Asking a standup where they got their start in comedy usually yields responses like, “College,” “My hometown’s local open mic,” or, “I was always the class clown.” But ask Houston comic Ali Siddiq where he got his start and you might need a second to process his response of, “Prison.” Siddiq was incarcerated at the age of 19. During his six years behind bars, he developed a skill for entertaining fellow prisoners with his funny opinions and stories. He soon learned that prison, with all its obvious drawbacks, held one amazing key for a comic: a captive audience. He turned work shifts in comedy sets, “booking” himself as the only performer. When he was eventually released, he decided to continue standup with a fresh perspective and incredible sense of confidence. In his nearly 20 years of comedy, Siddiq has appeared on BET’s Comic View, HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, and was named Comedy Central’s “#1 Comic to Watch” in 2013. Today his Comedy Central Records album Damaged Goods was released digitally on all major streaming services and tonight is the premiere of his Comedy Central Half Hour special.
I was fascinated while watching Siddiq during his taping. He took the stage and immediately sat down on a low chair. He delivered a casual, low key, “How y’all doin’?” that garnered a small response from the crowd. He followed with an ever-so-slightly more energetic, “How the rest of y’all doin’?” then eased into a bit about Father’s Day being the worst holiday in the world. But within a couple of minutes, he was pacing the stage, lugging around a chair and a stool, with sweat dripping from his forehead as he talked about his daughter’s swim meets. His control of the crowd, careful sense of timing, and keen observation definitely resembled that of a person who has learned a lesson from every occurrence in their life, whether it be prison time or fatherhood. I talked to Siddiq before his Half Hour taping about his decision to stay in Houston, how prison prepared him for comedy, and what he and Gucci Mane have in common.
You’ve decided to stay in Houston to pursue your comedy career. A lot of comics leave their scenes for more industry-heavy cities when they reach a certain point, whether it’s because of money, or the feeling that they’ve maxed out creatively in their market.
I think sometimes people’s minds close in when they think about their city. I live in Houston. Every year I find something new to challenge myself with. There are five million people in Houston. All five million people haven’t seen me. I think that a lot of people don’t find all the different elements they can to continue doing standup inside of their city because their focus is trying to get somewhere else to start over. Some of the greatest comics aren’t from New York or LA. Comedy is huge. Most people are not LA or New York. Most people are average America, not the glitz of LA, not the everyday grind of New York. I’m just a regular individual. New York and LA are small places when it comes to the rest of the world. The perspective doesn’t translate everywhere, in my opinion. That’s why I write jokes for the world. LA, New York, and Atlanta gave me a real grudge against them, between people telling me I needed to move to those cities, and comics thinking that because they live there they have a halo over their head. It would boil my blood when people would say, “You can’t make it in Houston,” and, “A prophet is not welcome in their own home. You have to leave.” You know how stupid that sounds? They’re talking to a guy who came from prison. My determination is way different.
I read a quote where you said that prison prepared you for comedy. How so?
A lot of comics will come backstage before a show and say, “How’s the crowd?” The reason I never ask that is because I came from a horrible crowd. I came from a prison crowd. I wasn’t doing standup in a structured place. It just happened to happen two or three times a day. I was doing two or three shows a day because I was working in the laundry with 15 people and I was the one who was saying stuff.
Being successfully funny in prison has to give you a sense of confidence.
I host a lot and I go up to cold rooms all the time. It’s easy for me. I remember one day Bill Bellamy – we were in St Louis – before a show, he said “This room doesn’t have any music. It’s blahhhhh. There’s no energy out there.” I said, “Why are you concerned? Don’t you know I’m about to go up?” I walk out to no music, no introduction. I just walk out there and sit down. People will still be talking and I’ll just walk out and sit down. And then I’ll clear my throat and say, “Y’all know I’m about to start, right?” They’re like, “This isn’t how this usually happens. I’ll give him a look and say, “Whenever y’all ready.”
It’s like a classroom.
It works. And then I start.
You’ve put a lot of work out. You drop albums on a regular basis.
I’m like Gucci Mane.
I imagine you have the official album, the mixtape, and then some bootleg CDs in a gas station somewhere.
You ain’t ready for it!
You’ve got an album coming out this year on Comedy Central Records called Damaged Goods, plus you’ve got a couple more that you’re going to release yourself, right?
I’ve got three albums already out: Talking Loud Saying Something, Enjoy Your Life, and Freedom of Speech. I also recorded another album called I Keep Making Mistakes. Then I’m waiting for Comedy Central to drop this one and after that I’ve got another one in the true style of Gucci Mane, untitled as of yet, but very intense. I have seven or eight other albums that I did early on that I’m not happy with for one reason or another. The material is great, but there’s always something: the sound is a little off or the room is echoing. So do I go back and record them again? I’m waiting to see what happens with this release from Comedy Central.