In 1970, the US Congress passed the law which created the DEA and declared marijuana to be more dangerous than cocaine, meth, oxy, and fentanyl. With a stroke of Richard Nixon's pen, the Controlled Substances Act was born, and along with it, millions of college and high-school students immediately became felons. Soon, the prisons began filling up with kids, and now, 50 years hence; we're only just beginning to clean up the mess made of people's lives, and the trillions of dollars of negative impact on the US economy. Into this fray, in 1971, waded two of the counter culture's most enduring social commentators, and comedic performers, Cheech and Chong.
We caught up with Tommy Chong on a socially distanced zoom call from the plant laden 30,000 sq ft grow room of Ed Alexander's SoL Cannabis. After coming on the screen, and a couple of brief moments of introduction, when Chong realized what he was looking at, he began laughing and said, “oh wow. I am impressed! Would you look at that?” Behind us were pot plants of every variety, including the famous Wedding Crasher, and several purple-flowered varieties. Speaking to us from his Los Angeles home, his voice still sounds very much like the comedic characters he portrayed in the early 70's. However, it was soon apparent, the businessman has only marijuana, and a certain “in the moment” presence about him in common with those personas.
Beginning in 1971, Cheech and Chong's comedy spoofed the effects of the drug culture as it was being stereotyped by the establishment. His most famous character, The Man, was a nameless, drop out,who was fundamentally lazy, and continuously chasing his next high. The character never held a job for long, nor maintain relationships with family, or friends outside of Cheech. He was a really nice guy, who was fun to hang around with until the marijuana was gone, and then he'd drift away to the next party. However, he was also a jokester, and a philosopher, who seemed to understand the absurdity of the conservative norms of his time. Cheech's character was the mainstreams’ pigeonholed Mexican-American. He owned a run down, yet still somehow exotic lowrider 1964 Chevy Impala SS. It was tricked out with a butterfly hood ornament, blue fuzzy carpet on the dash, tassels around the window frames, a custom chain link steering wheel, and the declarative license plate, “MUF DVR.” The Love Machine sticker on the window, and its unmatched colored replacement driver's door, were the calling card for a guy continually on the prowl, and Cheech's frenetic character was the perfect partner for the weirdly Zen like Chong. Despite their characters wildly differing personalities, the comedian's meshed well, and the duo's records, movies, and nightclub comedy became touchstones for an entire generation of kids fed up with the war, the rules, and their lack of an effective voice within society. Bear in mind, kids were being drafted to Vietnam, where, as the Barry McGuire song, The Eve Of Destruction said, they were old enough to kill, but not to vote.
Chong said, “We were outliers, anomalies in the entertainment industry. Most comedy teams were individual performers who came together to form a team. For example, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, were both singers, but Jerry was so funny, he would interrupt Dino by acting crazy.” With Cheech and Chong, it was a case of the sum of the parts being greater than either of the individuals. Tommy continued, “When we met, Cheech wasn't even an entertainer. He was a draft dodger up in Canada, who was taking any job he could get. He really was that guy starting at the bottom. And me, I owned a couple of nightclubs, which is what supported us when we came down to LA to try to make it. Those nightclubs afforded us the ability to go to open mic nights and things like that.”
When asked what made the characters so popular, Chong said, “When Charlie Chaplin first started out, he was already an accomplished musician, a dancer, and he was almost like acting royalty, because he grew up in the theater. When he started doing movies, his instincts told him his characters had to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” With his success coming during some of the poorest times in the world, it made sense Chaplin's Little Tramp appealed to the masses. Chong continued, “His comedy came out in the depression, and this is when, imagine this, people would work all day for a dime!” It's worth noting Tommy Chong was born in 1938, and the depression didn't end until 1939. “So when we first started out as Cheech and Chong, Cheech and I got together, we said let's do these characters, Pedro and The Man, and we'll follow Charlie Chaplin's rule, that the characters appeal to the lowest common denominator.” With the popularity, and financial success, of their subversive comedy growing, their record producer Lou Adler, and the team, decided to do a movie. “So Up In Smoke was originally going to be called Cheech and Chong's greatest hits, that was what Lou Adler wanted to call it, but when Cheech and I got together, we realized we should do the characters we've always done, Pedro and The Man. That's when we followed the Chaplin rule, the characters appealed to the lowest common denominator.” The movie was made for less than 2 million dollars, and upon release, was almost universally panned by critics. However, it grossed over 40 million dollars during its initial box office release. Since, then, that number has grown to more than 100 million, and pretty much single-handedly created the stoner film genre, which still remains popular.
Most recently, he's developing a character called The Pope of Dope, which when paired with Cheech's character, Sum Yung Guy, promises to be as socially aware, as it should be entertaining. When asked if the personas were a shot at the church’s sex scandal, Chong laughed, and said, “That's exactly the whole point!” He continued, "Actually, it's just an excuse to sing country songs. I'm a country singer from way back. I evolved into rhythm and blues, and jazz, but at my root's is a country boy. I love old country songs, but I like learning new songs because it helps keep the brain working. Continuing, he said, “So the new character, The Pope of Dope, me and Cheech will do an acoustic set, but not as Cheech and Chong. I would be the Pope of Dope and Cheech would be, and he hasn't signed off on it yet, Sum Yung Guy, and his character would be a Chinese guy, because he looks Chinese!
Asked about Covid19, he surprisingly said, “I was made for this lock-down. See, I'm at that age where you've got to stay home? No problem! The thing about old guy's, is there are perks. The secret to my success is, a funny partner, and Cheech was that funny partner. But when we broke up, my wife, Shelby, she stepped in. She's an artist. She's a painter. She's a great cook, and when she's doing her ballet and dancing, I get to watch!” While they did travel together as a comedic team for a long while, and he voiced his pride, and amazement at how she grew into a successful comedian in her own right, he said, “I get a lot of people asking how are you handling getting old. Most people resist it, but I love it. You can relax and enjoy it, or pretend you're something you'll never be again.” With most people finding the social distancing requirements a burden, Tommy said, “It's funny, people will ask if I can't wait to go back to the way things were, but we'll never go back to the way things were. It's gone. Those days are gone. This is a new world we're living in, and I love the social distancing.”
Though presenting themselves as anti-establishment stoners, there were deeper meanings to Cheech and Chong’s seemingly simple comedy skits, and movies. Their era has led to today's green movement,the advancement of feminism, and the rising of egalitarianism across race and sexual lines within the majority of society. His personal contribution to it has been instrumental in the push to legalize marijuana, which has led to a movement to release prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. At 82, Tommy Chong, despite being a Covid 19 shut-in, is still thriving as a husband, father, entertainer, political advocate, and entrepreneur.