Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong’s influence on comedy, pop culture and joint circumference is immeasurable. Up In Smoke, Nice Dreams and other films as well as countless records are canonical among stoners, non-stoners and anyone who knows good comedy.
A lot has happened in the 25 years since the Corsican Brothers, the last film to feature the pair. In 2003, then-Attorney General and all-around barrel of fun John Ashcroft targeted Chong for marketing bongs in an investigation called Operation Pipe Dreams (which sounds like it could have been the brainchild of Sergeant Stedenko). It landed Chong 9 months in prison. Now he’s out, and he and Cheech (who has a long list of post-breakup film and TV credits) have done the unexpected—they’ve reunited. Their Light Up America tour hits Maui May 29, and they’ve reportedly got a new movie in the works. We caught up with them recently and found that despite all that’s changed, they’re still funny as hell.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
CHEECH MARIN Sure.
TOMMY CHONG We get community service points taken off for talking to you.
What compelled you to embark on your current tour?
TC A burning bush. A burning bush told us. God came to us in the form of a burning bush and said, “Thou shalt go make fools laugh again.” It was in the form of an ex-president. A burning Bush.
What’s it like working together after all these years?
TC It’s fun. It’s like…it’s like two old Alzheimer’s patients getting together. They complete each other’s half-sentences.
There’s an interesting story behind how you guys first got together. Want to share it with our readers?
TC It was during the Vietnam War, and Cheech was part of an army that was stationed in Canada—a secret army that was stationed in Canada in case the Viet Cong attacked from Alaska. I was running a topless nightclub, an R&R station for the troops. And, uh, it featured naked women, and I was looking for someone that could be a pastie warmer. Pasties are those little bits of material that girls wore over their nipples because at one time it was illegal to show nipples. But the girls didn’t like to put on the pasties because they were cold. So Cheech was hired as a pastie warmer.
CM I think it was because I had experience. I took a college course in it, so…
TC He knew how to warm a pastie better than anybody, really.
CM Yeah. I could go: [exhales heavily]. ’Cause I had that Mexican breath, and it was full of chiles. [Exhales again.]
TC I had another partner, and he quit because his wife found out what he was doing. So I needed a partner. Actually, both Cheech and I needed a job and so we formed a band and then we did comedy. And next thing you know we’re Cheech and Chong. So instead of one guy outta work there was two of us. And now we’re talking to you. We were out of work, and then we were discovered by…first the Scientology people discovered us.
CM Seriously, we met John Travolta when he was like 12.
TC Nah, he was still in the bubble when we met him.
CM Oh, that’s right. The bubble.
TC And then someone said, “You guys are funny, you need to go down…” Oh, that was me. And I said, “We should go down to LA.” Because my wife at the time lived in Los Angeles. So we went down to Los Angeles and we starved for a year because in the guidebook for how to make it big in show business, it’s mandatory that you starve for one year. Perhaps longer, but minimum one year. And we did.
CM We only ate two meals a day.
TC And we did it. And then people begged us to do records and begged us to do movies and begged us to do everything. So we did it. We were beggars.
CM Like they say, beggars can’t be choosers.
I heard, Chong, that you were in an R&B or Motown band for a while, and that’s how you guys met.
TC Well, I was a black guy for a while. Quite a while, actually.
CM That was one thing we had in common. We were both black guys for a long time.
TC Actually I was black from ’57 to actually ’60—for 10 years. Everything went in 10-year increments. I’m in my Chicano phase now, though.
I’ve heard both of you say at different times that you quit smoking grass. In light of this, how much do you incorporate marijuana use into your act?
TC Oh, a hundred percent. A hundred percent. We’re marijuana actors. We’re marijuana improvisational actors. What happens, when you smoke as much dope as we have, you’re constantly high even though you’re not smoking. It’s in your system. If you smoke it over 50 years like I have you can’t get it out of your system. It’s totally in your system. And all you have to do is hear different words or see different things or feel different—like if you feel the breeze on your skin you can get high. So I’m constantly stoned, and Cheech, being Mexican, was born that way. That’s why they call it marijuana.
CM Actually they tried to call it Tijuana, but that name was already taken.
So Chong…by the way, do you prefer Tommy or Chong?
TC Sir Tommy. I was knighted the other day.
Can you give a rundown of what happened with your 2003 arrest and subsequent prison sentence?
TC Sure. First I got up, then I went to jail, stayed in jail for nine months, and I learned a lot of things. That’s where I was knighted, actually, in jail. Well, I was mounted first and then I was knighted. I learned to keep my mouth shut in jail for a lot of reasons. And I learned to mind my own business. And you can drop the soap, you just have to squat to pick it up, that’s all. And I learned that the Bush Administration are a bunch of low-down, dirty rotten scoundrels that will be going to jail eventually. And I hate ’em, I hate ’em, I hate ’em. But I did well in jail, I made a lot of friends. I met a lot of really nice people. A lot of Republicans. There were so many Republicans in prison, it’s a wonder I was there.
A lot of white collar criminals?
TC Yeah. Well, politicians, you know? In fact, I was in a jail that they built for the Nixon/Watergate people. It was a special jail they built especially for those guys. I guess they were expecting more of them, you know? It was a big one. My jail experience has taught me that I need a Mexican. That I can’t survive in this world—especially in California—without my Mexican. And luckily, I had one that I hadn’t seen for a while or used for a while, but he was there so we’re back together again.
What do you think about Obama scoffing at the possibility of legalizing marijuana?
TC It’s a front. He’s not going to commit political suicide just yet. You know, just like the gays in the military. It’s the same thing. In this case, especially with pot, you don’t wanna be the guy that sticks your head out and, says, you know, “it should be legal,” when you could have someone else do it. You know like Barney Frank or someone that is known for it. That’s what it is, and he’s kind of tiptoeing around. Plus he’s a black guy, so we know that it’s in his genes as well. It’s not only in our genes but it’s in his genes, too, so he’s being very careful, politically.
CM I think we should have a national referendum: beer or weed? Or both?
Do you think stoner humor has evolved over the years?
TC Yeah. It’s gotten stronger. Twenty percent stronger.
CM It’s got more THC in it.
TC It’s got way more THC in it. And it’s harder to take.
CM It’s got a medicine odor. What is stoner humor? It’s quaint.
TC Yeah, that’s how far it’s evolved.
So do you think that drug humor is limited, or that there’s more that can be done with it?
CM Oh there’s much more potential for it. It’s bigger today than in the days when we were making movies.
TC Much bigger.
You guys were pretty much the first to bring it into the mainstream. What kind of stumbling blocks did you encounter?
TC We were the stumbling blocks ourselves. Or stumbling blokes, as they say in England.
Your work is a commentary on law enforcement, but it also lampoons the counterculture and the seedy underbelly of things. To what extent can stoner humor do this without actually losing the interest of, well, stoners?
TC First of all, you don’t make a movie for stoners. You definitely don’t want to do that. A stoner will turn on the Discovery Channel and think he’s watching Up In Smoke. You don’t make anything for stoners. When you make a movie, you’re really making a movie for the studio executives that have to sell it. And these are the guys with zero to none taste. And so you’re trying to make the movie for yourself. And that’s what you do. If it makes you laugh, chances are it’ll make all the other stoners laugh. So this is what Cheech and Chong do. We entertain ourselves. And if it’s not funny, we do something about it. And that’s how we do everything. Our movies, our records, live performances. We do it for ourselves. We entertain each other. That’s why we’re such a good team—we’re the best audience. We’re not going to fake it. We’re not going to laugh at something that’s not funny. You don’t try to point anything at stoners, except a bong.
And maybe some Doritos?
CM And flashing lights.
Are there any comedians currently on the scene whose work you admire?
TC Oh, yeah. Louis CK is a guy that I love. He’s very, very funny. Also I like Carlos Mencia because then, that way, if you like Carlos, you’ll like all the comedians around. Because he kind of—he kind of takes everybody’s work into one, so…I like Carlos because you get a taste of everybody when you see [him]. And I like Bill Cosby, too. He’s the original grumpy old stoner.
I read that you guys were making a film called Grumpy Old Stoners. Is that still in the works?
TC Oh, yeah. We’re making Grumpy Old Stoners II. We’re making that first. [Grumpy Old Stoners] is a working title, but it will probably end up being the title.
Do you think any progress—political, social, cultural—has been made since you were first making movies and challenging taboos?
CM Marijuana is now quasi-legal. Before it was just illegal. Now, if you’re lucky enough to have cancer or some other debilitating disease, then you can get it free. So it’s come a long way. We’ve some a long way, baby. From a $10 kilo to a $2,500 kilo.
We’ve got a raging debate about medical marijuana here in Hawaii. I’m sure you guys have heard about it.
TC Oh, yeah. Well, that’s why I think that only sick people should be allowed to smoke it. And you can be sick in so many ways.
If you were writing Up In Smoke now, how would it be different?
CM Well, we’d know how it came out.
TC First of all we’d be using a computer. We’d probably get it done much faster. But would it be different? No, it probably wouldn’t be any different at all. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re trying to write Up In Smoke 30 years later and it’s coming out the same way, you know? We have 40 pages that’ll end up as a movie ’cause the rest will be improvisational.
I’ve heard that you aren’t going to revive “Dave’s Not Here.” Why is that?
CM Because he’s not here. We’ve been waiting on him a long time, and he’s not here.
TC But when he gets here we’re gonna do him.
CM Yeah, we’re just waiting for him.
TC So we’re waiting for Dave. When he shows up, we’re gonna put him on stage.
CM He’s hanging out with Godot. And we’re waiting for both of ’em.
TC And Jimmy Hoffa. They’re forming a band.
Have you guys played Maui before?
CM Oh, yeah.
TC We played a restaurant there.
TC Yeah, it was Longhi’s. That’s right.
We don’t get a lot of big acts out here, especially comedians. What motivated you to add Maui to your tour?
CM We like it. It’s cool. We’ve got a lot of friends there. People have been begging for us to come there on the Internet.
TC And Cheech wants to climb the Hana mountains to get a bag of pot.
CM Last time I climbed a big mountain and met with a private grower, and Tommy bought a bag at the grocery store…
TC …health food store. That’s why we’re [coming] back—to commemorate that day.
ONLINE-ONLY BONUS INTERVIEW WITH SHELBY CHONG:
You may recall the weight room scene from Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams, when Cheech leers at a spandex-clad blonde babe who’s working her pecs. As it turns out, that babe is Shelby Chong.
Shelby has been married to Tommy Chong since before Nice Dreams was made, and she looks pretty much the same as she did then. Only now she’s got a bigger role.
She has shared the stage with Chong on past comedy tours, and is the opener for the guys’ Light Up America tour.
How and why did you first get into acting?
I always wanted to do that, and I was with Tommy, and he was doing the movies, so it was just perfect.
What compelled you to transition into comedy?
Well [Tommy] and Cheech had split up and he was doing comedy in the clubs. He went out on the road and asked me if I could come and join him. I said, well, I will, but I need to do something on stage. I don’t want to come as audience. So I started just introducing him, you know a minute or so. So that’s how I became a comedian.
Do you think that being a comedian gives you the best of both worlds, in that you get to perform but at the same time can speak your mind?
In the beginning you don’t get to speak your mind, you know what I mean? You’re just learning and you’re just sort of like telling jokes—anything to get your nerves, to stay on stage. But then it gets to be so much fun because that’s when you get your voice, and have fun. But when you go to act it’s like, oh God, I don’t want to say other people’s words. You get so spoiled.
How many years have you been doing stand-up now?
About 11 years now.
Having been in the Cheech and Chong movies, as a woman who’s talented and speaks her mind—and don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Cheech and Chong movies—what did you think about the way women were portrayed?
Yeah, [women] were kind of stupid [in those movies], huh? But things have changed a lot. It was really tough for Tommy to stop being such a macho guy and my son used to tell him, ‘Dad, you can’t say those things anymore.’ So it was a…transition. And also, you realize, hey, that’s not cool…and it’s so much better now, isn’t it?
So, can you talk a little about Tommy’s arrest and prison sentence?
You never would think that would happen, because we pay taxes and it was a legal business. If they didn’t want us doing it, why didn’t they just call us instead of spending $11 million? It just shows you how silly America is…how ridiculous the whole drug war is, when that money could be spent on education instead of putting people in jail for smoking pot or selling pot.
Or saying the word “bong,” basically.
How dumb could that be, right?
Does going on tour and doing standup seem, to you, like an opportunity to bring these issues to the forefront for people who might not normally be politically active?
I think so. Every little thing helps. The only thing is that you’re really speaking to the choir, right? They’re all fans anyway, and think the same way we think. So, that’s the only problem. But hey, it’s great to let it out, you know what I mean?
So, how is being on the road, and is it any different from past tours?
Instead of working the nightclubs, it’s so much more fun. Oh my God, it’s like night and day. And it’s great because Cheech brings in the Latinos and Chong brings in the hippies…and the Latinos love to laugh and they’re very free…it’s such a great show. Because the audience becomes so hyped up to see them. So you have this fun whole night, where, when Chong’s in a comedy club, I don’t know, it’s just different. And you have a few thousand people to entertain instead of a few hundred. I am so lucky to be able to do this. I’m just blessed to have this opportunity, and it’s really helped me to come out as a comic, especially in Australia…the whole thing has been fabulous. Fabulous.
You’ve toured with Cheech and Chong in the past. Is it any different with the guys now, compared with previous times you’ve been on the road with them? Is it just like old times?
Well, I’m working with them now, so that’s different. You feel different when you’re working [while on the road]. You have a job. So, that makes it different, right? You’re not just out there watching them. You’re going to work. You have a whole different concept of what’s happening.
Are you looking forward to coming to Maui?
Oh, yeah. It’s been a while since we’ve been.