Most comedians begin their careers at an open mic. Ali Siddiq began his career in PRISON. He was good then, he’s a legend now. To date, Ali has toured and has worked with comedy’s most notable talent to date. The list includes: D.L. Hughley, Katt Williams, J. Anthony Brown, Bruce Bruce, Bill Belamy, and Mike Epps, among others. His TV credits go something like this:
BET’s Comic View for four consecutive seasons, The All-Star Comedy Jam with Rickey Smiley, Arnez J., and Earthquake. Bill Bellamy’s Who’s Got Jokes? and D.L. Hughley’s Unapologetic tour. He was a finalist on NBC Universal’s Stand Up for Diversity. He performed on BET’s One Mic Stand and featured on the season finale of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam.
Some of Ali’s comedy mentors include, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Redd Fox, Steve Martin, Martin Lawrence, Damon Wayans, Mike Epps, Corey Holcombe, and Dominique. Ali continues to thrive in the comedy industry and open doors for other comedians coming after him. And after selling out the entire weekend at the Improv comedy club, Ali gave the time to pass along his wisdom.
[as the interview begins, a vacuum sounds from outside of the green room]
Ali: [to his crew member] Hey man! Go tell ‘em to get that vacuum outta here! And lock the door!
Ali: Say bro, whatcha wanna talk to me about?
Let’s start with the basics: Why do you do comedy?
Its a passion. I wanna make people feel comfortable with the things they uncomfortable with. Everybody’s uncomfortable with somethin in they life, but they never realize it until somebody says it. When everybody in the room is laughin about it, you learn that you’re not the only one that’s like this. And it’s okay.
For instance, one of the things I joke about, is time. People waste alotta time arguing about time they arent given— yet they got time RIGHT NOW. For instance, if I don’t have time to hang out witchu, I just really dont have time. Why would you think that I dont wanna hang out witchu? Why would you think that? And its a insecurity.
But people dont understand that till you go on stage and make em realize that [slams his fist on the table] YOU ARE ARGUIN WITH ME about time that I didnt have with you last week…while I got time with you RIGHT NOW. So now…you wastin my time. And this is the fuckin reason I dont hang out witchu! [laughs]
To be successful, you have to sacrifice time away from your family and friends. So does a part of you feel the need to impress them through your comedy?
Not at all. I dont try to impress my family, I dont try to impress my friends. Your friends and your family hafta realize thatchu doin somethin outta the love of the craft. My friends ‘n my family, they proud of me, but they really dont give a shit about what I do. They REALLY dont give a shit. I mean, shit—Johnny Carson could come back just to interview ME. [laughs] And all my friends would not give a FUCK. They’d be like, “Man I see you on that lil ol’ bullshit Johnny Carson, nigga you aint shit!” [laughs]
But really though, none of that shit means NOTHIN to them! [laughs] All my friends think that they the flyest mothafuckas on the PLANET! And I would agree! You ask me bout em and Ima say the same. But them mothafuckas think they liver than anybody! LITERALLY! [slams his fist on the table] Michael Jackson could come back and be IN THE ROOM and they be like, “Pshhh mannn dat nigga Mike think he can moon walk?! I’ll moon walk his ass all ova the place!” Even though Michael Jackson was the FIRST to do it! They learned it from HIM! Yet they still try to beat him!
[moment of laughter]
Let’s talk about the business of comedy. What does it takes to be successful in this business?
You gotta put your pride to the side— pride gets in peoples way. Cant be havin no big head. Alotta these comics get a coupla laughs and now they heads big.
It is the hardest thing in this business to do when you funny ‘n when you know that its a business about bein funny.
But its a business based on business—and likability—and accountability. You are literally in a business where the funniest person will not be the most successful.
Tell you the honest truth—theres only two comics in this city that get a whole weekend at The Improv—dont matter how long they been doin it—only two: Ralphie May and then me. There would be another one had he not fucked up and burned a bridge.
You cant shit on people and not be professional in a business where you need the club as much as they need you…but you need them a lil more, cuz they have the place. You have the talent, but they have the place. Alotta people have talent, but not everybody has a place.
Where would you say you’re at right now in your comedy career?
It doesn’t matta where I think I am in my comedy. One day you up high—you in a room doin comedy in front of a packed crowd that paid to see you—but then the next day, you in a theater openin up for D.L. (Hughley). And now, you the low man on the totem pole—you the man that people say, “Oh ya you was funny, TOO.” You the after thought.
What’s that like, going from being on top one night, to being at the bottom another night?
Its no problem, but its hard when after the show, people tell you, “Hey, I thought you were funnier!” Cuz in the end its like, “Yeah, but you didnt come to see me.” You go up there and do everything that you can do, and still only one percent of those people are gonna come back to see you headline. But thats the lesson that you learn.
And when I’m headlinin, it doesnt matta what anybody else does on stage before I get on. Cuz now its MY weekend, and these people came to see me.
Only one percent of those people come back to see you—yet you sold out the entire weekend at The Improv. What’s the secret?
Work, man. Gotta have a work ethic. And it takes time—it really takes some time to get people to come see you—and to have people that support you. And support is like, ma man ova here [points to his left] got a Barber Shop, and he put my posters up in his Barber Shop, tellin his people, “Yo man, go see ma man, he gunna make ya laugh.” Na’m sayin?
And it’s just constantly askin people to come ‘n see you. Thats the thing about not havin a ego, and not havin all that crazy type of pride. Dont let it get to the point to where you cant prosper.
Once you reach a certain level of success in comedy, is it hard to go back and do smaller gigs?
I dont even know how many TV credits I have at this point—been on BET four seasons in a row, two Showtime appearances, NBC, HBO, One Mic Stand—countless things man. And I still have the know-how, the awareness, and the love for the craft to come host a lil competition at The Improv. Thats where I met you at aint it? [laughs]
As you reach higher levels of success, how does it change you as a person?
What amazes me is that people see you differently, but you look at them the same. People act like I’m not supposed to be in the neighborhood. Like I’m not supposed to be a regular individual who get his haircut at a regular barber shop. But if I’m supposed to be “this person” and I’m supposed to be shut off from the world like that, then how are the people I grew up with supposed to SEE success and not just hear about it?
Its people that change people. Its not always the artist—sometimes its people that change people. I was in a room with (Dave) Chappelle and he told me, “Man, I can’t go anywhere without certain people around me.” Twenty years ago if Chappelle stepped on your shoes, it woulda been a simple, “Excuse me,” and thats it. Now, if Dave Chappelle step on your shoes, all of a sudden he broke your fuckin toe. It becomes a legal matter. So now he gotta have lawyers and all kinds of people around him.
Its the people who isolate you from the rest of the world—not the artist isolatin himself. But who wants to go out and deal with that all the time? Kanye (West) meant it when he said, “When I’m in church, no pictures.” That makes sense. He didn’t just say it outta nowhere. That typa instance happened.
How important is it to have true friends with you in this business?
I have tremendous people that support me at all costs. You gotta have the kinda people that be witchu whether you can pay em or not—whether you can do somethin for em or not.
If you think that I hang witchu based on somethin thatchu got—or somethin thatchu can do for me—then me and you aint friends. And we cant make it through a arguement.
I learned a very valuable lesson from a brotha named Nyeen, who I got in an arguement with and hadn’t talked to for a minute. One day I ran into Nyeen and he told me, “Man, lemme tell ya somethin. If me and you fight, argue, and bicker—and we still feel the same exact way about each otha afterwards—then one of us was fakin it from the beginnin. And it aint me.” I took that to heart.
I know alotta people who don’t really have friends—they just have associates, and people judgin em ‘n shit. Man, if you cant call ‘n say, “Hey man, my car got impounded, Ima need some help.” If you cant call ‘n say that, then you dont believe in our friendship, cuz I know if ma man’s car gets impounded—Ima help—and I aint gonna say nothin. I aint gonna bring it up.
You hafta own your own success. Cuz status and “makin it” are two different things. Man, I know comics on cruise ships who make ‘bout 300K a year—but nobody knows ‘em. So you gotta ask yourself, what are you in it for? The popularity? The cash? [slams his fist on the table] WHAT ARE YOU IN IT FOR? It’s on YOU.
Thats why I dont let people judge me on that, “Man, when you gonna get a movie? When you gonna do a sitcom?” Thats not what I do stand up for. I really, just wanna be a stand up. Anything else comes, man thats icin’ on the cake.
Advice for aspiring comics?
The young cats gotta learn to listen, and follow the examples of people who doin what they wanna do. Nobody in this business owes you anything. So when they take the time out to give you advice—you better listen.
And listen to the right people—the RIGHT people. I literally took everything D.L. (Hughley) told me and took it to heart. Whatever Bill (Belamy) told me, whatever (Dave) Chappelle told me, whatever Cedrick (The Entertainer) told me, whatever Bill Burr talked to me about—I took it to heart and I kept it.
The reason I got to this point is all because of somebody’s advice—Rob Stapleton. Rob Stapleton called me and said, “Get out of the chitlin’ circuit, and get in a mainstream room. Don’t worry about how much they pay—just go there and start over.” That was four years ago. After talkin wit Rob, The Improv called me two weeks later and asked me to host. Now, a host dont get paid much, but I remembered what Rob told me about the money. So I took his advice and I went there to host, my first time, for D.L. Did six shows that weekend—didn’t get paid much. But after it all, D.L. came up to me and said, “Hey, you wanna go on a tour wit me?”
All because of Rob’s advice, I go on tour wit D.L., and soon after, D.L. becomes the host of Def Comedy Jam—on HBO. This was the very show that I wanted to be on, but they didnt pick me. But because D.L. was the host, he was given four spots—and he gave me one of the spots. I ended up bein on the season finale of Def Jam. All because of me listenin to somebody else’s advice. The rest is history.
Amazing. Let’s talk about your past for a bit—and how you got to where you are now. How did comedy help you turn your life around?
Well, I went to prison when I was nineteen—spent six years. Prison was the spark of my comedy. Prison prepared me for comedy. Prison prepared me for LIFE. Prison made me mentally stronger than the best of the best in this world—it made me stronger than THAT. I was treated like a slave—I’m like a person who came from real slavery. Where you’re chained, but you still enduring.
In prison, I worked as an SSI—basically a janitor, in the section where people are locked up all day—never get out except for ONE hour—if that. I would watch Martin—and I would perform EVERY character in Martin for the people in there. And after Martin ended, I started doin stand up, and started talkin about all the things that were goin on in prison. If you can perform for people who have NOTHING to laugh about—and you can make ‘em laugh, performin out here’s a cake walk.
Would you say that being funny in prison served as a defense mechanism to save you from trouble?
I never had trouble. I was a very violent person—I was violent in the streets, and I was violent in prison. I never had to save myself—there was no savin. I wasn’t the kinda person that came in there and had to prove myself with my antics. I was one of those people who everybody knew how it wasnt a good idea to rub me the wrong way. You just didnt wanna do that. I had a very brutal reputation. Prison makes you an animal. In a place where there aint nothin but lions—you become one, too. You have to, its what separates the boys from the men.
Lemme put it to you like this: You ever met somebody who killed somebody straight out?
Yeah, like STRAIGHT OUT—like, you straight OUTTA here.
No…can’t say that I—
Yes you have. You’re interviewin him.
[long moment of silence]
So, I was that, BEFORE I went into prison—thats how I ended up in there. So in prison, I wasnt one of them dudes who needed protection or anything like that. I was simply viscious off the real.
But I learned that in order to make it outta prison alive, I had to stop livin the way I was livin. I was told to quit fightin all the time. You fight all the time, you gonna get yourself killed by the scared person. They kill you just cuz they scared of you.
With such a violent past, would you say that it was a path that you chose, or a path that chose you?
It was inevitable. I knew I was gonna be a killa—I knew I was gonna be viscious. This is how I knew: Ma motha, mannn—I watched ma motha whoop this lady ass wit a water hose—in a Shell station—cuz the lady almost ran me over. Ma motha whooped the SHIT out this lady all cuz she wouldn’t apologize. And then my aunt got out and started stompin this lady. That day, ma motha taught me, “You dont ever let nobody run ova you—by ANY MEANS!” I was just ten years old.
And when you got a motha that tells you when you TEN YEARS OLD that, “If you gonna kill someone, do it by yourself! And have a revolver!” Like, what type of handbook is this?! [laughs] So it was just normal for me to think that if you gonna try to run over me—then we’ll see! And when you become like that, what part of you think that you cant kill somebody?
Coming from such a different world, what’s it like to understand your audience, when your audience does not understand you?
We’re all people, all from different worlds, and what brings us together is what we have in common. [points across the room] This my lil brotha right there. He grew up in Stafford, Texas—totally different from me. That mothafucka been havin money since he was little! Private schools ‘n shit, all of that. But on the other end, [points to himself] this mothafucka’s from HELL! But you hafta transcend from that. We’re all people and we’re all from different worlds. Its a special thing to be able to go out on stage and appease everybody—when you know for a fact that they’re not from where you from.
You now live in a gated community. What’s that like to have lived on both sides of the coin?
Its different. What most people will NEVER understand is that we all live wherever it is that we live—but meanwhile, the rest of the world dont mean shit. And from the world I came from, if they starvin, how long you think they gonna let you eat before they come ‘n take somethin from you? When you dont give a fuck, they dont give a fuck either. But their “dont give a fuck” is WAY more different than yours. People where I’m from come to your house and kill your WHOLE family just to get what you got. All because YOU dont give a fuck. Na’m sayin?
People say shit like, “Well some people work harder than other people.” People from my world say that’s BULLSHIT. African American people have been in this country FOREVER—and we’re immigrants just like anybody else—matter of fact we worse than immigrants, we were fuckin CAPTURED. Meanwhile, ma man [points to his left] want a barber shop, he got to HUSTLE and get everything for his fuckin self—no loans to help him, nothin—in a country that we fuckin built! Y’na mean?
Mothafuckin sharks still swim the same path because there were so many African Americans that were thrown in the water! People were chained to boats, had they families killed—mentally fucked ‘em over. Demonic shit.
Yet, the worst thing to do is to divide things based on color and income. Cuz if I told you about a woman who got raped—would your heart not fuckin sink for her? ANY WOMAN IN THE WORLD, no matter what race they are, would feel for her. Nobody would see color or income. They just see what happened.
So how do people just walk passed people in shitty conditions and straight up not give a fuck? You wouldnt want that for you and your family. Thats why I dont wanna see a baby without no clothes on. I dont wanna see somebody in the gutter. But people generally just dont give a fuck. And thats why the people I care about—I hold on dear to.
And thats why I have a different concept than most people. My concept is like this: I want all ma niggas around me to eat. Ya know why? My mentality is from what Jay (Jay-Z) said. He said, “What would I look like if I had ten, twenty million dollars, and ma man dont even have 200,000?” If I got THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS and ma man call me and want a barber shop, what would I look like if I didn’t help him?
You’ve seen it all. What life lessons can you pass down?
If you think about death—then you will have a better life. Cuz then you know that you dont have time to waste. You gonna think twice before you mistreat a person, and not lend a helpin hand because you would know that you might not be here tomorrow.
If you argue with someone, dont ever leave em with bad words. If you were to wake up, but they dont—and your last conversation was over some bullshit? Thats what will fuckin kill you, thats what would haunt you in your heart. Thats why people cry at funerals man, cuz they got regrets about what they shoulda did when the person was here. If I go to a funeral and I know that I kicked it hard with this mothafucka, and we did everything time allowed us to do, then man, that nigga gone. He restin. Peace.
Thats why I have one regret about Patrice O’Neal. I was supposed to feature for Patrice, but there was a ice storm, but I turned it down cuz I didnt wanna risk gettin into a wreck. But I still shoulda gone. Cuz who woulda known that I woulda never seen him again.
When it’s all said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
When its all said ‘n done, I’ll be one of the top comics in the world—once I’m dead. People will remember me then. They’ll talk about Kevin (Hart), they’ll talk about Katt (Williams), they’ll talk about Mike (Epps), and then they’ll be like, “Yo man, there was this otha dude, that was supa good.” And then somebody will dig up my tapes and my DVDs and it’ll get a cult followin. Ya n’am sayin?
[Ali stands up and walks toward the door]
Before I go, Ima leave you with this: Write whatchu write, based on whatchu go through. Make up nothin. You know how EASY it is to be unique? Be yourself. Aint nobody you.
Ali, ‘preciate your time.
Its all love brotha. [Ali exits the green room]
Interviewed & Written by: DAVID GAVRI