Monday, February 5, 2007

Tommy Chong

You can’t keep Tommy Chong down.

The breakup of his longtime partnership with Richard “Cheech” Marin? Chong keeps on going, bringing his wife Shelby into the act. His arrest and conviction in 2003 on charges of possessing drug paraphernalia? He serves his time in federal prison and emerges the star of a documentary, “a/k/a Tommy Chong,” and writes a book about his experiences, “The I Chong: Meditations From The Joint.”

Whatever life throws at Chong, he seems to persevere. But he will always be known as half of Cheech & Chong, the duo with a string of best-selling records and hit movies. Although there was talk before and after Chong’s incarceration about a new movie that would reunite Cheech & Chong, those discussions have gone nowhere.

Instead, Cheech & Chong fans will have to be content with what’s come before, and interviews like this one about the glory days of the guys.

What was the first time onstage like when you were starting out with Cheech?
The first time? It was quite thrilling. We went through a lot of firsts together. We were the first counterculture duo. It was a lot of fun. It went by real fast, too.

You were together for how many years?
Cheech and I were together about 15 years.

How did you meet Cheech?
I had a nightclub in Vancouver. It was a topless bar. And it was pretty boring. The show was pretty boring. Girls taking off their clothes. The people thought it was pretty boring, too. It was your typical topless bar where people sit around and drink and barely look at the girls on the stage. I had just seen a group called the Committee in Second City in Chicago and so I started writing skits for the girls to do while they’re out there. I was looking for a straight guy.

Topless skits?
Yeah, yeah. Where the girls would start out with their clothes on and they would take it off theatrically. It was really popular. People started taking notice. I had this guy working as a straight man. I had another partner with long hair, Dave, but we needed a straight guy to play the cop and the businessman and all that. The straight guy we had quit. This mutual friend suggested I look at Cheech. The rest is history.

Was there an audition?
He actually auditioned me. He wasn’t sure he wanted to join this group. So he came down and checked out the show and he got hooked right away.

So it was originally three guys?
Yeah, there were three of us. We had a mime artist. We had a classical guitarist. And I think we had about four, five girls. That was it.

What made you split it off and just do Cheech & Chong?
All improv groups like all music groups they have a life of their own. They just wanted to do other things. And Cheech and I were musicians. He was a singer, I was a guitar player. So we put a band together. We were going to do music. And then we went out to our first gig. We never played one note. We just did comedy. In front of these young kids, in front of these young teenagers. We went over so well I said OK this is it. So we retired the band and we went on to fame and fortune.

What was your writing process like?
That’s when we got into recording. Usually we’d write five minutes before we went onstage, then we would do the writing onstage because we had that improvisational way of doing it. Then when we started recording, then we would sit in a room and try to figure out something and then record it right away so we wouldn’t forget it. The next thing you know, we’re recording artists.

And you had some of the top-selling albums.
They’re still selling. It’s amazing. There’s still a Cheech & Chong section in the record store. A lot of them. We’re more popular than before.

Did you ever think that would be the case? That you would have such a long shelf life?
I did. I always had faith in it. I always looked at guy’s careers like the old guy, Howlin’ Wolf or Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry. I always compared myself with the old blues guys. Here they are. They wrote a bunch of songs, good songs, and then they just did them the rest of their life and people come to see them.

Who were you trying to reach?
The young kids. We toured the colleges. We did. Our first gig was in front of 17,000 people at the Forum. We opened for the Rolling Stones, the 71 tour they did, and that was our first LA job, or gig. It sort of put us on the break. Lou Adler, the guy who owned the record company, he arranged all that. It was the way he promoted us that stuck us up there right away.

How do you think Cheech & Chong influenced other comedians?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t think we had an influence on the comedians as much as the fans. I think the comedians. If we influenced anybody it was that we could do movies, records and movies. We helped that. We helped the record part of it. The thing about comedy is you’re so busy doing your own act you really don’t have time to check out anybody else’s.

Do you think the success of your albums allowed other comedians to make records?
Yeah. Somewhat. Somewhat. I think our influence. I don’t know. That’s hard for me to say. I’ve never really thought about it.

What influence did Cheech & Chong have on the fans themselves?
We would be an excuse to party. We still are. I think that’s where our big influence was on the fans because we weren’t a couple of guys. We were them. We would have all these characters. So when they put on a record you didn’t just get two guys, Cheech & Chong, you got all these different characters. And so it would be like inviting a party into your house. Put on a record, turn on Cheech & Chong and have a party. People would party away and then they’d shut up and listen to the funny parts and then they’d keep talking. We were like invited guests into their house.

So was the pot humor always a part of the act?
Yeah. I mean, we started out in a little topless bar in Vancouver. I had long hair then. It was quite radical. This was 1969. The pot thing was. The war was going on. There were all sorts of things going on. The college kids were discovering it because of the draft. That’s how Cheech got into it. It was quite the thing at that time. I’m one of the only ones that sort of rode the pony all the way.

So Nancy Reagan’s “Just so no” message just rolled right off you.
Well, I was too old to change at that time.

How did you make the leap from performing live to comedy albums to movies?
We reached the end. We had had it with the comedy records. We’d done all we could do, we felt, and we were ready to move onto some visuals, which is movies. It was inevitable and that’s the way it was. We’ve always been a very visual act.

Do you have favorite comedy bits?
Yeah, there are a few of them that stand out. I guess my most favorite one is Pedro and the Man. The one where I’m hitchhiking. We put it in the movie. I’m hitchhiking and Cheech picks me up. It’s the meeting of Cheech & Chong. It’s very historical and it seems to be my favorite because when Cheech and I were here in LA trying to make it we were not going over at this one place. It was a dance club. They’d stop the dancing and everybody sat down. We’d put on our show. The dancers weren’t really that thrilled to stop. They weren’t eagerly awaiting their show. It was like we were interrupting their good time. They weren’t really that thrilled. They didn’t respond to our act like most people did. At intermission, or in between shows Cheech and I were talking. I said man we don’t have them. You’ve got to come up with a character or tell me about a character that they’re going to relate to here. He said, “Well, I know this one lowrider thing that would work. But I don’t want to do it because it’s kind of detrimental to the Mexicans.” I said that’s what we’re looking for. So we did it. It was like we hit a nerve. As soon as Cheech said, “Hey, you want a ride man?” The place erupted.

In the movie this is the scene where he picks you up and he’s got this flat joint that’s really a toothpick.
It’s a classic. That bit evolved, well you figure 10 years. From the time we started doing it to the time we shot it in the movie it was 10 years.

Was there any kind of negative reaction from the Mexican community?
Only from the pseudo-intellectual Luis Valdez, the director. He had a meeting with Cheech and he was the one really that had Cheech stop doing the act. Because he told Cheech he thought that character was very detrimental to the Chicano movement.

So early on he wasn’t doing the Chicano, the low-rider character?
No, he never did it in Canada. It was only when we got to LA that he became Mexican. It’s classic. It will be with him the rest of his life. When we broke up he stopped doing it. He’s like JJ on Good Times. JJ will never say “Dyn-o-mite” and Cheech will never say “Hey, man.”

Who influenced your humor?
Mostly Lenny Bruce. I had a friend in Calgary give me a joint and a Lenny Bruce record. That got me going. But before that I heard Redd Foxx party records. I met Foxx over the years and I met Richard Pryor. So I would say Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.

What was it about each of them?
Well, they were all outlaws. They’re outside the law. They weren’t legal. They would pick hypocritical laws and bring our attention to them. Lenny Bruce, especially. Lenny was the first. He was so wonderful. You’ve got to remember that Lenny, his stuff started in the 50s. He started in the 50s. It was 58, 59 that I first heard him.

He was busted a lot for using language on stage.
Yeah. Well, the minute he started showing up how screwed up these laws -- obscenity laws -- he single-handedly changed stuff. If it wasn’t for Lenny there wouldn’t be no Howard Stern, there would be no Cheech & Chong, there would be no George Carlin. he literally scarified himself for us.

What about Cheech & Chong? Did you ever have any trouble with the law because of your act?
One time. One time in Tampa, Florida, we got busted for obscenity. It was a bogus law. What happened, the promoter, he had a scam where they would take a $5,000 peace bond and if anything happened at all he could keep the five grand. So the minute we did something that was a little bit risqué, he had the cops arrest and he kept the five grand.

What happened with the arrest?
Lou Adler, our manager at that time, made it go away. I think we paid a fine or something. We never appeared in court. But we were arrested and charged with obscenity.

Did the police keep a close watch on you from town to town because of the pot humor?
Opposite. They were big fans. Cops, we’ve always had big fans because our act was a lot racial, like a lot of Mexican humor, a lot of Chicano humor. And if you grew up anywhere in southern California whether you know it or not, you’re a Mexican.

What made you guys so unique?
What made us unique? I guess we’re the first minority duo to make it without talking about being a minority. That’s another thing. It’s very tough for minorities to stay minorities when they got a lot of money. But with Cheech & Chong we could have been the rich kids, the poor kids. In fact, in “Up in Smoke” I was a rich kid.

How close were the two of you?
You couldn’t get closer. We shared everything. We had to. When we first came to LA, thanks to me, as soon as I found out, what we had in Canada. We worked one gig there and then we came down to LA. We rode around on a Honda. I had a little Honda scooter. A Honda 90. I was watching TV and I’d see all these Vietnamese leaving the villages with everything they owned on this Honda and I thought wow there’s a good commercial. So I bought one and for a year we rode around on a Honda going from club to club doing our act, wherever we could go.

Did the act evolve much over the years?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was funny. We would get an act and we would do the same one for a couple of months. I think we did one for a couple of years. And we kept playing in this one place in Atlanta, Georgia. The guy who worked the lights, the third time we were there he said, “Oh, tell me you changed your act. C’mon on, man. Tell me.” I said no, and he said, “Oh, no.”

You found the jokes that worked and stuck with them.
Yeah. Like Willie Nelson. It’s like a song. It’s like a good song. It works. And it’s fun and it has all those elements, but with comedy you change not so much for the audience you change for yourself.

Would you get bored doing it otherwise?
Yeah. I mean, you’ve gone as far as you could possibly go with this one bit, then you work on another one. A lot of us, especially potheads, are very lazy. We’re very comfortable living our life. So you’re not driven like, say, the Jay Lenos that are constantly changing. They have to.

What did the two of you bring to the act? What part came from Cheech and what part came from Chong?
I would write most of the stuff, but Cheech would come in with the. Cheech was a writer, so he had ... he was very in tune with whatever was going on. The latest record, the latest book, the latest anything. Cheech was very in tune. Still is. We had Prince in our soundtrack before anybody really knew who Prince was. That’s in “Still Smoking.” So Cheech brought this ultra .

You directed some of the movies Cheech & Chong did.

How did you land that job?
It’s the way we wrote. I’m from the improvisational school, which is you write as you work. It’s not you write and then you rehearse and then you do it. So when we did our first movie we had a hard time finding a director. Lou Adler, who really produced the movie, took the title but in reality it was Cheech and I who really directed the movie and with me having the final say. I was the one that really drove the vehicle. It’s a natural thing. You put 10 people in the room, you give them a camera and everybody will automatically go to what’s comfortable with them. There will be one director, there will be one cameraman, there will be one writer, there will be one of each. One producer, even. And in our case I was the natural director because it just came natural to me.

Did you learn along the way, as you were going?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. The secret of anything is surround yourself with good people. That’s what I did. The first thing I did was surround myself with experienced cameramen, experienced grips, soundmen, people who’ve done a lot of movies so they would help me avoid a lot of the pitfalls that happen when you take a project and you think you can do everything.

Was there any concern the movies wouldn’t play to middle America or mainstream America?
That’s another secret of Cheech & Chong’s success. We never ever focused on the negativity. Our focus was always on. I always had that teenage audience in mind. The teenagers were the target audiences because teenagers are the best bullshit detectors out there. The computer industry wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for teenagers because they’re the only ones who have the quickness to grasp that. If you can get it by a teenager, then you’re onto something. Middle America, by and large, most of them have a teenager.

And these movies, they show constantly on TV.
Yeah. I’m telling you. It’s a culture. It’s a culture that keeps growing. It refuses to die.

What broke up the act?
He wanted to move on from the pot humor. He actually was a closet straight guy so he just really went back to his roots. Nancy Reagan broke us up. When she said “Just say no,” she was looking right at us. And I think Cheech felt that kind of thing was over, like a lot of people did. When we broke up in 85, 84-85, it had been coming. I didn’t see it. I saw it and I didn’t see it. I’m an improvisational kind of guy. I just assumed because of our success and the way we wrote that we’d always be together. But I forget to take into account Cheech was a very young guy when I met him. He was barely in his 20s. He was maybe 21, 20, something like that. We’d been together 15 years. I had his youth. I had the teenage years. Then he evolved and he changed into his father, basically.

So did he grew up and you didn’t?
That’s right. That’s exactly it.

Was it hard for the two of you to stop working together?
No. Actually it was quite easy because we’d quit working live and we were just doing movies. I think that’s one the reasons we broke up is because we were just doing movies and I was the director of the movies. I think if we’d both been directing officially, I think we probably would have still been together. But who knows? Cheech really wanted out of Cheech. He didn’t want to be Cheech anymore.

Why is it so hard for comedy teams to stay together?
You become different people. You do. There’s the hunger when you don’t have anything. Like in anything. Like pro players. They start off. They’re hungry. They run out the ball. They run to first base. And then after they get some money, money changes everything. It’s your motivation. Poverty is a great motivator and wealth is a great opposite. You want to have time to spend your money. And you want to hobnob.

How close were the two of you?
You couldn’t get closer. We shared everything. We had to. When we first came to LA, thanks to me, as soon as I found out, what we had in Canada. We worked one gig there and then we came down to LA. We rode around on a Honda. I had a little Honda scooter. A Honda 90. I was watching TV and I’d see all these Vietnamese leaving the villages with everything they owned on this Honda and I thought wow there’s a good commercial. So I bought one and for a year we rode around on a Honda going from club to club doing our act, wherever we could go. Now we’re like an old married couple that broke up. We’ve got so much in common but we have nothing to say to each other.

Did you run into a lot of fans in prison?
Yeah, tons of fans, and I got a ton of mail.

Did you ever think this would happen to you?
Not a clue, no. I’m glad it did. I can’t find any negative thing about it.

Going to prison some people would say was a negative thing.
When you go to jail and you’re not a criminal, it becomes a research project.

What did you take away from your experience?
That I could do it. I could survive. And survival really meant finding out what is really essential. What do you really need in your life. There’s a huge reality check. People don’t get real, including myself. You live in a sort of a fantasy world and when that fantasy bubble is broken, reality can be sobering. But then again it’s always been the basis of my humor. I’ve always dealt with reality and that’s why I was really equipped to handle it.

I imagine there weren’t too many people in prison with you who were there on the same charges you were.
None. Not one. Not one. It was embarrassing telling people why I was in jail. Because everybody thought, including the press, everybody thought I must have been doing something more. They must have caught me dealing. You think that about people. It’s a reality check. When it happens to you, you realize how much people are tried in the press and the headlines. You read headlines and you figure you’ve got the whole story.

When most people think of prison they probably think of Attica.

You were …
I was in camp. But right in front of the camp, in fact where they admit you, is barbed wire. It’s all the façade and it scares the shit out of you. When I pulled up to it, my heart sank, on one hand. And then on the other hand, I was excited.

Why were you excited?
It was an adventure, getting into something I’ve been aware of all my life. I have friends who did time in jail, like two years, five years, and they could never explain adequately what it was like. They tried and it was very difficult. Then when I was there then I understand.

Can you explain it?
It’s very hard to explain. What it is as long as you maintain your integrity and as long as you keep a wary eye out, it’s a survival. Who you think is your friend isn’t really your friend. And who you think is your enemy isn’t really your enemy. If you’re smart, you don’t have enemies. You have people that might annoy you. One thing about it is you lose your judgmentalness. You can’t judge anybody when you’re wearing the same clothes they are. Even in my position. My fame got me a lot of smiles of recognition, but that was it. That was it.

Are you incorporating your experiences into your act?
Oh, yeah. Yes, I am. Into our act. My wife opens the show for me.

What kind of jokes do you do about being in prison?
I see the funny things about it. For instance, being strip searched by a fan. I do that. That’s pretty funny. I don’t know if you can print it, but the guy’s looking up my butt and asking me if I’ve seen Cheech lately. I go, “Why? Is he up there?” That kind of humor. Then my wife, she talks about what it was like to have the cops come into the house the way they did. We have a good time.

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