Jack Thomas ’82 uses skills learned in law school as Emmy Award-winning writer, executive producer
Jack Thomas ’82—an Emmy Award-winning writer and an executive producer for DreamWorks Animation—also, surprisingly enough, has a perfect legal record before the Supreme Court of Ohio. Thomas won his first and only case barely a year out of law school, soon after calling it quits from law altogether.
Thomas enrolled at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law with intentions of becoming a quintessential saves-the-day trial lawyer, a Perry Mason of sorts, he said. (Mason, a criminal defense lawyer, appeared in more than 80 stories of detective fiction.) As a student, Thomas became a regular at stand-up comedy open mic nights around Columbus. The IP Lounge, an old bar across the street from Moritz, was a favorite haunt. According to his report card, Thomas’ stand-up career began as early as the third grade. He read comedy monologues to his classmates for show and tell.
After he graduated, Thomas was seconds away from signing the paperwork to become a trial attorney for the JAG Corps when he had a sudden change of heart. He decided to open his own practice instead, with a friend who was a year behind him in law school. Until his future law partner graduated, Thomas managed a photocopy shop across the street from the Ohio Union.
“I figured I should learn how to run a business, because a law firm is a business,” he said. “It was very humbling. I was making copies for people in law school who knew I had just graduated. It was really good experience in the sense of learning how to manage people and to be a boss because they don’t teach you that in law school.”
Thomas’ friend ultimately took a job with the attorney general’s office, yet Thomas continued with his plans of opening his own practice. He rented an office space above the photocopy shop, hung a sign outside—Jack Thomas, Attorney at Law—and waited for clients.
“Nobody ever came in,” he said. “I was in jeans most of the day and I had a suit in the closet in case I had to go to court. I got on the criminal appointments list so I would start getting appointed as counsel for indigent criminal clients. That gave me a lot of fast experience. I didn’t make any money and I didn’t have a mentor. I just needed to be in the courtroom.”
Thomas survived on the few cases that came through his door, mostly criminal and traffic work. Soon after he set up shop, he represented the owner of the IP Lounge—whom he had gotten to know during regular open mic nights—on a case about whether the bar had paid enough into the state’s unemployment fund. The case eventually traveled to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
“When I graduated he said, ‘Hey, I have this little tax issue would you handle this for me?’ At that point it didn’t really matter what anyone paid, I just wanted experience,” Thomas said. “It started as an administrative hearing, and then we were in court, and then we were in the court of appeals, and then we were arguing in the Supreme Court, which was sort of terrifying. I think I had been a lawyer for about a year and a half when that happened.”
Always particularly fond of oral arguments, Thomas made a point of watching the two arguments before his case. They weren’t particularly moving, so he told himself that as long as he didn’t panic, he was an impressive enough public speaker that he would nail his delivery before the Court. Or so he thought.
“I think I said, ‘You shouldn’t misinterpret the law simply to fill the state’s coffers,’ or something like that. One of the justices looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Thomas, are you suggesting this court would ever intentionally misinterpret the law?’ He had a little glint in his eye like he was throwing me a softball,” Thomas said. “I said, ‘Of course not, Your Honor, we all know this court would never do anything like that and every decision they make is totally correct.’ Everybody sort of laughed a little bit and they knew I was intentionally being overly obsequious. That being said, it was a 4-3 decision.”
Victory aside, Thomas’ firm wasn’t earning enough money to make ends meet. His reputation as a comic throughout the Midwest was growing so much so that a week’s worth of stand-up shows would pay enough to cover his rent. He shuttered his law practice and hit the road. By 1989, after traveling the Midwest and touring the stand-up circuit in Chicago, he landed in Los Angeles. Like many comics, he fell into writing.
“I wasn’t going to be famous,” Thomas said. “I was just another generic white guy comic. I didn’t have a hook, you know, like Drew Carey, who was a friend of mine at the time. He was just that sort of blue collar guy, an everyman sort of guy. He had a great look.”
After stints writing movie introductions for American Movie Classics (AMC) and comedy bits for Fox’s NFL pregame show, Thomas bumped into a friend and fellow comic who also happened to be a writer for Nickelodeon’s “The Fairly OddParents.” Thomas pitched a few stories and was hired as a staff writer. He went on to write or co-write as many as 70 episodes.
Thomas was later hired as an executive producer for the Disney Channel’s animated TV show, “The Replacements.” In each episode, the show’s main characters telephone a factory based in Canton, Ohio (Thomas’ hometown), with orders to replace a particularly pesky adult in their lives with a new, less bothersome stranger.
In 2012, Thomas and his colleagues at Cartoon Network won an Emmy for their work on the animated series, “Regular Show.” He was a writer at the time.
Thomas joined DreamWorks Animation as a writer/executive producer for the studio’s television department that year. His first project was writing a TV version of the feature film “How to Train Your Dragon,” which appeared on Cartoon Network and then was picked up by Netflix. His next project—also slated for Netflix in 2019—is an upcoming series called “Dragons: Rescue Riders.”
“They used to nickname me Logic Lad in writer’s room because I would always be the person trying to make the story make sense,” Thomas said. “I think that definitely comes from law school—the ability to look at the facts of a situation and try to make sure that they all work together.”
Thomas’ legal career, however brief, still continues to shape his work in television. It never took off, but a pilot program he wrote for Fox modeled after “The People’s Court” cast comedians as the show’s lawyers. It was surprisingly easy to find comedians with law degrees, he said. He has also toyed around with teaching a continuing legal education seminar, Humor in Advocacy, to help ease lawyers into using comedy in the courtroom and in their legal practice. A little levity goes a long way in building rapport with clients and setting them at ease, Thomas said. And many lawyers, whether they know it or not, he added, already have a knack for stand-up.
“When you’re a lawyer, you’re looking at a set of facts and you’re looking for the things that don’t fit,” Thomas said. “That’s what stand-up comedy is. You look at the world and you look at those things that aren’t quite right. That’s where the jokes come from—from those incongruences in life.”