechanisms that exist for monitoring and enforcement in the international human rights system felt like they were easier to ignore and more open to political interference.

In my last year, I took International Humanitarian Law with a professor named René Provost who told our class about internships at the ICTY – International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I had this semester of free time because I finished in 3 1/2 years and I decided to apply. I was like if I apply for that internship in The Hague at the ICTY, and I get it, I’ll go; but if I don’t, I’m going skiing. I always kind of wanted to be a ski bum for like, one winter season, in the Rockies. But I got the internship and it was a great experience. I went to the Hague for three months as an intern and I ended up in the Appeals Chamber. I was assigned to an Italian judge named Fausto Pocar, who was at the time the Vice President and I loved working for him. After the internship, I went back to Canada, where I had a job at the Department of Justice. That first year of legal work is known as your articling year in Canada. I went through different rotations within the DOJ including at The Competition Law Bureau, the Human Rights section and the War Crimes section as well as a public policy section. At the end of that year and once I was called to the Bar, the Vice President I had interned for was elected President and he brought me back as a legal assistant in The Office of The President where I worked for almost three years before leaving to do comedy. I don’t miss the law so much but I do miss the people and the international environment. I made some good and very funny with a very dark sense of humour. Overall, it was a very cool experience. It’s just that the law wasn’t for me.

Q. You have performed on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ and also run the popular series ‘The El-Salomons’. When and how did you begin the transition from a lawyer at the United Nations to Stand-up Comedy?

Yeah, it’s true, it’s a good question. I think when you leave a career, there’s a push and a pull factor. In my case the push wasn’t that my life was miserable and I hated my job. It was more so that when I looked at the long term I realized I didn’t love working with the law even if I enjoyed my workplace and there were parts of the job that were more political in nature – briefings to the diplomatic community and reporting to the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council. At the end of the day when I looked to the future I didn’t feel excited about rising up the ladder to the jobs above me. I didn’t love working with the law. I felt narrow and I realized I wanted to do something more creative. The pull factor was watching people like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. He was having a real impact on the political discourse in the US at the time. He made me realize that comedy can be an effective tool for advocacy and has the potential to make an impact on a large scale. And I always loved making people laugh.

Q. What were some of the challenges you faced when making the switch from law to comedy and how did you push through them?

I was inspired to try to write a sitcom that took place in a War Crimes Tribunal because, you know, there’s never been something like that. There are so many shows that take place in the courtroom. People can’t get enough of these legal dramas and procedurals. There are a few that are comedies as well. But I thought it would be great to take it a step further and set it in an international environment dealing with international crimes and the unique characters that work there and the huge personalities that end up being prosecuted there. But, well, I didn’t know anything about comedy. So I was like, You know what, I’ll just take two years off. And if I don’t get an HBO special, if I don’t get my own TV show, then I know comedy is not for me, and I’ll just go back to law. No harm, no foul, no problem! I remember telling the judge, I actually kind of started crying when I told him that I was leaving because that’s when it suddenly became very real. And there was a part of me that was like, will they take me back? Not necessarily this very tribunal, but the legal world. But I somehow convinced myself that I had put in enough time and had done a good enough job that what was two years and how bad could it be? Anyway, of course I had no idea just how long it takes to get good at comedy. Because I wasn’t a comedian. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know any comedians, and I had the impression that how hard can it be, you know? Anyway, then I found out.

Fast forward to today and the political circumstances America finds itself in and the idea that telling jokes would help turn things around does seem ridiculous. I moved to New York to do comedy right before Trump was elected. Timing! It became immediately obvious late 2016/early 2017 that the people who were really making the difference, were the lawyers, the people from the American Civil Liberties Union. When the Muslim ban happened, and lawyers were there at the airport – young students and young lawyers bringing their laptops to JFK, sitting on the floor – that’s when I was like, oh, maybe I made a mistake. I felt useless; I’d been working on becoming good at comedy for a decade and couldn’t help thinking about how far along I’d be in law by now if I had stayed. That said, I love comedy, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. My brain has fully made the switch to comedy brain from law brain, so it’s too late to go back! Whatever the “sickness” is that comedians have, I didn’t have it originally but I have fully caught it by this point. One of the challenges in terms of how you think about things is that in law, you want to make statements that are bulletproof. Whereas with a joke, you use hyperbole or use extreme examples to heighten things, and you want to be very confident and clear that, this is the joke. I’m still learning not to worry so much if something is super accurate and to focus on it just being funny, it took some time for me. There were many things I had to unlearn that were bad for comedy from the law. Ways of expressing myself more diplomatically or politically. Whereas comedy, works best if it’s not so nuanced but rather more straightforward and declarative.

Q. Were there any unexpected skills that you brought in from your experience as a lawyer into your career as a stand-up comedian? Would you consider your legal experience to be an asset for you now?

I wasn’t a litigator. I wasn’t standing up in front of the court and pleading cases and perhaps that skill set could be useful but it’s not what I had been doing. I’d been working more as a clerk writing judgments for judges. I think the only thing I can pinpoint as transferable, and I think this would be true of journalism as well, is that a journalist has to sort of zone in on, what’s the story here? What’s the headline? In law, you look at a set of facts, and the first thing you determine is what’s the legal issue in this situation? And I think, with comedy, you look at it and are like, Okay, this thing happened. You then look for the punchline, what the funny thing, and then build something around it. So being able to look at a situation and zone in pinpoint the key thing is what all these jobs have in common. I think getting to the punchline requires a similar kind of brain as getting to the legal dilemma in law.

Q. What advice do you have for law students and graduates who are considering making their passion their career and are not as interested in getting into the conventional corporate-litigation race post law school?

Tuition for law school in Canada is very reasonable. Or at least it was at McGill. So you weren’t forced to choose corporate law to get out of mountains of debt. This is a huge problem in the US where working at a big law firm becomes the only way to get out of the debt. You know, the expression, the golden handcuffs? Obviously, it becomes an issue. Outside of the financial question, when I was in law school, and this might still be the case, there was this idea that it was important to work at a law firm at least for a couple of years because it’s the best legal (practical legal) training. From there you can go anywhere but it’s much harder to go from the public service or a non-governmental organization to a firm. I don’t know if that’s true. In my experience I found that there was a lot of mentorship in the Civil Service and it was a great training ground. I would say if you’re not sure, if there isn’t something really pulling you away from law after law school then maybe do a couple of years of legal work. Practicing law is different from being in law school so unless you know what you want to do, I’d recommend seeing what working as a lawyer is like. But if you know there is something else you must do, go for it. If that’s comedy or something else, I recommend going for it because life is short and things get harder as you get older. It is always easier to start things as a younger person. If you are passionate about it, I would suggest getting right into it. And by getting right into it, if it’s comedy and you don’t have any experience, hold onto a day job for a bit. Then make the switch when you’ve gotten somewhere in comedy. That way when you make the switch it’s not so radical and you are not as unprepared as I was. There was a period of time when I was terrible at comedy and I had lost touch with the legal world. When you make a career change, there is a period of time where more than likely, you are not good at the old thing anymore and you’re still not good at the new thing. It’s not great on the self-esteem! I thought about going back to the UN. I had an interview, about 5 years into comedy, with a panel on lawyers at the UN HQ in New York and one of the first things they asked me was if I was going to make them laugh. At that point I knew there was no going back. I said, “It’s easier for me to make people laugh when they’ve been drinking.” It was 10am. Ultimately in comedy, it probably helps to have no other options to fall back on. To not have that safety net. After that failed interview, I fully committed to comedy and didn’t turn back again.

Something that helps, in what is otherwise a kind of lonely career, is that my wife is also a comedian. We have a duo comedy act (@thelsalomons) and we host a podcast and radio show on the BBC World Service called “Comedians vs The News”. Our second season starts February 5th. This season will be more global and not focused on the American election. Hopefully, we will have some more fantastic Indian comedians joining us!

(NOTE – This has been reproduced from a telephonic conversation between Jess Salomon and Abhishek Jain)

 

Find out more about Jess Salomon –

 

Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.

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