After being incarcerated for drug trafficking at 19 and spending six years behind bars, Ali Siddiq emerged from prison with a new skill set: standup comedy. “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.” After an incredible story on This Is Not Happening and a 2016 Half Hour, Siddiq returns to both Comedy Central and jail this tonight at 11:00pm with an all new one-hour special, It’s Bigger Than These Bars. Filmed in the Bell County Jail in Belton, Texas, the special combines standup with intimate interviews with inmates and administrators. For Siddiq the special isn’t just about entertainment: “It feels like opening the door and getting people to understand that anybody can end up in this situation.” We talked about why he’s chosen to stay in Houston, the challenge of working with an uncooperative Texas state prison system, and how there’s more of his prison story yet to come.
Are you still based in Houston?
Yeah, still in Houston.
I imagine you’re traveling a lot then.
I go back and forth to LA and New York, but whatever I need to do I can hop on a plane and go do it and keep staying close to home, close to the family.
The last time we talked you told me how you wanted to stay in Houston despite everybody telling you that you needed to move to a bigger city. Here we are a year later, you’ve got an hour special coming out, and you’ve managed to stay in Houston.
Yeah, the unicorn, man. I wanted to do something different, my way. I don’t think you have to go to LA, New York, or Atlanta to make it big. People didn’t listen to me with that, but now maybe they’ll listen.
Do you think that by not moving to an industry-heavy city you’re making more work for yourself?
No, I think I’m making a way for other people who might not get the experience to go to New York or LA. Shout out your hometown. Get some awareness for other places. Maybe they’ll stop looking in only three places for talent and start venturing out some more and open up the door for New Orleans, Ohio… maybe somebody out of Iowa will get big. You never know.
I know quite a few comics who are based in smaller areas who are starting to get things because they’ve put the time in touring, podcasting, and using social media to connect with other comics and fans.
Traveling helped me. It wasn’t the internet by any means. I don’t have a big social media following. I was doing standup before that came about, before it was a necessity. Being on the road consistently for 15 years honing my craft did it for me. I think I did it right. I paid my dues and got to where I had a solid act that was actually mine. A lot of people out there had somebody else’s act, something they had seen on the internet, or three or four sentences from a comic we may not know. I wanted people to know this is me. It’s been me for a long time. I made it doing what I do, not conforming, doing sketches, putting on weaves, anything like that. I stayed grounded.
I feel like your current act would be hard to rip off, considering that it’s a detailed personal account of your time in prison.
It’s funny, man. Now all of a sudden everybody has a prison story. I’m getting all these cats like, “I didn’t know how to talk about being in jail, but you kind of gave me the blueprint.” I’m like, “I didn’t do it for you. It’s my story.” But there’s definitely going to be a lot of guys sitting down telling stories about how they’ve been in prison. I’m glad Comedy Central did the investigation on me, pulled my files, and proved that I was actually there.
This new special is kind of a full circle moment. You were put in prison, which is where you honed your chops for storytelling and making people laugh. It’s where you got your passion for standup. You get out and standup becomes your career. Now you’ve got a special where you’re back in, performing for people who are currently locked up. The whole thing is kind of a redemption story.
It’s pretty dope, huh? It kind of feels like that even though it’s not the whole finished story. This is like the crescent moon to my story. These are people who are facing time and who have done time before, but it’s not that actual prison story until Texas gives me the opportunity to go back into a Texas prison and do it from a place where I spent a lot of time. I galvanized my thoughts of what I was going through when I first got arrested and the time leading up to me going to prison. I galvanized those thoughts to do this one, but when I get a chance to do an actual prison it will have a whole other feel to it. But this feels good. It feels like opening the door and getting people to understand that anybody can end up in this situation.
Just to clarify, this current special was filmed in a jail, not a prison. So you’re saying that you feel like there’s still some unfinished business for you in terms of this theme.
There’s definitely unfinished business. The Texas prison system was ridiculous in their understanding of what I was trying to do. Their whole mindset was, “We don’t want to let you into a prison because we don’t know what you’re going to say. We don’t want you to say anything negative about the prison.” My response to that was, “I’m going to say the word ‘prison’ and you tell me all the positive words that come to your mind.”
[laughing] I don’t mean to laugh, but that’s so ridiculous to me.
You should be laughing. They were sitting there looking ridiculous as well. I was like, “Yo, I want you to make me understand what you’re saying. I’m a free person. I have the right to voice my opinion. I don’t have to stop just because you say something makes sense. It does not make sense. A lot of the things you do don’t make sense. This is supposed to be a correctional facility. Correctional. I think you forgot about the word ‘correctional’ and just want to have a facility to house people. You’re not correcting anything. If you wanted somebody to be able to correct it then you would allow me in to give your inmates a different scope. I made it from there. You don’t want hope for your prisoners?” They want them to be hopeless.
So the Texas prisons didn’t want to play ball. What was it about the county jail that was different?
Captain Shelton and the whole staff were very inviting. They said, “We’ll do it.” I mean, they had their questions as well. They wanted to make sure I just wasn’t going to be down on the jail. They understood I had to say certain things, but they just wanted to know what I was going to say, which is totally fine with me. Just don’t block me out. Since they didn’t block me out, we went that route.
What is the outlook for a continuation of this series, for lack of a better term? You clearly have a whole other chapter with the prison material.
I have my end locked down. I have my end written. I have the prison special written, which is at least two hours. Then I wrote another special called Ego or Egotistical. Now it’s about how the special goes, how people receive it. I think it’s worthy of being nominated for something. We’ll see what we can do. I’m ready on my end. I’m just waiting on them.