‘I Need You to Almost Taste It’: Ali Siddiq on the Comedy of Ali Siddiq

The first time I watched an Ali Siddiq special, I wondered, “Why isn’t this guy on Broadway?” 

Like the storytelling shows of Mike Birbiglia and Alex Edelman, each installment in Siddiq’s Domino Effect series (the latest, Pins and Needles, dropped on YouTube on Father’s Day) feels like a one-man play full of characters, chaos and pathos. 

Siddiq is one of comedy’s unlikeliest success stories, graduating from a stint in prison to a series of Comedy Central and independent stand-up specials, with the Domino Effect shows racking up more than 18 million views. Siddiq recently talked to Cracked about his improbable journey from jail to stand-up star. Here’s what he had to say…

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“I did Domino Effect, the first one, and then people started asking me about the rest of the story. The simplest way to tell it was to just do it in chronological order. If they’re gonna listen to the whole story, let’s just do all the way up until I got incarcerated because people knew that I was incarcerated but they didn’t know how I got there.” 

“I got out of prison October 21st of 1997. I went to Just Joking Comedy Cafe, December of 1997. And I learned observation — being able to look at an audience and determine what I’m gonna do. It was Apollo Night, that’s where you had to start. You get everybody on Apollo Night. They were singing, doing poetry, magic, rapping.” 

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“I didn’t understand that this was a younger crowd. I have on a suit because I worked at this men’s apparel store. And because I have on a suit, they booed me. I don’t even say anything other than, ‘Hey, how y’all doing?’ Then they started booing.” 

“So I waited two weeks for them to forget me, and I went back up there with a regular shirt, jeans, sneakers, looking just like them. I did good, and I kept coming back every week.”

“How I wanted to approach stand-up came from other comics giving me advice. I’ve been doing stand-up for 26 years. Going through my career, I’ve picked up advice from those who I admired.”

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“I remember what D.L. (Hughley) told me. ‘Man, the funniest you’re gonna be is based upon how honest you want to be.”

“I ran into Bruce Bruce, and I asked him, ‘You think you can become a great comic if you have a job?’ He said, ‘Man, do not quit your day job until your stand-up comedy is making more money for you consistently than your job.’”

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“I wish I could have ran into Don RicklesI would have asked him, ‘How are you so brave on stage?’ I would have got some jewel from him.”

“People relate to me because I don’t win in every story. A lot of people win in every story. But you know, even Superman and Batman get beat sometimes. I always admired Muhammad Ali because he was a four-time world champion. The point is he lost three times. You can only become a four-time champion if you lose. You gotta lose.”

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“With other entities (like Netflix), they own your special for the duration of it. Somebody owns a part of your life. So me going the independent route is important to the legacy of my children, to be able to own the rights to my material, to my life.”

“I was always putting out independent albums. Why not put out an independent special? Remember comics selling DVDs after every show? You was putting some type of money up to make that DVD. Just scale it up. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m just taking advantage of the wheel.”

“Comedians go through a lot that other artists don’t go through. You know, if you have a hit record, they would start getting people to know you. It’s called breaking a record. They would put it in every DJ’s hand, and you got all these people promoting the record. They’re gonna get your numbers up for you.” 

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“This new thing with YouTube and with the internet and Instagram and Facebook and TikTok, now they’re putting a stipulation on young comics. You have to have a certain amount of followers for us to put you on shows. You need to become an asset with your followers. I get it. But are you judging people by Instagram and Facebook and all these things now? These are not marketing people. These are people who do stand-up.”

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“Prison is a space where you have to navigate people. So this is training. This is underlying training on how to navigate people. Because when you’re in a theater, when you’re in a club, you’re doing stand-up, this is navigating people. Let’s find the commonality where I can make everybody from every race, every ethnic group, every situation, every religion, every disposition, every position, laugh about the things that’s common in our lives.”

“It’s my goal to make you see it. I need you to see it. I need you to feel it. I need you to almost taste it so you can understand whatever message that you’re going to receive from this story. Every story has an underlying message to it. I methodically choose these stories for a reason.”

“I feel like an audience is like a friend. And with my friends, I can tell you the good and the bad. We’re gonna laugh and cry together.”