Ali Siddiq On Joking With And Rehabilitating Prisoners In His New Comedy Central Special

Comedy Central

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.

I think the phrase you use is “mental prison.”

Yeah, I struggle with things like everybody else, but you can get past it if you’re not locked into that negative way of thinking. My father just passed away last week. I did two shows the day of, a show the day after, and a few more shows that weekend. At a show I did that Sunday, this lady was being erratic at the show, going on about how she was just trying to enjoy it because her father had died two months ago. I told her, “Just because your father died two months ago doesn’t mean everybody in here is going through the same thing.” I then told her and everybody else there that my father had just died, but I had still been up there for 45 minutes performing. Why? Because they weren’t going through what I was going through, and I wasn’t going to force them to. I had to sort it out in my brain so I wouldn’t act out, because acting out when you’ve put yourself in a mental prison, a negative mental space, is what ends you up in a physical prison.

You referenced the fact that entertainers had filmed specials of all sorts at prisons before. Unlike some of the prime examples that come to mind, however, It’s Bigger Than These Bars never feels disrespectful. I never got the sense that you were talking down to them, or using them as props.

Going into it, I wanted to interact and mingle with them. I hadn’t been back to jail in some time, but when I went to the Bell County Jail for this, it was hard for my handlers to find me because I was out on the wreck yard. I was hanging out with people. I was hugging them and sitting down with them. I hate to even admit this, but it really felt like I was coming back to the yard. It felt like a homecoming. They didn’t know me, obviously, but they easily figured out that I’d been locked up before and knew what it was like. They knew I wasn’t there to make fun of them. I was one of them and this pleased them. It made them happy, even when I was talking to them about why they’d been locked up, for how long, and how many times.

They knew it wasn’t a game to me. I was incarcerated for six years. They knew my story and I sat down with them and got to know theirs. I talked to them straight. I tried to be as compassionate as possible. I told them they shouldn’t want to die in a place like that. This is the underlying thing that our society never seems to understand. Let’s say you give a young kid two years in prison — you’re still sentencing him to death. Even if you give him 18 months, it’s still a death sentence because it’s not guaranteed that he’s going to make it out of there alive. He could have six months and get killed in there. There’s no guarantee that he’s going to make it home alive.

It reminds me of your prison riot story from This Is Not Happening a few years ago. It’s a funny story, but it’s also very serious. There are real consequences.

The weird thing is, people already understood that I was telling a true story. I didn’t punch it up. I wanted to make sure people knew it wasn’t just a comedy bit. So I told the story the same way I would tell it to anybody in the barbershop. I was hoping that, maybe at the end of the show, I would become a regular because what I was doing wasn’t a lame way of telling an intricate story. And if they do bring me back, I’m going to show the transition from being young and naive non-violent criminal in prison to becoming a very formidable opponent. After a while, I would go at guards just because I wouldn’t let them be disrespectful to me.

I’m just trying to get people to understand that prison is a lot deeper than they think. You have to understand where to place people if you want them to be productive, or if you want to correct their behavior. You can’t put somebody who was scamming people on taxes in the same cell as a real murderer. You’re going to change the scope of who or what that person is. Now he has to become a savage because he’s surrounded by savages, just to protect himself. It’s one of many problems, and hopefully people will listen to my show and understand that I’m trying to go deeper.

With your philanthropy and community service work, you’ve performed for people living in the correctional system before. Has anyone who saw you at one of these shows ever reached out to you after they got out?

All the time. That’s becoming a constant, actually. The best one was some old friends of mine who were in there with me came to see me at the Arlington Improv. I did the show and then we all took a picture together. It was awesome. That felt great because we were doing something positive together. Another time, I was in Dallas and this guy at a Footaction store in a mall gave me a hug. I didn’t even see him at first, but he came up from behind me, hugged me, and asked if I remembered him. I didn’t recognize him at first, but after a show at his unit I did, I came back and talked to him. I told him to go to school when he got out. He told me he did just that, and that he wasn’t gangbanging anymore. He was the assistant manager at that Footaction.

Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars premieres Friday, February 23rd at 11 pm ET/PT on Comedy Central.