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Comic release: Ali Siddiq brings his standup to Vancouver

Standup comedian and ex-prisoner talks to Metro before JFL NorthWest fest

Houston-based comedian and former prisoner Ali Siddiq performs at JFL NorthWest in 2018 (Courtesy Jesse Grant/JFL NorthWest)

Courtesy Jesse Grant/JFL NorthWest

Houston-based comedian and former prisoner Ali Siddiq performs at JFL NorthWest in 2018 (Courtesy Jesse Grant/JFL NorthWest)

Ali Siddiq was once behind bars, but when he comes to Vancouver on Saturday, he'll be doing standup in one — as he has for 20 years since his release.

Jailed around age 19 for cocaine trafficking in the U.S., and serving six years of a 15-year sentence until 1997, he just released his new comedy special last week, performing inside a penitentiary.

Metro reached him by phone form his Houston home ahead of his first-ever stop in Vancouver as part of JFL NorthWest (Just for Laughs) festival.

Metro: Having been in prison, some have said you never have a tough audience. Is that true?

Ali Siddiq: What is a tough audience when you have microphone on, and you're the one talking? I've started in front of people who were really in a bad situation, and they were laughing. A person in the free society, they're actually no trouble at all. (Laughs) I don't even know what that means — a tough audience.

You have done a lot of community fundraising and volunteer work, for instance after Hurricane Katrina. Why's that important to you?

Community is the cornerstone of what makes you care. You learn from all the people around you, everyone in your family — whatever community you grow up in — and you're supposed to take care of your community and nurture that community the same way that it's nurturing you. We're all human beings.

Were you a comedian before going in, or did you start in there?

I think people misconstrue things when they think you can start comedy in prison. There's no stage, there's no lighting, there's no structure. You can just be a jovial person. People make that mistake. I just happened to be a jovial person — I'd say things that happened to be funny. It wasn't a plan, 'Let me go into my cell and start writing jokes.' I'm quite sure you have a friend you talk to, and when you talk y'all laugh? Is he a comedian, or is he just funny. You're just talking to the person. I have friends who aren't comedians or have material — but whatever they say is just funny. I relate to that, because I was that person in there.

OK, so when did you start being funny?

I grew up jonesin', shootin' a dozen, on the back of the bus and in my classrooms. I grew up in the hood and we always just talked about each other.

Up here, we have more Indigenous people, or as people in the U.S. say, Native Americans, in prison here. It's not the same as for Black folks in the U.S., but it's very unequal.

You have to ask why they're there — why are the Natives in there. Also, it's offensive to call them Native Americans — America wasn't there. That could get you killed in prison if someone finds it insulting. In prison, if someone tells you you're being disrespectful and you still proceed, that could get you killed.

Good point.

In a free society, free people have no idea and no sensibility of how to be a human person. They're just out here for themselves, and do things they don't understand the consequences of. If you can't be respectful, at least be humans towards people in society. They teach you inside: you have to teach people how to treat you.

Have your audiences changed much over the years?

I play for pretty much anybody, I hang with anybody, I read everybody, I eat with everybody. The cornerstone of community is food. You can sit down and eat with anybody you can share anything.

What was prison food like? Is it as awful as in the movies?

Depends on who's cookin'. You have cooks that go in the kitchen and they're not just going to stick to what it says in the recipe, they're going to add a little something to the beans. I didn't eat everything in there, so my pickings were very slim. I ate off commissary most of the time, because I don't eat pork and they serve that quite a bit.

What they serve in the cafeteria is more like military food. People don't realize that the military and prison are not that far off from each other. And many people from the military end up in prison.

Do you think people treat prison as an exotic thing, with comedies like Orange is the New Black?

Let me stop  you right there, because Orange is the New Black has nothing to do with prison. Excuse my French, but it's a bunch of bulls--t, I find it disgusting. And that stupid-ass s--t Oz, all that s--t was make-believe. People try make prison some asinine thing, you try to come into prison with that nonsense. It's doing us all a disservice.

I'll tell you what's in prison: there are three things, lions, wolves and lambs. I was a lion. There's other people who are wolves who seem vulnerable because the run with a pack and can't be separated from your pack.

Standup comedian Ali Siddiq will perform 7 p.m. at the Biltmore Cabaret (2755 Prince Edward St.). Tickets $22 at

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