A stand-up can write a good joke, but great jokes are up to the audience. It’s just the nature of an art form created in collaboration with the crowd, since the comedian develops a joke’s phrasing, pacing, and performance based on how people respond to it. In 2015, when Ali Siddiq was asked to perform for the Comedy Central storytelling show This Is Not Happening, he thought he had a pretty good story about a particularly bad day early in his six-year stint in a Texas prison in the early ’90s. The audience was the one who decided it was great, turning “Mexicans Got on Boots” into a signature bit for Siddiq and a viral instant classic, with nearly 10 million views on YouTube alone.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Siddiq talks about how he first developed an interest in stand-up during his time in prison, why being interesting is just as important as being funny, and the popularity of his This Is Not Happening story. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On How Prison Sparked His Interest in Stand-up
I didn’t know what it was to do stand-up. I didn’t know the mechanics of it — and that’s one thing that I’m very passionate about when it comes to stand-up. I hate the fact that people think that anybody can do what comics do, which is definitely incorrect. Being funny around your friends, your family, is different than being in front of an audience of people that don’t know you. So I found that I was the same as when I was a kid. I grew up on the back of the bus at school talking to my friends, telling a funny story. So this is just a place that I was a little more charismatic and jovially sarcastic.
But how I knew that I was going to do stand-up when I got out, that that was going to be the pursuit of the duration of my life, was this guy named Rick. He asked me what I was going to do when I got out. I had always been this funny dude on the block, and I said, “I’m probably going to try to do stand-up.” And he told me, “Yo, man, I’ve been here like ten, 15 years, and a lot of people told me a lot of things — what they was going to do when they got out — and I never had thought about them doing it. I never even believed it, like, that’s not what they’re gonna do. But when you said that you were going to be a comedian, I was like, ‘That matches your personality.’” Because he knew how I started.
I was the SSI, which is basically a glorified janitor for this closed-custody block. And these were people who were locked up 23 hours a day and had no TV; they don’t have no paper; they’re just in a cell. The library comes and drops off books or whatever. They get fed in their cell. They do everything in their cell. So I’m the janitor for this particular closed custody. And the janitors were so horrible — they didn’t care if they got fresh underwear, if they got fresh clothes, if their food’s hot. A lot of people didn’t take care of them like they should’ve because they’re in their cells 23 hours a day. So when I became the SSI, I used to make sure that the block was clean. I always had the block smell like the pine oil that we had to clean up with. I would mop the run. I would make sure that they had fresh underwear.
And I watched Martin with the intensity of a psychopath. I would watch and almost know every line on this show. Then right before I get off, I’d be like, “It’s TV time!” And I would perform every episode of Martin. I would do all the characters. So I’m Martin, Tommy, Cole, Gina, Pam. I’m everybody. So when Martin went off, I didn’t have anything else, so I just started giving basically funny commentary about what was happening in the other places in the unit, or I would talk about certain inmates that were on the block that we were on. I would talk about the officers. And they would just listen and laugh. That was my introduction into what I was thinking stand-up was.
On the Popularity of His This Is Not Happening Story
Man, [when] that story got out, it was overwhelming. It was actually a lot. I couldn’t believe how this story took off and how people felt this story. And this was at a time where I don’t think … people were talking about prison reform. It was just a good story to tell at that particular junction.
And then I started feeling the weight of it. It’s twofold: how good it was for my career to get established as a storyteller and how people gravitate to this story, but then it was very damaging to me personally. Because every interview, people would just ask me ridiculous questions about being in prison, which prompted me to almost go back to the type of person I was when I was in prison. Like, if you say something disrespectful to me in prison, I’mma handle you just like I was before [when] I was in the world. So when you try to be funny in prison and protect yourself, like, Yo, man, who you talking to? Who you think I am, fam?
It started giving me this attitude to where I didn’t even want to talk about it no more, because this is the reason I didn’t do it 17 years prior. Now I’m like, See? This is why I don’t do this type of material. Because people start to think that’s what you are. Just like when I was doing NBC’s Bring the Funny, this guy wrote this article about “Ex-Convict Makes It to the Finals …” I was like, Yo, what that got to do with what I’m doing now? And it’s like, yo, if I would’ve never told this story, I would’ve told another story. Would I be in this position? Would I be seen as I am now, or would I be still trying to come up in the comedy game?
It took me back to having to get myself under control based on the advice that I got from people. ’Cause I wasn’t seen as a “prison person” when I was in prison. It was like I was walking above being someone who was incarcerated to come out and establish myself as something, and then do a story about being that, and then they go back, and now you want to see me as a prisoner, as a convicted felon, as a mistake that I made in my past? … It felt like they were taking the happiness away from that accomplishment and making me regret telling the story, and I don’t want to live under the shadow of regret. People would ask me questions that I felt were ridiculous and then I would, you know, try to figure out a way to handle it at that particular time. But I didn’t want to go into it from a space of “Yo, man, who you talking to?”
On How Comedy Has Helped Him Process His Time in Prison
Me and Tim Allen are viewed different with the same case: “delivery of a controlled substance.” The same exact case. Me and Tim Allen are viewed different. Nobody even asks Tim Allen about prison time.
Man, it definitely has taken the weight off of my shoulders of hiding. When you get out of prison, because you still have parole and somebody can say something and get you locked back up, you hide a lot. You hide in plain sight. You try to be very elusive and not be seen as much as you should. Now, it’s just given me this opportunity for people to know my disposition, and know how I am with certain things, and I think the way that I think. I use it when I’m talking to people about how to protect themselves in this society, where there’s women coming home at night and what they should have in their possession and how they should defend themselves, and knowing that a large amount of violent crimes happen against women. So I’m very protective, and I try to explain to people: If you’ve never sat down and talked to a molester or a rapist or these people who have these mental sicknesses, you have to kind of listen to me because I was there with them. I’m trying to utilize what I’ve been through to help people from the position of “I was there.” To tell people who may be doing wrong things, “Hey, man. This is what you’re in for.” And I’m not going on what I heard; I’m going on what I’ve done.
It’s helped me a lot to be able to pay back some of my debt to society. I still think that I owe society something. Just that realization of just knowing that you took something away in society; you damaged your neighborhood. So you kind of owe your neighborhood something. You owe them better representation of a decent human being. And that’s what I try to do with my comedy. It’s given me that lane to kind of pay back some of my moral debt to society.
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