Ignoring my request to watch Ali Siddiq’s “This Is Not Happening” YouTube clips will not preclude you from enjoying this interview.
In fact, it won’t take long to figure out that Siddiq, a former inmate who started doing stand-up comedy during a six-year prison sentence and is now headlining clubs across the country, has a fascinating story, and the way he shares moments from his life behind bars and as a free man is what makes this interview, those YouTube videos and his comedy great.
Siddiq, who headlines Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh this week, spoke with me on the phone Tuesday morning after he left a parent-teacher conference, and during our 20-minute conversation, two thoughts continually recurred when I wasn’t in the act of asking him a question. 1. Damn, this guy is a riveting storyteller, and 2. He is talking to me exactly how he talked to the “This Is Not Happening” audience.
I lied. A third thought popped into my head as well, and it’s this: Siddiq is one of the funniest, brightest, most honest comedians I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. We discussed his time in jail, the things he appreciated most immediately after being released, lessons he learned from comedy legends and much more.
Enjoy the interview, follow Siddiq on Twitter (@Ali_Speaks) and don’t forget The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes at the end. Then go watch those YouTube videos, or watch them now and come back here. It’s the Internet. You can pretty much do anything you want.
Tony Castleberry: Your jokes are really funny, but I might be even more impressed by how well you tell a story. Have you always been a good story teller?
Ali Siddiq: I actually haven’t. I started working on it maybe two years ago, actually being able to sit down and tell intriguing stories. I would just do it in the barber shop at first. Guys were like, “Hey man, you might wanna start doing some of this stuff on stage ‘cause it’s pretty funny.” Since (the stories) are not jokes, it was challenging to develop how to say them and have people stay intrigued by them.
TC: I imagine it evolved by you just doing that on stage and the more you did it, the more comfortable it felt to kind of go deeper with those stories.
AS: The more I did it, the more comfortable I got and the more people started feeling like, “Oh, this is his style. This is what he does.” I developed a great confidence just being able to walk out and start from a seated position and go from there. I know it was kind of challenging for Comedy Central when they saw I was gonna walk out and do that on TV. I did that on my Comedy Central Half Hour special and I’m planning on doing it in my hour special, which we’re trying to shoot in a prison.
It’s been a work in progress. I’m still trying to get better every day at it, trying to sharpen it and make it even better than what people think it is now.
TC: That’s big of you to go back and perform in prison. I thought you might have had your fill of those tough crowds, but you do want to do that?
AS: I do it now for juveniles, just going back to talk to troubled youth. My everyday conversation is very jovial and I’m gonna be funny in that so I started saying, “You know, I need to go back where I began (comedy).” [laughs] With the special, I asked if it was a possibility for me to spend a couple of nights in the prison so I can get back acclimated to that. I didn’t want the people to feel like I was coming in there using them to do this special and then go. I wanted them to understand, I’m from this. I came from this. I’m coming back as a light.
Look, I came from this and I walked all the way through whatever my struggles were and now I’m back to show y’all because nobody has ever come back (to do a comedy show). At least I haven’t seen anybody go back and try to tell (inmates) what they did to get out of that situation and then make it in the world. That’s the major thing, coming back into society and making it.
TC: Do you feel like staying there for a night or two and having the prisoners see you there outside of just showtime will help your performance?
AS: Exactly. I’m back, like back back. I’m back for y’all. I’m not back for any other reason. I’m not in trouble. I’m back because I came to help. The same way I helped when I was in there, I wanna come back and do the same thing. With my comedy, I want society to see that it’s more than just a person being locked up and then getting out. It’s just like coming from war as a military person. You’re in this world and you’re shocked again. This world has totally changed and now you have to change how you do things because how you did things inside were tailored for that particular situation. You have to reprogram, reboot and redefine who you are as a regular citizen, just like a person that was in the military.
They’ve been talking about how Obama is going to go back to being a civilian after being president. How is a prisoner going back to being a regular citizen after you’ve been through something so traumatic, even though it’s self-inflicted trauma?
TC: That’s a brilliant way of putting it. Do you remember the first meal you ate after you were released?
AS: I wish I did. [interviewer laughs] I think I just grabbed something because it wasn’t even about the meal. It was about the ability to buy something. [Siddiq, interviewer laugh] I don’t remember the meal, but I definitely remember the feeling of, “Man, I can really go in this store and buy something!” I’m excited about purchasing something. I’m excited about being on a bus where I wasn’t in handcuffs and chained to another person. I remember the sense of freedom, like, “Oh, nobody’s following me. I don’t have to walk inside of a yellow line.” It was a really refreshing thing.
Then my mind went automatically back to, “You’re still not free. You’re on parole, so let’s not let this freedom, this intoxication of freedom fool you into thinking that you can just do anything. You’re still locked up because they have paperwork on you.”
I remember when I got off parole. I will never forget that day. That was the day I got myself back. It was like, you own yourself again. I was elated. I was speaking to people. It was a whole new day for me.
TC: Wow. That’s incredible, man. (At this point, Siddiq and the interviewer talk for several minutes about the Super Bowl and their favorite football teams. Siddiq is a New York Giants fan, the interviewer grew up rooting for the Washington Redskins and they both enjoy Dallas Cowboys losses. After the football talk, Siddiq dives into an entertaining and informative discussion about comedians who have helped him and why he tries to pay that help forward.)
AS: There are a lot of people I have been influenced by for different reasons. I will do anything for a comic and I will help and I will support and I will try to launch another comic because of Rodney Dangerfield. He was so selfless in a very selfish business.
Then there are people who have given me outstanding advice. Being that I came in (to comedy) from a different angle — I came in performing for closed custody, just being a jovial person inside of a bad situation — I just made it my thing. People say, “What started you in stand-up?” and I say, me walking out of my cell, seeing everybody mad all the time and I would say “Hey, what are y’all mad about? It’s not like somebody’s going home today. So you’re just gonna sit here mad, for free?” [interviewer laughs] That was my logic. My stand-up started with me being logical with everything in prison.
People would think I was being funny but, no, I was actually asking. This is a real question. … Say we riot right now. I get it. We mad. Let’s just start rioting. Are (the guards) gonna shoot that (tear) gas again? The last time y’all rioted and convinced me to go with y’all, they shot gas and didn’t nobody tell me. Are they shooting that gas again? I need to know that. [interviewer laughs]
TC: The truth is always funnier, right?
AS: It goes back to what D.L. (Hughley) told me. He said, “Ali, this is the only thing that’s gonna hold up your funny. Your funny is gonna be based upon how honest you wanna be, what you want people to know. Once you give it to them, you have to own it, and that’s when you’re going to be funny.”
If people go back to my stand-up in 1999 and look at my interviews, they’ll know that another comic (lifted material). I told D.L., “Hey, I did this show with this guy and now he is kind of doing my material.” D.L. simply said, “Write some new material.” Just simple as that, “Write some new material.”
Then I was on the road with a comic and I said, “Hey, he’s starting to kind of say stuff that I’m saying.” You know what D.L.’s answer was? He said, “Is (the comedian) taking you all over the country?” “Yeah.” “Taking you into clubs you’ve never been in?” I said, “Yeah.” (Hughley said) “That’s tuition.” [laughs] I said, “What?!?” He said, “That’s tuition that you’re paying for that (exposure).
Then I wrote some new material. … I listened, I put things in perspective and I broke myself down a lot to rebuild myself back up.
I’m not married to anything as far as my stand-up. I’m not married to how I am now. I’m not married to certain jokes. I’m in constant development, trying to be better. When people say, “Man, you’re funny,” I’m like, “I’m nowhere close to what I’m trying to become.”
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes:
So a refugee walks into a bar and the bartender says "hey kid why the wrong faith?"
— Eldge (@Sickayduh) February 1, 2017