Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini are accomplished comics who have toured the United States and Canada in hopes of sharing a few laughs and a message of togetherness. They met almost ten years ago at a comedy club in Montreal, where they (eventually) felt an undeniable chemistry for each other and shared a love for the standup world. What makes their story so unlikely in today’s climate of uncertainty is that Jess is Jewish and Eman is Palestinian, AND one is a Taurus and the other is a Leo. So despite what the very stars are telling them, they have chosen to disregard fate and have come together to share the message: “make love not war”.
Both Jess and Eman are adept comics in their own right, and together, they’ve been taking the stage as a duo. Some of their credits include the world famous Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, the San Francisco Sketch Fest, and the Boston Women in Comedy Festival. They have also been featured on NowThis and PBS News Hour, Curve Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and now (the best Ottawa-centric news blog site around!) Apt613.
Before they tape their one hour special on Crave TV, the duo will be in town at Yuk Yuk’s on Elgin this Saturday July 20 at 7pm. Ahead of their show, I got the chance to sit down for a chat with the couple. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: What made you become interested in standup Eman?
Eman: There was a lack of representation of my people (in standup). I came to Canada in the 90s, my parents are Palestinian, I was born in Kuwait, we moved during the Gulf War. I had no idea people didn’t like Arabs, I always thought we were very awesome people; definitely with some flaws, but I didn’t realise to what degree people didn’t really like us. The only representation we had at the time was (the film) True Lies… that movie really made us look like just a bunch of terrorists.
Jess: But it was very funny!
Eman: (laughing) I’m not discrediting the funny parts, but it was a culture shock for me as I didn’t realize the degree that people didn’t like us. You know, back in my day—I sound like I’m 100 years old—but back in my day, before social media, the only news that was accessible to us was the 6 o’clock and 11 o’clock news. Which was heavily biased against Arabs, particularly Palestinians, when it came to the Isreali-Palestinian situation. Anyways, with all of that, I also realized that comedy was a great coping mechanism when you’re severely depressed and you’ve escaped wars. Apparently, that runs in my family because my grandmother, who was kicked out of her house, with 7 kids and literally just the clothes on her back, apparently was the most hilarious person ever! Talking (to her), you would think nothing bad ever happened to her. My parents are also really funny. So it’s a combination of wanting representation, of coping (with depression), and wanting to be in the entertainment industry. I knew it would be easier to get my message across if I made people laugh.
I knew it would be easier to get my message across if I made people laugh.—Eman El-Husseini
Jess: You know, I think (when it came to) Eman’s generation of comics, it took a minute for Arabs to immigrate here and start doing comedy, without the (fear) of disappointing their parents.
Eman: Don’t forget that we came with a lot of baggage, when we moved to Canada, and the last thing we want to do is disappoint our parents, who have left their comfort zones to better their children. When I started, I was definitely the only arab women doing comedy in Canada.
What made you two get together in the first place?
Jess: Our parents introduced us! Just kidding, maybe one day, but not our generation of parents. Eman started (standup) in 2006 and I started in 2009. At the time, there were only a couple of women who had been on the scene longer. Eman had already been bringing Jews and Muslims together on the comedy stage. She had discovered that there was a shared sense of sensibility in a lot of ways. She had a show that she brought to Ottawa, that I was on, called Kosher Jokes for the Halaladays. It was a Muslim-Jewish Christmas show as neither of our (religions) has much going on (during the holiday). It was a lot of fun and in the last year of the tour, I ended up producing the show with Eman and it was like maybe 2 years after that, that we got together. It wasn’t love at first sight!
Eman: It definitely wasn’t love at first sight! I didn’t think I was gay, Jess was caught up with her own drama, but we were definitely friendly. We were both very moderate people and able to have a conversation about the Middle East without exploding, you know…for a lack of a better word.
Jess: When you talk about Israel-Palestine at a bar, everybody leaves you alone and we got to spend some alone time together, talking about that. It’s a good way to flirt!
Eman: I was fascinated by Jess. You know she left a career in law, not just law but leaving a career as a war crimes lawyer. Really shocked me. I thought she was an Isreali spy come here to sabotage my comedy career!
How did you leave a career as a lawyer, at the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, and end up on stage telling jokes?
Jess: It wasn’t that I wanted to be a standup comedian and put it aside to do law. I really was pursuing my dream at the time, which was trying to do good in the world and I knew I wasn’t cut out for anything medical, engineering, or scientific. I knew I couldn’t build a bridge, or a well, or investigate a crime scene, I knew my skill had to be related to words. That’s why it seemed to be a natural thing for me (to be a lawyer) and help people. I mean, I loved my job, the environment, and the people I worked with…
I knew my skill had to be related to words.—Jess Salomon
Eman: Her co-workers at the UN, they are the funniest people I’ve ever met. They have a sophisticated kind of comedy. They’re so multicultural and so hilarious.
Jess: It was a lot of dark humour, kind of like how comedians make fun of each other when they’re together, but not when they’re around other people because they know the humour may be too dark for people (that aren’t comics). I think it’s probably the same way surgeons joke with each other in a hospital. I was inspired by my co-workers to get into comedy in the first place. The original idea, when I came back home to Montreal, was to try writing a sitcom that takes place in a war crimes tribunal. I wasn’t thinking about standup. I took a writing class, then took a standup class and it was love at first site with standup. Not with Eman, but with standup! (both laugh). Now I can’t ever imagine going back to an office.
Well, I’m glad you both got into standup comedy and I look forward to seeing you in Ottawa. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today and have yourselves a wonderful day.
Jess and Eman: Thanks, you too.
For more info on the El-Salomons comedy show, go to www.theelsalomons.com/event/the-el-salomons-ottawa-yuk-yuks/. Tickets are available for purchase online for $15.