Ali Siddiq spent six years in prison, serving time in various jails and penitentiaries after an arrest at 19 for drug possession. Twenty years later, Siddiq went back.
It’s Bigger Than These Bars, premiering Friday night on Comedy Central, finds Siddiq performing for and talking to inmates at Bell County Jail in Texas: “I’m back to do my stand-up in front of currently incarcerated folks to let the world know that you can do whatever you put your mind to, because it’s bigger than these bars.”
As he tells the inmates at the start of his show, sitting on a chair in his black-on-black suit: “What you gonna do, sit in a cell or come to a show? It’s free. You already paid the cost to be here.” But unlike other comedians who have filmed stand-up specials behind bars (such as Jeffrey Ross, also for Comedy Central and also in Texas; or Mo’Nique), “I actually came from exactly where you sitting now to where I’m standing now.”
Siddiq has plenty of material for them about his own time in prison, about trying to re-adjust to life on the outside, about going to court, and about trying to keep up with younger men on the basketball court.
He also had a few minutes to chat with me this week on the phone. His father died just last week, but Siddiq told me that his father did see some of the footage from his special before he passed.
Siddiq has come a long way not just since his felony conviction, but also just since 2013, when he won a talent search by Comedy Central called “Up Next.”
“Big shout-out to Raymond Cook at the Houston Improv for even coercing me into doing the competition,” Siddiq told me. He said he felt comedy competitions were rigged and didn’t want to do it, so he acted very nonchalant about this one at first. Even Comedy Central’s top booker Anne Harris, asked him at one point: “You really don’t care, do you?” As he advanced through the regional contests. But he said a Facebook rant about Houston popped up his social media backing in the contest and helped him win.
“The only thing I was excited about was the (Comedy Central) album,” he said of the contest prizes, thinking back then: “This could boost my other albums.”
He even turned down an offer to do Comedy Central’s stand-up showcase, Adam Devine’s House Party. “Yeah, I didn’t want to do that show. It didn’t fit my style of comedy, what I was doing,” he told me. “Not trying to be disrespectful. That show just didn’t fit me.” Siddiq did do Ari Shaffir’s This Is Not Happening, though. And here was the first time he told a prison story onstage.
“It was not a part of my show for the first 15 years of my career. I didn’t want people to say oh, that’s who he is,” Siddiq said. “It took another comic to tell me. I’m at one of my shows late one night, I was being very dark, and he said that’s the first time I ever heard you talk about prison life. It took me another six or seven years to talk about it…I don’t want people to think that that’s all that I have.”
Making a whole hour about his prison experiences is another story.
With another goal.
This time: “To show Texas prisoners, hey when you get out, you can accomplish what I did,” he said. “Let me be the beacon of light and hope for prisoners.”
He specifically wanted to shoot his special anywhere in the Lone Star State because that’s where he served his time, and it’d be more meaningful both for him and for the inmates who could identify more with him. Ross’s Brazos County Jail roast for Comedy Central certainly helped Siddiq in approaching area facilities. At Bell County, Siddiq jokes that the one thing administrators asked initially was that “we don’t want you to say anything negative about the prison.” He was OK with that, but first, he had to make them understand: “I’m going to say the word prison and you tell me all the positive things that come to mind…go!”
His comedy career may have began behind bars, in the most informal sense. “I didn’t do open mics. When I say my comedy started in prison…I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just entertaining people with my words. I was just relating to what they were going through. I was just happy being jovial.”
When he did begin performing outside prison in shows, it was a rude awakening.
“I actually got booed the first time,” Siddiq remembered. “That’s what taught me observation. It was college night. I had a full-blown Steve Harvey getup. They not even booing me. They booing the suit.”
Nobody booing Siddiq now.
“Hopefully people take away a whole ‘nother outlook on prisoners and what they can accomplish, and then put pressure on convicts to do better. You don’t have that leeway,” he said. “This boy was homeless. This boy had this, didn’t have this and he on TV. What’s your excuse?”
Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars premieres Friday on Comedy Central, and will become available Feb. 24 to stream on Comedy Central, and as a digital download extended and uncensored on Feb. 27. Fans can follow Siddiq on Twitter at @Ali_Speaks and Comedy Central Stand-Up at @standup to join the social conversation around the special.