Moontower Comedy 2018: Ali Siddiq
The Houston comedian on taking his act back behind bars
By Robert Faires,
3:30PM, Thu. Apr. 19, 2018
Ali Siddiq went back to jail. On purpose.
When the Houston comic, who's in town for the Moontower Comedy Festival, got his first hour-long special for Comedy Central, he didn't want to film it in a club or theatre. He wanted to go to a place where he knew laughs were hard to come by, where he first started making people laugh: jail.
Siddiq was 19 when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for trafficking drugs. In the six years he spent in various units around the state, he began entertaining his fellow inmates with funny stories and observations, and once he was outside, Siddiq applied those skills to stand-up. He's now made a 20-year career of it, playing venues all across the country and appearing on HBO, BET, and Showtime, as well as Comedy Central, where his account of a prison riot on the storytelling show This Is Not Happening is ranked as one of the best stories on the series and helped catapult him to greater national attention. His headlining appearance at the 2018 Moontower (presenting his show Ego at the Stateside Fri., April 20) gave us a chance to ask him about his recently released special It's Bigger Than These Bars.
Austin Chronicle: Tell me about your special and getting into Bell County Jail. Was that your idea?
Ali Siddiq: It was a thing that … People say, “Well, you started doing stand-up in prison.” I’m like, “That is not how that actually [happened]." It sounds way different than how it was. So I wanted to go back to give a sense of how I actually started. What the process was. And that’s generally how my special was shot: in a day room, how I would normally be just free-talking to people, and whatever I say that happens to be jovial, it just happens. It wasn’t a written thing. It was like me talking about something like you would be talking to a normal friend. You know, like you would be talking to your normal friend, and he would say something funny. Does that make him a comic or does that just make him a jovial person in conversation? I was just a jovial person in conversation when I was incarcerated, and I had a different outlook on how I thought about things, you know, like why people get mad about them being here. You already here now. You been here for two years. You still mad about they sentenced you two years ago? How is that helping? You gotta get past that. [Laughs]
AC: Why Bell County Jail? Any particular reason?
AS: They let me in. [Laughs] It's a weird thing about Texas – to be one of the largest prison systems and they don’t want anybody to come in and show the public what’s going on or even talk about it. Actually, their reason for not letting me in was they didn’t want me saying anything negative about the prison. And I was like, “I think that the word ‘prison’ alone covers that.” I don’t think I would ever – even if I was in a sex prison, I would want to get out. What is a good prison? I don’t care what you put the word “prison” behind, I don’t think that’s a good marketing tool. “Hey, we have a comedy prison! Where you’re gonna be forced to laugh.” “We have an eating prison.” Anything with the word “prison” on the end of it is going to be horrible. Even if it’s your favorite thing in the world. What is your favorite thing in the world to do? Put “prison” behind it and watch, you don’t like it anymore. [Laughs] It was a weird thing. I don’t understand it to this second. “We don’t want you to say anything negative about a prison.” “Um, I was a prisoner.” [Laughs] “I said all the negative things that I’m going to say, sir. Just know that.”
AC: Did anybody look at the special after you shot it? Did you have to show them whatever you filmed?
AS: Yeah. Bell County looked at it. They reviewed it before it came out, and they were actually really satisfied with the job that I did. And I assured them that my intent wasn’t to come back to bash the prison system. I told them that I didn’t think that would be wise for me to waste [this] opportunity – you know, I didn’t work for 20 years to get a special to come back and bash the prison system. I thought it was gonna be a better thing for Texas prisons and prisoners to see: 1) somebody come out of the same situation they were in and make it through, and 2) that the prison system is partly responsible for your rehabilitation, but you are responsible for part of it as well.
AC: It also sounds like you really wanted to connect to the people inside and not just show yourself telling jokes but show that the people inside that prison are still real people.
AS: Yeah. I felt like when I was there, it’s like you were a caged-in, pent-up pit bull, and people don’t realize you were still a dog. You know, you trained to be this fighting machine, but I’m actually still a dog. Still a puppy. I was joyful before, I was a human being. And just because I made a mistake, or it wasn’t a mistake, I still had the right to certain things. Even though I’m a prisoner, I still have human rights. I’m not a POW in a foreign land, where you forget that I’m still a part of the fabric of this society, and society played a role in this. So you don’t have to beat me down at every turn and then release me back into the world as a wounded animal instead of a rehabilitated human being. Because this is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation. I think people forget that those are peoples’ mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, children … That’s somebody’s grandfather and somebody’s [grandmother]. The age range is phenomenal, from 14 to 88.
And I would like to thank Texas prisons for not allowing me to come in and Bell County giving me the opportunity because if I would have done a prison, I wouldn’t have got an opportunity to show the women, and that was a big thing for me. I really wanted to show that [this] society we live in finds no problem with locking up their women and their children. What type of society are we that we will lock up our women, to the point that our women have to even be in a position to be locked up? That should be a mark, that should be a stain, that should be an embarrassment.
With my special, it’s a lot of deeper things. I know people are looking at it, and they go, “Oh, I just want to laugh,” or they look at it before they see it and judge it, “Oh, I don’t wanna see no guy in prison,” but it’s a deeper thing than that. It’s talking about how anybody [can wind up in prison] – you can be walking down the street today and then mistaken identity, you’re in prison. What’s your mental fortitude? How would you deal with that? Your daughter could decide that she wants to take oxycontin or whatever these opioids are and end up in [there]. Do you want to know how your child is faring in this situation? People are committing suicide in arrests because of the stress. They can’t take the stress. Or the anxiety of what’s going to happen. So it’s a lot of things that I was trying to put a light on within the special that people may not have understood from looking at it or pre-judging it. There are so many ways to end up in jail, man. Back child support. White guy, he did 180 days for lack of back child support, and he had just got out and they picked him up again for back child support. He just got out! How could he pay it if he just got out? And they’re constantly stacking interest on what he has to pay. How does this incarceration help his child? How does his incarceration affect his child? Then you put him in the situation for back child support, but you put him with violent offenders. So he ends up dead for back child support? I don’t get the mentality of society. Maybe this is what they did not want me to say.
And the thing is, I wanted to be there, I wanted to do it there, so maybe people will start contacting me to get the real information on how this happened or how you come through this situation. "Can you help my son? Can you help my daughter that’s not been able to find a job, that’s not been able to do this, and you’ve been out for 20 years? How did you do it? What’s the formula?" And I have no problem telling a person how to get through it. 'Cause there were people in the prison who didn’t know how to get through until I came. This is what we do. Let’s do all the opposite of what we was doing. It’s just that simple to me. Everything that we were doing wrong, let’s put that same energy into doing right. It’s like with me now. I’ve been a successful comic, but I still appropriate the drug-dealer mentality: I have a product to sell, and by any means I’m gonna sell this product. And I keep changing the product. The price keeps changing. And I keep doing different things to make the product enticing. It’s the same mentality. It’s an easy to do when you looking at it the proper way. And I think a lot of people don’t look at things the proper way.
AC: You’ve played so many different audiences through the years. Was there anything about playing to the people in Bell County Jail that felt different to you?
AS: Yeah, Bell County was definitely a good challenge for me. Bell County was like practicing to play football, and then you show up and they say, “Aw, today we gonna play baseball.” What? But … “No, no, we gonna play baseball today.” But I been practicing to play football. “But today we’re playing baseball.” 'Cause you practice in front of a mixed audience, the whole time you going through the country doing your material, all mixed audience – and when I’m saying “mixed,” it’s female and male. Not black and white, that’s not a problem. Black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, that’s no problem. Now you playing to a room of only men, and the other time to a room of only women, but you’re talking from a perspective of both people. I lead into this one bit saying, “If you marry a woman and you find out the woman can’t have kids, do you owe child support on that baby if you adopt?” As I’m doing it, I’m like, “It sounds a lot better when it’s women and men in the audience.” The women are like, “Hell yeah!” And the men are like, “Wel-l-l-l, that’s not your baby like that.” [Laughs] In your normal mind, you like, “When I say this, it’s gonna be a response from both people.” But then as I’m doing the material, it’s only men. And they’re like, “Mmmmm, okay.” I’m used to a balance of energy, and now it’s only one energy. It’s only a female energy or it’s only a male energy. So what I do I change, how do I change the wording, what tone do I go in with this? Those are the only tricky parts of the special to me. I just started saying, “When I asked the men, they said this,” and I could play it that way. But it felt more organic going the proper way.
AC: Are you looking forward to coming to Austin?
AS: I’m excited about coming to Austin. I just saw they had a banner of me on a lightpost. I’m really excited about that. I’m up on a lightpost. How dope is that? After I got the billboard in Times Square and the billboard on Sunset and the billboard in Houston, I thought, “Okay, I’m pretty cool on advertisement,” and then, wow, I got posted on a lightpost, and I was like, “How exciting is that?” Who knew that a billboard could be trumped by a lightpost? [Laughs]
Ali Siddiq: Ego is Fri., April 20, 7pm, at the Stateside, 719 Congress. To see Siddiq's other appearances at Moontower, visit the festival website.