When Cheech Marin picks up the phone, he’s already in character. “Hello, Jack in the Box! What the fuck’s up?” he bellows in his trademark gritty voice. It’s about 11 a.m. where he is in California, and despite his chipper demeanor, he says, “I’m just drowsing into consciousness here.”
Similarly, his comic foil for four decades and counting, Tommy Chong, still seems like he’s emerging from a purple haze when he speaks with Rolling Stone around the same time of day, about a week later. “Hey, I’ve been waiting to talk to you, man,” he says in his signature sweetly stoned lilt – and that last word, “man,” sounds exactly the way he’s been saying it since Cheech and Chong became underground breakouts in the early 1970s thanks to their radical, sketch-based LPs.
Almost a half a century has passed since the two comedians met in Vancouver, launching an enduring improv routine that they still regularly perform live on the road. And even now that each is in his 70s, they still seem to have the same spark (pun intended). Their collaboration has earned them a Grammy, four gold records, a fat filmography, millions of fans and bragging rights to having made what’s arguably the most iconic stoner flicks of all time, Up in Smoke.
Now they’ve prepared a surprisingly lavish 40th anniversary box-set reissue of the film that includes a new documentary, the soundtrack, a vinyl-sized book, a poster and, naturally, comically oversized rolling papers. “We’ve heard every story that you can possibly about how people have rolled giant joints with their friends,” says Marin of the gag, which the duo first included with its Big Bambú LP in 1972. “It’s like a communal thing.”
That sense of community propelled Cheech and Chong into superstars after Up in Smoke became a surprise hit when it opened in 1978, its impact reverberating over decades. Ice Cube has said he’d hoped his own stoner comedy, Friday, would become a “hood classic” in the vein of Up in Smoke; rock bands from Soundgarden to Korn have covered their songs; the duo has been name-checked countless times by hip-hop artists. And most recently, their song “Earache My Eye,” which first appeared on the group’s 1974 record Wedding Album and was featured toward the end of Up in Smoke, was sampled on Eminem’s Number One–charting Revival album. Cheech and Chong established a social currency with Up in Smoke that Hollywood had severely underestimated – a film about a subculture it had been ignoring – and, as both critics and audiences embraced it, it helped signal a turning point for comedy.
When Chong watches the movie now, he says he’s amazed by the way they were predicting today’s cultural conversation, from depicting hippies and non-Caucasians to liberal marijuana use. To commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary, he wrote some new lyrics for the mariachi-inflected ballad “Up in Smoke” and recorded them with his partner. One of the better lines, sung by Marin, goes, “Some things have changed, and some have stayed the same/Now mota is legal, but I’m still illegal, so nothing’s changed.”
For Marin, though, the thing that strikes him when he watches it today is the approach to comedy. “What stands out to me is how different it is from comedies being made today,” Marin says. “It was more of a naturalistic way of filming things. We let the audience decide what was funny, instead of chopping it up with real short edits. Sometimes I feel like a goose being force-fed the cues to laugh.”