This Low-Key Ex-Con Is the Internet’s Most Popular Comedian

Miles Bitton
Miles Bitton

A couple of years ago, at the age of 49—three decades removed from an FBI drug bust that sent him to prison, and 24 years into his career as an ex-con turned stand-up comedian—Ali Siddiq was still seeking his big break in show business.

Siddiq’s debut special, It’s Bigger Than These Bars, found him back in a Texas jail performing for inmates, but it came and went on Comedy Central after a few airings in 2018. The following summer, NBC put him in primetime where he competed against a similarly then-unknown Matt Rife on Bring The Funny (Siddiq won that round).

But come 2022, Siddiq, just like Rife, found himself on his own, producing and releasing his next stand-up special straight to his YouTube channel. And just like Rife, Siddiq’s career and fame have skyrocketed since. The Domino Effect: Part 1 has earned more than 15 million views in just over two years, and landed Siddiq on multiple year-end best of 2022 comedy lists. But unlike Rife, Siddiq’s viral fame has yet to lead to a lucrative Netflix deal, even while he continues to rack up massive viewership on YouTube.

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The subsequent two chapters of The Domino Effect (with some 20 million combined views and counting) have followed Siddiq as he tells the rest of the story of how he grew up in the Houston projects, wound up selling drugs, and eventually getting busted at 19. The fourth and final chapter, The Domino Effect: Pins & Needles, premiered last month on the subscription platform Moment (making him Emmy-eligible), and drops for free on his YouTube channel just in time for Father’s Day.

In a new interview, Siddiq opens up to The Daily Beast how far he has come without taking a Netflix deal or leaving his hometown of Houston, and how Father’s Day hits different for him now that he finds himself as a successful comedian trying to raise both an adult son and a teenager who will never truly understand the struggle he endured.

“I remember being 13, but I don’t remember being 13 like him,” Ali says of his younger son Hassan. “He’s super privileged and I wasn’t, and he has a father that’s present and a father that’s not selfish as my father was, so I don’t understand not coming to me and wanting to talk.”

Their experiences contrast so much with his. Even though Siddiq didn’t have much, and was never close with his father, he did trust his mother explicitly, and still does.

“I still talk to my mom. And when things go wrong, or when I don’t understand something, I immediately tell my mother,” he says. “And I know women are like, ‘You talking to your mama.’ Or men are like, ‘Oh, you’re a mama’s boy.’ And I’m like, ‘Yep, sure am, and somebody who has been living 70 years and has more experience than me, why wouldn’t I go ask her about a situation? She’s been right my whole life. She’s been right for 50 years. She’s been wrong about one thing. Because she didn't understand how comedy worked and I didn't understand, either.”

Although he attended his first open mic in Houston within two months of his release from prison, having served six years of a 15-year sentence, Siddiq spent the next 16 years grinding in his local comedy scene before winning a nationwide Comedy Central competition in 2013.

“I thought I had made it multiple times until I started understanding that it’s not one thing,” Siddiq explains. Within two months after his first time onstage, where he was booed off it, he had returned so victorious that he’d become the co-host of the weekly mic as well as working weekends at that club. The following year, 1999, he earned his first TV credit, on BET’s ComicView, and was invited back multiple times. By 2008, after touring as D.L. Hughley’s opening act, he finagled his way onto what was then the series finale of Def Comedy Jam.

You might have blinked and missed seeing him on a Bill Bellamy showcase on Showtime, or a past season of Last Comic Standing, or stand-up series on smaller cable channels such as EPIX (now MGM+), Bounce or TV One. Or even music videos where he could goof off in comedic interludes on “Back Then” and “Flossin’” by Mike Jones, or Lil Keke’s “Chunk Up The Deuce.”

“I’m in all these music videos that’s not getting me anywhere,” he recalled.

Then Raymond Cook, the general manager at the Houston Improv, talked him into entering Comedy Central’s “Up Next” competition. Siddiq’s win in the finals at Carolines on Broadway gave him his first true taste of success and the Big Apple, but also led to more opportunities. He turned down multiple offers, but said yes to Ari Shaffir’s storytelling showcase, This Is Not Happening.

It was a decision that would change his life forever.

That was the first time Siddiq ever talked openly about his time behind bars, and people were paying attention. The video of that set has garnered 14.5 million views since Comedy Central uploaded it to YouTube in January 2015.

“I do, ‘Mexican Got on Boots.’ That's what it’s affectionately called. It's called ‘Prison Riot.’ And then I come back on and I do ‘Mitchell’ (another prison story, 11.8 million YouTube views since January 2017),” he says, adding he went back a third time when Roy Wood Jr. replaced Shaffir as host, and told a story about doing mushrooms with Shaffir (“The Trip,” 8.6 YouTube million views since January 2019).

Then came that summer reality show Bring The Funny, where Siddiq beat out Rife among NBC judges Kenan Thompson, Chrissy Teigen, and Jeff Foxworthy to reach the finals.

“We can go back to when I was on the road when Matt Rife was way younger,” Siddiq says. “They were putting this show together and they were trying to push me, Matt Rife and this other kid and it didn’t pan out. And we laugh about that a lot.”

Now Rife is a big Netflix star, while Siddiq considers himself “the last of the independents.” Even more so considering he never left Houston to pursue his show-business aspirations in either Los Angeles or New York City, which makes him feel even more proud now of his success.

“Before me, I didn’t ever hear anybody talking about not moving to L.A. or New York to start their career,” he says. “I never heard it. In 26 years, I never heard it. I was the first person that I ever heard say, man I’m staying home, I’m staying in Houston, and they are gonna find me.”

Since the pandemic and the rise of comedians who become famous wherever they are off of TikTok or Instagram, there are more people trying to follow in Siddiq’s footsteps. And more comedians have embraced his longform storytelling style, too. But not even the other current king of that approach, Mike Birbiglia, is going quite so granular and detailed in recounting his life story as Siddiq has been in documenting his teen years in The Domino Effect series. And certainly nobody has tried and succeeded like Siddiq outside of the major streaming platforms.

It’s a fact that he figures has worked against him in turns of winning over Emmy voters. “But if Ali Siddiq wins an Emmy for Domino Effect or Golden Globe for Domino Effect 3 or 4, that changes everything,” he says. He premiered his last two specials on Moment’s PPV platform specifically for that possibility.

And even before the latest installment hits YouTube, he already has a new 90-minute special ready to film based on the current hour he has been touring across America this year. Two actually, he reveals, based on parenting his sons. Oh, and four more after that.

“I’m probably gonna do six specials in the next two years,” telling the rest of his life story, including a series called “In the Shadows” that will recount his early comedy years, he boasts. “I think that’s a very honest approach to an art form that I think has suffered a little bit.”

Not too long ago, Siddiq says he tried to buy back his 2018 Comedy Central special, so he could make It’s Bigger Than These Bars a fifth chapter of The Domino Effect. Instead, Comedy Central decided to finally put it up on its own YouTube channel, where it’s since been viewed more than 2.5 million times, “way more” than what it got when it originally aired on TV.

“So, yeah,” he says, “we won.”

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