Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong require little introduction. The countercultural comedy heroes turned movie superstars took several decades off to pursue solo careers (and Chong spent nearly a year in prison for selling a bong on the Internet; you'd think he lied about weapons of mass destruction or something) — but they're back and ready to light up America.
[Editor's note: This is the full transcript of the interview.]
Metro Times: So, the Light Up America tour. Why now?
Cheech Marin: You know, we gotta do it before we croak, I guess. [laughs] That's what we were gonna call it — "Catch 'em Before They Croak."
Tommy Chong: America needs a laugh. America's had all these Bush problems for eight years. Now we've got Palin and McCain, you know? America really needs something to laugh at. And that's why we're here. The universe says, "You know, Cheech & Chong, you guys gotta get back together and do your job." We did it when the Vietnam War was winding down. And now we're gonna be here as the Iraq War hopefully winds down. So I think that's why we're back. The universe wants us to make America feel better. Because America needs a hug.
MT: So what was the catalyst?
Cheech: Well, we've been in contact with each other over the years. We'd say let's try to do this thing again without killing each other but something would always
intervene. You know? We'd argue about something from the past or Tommy went to jail. Finally, we got together and it was like, "Well what can we do that we can't argue about anymore?" And it turned out to be the live show. And we decided, well, if we're ever gonna do it again, it's gotta be now. So we decided, "Hey, let's give it a shot." We knew the demand was out there because everybody's always asked us about it over the years. But it was gratifying to see that there was such a wonderful response. You know, the last time we were onstage together was 27 years ago in Amsterdam.
MT: Perfect! So there was truth to those stories over the years that you two have been angry at each other and that's why you didn't do a tour?
Cheech: Yeah, sure, we argued. It was basically the clash of two creative egos. And we had so much success, you know? We were together for 17 years, every minute of every day. And we would just get sick of each other. I don't care if you're married or good friends. We just kinda wanted to do stuff on our own and just didn't want to hear the other guy's opinion anymore. And so we both went our separate ways.
Chong: Oh, yeah, yeah. There was all sorts of sniping going on between us in the press. I was mad at Cheech because he did a movie without me, you know? Born in East L.A. That was his movie. And he was mad at me because I was sort of like the dictator or the director on the other movies. So he wanted to go off on his own and try his acting chops, which he did. And I went off on my own and became a stand-up comic. The good part was that we could wrap up our career, and now we can come back. And it was the right time to take a break because we didn't stay too long at the dance, you know? The Beatles were the best example. I mean, they loved each other, but they got to a point where they grew into their own person. And that's what happened to Cheech and me. But now we can go back and have a nice reunion, much like the Police and Van Halen did, recapture a moment, share it with everybody again, and then put it on the shelf for a little while, if we choose to. Or we can do movies. There's really no end to what we can do now.
MT: A few years ago, there was talk about another movie. You think there might be a new movie now?
Cheech: Yeah, we tried to get a new movie, so you never know what's gonna happen in the future. I'm open-minded here right now. You know? We've gotten over being mad at each other and we actually realized how much fun it is to be with each other because we crack each other up. And we have so much history together. It's like when we stop arguing, we actually have a lot of fun!
Chong: Oh, I think it will happen, for sure. It never happened before because our live act was basically rehearsal for the movies. And so to do another movie, we had to go out and do another live tour to work on the material.
MT: Do you guys prefer doing stand-up to the movies or is it just two different beasts?
Chong: Well, one leads to the other. The live act actually just goes into the movies. Up in Smoke really was our live act. The first 30 minutes of Up in Smoke was one bit we used to do in our act. So now we've got another chance to put some live stuff together and then we'll pick some of those and make them into a movie.
Cheech: Movies, funny enough, are just a lot more work. We don't really do stand-up, though. We do stage. It's a very theatrical performance that we do. And when we did the stage thing, it was like an hour a night. But movies — 12 hour, 15 hour days, every day. It was a lot more work doing movies, so doing this again is really refreshing. The only hard part is the traveling. You're in a new city every day. But that's also part of what I missed. I missed being in a new city and getting the pulse of the country.
MT: Speaking of the pulse of the country, Tommy's bust greatly upset me. Do you think the government targeted Tommy just to make an example?
Cheech: Oh, absolutely! They needed a face. They didn't have a face and Tommy was the obvious face. So they used him to be their poster boy for "Are we doing our job?" Cleaning up the Internets, you know? He was basically charged because he transported a bong over state lines for "immoral purposes." It was kinda like our "Hey Man!" act. It was all our former attorney general, John Ashcroft's doing. You know, the guy who actually draped classical statues in Washington because they didn't have enough clothes on. Just look at that! These are the people who are running our country? You gotta be kidding.
Chong: Absolutely, they targeted me. You look at the Republican Convention. It was all their greatest sound bites. You know, they're very superficial. They're folks with nothing but headlines — sound bites and headlines. And that's what they did with me. I became a headline and a sound bite for the war on drugs. And that's why I went away for nine months, to show the world that the Bush administration is hard on drugs.
MT: Did you get respect in prison from the other inmates?
Chong: Yeah, they loved me. Not only the inmates but also the guards and the counselors. I'm still friends with one of the counselors. He was a drug counselor, but I actually counseled him. I never really had a drug problem and he did. He had a hard time, you know? He just called me the other day, in fact.
MT: Will Tommy's bust become part of a routine in your stage show?
Cheech: Oh, I'm sure somewhere along the line, it will.
Chong: I've had a chance to do stand-up these last several years, you know, so I'll be able to stretch out and show off my little stand-up chops, you know, in between bits. And then we will eventually put some new bits together.
MT: So are audiences going to get new material or is it going to be the greatest hits or a combination of both?
Cheech: Greatest hits. But Tommy does a lot of stand-up comedy in the show between introducing the various characters that I play. And that's kind of how the contemporary, up-to-the-minute stuff will come in — politics and stuff. But we have a vast catalogue and we'll definitely dip in to that.
Chong: Yeah, greatest hits at the beginning. And my wife Shelby opens the show. She's like a new addition to the mix. She's gonna be fulfilling a lot of the young girls' dreams, and the older ladies too, you know? They're gonna wanna see our own version of "feminine." So she's no longer just announcing me and being my foil onstage. She's doing stand-up on her own now and she's very nervous. It's kinda fun to watch.
MT: That's great. Is it similar humor or is it a different kind of humor?
Cheech: Yeah, it's kind of the wife of the guy who took too much acid, you know? [laughs]
MT: You mentioned the pulse of the country, I wonder with the U.S. presidential election coming up, will that make for some new material?
Cheech: I hope it does. I hope that we signal a new change or a change back to a little more sane times, you know? Not so much about greed.
MT: Did you catch Palin's speech the other night?
Cheech: Yeah. God, the hockey mom! Hey, lady, go pick up your kids from hockey, OK? [laughs] It's like, is that who you want to run this country when the old guy croaks? It's scary, man! She's like the guidance counselor you have to go see in high school when you're in trouble. Just so self-righteous. Those people have such a self-righteous streak in them. You just want to smack 'em! That's what we're trying to get away from in this country. Obama kinda represents, "Hey, here's the future. Let's be all inclusive. Let's improve our standing in the world." And you know what? I'm really tired of being thought of as the bad guy. We're supposed to be the good guys, you know? I wanna get back to that in America. Not being the greedy, self-righteous, "we know it all and you know nothing" kinda guys. The Republican party represents that and in particular, it represents creationism, and anti-abortion, and anti-progress. And they're now trying to bill themselves as the party of change? Change what?
Chong: Palin strikes me as like a dominatrix. She looks like McCain's dominatrix. She probably has the mask and the whip and the high heels, standing over McCain, taunting. "I'm going to be your vice-president. Here's my boot!"
MT: If you told me we'd be in this state back in the days when I was listening to Cheech & Chong albums, I would've said, "You're crazy. We're gonna move forward." I thought pot would've at least been decriminalized by now, but it's just ...
Cheech: Well, you know, it's a pendulum swing. And the pendulum's about to swing back.
MT: You got a lot of faith. You think Obama's going to go in?
Cheech: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I think he's gonna win in a landslide.
MT: I hope so.
Chong: I sure hope so, too. I mean, I think there's a limit on how stupid America can be. I really do. I think after eight years of Bush, if they haven't learned their lesson yet ... I think Obama's going to show the Republicans exactly what they did wrong — first by picking McCain, and then by picking Palin.
MT: Of course, you were born in Canada, Tommy, so if it gets too bad, you can always just go back there, right?
Chong: Well, my wife had a great thought the other night. She said, "Hey, we never left town when Nixon, Reagan or Bush were in charge. So why would we leave town if McCain got in? There's no reason to leave." But, really, we gotta ask ourselves — how far down can America go? I mean, Mexico's one of our biggest creditors now. Pretty soon, white people will be sneaking into Mexico for jobs! [laughs]
MT: You guys were such a cultural phenomenon. Did you have any idea when you started out, going into it, that this was gonna capture the culture so strongly?
Cheech: Well, we got indications of it right away. As soon as we put out our first record, man, it was like, "Whoa! We touched a nerve." And wow, the reaction was the same wherever we went across the country. We had touched on a nerve that everybody was feeling and nobody was saying anything about and it just exploded. And that gave us license to just keep going. Which we did.
Chong: I really had no idea. All I knew was that we electrified audiences wherever we went, right from the very beginning. From the very first time Cheech and I appeared onstage as Cheech & Chong. Well, we weren't Cheech & Chong yet, but we ended up being Cheech & Chong that night. We electrified a rock 'n' roll audience. They sat down at the bottom of the stage and they just laughed. They loved everything we did, every bit we did. You know, at a music show usually, they want to dance or shout or something. But, no. From that moment on, I knew as long as Cheech and I got onstage together, we would electrify everybody. As long as we were entertaining, we were in charge.
MT: When George Carlin died, I thought about you guys because it was sort of like Carlin and Cheech & Chong were really the first comedy superstars, like rock stars in the sense that you both filled arenas. I think you paved the way for the Eddie Murphys and the Chris Rocks that followed. Did you take pride in that? Is there a certain pride in knowing that?
Chong: You know, you do and you don't. Yeah, you're right, though. When George passed, I had a brief, kind of nostalgic look at my career. But it's really hard. I once described getting to the top as like mountain climbing. The fun is in the doing. Because once you get on top, there's really nothing there except a pile of rocks, nowhere to sit, and the only thing you got is a view. But you can't see because it's all cloudy. And so the only thing you've got left to do is go all the way down. So that's kinda what it was like.
Cheech: Well, we were out there busting frontiers. But people did it for us too. So we just kind of went along with the comedy evolution and that's how it's supposed to go. And also we carried the banner of the comedy team. I don't know if there's been a comedy team — a new comedy team — that's captured the fascination of the country since we were around. I can't really think of one. And it takes a lot to be a team because you have to have two creative guys going at each other. But there hasn't been one since, you know? We were it. But a lot of people forged the trail for us, too. We wouldn't be here without Lenny Bruce or any of those guys.
MT: Were there any other special heroes?
Cheech: You know, I had a lot of heroes. I grew up on comedy. I was a comedy nut when I was a kid. I liked Red Skelton and Art Carney. Anybody who was on TV or was on The Ed Sullivan Show. Lenny Bruce was a huge influence on me, and by the way, I got introduced to Lenny Bruce by my father, who was a cop. Cops loved Lenny Bruce because he'd talk about himself and he was a funny guy. You know how kids sneak down at night and listen to their parents? Kids used to sneak Cheech & Chong records away from their folks and I was kinda doing the same thing. I used to come down and my dad and his buddies would be listening to Lenny Bruce, laughing their asses off. I didn't kinda understand it, but some things I did.
MT: How was it when you met Lenny Bruce?
Cheech: I never met Lenny Bruce.
MT: [laughs] Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you met him when you said you were introduced to him by your dad. It makes sense with him being a cop and all. You were introduced to his albums, though …
Cheech: [laughs] Yeah! "Son, here's Lenny Bruce. I want you to be just like him!" [laughs] No, he would play the record with his buddies and crack up. And I would just laugh my ass off — everything I could understand at least.
MT: Your dad, the cop, when you got involved in that kind of dope comedy, did he appreciate that?
Cheech: Oh, absolutely. He loved it because he was working in the juvenile department all those years and he would go, "Hey kids, you know Cheech & Chong? Yeah? Well, he's my son. Come over and talk to me." [laughs]
MT: The pot humor was new and revolutionary when you did it. Now, it's mainstream. And I'm not just talking stuff like Weeds and Entourage, but every network sitcom. Desperate Housewives had a plot built around it. Even soap operas. Do you think there's kind of a dichotomy in United States culture in that it's obvious from these shows that tons of people are smoking pot, yet it's still a major crime in this country?
Chong: Oh yeah. Sex and the City, Brothers. Everything has a pot scene. Everyone has pot. It's mainstream.
Cheech: It's exactly as it was in our day, only bigger. We always used to say that we were middle-of-the-road dopers. And that represented the norm. We'd say we were the norm and people who didn't get it were like, "Oh, ho, ho! That's a funny joke." No, we're serious, man. We're the norm. And now it is the norm, it's just being more recognized. You can't make movies that sell a hundred million dollars in tickets or have three No. 1 albums in a row without being mainstream. No, we were mainstream. It was just more unrecognized. We wanted to redefine what mainstream really was. [Pot] is our beer, man. You know? Let us have our beer. If everyone in the United States could grow one plant to market, our economy would boom. And you wouldn't have as many drug and addiction programs. The economy wouldn't be outsourced if we grew it here. The population of our jails would be cut in half, easily. Homegrown! Talk about the greening of America. [laughs]
Chong: It's sorta like Prohibition was. Alcohol was illegal but they still featured it in movies. I remember seeing Red Skleton making fun of booze in a movie when I was a kid. And they had a little flask to drink it. So it's the same thing, you know? America has always just had this puritanical approach. And that's what it is. The marijuana law is a really good whipping boy. Everybody can jump still on that bandwagon. And you know it's a racist law. They're really saying, "We don't want Mexicans and blacks and Chinese people in America." That was the underlying reason they made it illegal in the first place. And that's even why they still call it marijuana. They never call it hemp. But it is hemp. They never say we've got a truck coming across the border with 60 pounds of hemp, though.
MT: Is marijuana the Mexican term for it?
Chong: Yeah. It's a Mexican slang word for it. You know, Lenny Bruce had a record in the '50s on which he said pot will be legal by the '60s because law students were smoking it. And that was in the '50s! We're now in 2008, and I just got out of jail for nine months for a pipe. A marijuana pipe.
MT: That was just unbelievable …
Chong: But that shows you how perfect the universe and karma really are. Because I went in and I had the best time. I wrote a book. I got healthy. I came out looking 10 years younger than when I went in. I got some great insight, a good view on everything. And then I got street cred up the ying yang. I'm on all the talk shows. You know? I'm a voice, which I never was before. So it turned out totally in my favor. See, on the other end of the spectrum, you got someone like a [former Cheney adviser] Scooter Libby. That guy is like a pariah in his profession now. It's like all the Nixon guys, the Watergate guys. On the other hand, Tommy Chong? Hey, listen, let's get him on Larry King. [In a King voice] "You did nine months in jail and everybody loves you." I'm now the martyr. It feels nice. I love it.
MT: Tell me about your new book.
Chong: Well, it's an easy read. It tells my version of the Cheech & Chong story. Also everyday things about my life that people always find interesting, 'cause I was with Motown Records once upon a time. I discovered the Jackson 5. I played guitar with Hendrix, I had a really full life, a really exciting life before I even met Cheech.
MT: Did you work for Motown Records?
Chong: Yeah, I had a group called the Vancouvers. Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. And I wrote the song, "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" And we changed Motown's face. Up until then, Motown was, you know, "My Girl" and the Four Tops. But then we did "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" which was, in part, a protest song about interracial marriage. That sparked a whole change at Motown — you know? "Love Child" by Diana Ross. "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." All those social conscious songs. Yeah. "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" 1967.
MT: And then you said you brought the Jackson 5 to Motown?
Chong: Yeah, we discovered them. They opened for Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. They actually came and stayed at Bobby's house, or apartment, in Detroit for a month before Berry Gordy and Suzanne de Passe over at Motown finally auditioned them. Then they signed them to a contract. Joe Jackson actually brought me the contract to look at because I was the only white guy that he knew.
MT: That was back when Michael still looked human.
Chong: Oh, Michael was the cutest thing. He was 10 years old and he was the cutest guy you ever saw. He was at the peak of his whole life, basically. He was right there at that time.
MT: What's going on with your daughter's [Rae Dawn Chong's] career? Is she still acting?
Chong: She's laying low. She writes a lot. She's got a script. It was in competition in Toronto, I think. She's still acting. She does bit parts here and there. She lives in Connecticut and I'm gonna be seeing here when we're up out that way. She's still as beautiful as ever. I also have a daughter in Toronto named Precious. She has a one-woman show. You'll be reading about her someday. My other daughter, Robbie, is in Los Angeles with her husband. And I've also got a couple of sons, you know. So all the families are doing great. [Pause] None of them smoke dope and I don't know where I went wrong.
MT: [laughs] It sound's like you're a proud father. That's great.
Chong: I am a proud father, except for that one little glitch.
MT: Well, they have to rebel some way, Tommy.
Chong: Oh, well, I guess so.
MT: So are plans to carry on after the tour or are you just playing it by ear?
Cheech: Yeah, we're playing it by ear. We're having fun so far, so we'll see. I'm having a lot of fun building up to this.
Chong: I think we'll be back. Like I said, this is like a rehearsal for a movie. So, yeah, we'll be working. We'll be Cheech & Chong forever.
Saturday, Sept. 20, at the Fillmore, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit. 313-961-5450; shows at 6:30 and 10 p.m.
Thanks to editorial intern Scott O'Neil for his assistance.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org