Ali Siddiq Debuts Comedy Central Special Recorded Inside Bell County Jail

Ali Siddiq‘s first performances were in prison. While serving six years of a 15-year sentence for drug trafficking in a Texas state penitentiary, he started what he calls ‘joking’. Two decades and hundreds of sets later, he returned to prison to tape his comedy special. Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars premieres tonight on Comedy Central.

Ali talked to Moontower about his decision to stay in Houston, his love of Richard Pryor, and why it’s harder to get inside a maximum security prison voluntarily.

On influences

The Richard Pryor album, Blacksmith. That was the album. That was the album that changed everything. I told my dad, “Man, I think I want to do that.” His ability to tell stories, man, it was just so captivating. I’m a really deep student of stand-up. Carol Burnett was a big influence, and then you had Don Rickles. I don’t know why I loved Don Rickles as a kid. Then, you had Rodney Dangerfield. Those were the cats.

There were people that may not have even been comedians that I just thought were funny. I loved everybody on The Beverly Hillbillies. Benny Hill is a big influence. Then, Hee Haw. Man, Hee Haw was hysterical to me. It was the timing.  I didn’t know they were even comics. I didn’t know what they were doing. I just knew these were entertaining people to me. Richard Pryor was just captivating because he was visibly painting a picture to me on a record.

On staying in Texas

People know Martin [Lawrence] is from D.C. and [Dave] Chappelle’s from D.C. and Bernie [Mac] had Chicago and Steve [Harvey] was home in Cleveland, and D.L. [Hughley] had LA and several comics had LA and everybody was from New York and it was a frigging standard to comedy. I just wondered who the standard was for Texas. People always said, “You got to leave. This is not really a hotbed for comedy, for getting discovered.” I thought, “Man, Texas is a big place, and Houston’s a great thing for comedy, so why wouldn’t people be able to blow up from here?” I just thought that was a crazy ideology.

I said, “Well, man, I’m going to just stay here and try to make a new standard. I’m going to stay at home and try to do something different.” I shot an album with Comedy Central and I shot it in Houston. I shot my special right outside of Austin in Bell County Jail. I keep trying to make them come to me. I think that creates the industry in Houston. Those lighting people, those grips, those catering people, those wardrobe people all get that benefit of being a part of a production in their own home state. It’s just been a big thing to me to really try to represent Texas.

On recording his special in prison

I was very irritated at first that I couldn’t get a maximum security prison like I was in. They just wouldn’t allow me in. You can go to prison involuntarily, but if you volunteer to go, “No, no. We don’t need you here with your positive story of making it out and making something of yourself.” Some prisons, their excuse was they didn’t want me to speak negatively about the prison. I said, “Tell me all the positive things that come to your mind when you think of prison.” It could be a prison made of gold. Nobody’s going to even mention that. If you were in prison and the bars were made out of gold, how many times would you bring that up in interviews? “Man, prison was rough, but the bars were made out of gold.”

This is the most foul place. If you can make it through this place and not be different than what you were as a person, but you change your bad way of thinking, you can navigate your way through this place and exude positivity. Be firm when you need to be, but be lenient, be understanding, be out of the way, all the things that you have to be in society, you have to practice this in a place where you know everybody’s dangerous. Maybe when people see this special, they’ll understand it’s still human beings in there. They’re not just human to their family.

On performing in Austin

I just think Austin’s a great place to do comedy. You can be as weird and as dark as you want to be. It’s a great place. I’m going to be eating tacos off a strange truck in the middle of the night. What more could you want?

Catch Ali and dozens of other comedians and podcasts at Moontower with a $99 Satellite Badge. More info here. Tickets for Ali Siddiq’s show Ego are available here



mm John Merriman

John Merriman has worked with the Moontower festival since it's inception in 2012. He is the co-host of the festival's long-running interview series "Inside Joke" where he has interviewed luminaries including Steven Wright, Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt. Before Moontower, he spent five years at the Austin Film Fesival as a film programmer where he helped launch the Comedy Vanguard program and the Funniest Filmmaker in Austin series. He has called Austin his home since 1996.