It’s not easy growing up in Montreal as an Anglophone, let alone a Jewish, half Peruvian, half Egyptian, English speaking comedian Anglophone. To make things a little harder, Jess didn’t start her career there, it started long before the stage and in the gloomy city of The Hague, where she worked as an International War Crimes lawyer... Intrigued much?
Why did you choose to come to New York for 5 months?
I came here to see what it was like to actually live in New York and do stand up comedy. I really love the stand up comedy scene here. Previously I’ve been doing stand up comedy based in Montreal, which is a French city. Doing comedy in English in a French city has its limitations.
Comedy, like everything else in New York, is full of people who are really ambitious and want to be at the top of their field. There’s something really motivating about being around that. When I would come for a week at a time I would get on all these awesome shows because I was from out of town and it was very ‘go go go’. So I wanted to see what it was actually like to live here and not be on those shows all the time and just hit the open mics and try to get to know the community and become a part of it.
Is it what you expected?
It is hard, but I think I expected it to be hard because I’ve heard so many horror stories about people who came here, that are really funny, work really hard, and just how long it takes to get somewhere. I’m coming up to the end of my 5-6 month period here. Have I accomplished everything I wanted to? Not necessarily. I’ve met a few people and made some contacts but I haven’t got anyone to sponsor me for a visa.
It takes a bit of time to be on stage and do well over and over again. It has to be organic. You can’t just get here and be like ‘hey everybody! Let’s be friends!’ or ‘Oh, you’re a manager? Why don’t you sign me?’ In New York they see so many people all the time that are so good, in every discipline I’m sure it’s true, it takes a lot to impress people here.
Are you doing shows every night?
There are some nights where I’ve done 3-4 shows and for the most part I’m out every night. There’s a lot of trial and error, going around and figuring out which are the better open mics. There are open mics that are terrible where all the comics are super new, it’s only young guys and they’re terrible. It’s just a negative vibe. But then there are other open mics that are really supportive and the comics that are working on their new material are comics who work on the Daily Show during the day. It takes a little while to find those open mics and I feel like I’ve found a few places that I like to go to on a regular basis.
And you’re also a lawyer?
Yeah, human rights and international criminal law.
Obviously these are very different fields, so how did you get into comedy and do you still practice law?
I’m a very all or nothing person so I don’t do both at the same time. It wasn’t one of those crazy things where I was like ‘I’m going to leave law and become a stand up comedian even though I’ve never done it before.’ I was motivated to write a sitcom based on my work place. That was the initial motivator, and then I thought ‘I’ll just take a year or two off.’ I moved in with my girlfriend in Montreal so I didn’t have to pay rent, and I had a ton of savings. I made a good amount of money working at the United Nations. It’s a really good gig actually because you don’t have to pay taxes when you work for the UN and they pay you out when you leave.
I just thought it was a sabbatical and that I’d take some time off to write and while I took the time off I joined a stand up comedy class and got completely hooked. It totally ruined my life because I was like ‘I can’t go back.’ Eventually, I just couldn’t see myself going back and now that I’ve written so much stuff online I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hire me for anything outside of the comedy world!
So stand up is your path forward for now?
Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I’d like to get a job writing on a TV show as a day job. That would be great.
There are a lot of people here in New York that write for hilarious websites or TV shows and I see them doing stand up all the time. Those jobs are really hard to get, but it is something that I see people doing. I’d like to keep doing stand up and hopefully build some kind of following. That’s the end goal, to do your own tour and do comedy for the people that want to come see you.
Do you think you’d go out to LA?
Yeah, eventually. I’m just so keen to be in New York but I do know a lot of people eventually want to go to LA. I feel like once you’re established in New York there’s a lot of back and forth between here and LA. The comedy communities are pretty interconnected. That’s my impression.
For me, I feel very motivated and creative being surrounded by people here in New York. The idea of being in your car in LA and not being in contact with people that much, and it being beautiful all the time just doesn’t seem that inspiring [laughs]. But then again I don’t come from a sunny place.
Coming from Montreal, New York is pretty good weather wise!
Yeah, this is like my southern getaway. I only associated good weather with vacation and shutting my brain off.
What was it like growing up as an anglophone in Montreal?
It was a very small bubble of people. My mom comes from South America so we grew up speaking Spanish and English at home. My mom thought I should go to French school and she was correct, I should have, at least for elementary because then I would have had a good accent. I can speak French decently but I have a terrible accent so people never think I’m from Montreal.
Even though you’re from there, do people see you as an outsider?
Totally. In the last few years I’ve lived in Old Montreal which is a super touristy area and I’ve had so many conversations where I’d speak French in a restaurant or something and the waiter would compliment me and tell me to keep it up. They think I’m American. Sometimes I play along and tell them ‘this is such a beautiful city, you should be proud.’
Did you notice that growing up?
I always felt a bit on the outside. I was very aware of the whole French/English thing. I knew that we were a small group of English speakers.
Later on I realized I could go to an English school because legally I was allowed to. In Montreal most people aren’t. The only way you can go to school in English is if one of your parents went to English school in Quebec. My dad was born in Quebec and went to high school in English. It’s a law that’s there to protect the English speaking minority. If you come from any other country your kids have to go to school in French.
My Spanish is much better than my French because I spoke it at home. French was always something that was a school thing for me.
Have you done shows in French?
Yeah, I dabbled a little bit. The great thing about Quebec, as opposed to the rest of Canada, is that there’s this great “star” system. People support the arts a lot so Quebecois people (French speakers) go out to shows a lot, they’re a great audience, they watch French TV and listen to French radio so people that are in the arts have this captive audience and they’re not competing with the US or England. There’s a lot of money in the industry, they have magazines, there’s a National School of Humor (national meaning Quebec) and they tour small towns all over Quebec. There’s not much else going on so everybody comes out.
So these comics who are the same level as me or started out at the same time have full shows in big theatres with producers and directors with budgets and television appearances in Quebec. There’s a big celebrity culture there but being part of the English community you’ll probably have no idea who these people are.
A journalist coined the term ‘the two solitudes’ when talking about French Canada and English Canada and there isn’t much crossover between the two. So when I did comedy in French it was really fun and you got paid at open mics. There was a big audience and people were super into it. The other thing that was entertaining is that people laughed a lot just because of my accent.
Either way you’re getting laughs.
It’s funny because performing stand up in English you’re trying to get the audience on your side very quickly. One thing some people do is build in some kind of vulnerability to get the audience to be on their side. In French I didn’t have to think of a clever way to do that, I just started talking with my accent and they’re immediately onboard because your accent’s funny and they can see that you’re trying and they appreciate that you’re performing in their language.
Something that’s interesting is that as hard as the path is to becoming a stand up comedian, the path to becoming a lawyer at the UN is friggin’ hard as well ...
The main path for me was that it was an internship. I did my BA in the US at Tufts near Boston and then went to law school at McGill in Montreal.
In between I worked for a law professor at McGill who is a big human rights lawyer, his name is Irwin Cotler. He was a law professor and had formed his own NGO, which was basically his work where he advocated on behalf of political prisoners, some very famous ones. I worked for him helping organize conferences and as an assistant. He actually came to speak at my college in Boston in my final year, and that’s when I got into the whole idea of human rights.
It was through refugee issues that I came to human rights work. At the time I was at university human rights wasn’t a topic in and of itself. It always existed as a field of international law but I guess it was still relatively new, but Irwin Cotler had been representing political prisoners for a long time. I thought he was amazing, and he was, he turned out to be the real deal.
At university I really enjoyed international humanitarian and criminal law, so I applied to do an internship in The Hague at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I worked for a judge there who I really got along well with and then he became president of the tribunal and so he brought me back to work for him. In between there I got my Barr and worked for the Department of Justice in Ottawa.
That’s basically how it happened. Internships are really great if they lead to something but you have to be in a position financially where you can do them. It’s a very common way in.
To be a lawyer in the UN sounds very difficult both emotionally and the subject matter you’re dealing with ...
It is emotional, but I was a position that I guess is the most removed from the actual crimes. The prosecution, especially the investigators that work for the prosecution, are the ones that are putting together the cases and dealing with the evidence, and actually going to the former Yugoslavia. There are the people who are looking at the mass graves, talking to victims, interviewing people for testimonies and then bringing them to The Hague while trying to ensure and convince them that they will be protected. It is scary in the sense that there are many people whose identities do eventually come to light.
I didn’t work for the prosecution, I worked for a judge basically. We were the ones that worked on writing the judgements.I was also in the appeals chamber. So already by the appeals stage you’re looking more at issues of law rather than the facts, which are mostly hashed out by this point.
You said you were compelled to write a screenplay based on your work. How did you get to that point? Because what you’re saying doesn’t sound very hilarious [laughs].
There are some really funny things that happened in the sense that it is very dark humor. The people I worked with had a really dark sense of humor just because of the place that you are. I feel like maybe doctors are similar.
You’d probably have to otherwise you’d be so depressed.
Comedians can also be really dark. There’s one girl in particular who is a defense lawyer, so her clients are the accused war criminals, and her stories of working with them are just insane, she’s very very funny. It can become a big show for the accused, they know that this is probably “it” for them. All the proceedings are being broadcast back home so for them, they’re just putting on a big show and trying to obstruct the process as much as they can. One of the ways they do that is by being their own lawyer and just being a huge pain in the ass. One thing that became popular as a tactic was the hunger strike. One of the reports that we got back from the examiner about one of the accused that had gone on hunger strike was basically that this guy was healthy and all that he needed was to lose weight. It becomes this crazy back and forth of them trying to obstruct and finding ways to throw everything off the rails.
So I’ve got this idea for the pilot but I got distracted with stand up and being here I’ve been busy getting know the scene. I’ve also been taking some really fun classes at UCB.
Where do you recommend checking out comedy in the city?
Obviously the Comedy Cellar is the hottest club to go to in terms of the big names that can drop in. But if you want something other than a comedy club, one of my favorite shows is at the Knitting Factory on Sunday nights. Hannibal Buress was the host for a while but he’s now handed the show off to three guys who are also from Chicago. They run it and it’s still packed. They’re funny and they get a mix of big names and people who are coming up on the scene here. It’s a lot of fun and it’s free.
There are also a lot of other free shows. There’s a show at a place called Kabin, it’s called Comedy as a Second Language and it’s on Thursday nights. There’s another show called Hot Soup on Tuesdays at the back of a bar called Irish Exit. ‘Ghandi, is that you?’ at Lucky Jack’s on Wednesday and they have free pizza.
Monday nights at Bar Matchless there’s a show at 9pm that’s run by a few funny guys, Nimesh Patel, Mike Denny and Michael Che who’s now on SNL.
How do you like being in Williamsburg?
It’s amazing. I’m the senior citizen of Williamsburg. It’s definitely very touristy. I’m on the latter end of whatever gentrification that has gone on, it’s full blown now, it’s not even happening anymore. People are super good looking, nobody’s thighs touch. Everyone has a bulldog.
I love it because I’m very close to everything that I need. Being here you almost get the sense that Manhattan is passé somehow. The only reason I really go into Manhattan is for comedy clubs or broadway or museums.
Did you know that Brooklyn, taking away Manhattan, is the 4th largest city in the US? It’s huge! There’s just so much to see here.
What are some of your favorite places?
There’s a place in the village called Mamoun’s, which is really good, it’s been around since the ‘70s and it’s right next door to the Comedy Cellar.
Around here there’s a brunch place called Diner which is really great. A nice place to get drinks on a roof with a view is the Wythe hotel. There’s this place that has an easy rider vibe called Shelter and they have really good empanadas, well they’re more like mini calzones.
There’s a place on Union called re.union which is where I like to work a lot. It’s a cafe that has a really nice vibe.
One of my favorite bars around here is called Pete’s Candy Store. The cool thing about that place is that I went there in 1999 before any of this was here. My friend’s brother was playing in a band there and at the time my mind was blown that there was anything happening outside of Manhattan. When I got here I realized that Pete’s Candy Store was right nearby and it’s exactly like how I remembered it. It’s still here and I’m doing a show there. My friend and comedian, Eman, and I are putting on a show there called Polar Vortex on February 10th at 7pm. It’s really a music venue, they don’t do stand up there generally but I feel like it will be really great for stand up because it’s a very small space.
What do you think of when you think of New York?
I just think of big, lights, buildings, just movement.
To find out more about Jess and see her upcoming shows, check out www.jesssalomon.com