Some comics spend an entire lifetime trying to figure out who they are onstage, or what sort of comedy they want to do. They find what they’re talking about onstage and their persona to be a constantly evolving thing all its own. A comic’s voice is the most important thing he has, after all.
The moment Ali Siddiq steps out onstage, you know this isn’t going to be your ordinary comedian telling jokes. This goes beyond what you’ve come to expect. This is pure story telling, pulling back the curtain, and letting you inside. There is nary a fake moment on that stage. It is all Ali. What you see is precisely what you get. Ali knows precisely what type of comedian he is.
So, it goes without saying that his first stand-up special, It’s Bigger Than These Bars is going to be no different. It does such a beautifully, seamless job of blending together Ali onstage with real, personal moments of those who are currently incarcerated. Ali goes around Bell County Jail, in the midst of his stand up, and gives you a real insight into what life behind bars is actually like. This is unlike any other comedy special you’ve ever seen. Yes, there are moments of true hilarity obviously, but you also walk away feeling completely educated.
We recently talked to Ali about his new special, the time he has spent with current inmates, the struggles he himself has faced, and all else in between. Below is some excerpts from that intensely raw and informative conversation.
SHOOTING THE SPECIAL
We shot the special at Bell County Jail, with people who have been incarcerated and people who are awaiting trial. I spent time on Ellis, which is now a cell unit, Bill Clements [unit], Torres Unit, Darrington Unit. That’s where I spent most of my time at. Texas didn’t want us to come into an actual prison [to shoot the special]. They didn’t want us to say anything negative about the prison. They didn’t want us to give prison a negative light, which I just asked them “When I say the word ‘prison,’ I want to know all of the positive words that come to your mind.” I don’t know what that even means with them. I thought my story was a positive story. How was I going to give it a negative light?
This is an impression mold to me. Everybody involved in this project knows this is an impression mold. I’m not in “This is a prison, This is a prison” thing. This is an impression mold. This is the warm up before I actually end up going to a prison like Bill Clements, which would be great, or go back to Torres, which would be great because that’s where I lead a peaceful million man march at. These are the stories that they won’t get until I do the prison special. There’s a bunch of stories. There’s so many things that happened in prison that you’d have to be in prison for people to understand. It’s already difficult to do a show, prep a show, to go back into prison if men and the women are not in the audience at the same time. Because that’s when you do a show, men and the women are in the audience at the same time, so you have to curve the narrative and say it from a backdoor point of view to bring it full circle so it makes sense when you say it to the women. [When I talk to women], they feel like men got them incarcerated, but when I talk to men, they feel like women got them incarcerated. That’s a mental prison on both sides.
For the last 2 weeks, I’ve been thinking that I wasn’t going to make it to see my special come out. And then my father passed [last Wednesday, February 14th, 5 days before this interview], and I understood. And it brought me back to something, another lesson that he gave me. ‘If you’re already prepared for something, then where’s the mistakes if you’re already prepared?’ Nobody’s perfect, because people stop trying. But athletes keep trying. In the industry, they keep trying to perfect something. Is this special perfect? No. Because it’s not in prison. It’s perfect for the impression mold. It’s perfect for the set up. That’s the reason why you practice something. When you go in the game, no coach accepts mistakes in the game. You practiced that. What’s the point of practicing something if you’re going to go out and make the mistake? So for people in society, stop making the mistake of thinking that you have time to wallow in something that happens to you.
RESPONSIBILITY AS A STAND-UP
This lady walked up to me. I’m very young at doing stand-up at this point. But I remember the day I said it, because I had never said it onstage before. I walked onstage and said “If you try to commit suicide, you’re a quitter.” And I said that. And cut to 2 months later, this lady walks into the store where I get coffee. And she sees me, and she’s looking at me. And it’s like “I don’t know this lady.” And this lady walks up to me crying, “I just want to hug you and tell you thank you.” I said “For what? I don’t know you.” She said “I was just joking with my daughter. My daughter was going through a hard time. And she had tried to commit suicide, and she was still contemplating it, and I was just trying to take her out and have a good time. And you walked onstage and you said “If you try to commit suicide, you’re a quitter.” And then you went through all of the scenarios of why you wouldn’t, and why you wouldn’t do it. And it was hysterical. I watched that girl laugh. She’s been cool ever since. And that touched me. And I said at that time “I’ve got to be more responsible with the things that I say onstage because people are listening for pain as well.”
HOW PRISON SHAPED ALI
As a human being, I actually learned very good human behavior in prison. It goes back to the same things my grandmother taught me. “Mind your own business, son. And be respectful of people.” And the difference is, in society, people forget about consequences. But for 6 years, I didn’t have that leeway to forget about a consequence. I always had to be sharp on it, because the consequence to not being sharp is death. That’s a different thing that people don’t understand. You could go to jail for one year and still get killed. Nobody told you you were coming home. I dealt with death every single day when I was in prison, as well as the thought of one of my family members dying while I was in there. My mother, my father… my grandmother died while I was there. And I didn’t get to go to her funeral. These are the things where when you’re in the free society… You’ve been incarcerated, you get out. If you forget what the consequences are, then you end up back in there.
I don’t want people to think that was rehearsed [a moment in the special where he has a discussion about prison ID numbers]. It was very unrehearsed, because they didn’t know what I was going to talk about. And when I said it, it just stuck in my brain. “What’s killing me, man, is that number. That number.” I don’t want my son to have that number, I don’t want my brother to have a number. I don’t want nobody else in society to have something else bounded to their name that they know better than their social security number. 679346. Each person said their number, and they didn’t realize my heart was breaking as each person said their number. I wasn’t happy that they knew it. I wanted one person to forget. To say “Hey, I forgot mine.” To give me some type of hope that one day I’ll forget this number. I won’t be able to see it or think of it. Somebody will ask me “What’s that number?” And I won’t ever think of it again.
It’s those mental scars you get from prison, no matter how successful you are, that you want to get rid of. When somebody tells you that you can’t own an apartment because you have a criminal record. Man, I made a mistake at 19. Did you give me a life sentence or did you give me 15 years? Did I give you everything I owed you in the debt, or do I still owe you for the rest of my life? What is your hang up? What could I do? What’s going to change you seeing me past that number? Past my mistake? Do I have to die with a mistake that I made at 19? Maybe this special, this impression mold, will relieve me by giving me something I can lay down, at least to sew it up.
I can talk to anybody, which gives me this other hang up in society, where I’m so concerned about women in society because they don’t understand how to keep themselves safe, because they never sat down to talk to a molester or rapist. I would sit down with them and ask them “Hey, what’s your deal?” I would sit down with the thief. “Why do you steal?” I was a drug dealer, so I know what the hang up is. It’s a big thing out there. When you look at a drug dealer, you’re still looking at a user. And people don’t get that. You’re still looking at a user. A user told me to my face “You’re just as big of a junkie as me.” I said “What makes you say that? The difference is, let me tell you something. I smoke dope for recreation. I can stop recreating whenever I want to. You sell dope for your livelihood. How do you stop that, junkie?” And it resonated.
THE NEXT SPECIAL
Maybe the next one won’t be in prison. Maybe it’ll just be in a juvenile facility with all kids and to help stop them from going there. There’s a school out here, JJAP that I go to. It’s really like a prison high school. I do a show for teachers called Teacher’s Lounge. And I was trying to take it all over. It’s two former teachers, one at the middle school/elementary/high school level, and one that’s a professor, and then me as a parent. And the thing is to show it at a different level, producing bad kids and disturbed kids in middle school/elementary/high school, then when they get to college, they don’t have the mental fortitude and they drop out. As a parent, what can I do to bridge the gap between teachers, administrators, me, and children? So I go in and do that, and to give the teachers a break, too. Hey teachers, I know what you’re going through. Let’s have some fun to keep your morale up. So we need happy teachers. You go to any place in the country and you go into a bar at happy hour, you’ll find on a Friday it’s full of teachers. Why do teachers feel the need to go drink after dealing with kids? Because they’re not happy. And when they’re not happy teachers, then the kids are not going to be happy learning. And uneducated people make uneducated mistakes and now we’re just building more prisons and more uneducated people and more divisive people.
And somewhere somebody has to say something. “Let’s stop it in elementary. Let’s stop promoting the bad guy in society as the top thing. What’s wrong with the good guy? I miss The Lone Ranger. Why does it have to be the bad guy? I can’t even find a kid anymore who wants to be a cop. I can’t find a kid who wants to be a fireman or an astronaut or any of that. You need those there. I can’t find kids playing. I find kids shooting on video games. I find kids being reckless and that’s what society pumps into them. So why not have a pep rally for kids who are smart? They have a pep rally for athletes. Why not have a pep rally for the kids who are intelligent? Why not a pep rally for the good kids to motivate kids to be good? Let me be big enough and influential enough to say “Hey, this is what success is. It’s being happy all the time. Speak more languages. Be able to change America. Picket fences. Play outside. Be involved in the world and not be closed off and then come out mass shooting.” Because me, I would’ve known he was going to do this. I was around. Because I go to these schools, and every kid they tell me that’s the baddest kid, that’s who I want to talk to. And every time they tell me “This one is going to be a rough one.” And then at the end of it, “Say, how do you do that?” Because they see the honesty in me, man. I am them. I am them. I am the older version of them, and I want them not to make that little mistake. 19-25, I don’t want you all to be that part of me. I want you all to do this part. The fun part.
Ali Siddiq’s first special It’s Bigger Than These Bars premieres on Comedy Central Friday February 23rd at 11/10ct.