In six years, comedian Ali Siddiq has recorded, produced, and distributed four stand-up albums of note. The most recent, Damaged Goods, was released with Comedy Central Records after the network’s recording arm took notice of his crowd-pleasing performance at the New York Comedy Festival. Siddiq also earned a spot on the channel’s The Half Hour showcase, and continued to perform at major venues like the “Just For Laughs” Comedy Festival in Montreal. Despite all this success, however, the native Houstonian has refused to depart his hometown for greener comedy pastures in New York, Atlanta, or Los Angeles.
Siddiq, a notable philanthropist and community activist in Houston, has also refused to forget where his comedy career came from — prison. That’s because he didn’t initially hone his stand-up chops at open mic nights like the majority of today’s practicing comics, but instead perfected his storytelling craft while serving six years of a 15-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Hence why Siddiq’s first hour-long special with Comedy Central, It’s Bigger Than These Bars — which premieres tonight at 11 pm ET — features stand-up filmed at the Bell County Jail in central Texas and interview segments with inmates and prison staff.
You put out a new album almost every year or two years. I don’t know how you do it.
I go through a lot, and when you go through a lot, you have a lot to talk about.
It’s a lot of material, obviously, but in It’s Bigger Than These Bars you focus mostly on jokes and stories related to incarceration. Was this the plan all along?
It was always the goal, once I started doing prison material, to make it back to doing it in the prison. If people go back to my first year on ComicView, back when I first walked, I said, “This is not for me, even though I’m the person that’s standing here. This is really for all the people who’ve been locked up and thought they couldn’t achieve something.” That was in 1999. The goal was to make a bigger impact. When I think about it, a lot of people have gone to jail to shoot things, but they haven’t been there to experience it. They don’t even know what they’re going into. I knew what I was going into. It’s a challenge that I’ve always given myself. Every year I give myself a different goal in order to become a better comic. This year’s was, “Am I still able to make people laugh who are in a bad position, like I was able to do when I was actually in there?” I also wanted to find out if I was still connected to that part of my life.
Speaking of which, this special isn’t just you telling jokes for an hour. I gathered from the previews that you’d filmed additional segments with prisoners and guards, but I didn’t realize how much there was.
I want people to understand that the stand-up comedy is the intermission from the stories. I can’t forget about those very informative years in there, where I learned how to be a decent human being. It’s weird, learning how to be a decent human being in prison. It’s kind of a weird thing. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before, because that’s basically what it’s like in there — you’re learning how to be a decent human being. If you think about it, that’s what prison is actually supposed to do. It’s not supposed to have such a high recidivism rate. Being in prison is supposed to be an accident, a mistake that you’ve committed, and the system is supposed to help you move past it. You get corrected. That’s why it’s called a “correctional facility.” At some point, I think they stopped correcting people and just became a facility.
So I felt that if I was going to film this special in a prison, I should contribute to the correcting. I should help. Ask them things like, “Can I change your mindset? I need to change your mindset. Not just for my own selfish reasons, but for your well being.” If I’m going to be a good, productive person, I need other good, productive people around me. I’m also trying to change how people think about prison. Whether you’re in a prison, know someone in prison, or have never experienced prison, I don’t want people to get caught up in this life. It doesn’t have to be the end. Don’t get caught up in this life. I didn’t. That’s how I made it out alive and mostly unscathed, but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people come out damaged and with no hope or enthusiasm for life. So I want to give those who are sitting in jail the sense that they can accomplish something. They can still try to contribute to society.