Ali Siddiq is no stranger to the spotlight, having appeared on Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, and more. When he’s not up on stage, however, the Houston comedian makes a point to serve his hometown community.
With his annual Jive Turkeys Comedy Show, for example, Siddiq has teamed up with The Houston Food Bank to help feed the homeless.
“It’s a thing I want to get bigger in stature—not in order to fill up arenas, but to get people to listen,” he says. “I don’t want to just feed people during the holidays. I think that’s a bad way to present health, [if you’re doing it] only on the holidays and never during the course of their life.”
Siddiq will visit Indianapolis from Nov. 23-24 for shows at Crackers Comedy Club. Beforehand, we caught up with him for a phone interview, discussing his path from prison to comedy.
NUVO: Tell me about the years of your life prior to your jail sentencing.
ALI SIDDIQ: I went to jail for drug trafficking so I was basically drug trafficking up until that point. [laughs]
NUVO: How long were you doing that for?
SIDDIQ: I had probably been selling drugs since I was about 14 or 15. Prior to that, I was in school. I went to jail young—four days after I turned 19. And then, I was incarcerated until I was 25. So before jail, I was in the hood, spending drug money and hanging out. I’d go to college to hang out with my friends because that’s where my friends were. Even though I sold dope, most of my friends didn’t.
NUVO: I’ve read that you started telling jokes while in jail. What prompted you to first start telling jokes?
SIDDIQ: I think people have taken that “I started in jail” thing way too far because that’s not where I started doing stand-up. I started doing stand-up at Just Joking Comedy Cafe in Houston. I don’t want people to think that there’s a comedy program inside of prison. There’s no stage.
I give this example. Do you have any funny friends that just make you laugh? That’s what I was in prison. I wasn’t a stand-up comic—that wasn’t my goal. I just happened to be a jovial person when I was incarcerated. So my thing was, “When I get out, it’ll probably be a little easier because I’m already jovial. I can make people in the free society laugh who have a little bit more to laugh about.”
NUVO: How did you go about getting plugged into Houston’s comedy scene? Was it difficult to get plugged in at first?
SIDDIQ: No actually. All these colleges would go to this one particular spot called Just Joking Comedy Cafe for their Apollo Night, which was rappers, poets, comics, and anything else you wanted to do. I went there and signed up to go on. I actually got booed the first time I went on stage because I had on a suit. They were in college, so everybody else had on jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. I waited two weeks and came back in jeans and a t-shirt. A month later, I was the co-host of the show.
NUVO: Were there any other people or places in Houston that were important along the way as you were coming up?
SIDDIQ: I don’t know what people consider coming up. It can take you 10 years in this business to even get the right contacts. I’ve been doing stand-up for 20 years, and I’m still coming up. [laughs] Everybody I’ve met has been influential to me getting to this point. But what is coming up now? You have to be in a sitcom, movie, or do some niche thing. I don’t even know what “up” is anymore in the comedy business. I’m still coming up. [laughs]
NUVO: I know that you’re pretty involved in the Houston community, especially with inner city youths. When was that something you became passionate about?
SIDDIQ: I think people get that confused because I’ve been in prison and am Black. It’s not just inner city kids. I deal with kids, period. [laughs] In the suburbs, it’s the same problems I dealt with in the “inner city.”
You travel the world, and you end up talking to children all over the world. You find out that everybody has this crazy depression. Everybody has this bullying that’s going on. It's a suburb, inner city, and worldwide problem with children at this point.
NUVO: Does Indianapolis hold any significance to you?
SIDDIQ: Indianapolis is home of the Madame Walker Theatre. It would be amazing to do a tour of all these great, historic theaters that all these great African American artists played at, which are no longer getting recognition. There are a lot of theaters that African American people played at when they couldn’t play other places, which just got abandoned or put by the wayside. I would like to bring that historical feel back to all of those particular places.
Mike Epps is also from there, and he’s a friend of mine. I met him down in Houston when I first started. He told me that I was going to be good when I first started.