Smoking more now but getting high less? The iconic comedy duo Cheech and Chong have always had a solution. The very names Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin are synonymous with weed culture. When The Simpsons ran an episode on dispensaries being legalized in Springfield, they referred to stoners as “Cheech and Chongs.” The pair won’t be selling out of the back of an ice cream truck, like they did in Nice Dreams. Cheech & Chong are doing it legal. They even got a license.
Together with Five Point Holdings, they will license the Cheech & Chong Brand to open dispensaries. Right now they’re going for licenses in California, Nevada, Arizona, Illinois and Washington. The dispensaries will feature cannabis products from both Tommy Chong’s Cannabis and Cheech’s Stash brands. The outlets will also be the first place to purchase Cheech and Chong clothing and memorabilia.
The duo goes back to the late 1960s. Chong had been the guitarist and songwriter for the Vancouvers, a Canadian band signed to Motown. When the band broke up he formed the improvisational group City Works. Southern Californian Mexican-American Richard “Cheech” Marin moved to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War and joined the group. They rolled weed culture in a big bambu, toured and recorded massively successful albums. Their bits altered the consciousness and the history of standup comedy at a time when the art form was going through some of its most expansive and experimental period.
Their movies – Up in Smoke (1978), Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (1980), and Nice Dreams (1981) – most of which were directed by Chong, lampooned the legal limits imposed on marijuana, and defined the paranoia which surrounded pot for non-white smokers. Cheech went on to direct, write, collect art and act in more than 20 films, including Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and television series like Nash Bridges, Lost, and Grey’s Anatomy. Chong did a regular stint on Fox’s That 70’s Show and an irregular one at the Taft Correctional Institution. He’d gotten caught in a government sting on drug paraphernalia in 2003, signed a plea deal to protect his family and served nine months. Chong consistently promoted the medicinal benefits of marijuana while battling prostate cancer, touted its recreational values and fought for its decriminalization.
John Ashcroft may not like it, but now you can score from the Man himself. Tommy Chong spoke with Den of Geek about smoke, mirrors and rock and roll.
TOMMY CHONG: Probably, but I lose track. People always ask, “What’s your favorite strain?” and I say, “Anything handed to me.” My favorite strain is marijuana. My second favorite strain is cannabis.
You’re on your way to being the Paul Newman of pot. Do you see spreading your seeds as a spiritual calling?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely, but only if I’m asked.
How is this different from Tommy Chong’s Cannabis or Cheech’s Private Stash?
It’s a combination. People got hooked on Cheech’s stash. It’s there. It’ll be there with the locals and everything. But the whole thing, it’s going to be a store and so we’re going to have everything in there. And then we’re going to have new products that we’ve come up with. Cannabis is the main thing and our names are there to give people assurance that you’re not only going to get the best quality but you’re also going to get a few laughs.
And for those autograph seekers and people that are collectors, autograph collectors, I started sketching little cartoon figures so I’m getting deluged with requests for my sketches. And people are sending me free canvases. I had a postcard made up that says the sketches cost a hundred bucks. If they pay it, fine. If they don’t, that’s even better.
I read that you used to give away pot to your opening acts. Did you actually start the dispensary to liquidate your personal stash?
That’s a good question. Yeah, actually. The thing about weed, it’s got a hell of a shelf life. I mean, I’ve got weed here I think it’s been 30, 40 years old, and I smoke it and it works. But you know what happens is, if you smoke a lot of weed, you become an easy high. You know what I’m saying? I’ve been around people, they can never get enough but they can never get enough of anything, be it weed or food or whatever or anything. They’re just people that have a high tolerance. With me, I’m a lightweight. I’m a one-toker, that’s it.
Lucky you. Where is the legalization battle now?
We’re looking to take the stigma off it. Get it legalized federally so we can bank our money, so we can join the corn and barley and the rest of the cash crops. That’s all we are. We’re just a cash crop. We’re an agricultural product, that’s all. It’s no different. Treat us like aspirin. That’s a product from a tree. So, that’s what we want. Take away the racist quality of it and then we’re fine. You take racism out of the country, we’re going to have a nice country. Because right now there are too many little racist things all over the place and this Black Lives Matter, they’re getting rid of a lot of it. Finally, the Washington Redskins are going to change their name.
I’ve been on that bandwagon for a long time because it’s horrible. You know why they called it Redskins? Because there was a bounty on natives for a long time, and so the red signified the blood. So, in order to show that you had killed a native, you took a piece of the skin. Like they did in the old days, they took scalps, you know? The red blood was the red skin to signify blood. Not the color of the man but the color of the blood. It was a bounty. I mean, back in the day natives did the same thing. They scalped white settlers, white people too, for the same reason, so they had proof that they killed or at least scalped somebody. But no, it’s a very militant, racist memory. And then they got a logo of an Indian on the helmet itself. So, no, there’s no place for that kind of racism.
If pot is decriminalized, where are for-profit prisons going to get their free labor?
Exactly. I mean, that’s what Trump was trying to do with the migrants, stick them in prison. You get that free labor. But listen, the drug laws, the cocaine and all that shit, you’re right, it’s all been done on purpose. A lot of them are designed purposely to create that labor force.
You were the only first-time offender caught up in Operation Pipe Dreams and you went under the Bush policy on mandatory sentencing. First of all, were you ever pardoned?
I turned down a pardon. Obama was going to pardon me, but I turned it down because I think part of the pardon process, I may be wrong, is to denounce your crime and say that you would never do that. The reason I turned it down is because it was a bogus charge, it was a racist law, and I’m very proud to have served that time and I’m very proud, really, to have that on my back. They hinted that if I did some anti-drug commercials or something that they could give me house arrest or something. It was all bullshit. I did an anti-drug commercial one time, but it didn’t turn out very anti-drug.
In the ’80s there was this anti-pot PSA on the subways, something like, “My little Timmy is an A-student. He plays on the football team and he works after school. How could someone like him have gotten into pot?” Something like that. I always wondered, and you can tell me, would he have had the energy to do that if he wasn’t smoking pot?
That’s right. Little A-student. Hey listen, we wouldn’t be talking on this cell phone if it wasn’t for potheads. We wouldn’t have had a computer. The computer would have been some dream, if it wasn’t for potheads. Well, look at Steve Jobs and Wozniak. They were big potheads and they would smoke a joint and they’d go, “Oh my God, yeah, here’s what we do, yeah.” So much of our lifestyle. That’s why the legalization thing, it’s just like any other stupid, racist laws that we have that we’re cleaning up as we change administration. One thing about Trump, you got to admit that he did clear the swamp. He did know that he was the Judas goat that we needed to identify the swamp creatures, but he fulfilled that promise.
I read that the first time you got high was after a jazz player gave you a Lenny Bruce record and a joint. Which was the bigger gateway drug and how did they interact?
Well, I used to go to this little jazz club in Calgary because it was really only after-hours place that provided music. It was a private club. And if you brought your guitar, if you were a musician you got in free. I couldn’t play jazz but I was a blues guitar player, so I used to bring my guitar and set it by the door and come in and listen to the jazz. Just hang out.
This bass player, he was a friend of mine, he was a Chinese guy, Raymond Mah, he came back from LA with a Lenny Bruce album and a joint. He handed both to me and I put the joint in my pocket and he lit up one of his joints and it was the first time I ever smoked. I just took a couple of hits and I got so high. Whoa. Then when I went home I did up my own joint. I would just take one toke and it lasted me a month. I had the best time. I’d take a toke and then I’d listen to Lenny and laugh so hard. Oh my God. I played that record for my son and he could not see the humor. He did not see the humor in it at all.
I love Lenny Bruce. He’s a jazz comic really.
Well, jazz clubs were one of the only venues that he could work. There were no comedy clubs. He worked whatever club he could work. But the jazz clubs, The Hungry I in San Francisco, that’s where Lenny worked. He got arrested for saying dirty words on stage. That’s how racist the laws and the cops were back then, they could tell you what you could say on stage or how you could look, how you could dress. It was crazy.
Cheech & Chong came up at the same time as a wave of comedic change was happening: Richard Pryor, George Carlin. Did you see your pot humor as political?
Not really, no. I mean, I was influenced by Lenny but I never had any ax to grind. See, Cheech and I, we weren’t going to be comedians in the beginning. He’s a singer and I’m a guitar player, so we put a band together. Because we’d been doing comedy for nine months, it was only natural that when we stepped on stage the first thing we’d do would be some funny bits.
Well, one funny bit led to another and led to another and led to another. Next thing you know the show was over and we hadn’t played one note. And I realized that, “Oh man, we’ve got something here.” So, I told the band … The bass player was funny. “Hey, when’s our next gig boss?” Because he sat and watched the whole show. But everybody got paid and then we went home and Cheech and I are driving along home trying to figure out what we should call ourselves. I asked him if he had a nickname and he said, “Yeah, Cheech.” And so that was the beginning of a great, great career.
So, in regular conversation you call him Cheech, not Richard?
Yeah, it’s Cheech now. Cheech. Never Richard. His first wife called him Richard because she didn’t want him to be Cheech, she wanted him to be Richard. “Richard.”
Did you see how you were affecting social change, or did you see yourselves as reflecting it?
When we started doing comedy records, that’s when I started doing social consciousness. Like Welcome to Mexico. That was a political thing because at the time they weren’t letting long-haired hippies into Mexico. So we did a bit about Jesus going to Mexico and being kicked out. “Welcome to Mexico. Where are you going?”
“I came to see my children. I have children everywhere.”
Yeah, yeah. Oh God. We had so much fun doing things. But we would do ethnic jokes, but not jokes but bits. Just crazy, and it all came from pot because we could hoard pot. We always had a joint somewhere. It’s funny, we never went out of our way to buy it. It always was there. It’s weird how people, “Hey, you got a joint?” “Yeah, okay.” That’s the way it’s always been. There’s no organization. Like when Cheech and I would record. The first thing we found out after we did “Dave’s Not Here,” we were rehearsing, Lou [Adler] tried recording it live in a studio, but it lost a lot of things. First of all, we had to reset and all that other shit.
So, after one recording session with Lou we said, “We got to record in a mix down room. All we need is an engineer.” And that’s all we did, we did everything with an engineer and just Cheech and I because we needed that freedom to come up with the craziness. Because when you have a recording session, you have to have the music written out, you have to know what you’re doing, you got to rehearse because it costs a lot of money to have people hanging around.
After we did “Dave’s Not Here,” Lou said, “Okay, what else you got?” So, Cheech and I wrote right then, we did “Blind Melon Chitlin’.” I’m getting a lot of flak from that now. Not a lot, but I’m getting some flak for wearing blackface in Still Smoking.
Both you and Cheech straddled the world of comedy and music. So, which tent was more comfortable and who threw the better parties?
When we were just recording, before we became really a touring group, we were hanging out with the Three Dog Night people and going to whatever parties Ed Caraeff had or stuff like that. No, no, we were never into that party. I had been with Motown and our group was very boring. We never partied. And I had a wife. She was my girlfriend at the time. I was married too, so I had two wives. So, we never really did the parties. Let’s take it back. When we were trying to get a record deal, yeah, we would go to the odd party then, but it never turned out well at all. That’s when cocaine was pretty popular and so there would be cocaine parties and they weren’t fun at all. You get too stoned and too worked up. When you’re trying to make it you’re broke. You don’t have any money. So, what you do, you become a hanger-on. You just leech onto whoever’s throwing the party.
We were never consumers, food or booze or anything like that. Actually, what we were doing was collecting bits. We would talk to people and then people would tell us some funny bit then we’d use it, or we’d get an idea to do another bit. But we were just hanging around just to be in the gang more than anything with the Three Dog Night. They knew a lot of the rockers at the time.
Later on when Cheech and I became Cheech & Chong, there were, I don’t know what you’d call them. They’re not really parties but after the show things. Encounters. But even then, both Cheech and I, we couldn’t get too serious with anything because we had a wife and family at home.
I have your unauthorized autobiography. Can you tell the story about the welcome to the neighborhood you got in Harlem?
Oh, welcome to New York. Yeah, Harlem. We were going to perform at the Apollo Theater. Whoa, it was the biggest deal: An R&B group playing at the Apollo Theater. Especially Bobby Taylor because he was from New York and he used to be one of those kids that would go to the Apollo. So, we were all excited. We pulled up in our car. I guess we had a rented station wagon, yeah. And we’re all looking at, I guess it was Patti LaBelle rehearsing, and we’re all there backstage looking, and then we look over and there’s our roadie, he was supposed to be with the equipment. And, “Joe, what are you doing?” “Oh, watching this.” So, we went running out there and sure enough they’d broken into the car and stole the bass. Wow.
But one time I was walking from the hotel to the Apollo Theater and I come up to this group of people and there’s one guy standing there with a guitar, holding a guitar like he’s going to hit somebody with it. And it looked like he was going to hit me. At first, I kind of looked, “What?” Then I turned around and I seen behind me was a guy with a knife, a bigass knife. Next thing you know, the guy holding the guitar, he takes off running, and the guy with the knife runs and starts jabbing him in the ass with the knife. Oh man. And nobody on the street even looked at it. They just went around their business like it wasn’t happening, like it was so normal. It was whoa, like you say, welcome to Harlem. That was scary.
The Vancouvers’ Bobby Taylor was an amazing singer. I know he discovered The Jackson 5 and you guys toured with them. You co-wrote the hit “Does Your Mother Know About Me,” and it builds to this beautiful chord that changes the entire flow of the song and it comes out of nowhere. When you’re writing something like that, what comes first, the words, the melody or that chord?
It was a poem. I wrote a poem. That’s how I write, I write poetry. And Tom Barrett, our composer, we were doing his songs and he looked at my poetry and said, “Do you mind if I take this with me?” He went home and he wrote the first part.
Then he came back to Wes and I, the bass player, and he said, “Now, I’m trying to do the bridge and Wes says, “How about … ” and he played the note, and it’s a major note. Well, it could have been a minor note but I played the major chord with the note because I’m not that versed musically. I’m more of a poet. And so I played a major chord and Tom Barrett goes, “Oh, I like that, I like that.” And it’s backwards, major minor instead of minor major, and he loved it.
Then that kicked it off for the next chorus and then he did it again. That change itself made that song unique. The Tower of Power, they copied the changes because they loved that major chord. It just resonates and all of a sudden you’re going major. I found out too it’s from a classical music score, that they would do that in classical music.
I was with my daughter’s boyfriend, he’s a guitar player, and we were trying to figure out the chords of this one song and he told me a lot of it’s from the classical, if you have classical training. And I think that’s what Tom Barrett loved about that chord too, because it had a classical music sound to it. But yeah, it worked really good.
It’s a beautiful song and that chord is what really propels the whole thing. Can you talk about jamming with George Harrison and Klaus Voorman and Ronnie Spector on “Basketball Jones?”
Well, I never really did because we would lay down the main track and then they’d come in and do their parts. So we never really jammed. Just like The Jackson 5. We were on tour with The Supremes. But when you get your group, man, that’s all you play is your songs. Unfortunately, we never had a chance to jam except when I had that after hours club in Vancouver. That’s when we jammed with some real fucking heavies. Unbelievable. I’ll tell you one story. My club was downstairs from a hippie club called The Retinal Circus and one week James Browne was in town. He was playing at the big stadium, The Gardens Ballroom or The Gardens. Anyway, James’ whole band was there. He had a big 16-piece orchestra.
So, they all came down to the club after and they’re on stage playing with us, with our band. We had a horn man. We had all sorts of people up there. And upstairs The Rolling Stones were appearing and they hardly got a crowd because James Brown was in town and Vancouver was a big R&B town at that time. The psychedelic music, and especially the Stones, they were just not happening at the time at all.
So, I looked up, my brother gave me a sign, I looked up and there’s Ron Wood standing there trying to get in the club. It was packed. I didn’t see Keith or Mick, but Ron was standing there waving at me and saying, “Hey man, can you get me in?” The club was too packed and I just ignored it. So, the Stones never got into our club that night. Oh man.
You got high with three of The Beatles?
Yeah, I got everybody except Paul. I smoked with George many times, many, many times. Every time we’d see each other. He was a guitar player and I’m kind of a guitar player and he really respected Cheech & Chong. He loved what we did. At that level. Like Bob Dylan, he really respected Cheech & Chong too because he saw what we were doing. We were different, unique. We weren’t chasing some kind of fad, we were creating.
I smoked in front of John Lennon. He was sitting on the floor. He’s so funny. I offered him a toke and he said, “No man,” he’s worried about his immigration problems. And who else? Oh, Rod Stewart came in and he refused to smoke because of his voice. And Ringo. There’s another crazy story, Keith Moon. We were getting high in front of Ringo and Ringo was in rehab. He was trying to get rid of an alcohol problem. Paul was the only one. And I put out the word and I’ve got friends that know Paul, that did his videos and that, and they told Paul and Paul’s ready. Whenever we’re together, we’re going to smoke. The only Beatle I never got high with.
Carl Reiner died the other day. His and Mel Brooks’s “2000 Year Old Man,” along with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” and your and Cheech’s “Dave’s Not Here” are encapsulations of the duo styles. So, who were you following as a duo and where do you see yourselves in the comedy duo history alongside Laurel and Hardy and Key & Peele and Martin and Lewis?
Well, believe it or not, my influence as a duo was the Smothers Brothers. It was Tom Smothers. He played that dummy. I really liked Tom. I liked the way he interacted with his brother. Yeah, that was the only one. Nobody else. We got one compliment one time from Jerry Lewis. They were telling Jerry Lewis, “Hey, there’s no more comedy teams,” and Jerry said, “Oh yes there are.” They said, “Who?” and he said, “Cheech & Chong.” And it was Jerry Lewis. I like everybody.
But we were never that kind of Carl Reiner/Mel Brooks type of delivery. That was really radio comedy where you get out in front. Although Smothers Brothers, I just liked Tom’s attitude with what he had. Cheech and I, our whole thing was unique. We never really copied. Everybody copied us.
We’ve been told by so many people, moviemakers especially, Tarantino and Spike Lee and all these guys, they really appreciated our movie making skills. In the movies, I was influenced by Jerry Lewis because Jerry Lewis used video when he shot his movies and he was the only one to do it. Then I did it and now they shoot movies with video.
Who do you see as the next generation Cheech & Chong?
I have no idea. Key & Peele, they had a shot but then he made that movie and I don’t think we’ll ever see that duo again. As far as comedy goes, I guess Dave Chappelle is a must-see because he’s so wise in so many ways. But I love Kevin Hart. He was a judge on Dancing with the Stars, and when I did my tango he gave me a 10. It was the only 10 I got, from some other comedian. So, I love Kevin Hart because of that. As far as comedians go, my hero for standup was always Redd Foxx. I knew Redd Foxx personally. That was one show that I made sure I saw. I saw Richard Pryor live when he was in the clubs and I saw Redd Foxx in the clubs.
To this day, I have never seen a comedian like Redd. Redd did two hours when I was there. One hour he had the crowd so high they were screaming, laughing so hard, and then he brought them down. He brought them down so much that they were running, literally leaving the club, getting out of the club. And he did it on purpose. Then he opened the door and people would leave and then he went back on stage and did another hour. To this day, I’m in awe. I could never do it. I got to the point where I’d do a good solid hour, hour and a half if I had to, but never like Redd Foxx.
Do you think it’s different doing standup as a duo? Is there less pressure because you’re bouncing off each other?
Oh yeah. You got more control. You entertain each other. Cheech and I always did. Even to this day when we go now, I’ll do some bits alone and I swerve like crazy, I go all over the place. And Cheech, he’s backstage, like old days. We broke the mold. Now, it’s sort of like our golden oldie set