Cheech Marin isn’t modest about the importance of the first Cheech & Chong movie, Up in Smoke. “We should get paid an annuity from all stoners,” he tells Paste.
Tommy Chong adds, “We should get $25 million from the Nobel Peace Prize.”
“But we’d rename it the Nobel Peace Out Prize,” Cheech cracks.
We’re talking about their first movie because it turns 40 this September. The movie that Chong today brags was made “for less than a million in less than a month,” and that introduced America to a (heavily Latino) side of Los Angeles that wasn’t often seen in mainstream media at the time, didn’t just create the lucrative stoner comedy genre; it’s established itself as an enduring part of pop culture, one of those movies that gets passed down from generation to generation, winning over converts with every new wave of dopesmokers and comedy fans. To commemorate that fact Paramount is releasing it on Blu-ray this year for the first time, and instead of waiting for the actual anniversary, they’re putting it out five months early. We’re pretty sure it’s because 4/20 doesn’t fall in September.
“It struck a chord for that time,” Cheech says, trying to explain its legacy. “It’s as relevant today as it was then. And it’s funny.”
“We presented a whole side of the culture that wasn’t really being seen,” Chong adds. “We exposed our culture to the world. And to the culture itself. We turned a lot of Chicanos on to being very prideful of who they were and being very proud of who they were.”
Cheech jokingly adds “rich hippies” alongside Chicanos as those given a voice by the film, referring to Chong’s character in the movie. That drives Chong to say that with Up in Smoke they “gave those two underdogs a voice, and it still resonates to this day.”
Up in Smoke is an improbable story of three men making their first movie together at an age when many in Hollywood start to see their opportunities dry up. Chong was on the verge of 40 when it was shot, and director Lou Adler, the record executive who produced their comedy albums and had never directed a movie before, was already in his mid-40s. Cheech was the baby of the bunch, barely into his 30s when production started in 1977. Their only goal was to capture the spirit of Cheech and Chong’s popular albums on film. Today they all say that none of them ever even considered that the movie might be popular decades later.
“We made it for the time,” Adler says today. “As far as how broad the film was going to go, we never thought about it. We made it for the comedy of it, and whoever got that, that’s who we were aiming for.”
Based on how they all explain it today, the production of Up in Smoke was as unconventional as its largely plot-free story. An experienced director had been hired for the movie, Adler says, but didn’t gel with Cheech and Chong during the scriptwriting process. That director was fired during preproduction, and with limited time before the shoot had to start, Paramount suggested that Adler, best known for working with Carole King and the Mamas & the Papas on a number of hit records, direct the movie himself.
Adler “brought another look,” Chong says. “He brought the Robert Altman crew in with him. Lou was a genius at presentation. He did the Monterey Pop Festival and revived Carole King’s career. That’s what made Cheech & Chong. When we met Lou Adler we became bigger than life through the records and everything else. His touch just made it a super hit movie, which it is today. It couldn’t have been done without the three of us.”
For the first-time director, “everything was a challenge,” Adler admits. “When I work on albums and get into the editing and mixing, I’m dealing with one or two people. All of a sudden I had 100 people asking me questions every day. And you have to come up with very quick answers. You have to show confidence or everybody loses confidence in what you’re doing. There were the normal challenges of making a film tripled by the fact that it was my first film as a director.”
Between Adler’s inexperience, the influence of Altman’s intentionally shambolic aesthetic, and Cheech & Chong’s trademark pot humor, the result is a comedy that’s exceptionally loose and shaggy. It’s essentially a series of vignettes based around the duo’s love of drugs and music, largely adapted from their series of hit stand-up albums. Like a lot of first-time movies by popular comedians, it’s less interested in creating a unified film than in capturing the essence of what made Cheech & Chong popular in the first place. That’s made it both an artifact of a very specific time and place, but also a comedy that has transcended its era and remained relevant for four decades.
According to Chong, that looseness foreshadowed the kind of improv-heavy film comedies that have thrived throughout the 21st century. “We actually pioneered a lot of innovative film techniques that are being used today,” he says. “We’d shoot the rehearsal. We’d shoot on video. We just ripped through that movie. What we did as innovators, being more or less in charge of what was going to be on screen as opposed to being married to a script, we could move faster. We were like guerilla movie makers.”
“Or maybe chimpanzee movie makers,” Cheech chimes in.
Adler and Cheech & Chong all agree that they wouldn’t change anything about the movie today. Both Cheech and Chong call it their favorite of all the movies they made together, and despite a wave of headlines back in 2010, the duo are no longer thinking about making an official sequel. “It’s like sex when you do it for the first time—you can’t recreate that magic moment but you know it was fun,” Chong explains. “And it all happened so fast,” Cheech immediately says, refusing to let any opening for a joke get by him.
When you look at the country’s attitude towards marijuana today, as several states move to decriminalize it and it becomes more mainstream than ever before, you’d maybe think this would be a good time for a follow-up. Cheech & Chong disagree, though. “You can only go forward,” Cheech says. “Or sideways sometimes. But not back.”
“There’s no reason to deal with what’s going on now because it’s being dealt with,” Chong adds. “We did our job. It was our job and we did it. We were first and you can’t turn around and be first again.”