The comic sensibilities of Cheech & Chong embraced multiple generations — both the ’70s potheads and the ’80s cokefiends — but overlooked in the duo’s joking about toking is a little matter of rock and roll.
Together or apart, Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong gravitate toward music. The two posed on the cover of Guitar One magazine in 2002, along with a posse of celebrities who rock. But Cheech & Chong aren’t poseurs. They come bearing rock credentials, including a string of charted singles and an impressive group of backup musicians and singers – George Harrison, Carole King and Michelle Phillips among them.
"I play every day, sing every day. It’s just a part of me," says Marin, who recorded his first song at 5 and picked up the guitar at 12 and showed up last year on the Fox TV show “Celebrity Duets.” "It’s as much a part of me as anything."
Originally musicians who gravitated toward comedy, Cheech & Chong didn’t turn away from their roots. The first track on their debut record, 1971’s "Cheech and Chong," put Chong in the role of an old blues man, Blind Melon Chitlin’.
"If you look at our career, we’ve always had music," says Chong, who was interviewed separately from Marin. "We’ve had music in every movie we did. We were both musicians before Cheech & Chong and during Cheech & Chong. Our humor, like ‘Up in Smoke,’ was always music-based — two guys looking to get high before they play in a battle of the bands."
Although it took a while, the success of Cheech & Chong’s early albums allowed the guys to make the leap into movies, starting with "Up in Smoke" in 1978. The movie features two of their most popular characters – Marin as the Chicano lowrider Pedro and Chong as an affable pothead known only as "Man." They meet when Cheech picks up Chong hitchhiking, lugging his drum set with him.
The real meeting took place in Vancouver in 1969.
Marin, a Mexican-American who grew up in the Los Angeles area, had fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He was working as a potter and writing music reviews for a Canadian rock magazine when he heard about this improvisational comedy troupe at a topless club called the Shanghai Junk. He found Chong, a blend of Chinese, Scottish and Irish from Alberta, trying to connect with an audience weary of the flesh show.
"It was pretty boring," says Chong, whose family owned the club. "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."
The improv troupe was a way to break up the monotony.
"I met up with him and joined the troupe as a writer first and then eventually started replacing different people when they didn’t show up and eventually writing bits for myself," Marin says. “We had the world’s first topless improv theater group. It was about as much fun as a young boy could have.”
He and Chong discovered their mutual background in music and formed a band.
"He was a singer. I was a guitar player. So we put a band together," Chong says. "We were going to do music. And then we went out to our first gig. We never played one note. We just did comedy. … We went over so well I said, ‘OK, this is it.’ So we retired the band and we went on to fame and fortune."
This mutual interest in music dates to both men’s childhoods.
By age 5, Marin, who was born in 1946, had his first recording, a tune called "Armorcito Corazon," a favorite of his parents. By 12, he had taken up the guitar, although it was his voice that made Marin a natural to front bands with other teens, including Captain Shagnasty and his Loch Ness Pickles and Rompin’ Richie and the Rockin’ Rubins.
“We used to change names all the time,” Marin says. “We used to call ourselves Patterns and Colors, and the Joint Chiefs of Stash. That was my favorite.”
"When we were kids he was always singing and playing his guitar," says his cousin, Rosie Robles. "He would pull me into a room and make me listen to his latest song and chord triumphs."
It was Robles’ father who gave Marin his nickname. The name comes from "cheecharone" — fried pork skins — that his uncle thought Marin looked like at birth.
The versatility of Marin voice is readily apparent in the 1987 video "Get Out of My Room." The last offering from Cheech & Chong, the tape is a collection of music videos. Marin tries singing the title song in a variety of styles, first in the style of Johnny Cash, then as a balladeer, switches to a Las Vegas lounge singer and finally settles on performing as an English punk rocker.
“That goes along with being a comedian,” Marin says. “What you first do when you’re a comedian or a funny kid, you imitate people. You imitate singers or people on TV, movie stars. I grew up imitating everybody. I could sing like anybody, so that was great. I kept doing that. The challenge is to find your own voice.”
Accompanying him through these various stylistic changes is Chong on the guitar — actually the second instrument he wanted to learn.
"I wanted to play fiddle but I couldn’t tune it," says Chong, who is eight years older than Marin. "But I learned how to tune guitar. My mother had a little guitar that she bought when she was pregnant with me. It was leaning against a wall or hanging on a wall. So I’d take it down, play around and learned a few chords. The next thing I knew I was playing backup for a fiddle player. His name was Mel."
Chong was 10 years old.
"It was the best lessons, music lessons, that I could have had," he said. "Because I played rhythm guitar. He would stress: ‘Nothing fancy, just keep the rhythm.’ So I developed a very nice rhythmic sense."
Chong quit high school in the 10th grade to devote his energies to his music. He formed a rhythm-and-blues band called The Shades, so named because its members were of various races, including Canadian Indian, black and Chong’s unique mix.
"That ruined my life forever," Chong says. "All I wanted to do was play music."
The band, known briefly as Four Colored Guys and a Chinese Lad, proved a popular draw for teen dances in Calgary.
"We got run out of town by the mayor of Calgary, Alberta," Chong recalls. "Our dances were getting so popular that kids … after the dance, they would go to some party and tear it apart. A lot of violence. The mayor called us into his office. I thought he was going to give us an award or something. … He asked us to leave town. … So we went to Vancouver and never came back."
"We went to Vancouver and played for a couple of months," Chong says. "We weren’t like a road music band. We were kind of a band that we’d find a gig and we’d play there until the place closed up, burned down or we got fired. We weren’t as musical as we were showmen."
The Shades lasted a few more months before disbanding, some members going on to form Chong’s next group, Little Daddy & the Bachelors, which enjoyed greater success. First-place showing at a teen fair won them the right to record a single: "Junior’s Jerk" and "Too Much Monkey Business."
"We were favorites in the town," says Floyd Sneed, drummer for Little Daddy and Chong’s former brother-in-law. He would go on to join Three Dog Night. "We had our following. It was a really good time."
Little Daddy & the Bachelors was comprised of four members of the Shades — Chong, Wes Henderson, Tommy Melton and Floyd Sneed — as well as Floyd’s brother, Bernie.
Chong’s family bought a night club, Elegant Parlour, in Vancouver and Little Daddy & the Bachelors became the house band. The band also ventured across the border into the United States.
"We would take the band down to the States and try to get a gig, just for adventure more than anything," Chong says. "We found Bobby Taylor in San Francisco. Then our drummer quit so we had to find a new drummer. We phoned Bobby to see if he could find a drummer for us and Bobby says, ‘Well, hell, I play the drums.’ So Bobby came up. He was a drummer for, like a minute. Then Tommy quit because Bobby was such a good singer that Tommy got sort of aced out of the group and Bobby took over as lead singer."
The band became Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, with Wes Henderson and Tommy Chong the only remaining members of The Shades still part of the group. During a performance at the Elegant Parlour, the band attracted the attention of Diana Ross. She told Berry Gordy of Motown fame, who flew up and signed the band to his Gordy label in 1967.
Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers recorded one album and released three singles in 1968. Chong wrote the first, "Does Your Momma Know About Me," a song about an interracial romance drawn from his own experience. Chong played guitar and sang background, but Taylor took the lead.
"I hated the song," Taylor said during an appearance on the cable television network E!, which ran a "True Hollywood Story" about Cheech & Chong. "I literally hated that song. And then — and this is why I have so much respect for Berry Gordy — when he heard it, he said, ‘That’s a smash. That’s a smash.’ I said yeah, sure. And it jumped on the charts before we knew it."
The song didn’t climb too high up the charts. "Does Your Momma Know About Me" made it to No. 44.
The band began to splinter when Bobby Taylor left after the first album to shepherd an act he’d brought to Motown’s attention – the Jackson 5.
"Michael and the boys opened for us in Chicago at the Regal Theater," Chong says. "We were second bill to Jerry Butler. The Jackson 5 was this little phenomenal group that was opening for all these people, like Gladys Knight and Jerry Butler. Bobby talked to them. He said you boys come on down to Detroit and we’ll get you signed up with Motown."
While Taylor went on to work with the Jacksons, Chong was fired from the band when he was forced to miss a gig to get his green card. He left for Los Angeles, intending to make his mark as a songwriter, but soon moved back to Canada. His greatest success as a songwriter would come through his partnership with Marin.
Marin, who dropped out of college a few credits shy of graduation, fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He worked as an apprentice potter and wrote music reviews for a rock magazine. A friend told him about Chong’s topless club and its improv troupe, so Marin made to his way to Vancouver.
The improv group eventually broke up, but Cheech & Chong remained together, drawn by their mutual interest in music.
"Cheech and I were musicians," Chong says. "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. … We went over so well I said, ‘OK, this is it.’ So we retired the band and we went on to fame and fortune."
Cheech & Chong left Canada for America.
"When the improv group broke up, Tommy and I stayed together," Marin says. "We kind of incorporated what we were doing with the group into two guys. We came down to L.A. and tried to make it and struggled around the city. We played all kind of gigs. Then we got discovered by Lou Adler, who had a record company at that time."
Adler, who discovered Jan and Dean, produced "California Dreamin’" for the Mammas the Papas and made the movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," took Cheech and Chong into the recording studio.
Their shared background in improvisational comedy would dictate how Cheech & Chong would work. The most famous bit from that first album, a quickie called "Dave," was improvised as Chong was inside the recording studio while Marin stood outside trying to get Chong to open the door.
"We had this style that comes out of improv," Marin says. "It’s like a musician. We always related to comedy as music. We understood it on that level because we were both musicians: all right, here’s the tune and here’s the key and here’s the tempo. Play it how you see it. Then we’d change it or change the tempo. But basically we’d come in with a basic tune or a basic theme. All of the albums were improv’d that way in the studio. It was fairly cheap for us to do that. It was just two guys and two microphones. We could afford to kind of experiment. We’d meet during the day and kind of write out some stuff and rehearse it a little bit. It wasn’t word for word. I know some groups, like maybe Firesign Theatre, would go in there with scripts and they would perform their script. We were never much like that. We were more jazz-oriented than that."
Cheech & Chong released nine albums, eight singles, and saw their best work compiled by Rhino in 2002 on the two-disc set "Where There’s Smoke There’s Cheech and Chong."
Separately, Marin released a single, "Born in East L.A.," a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the USA" — which would become a solo movie project — and an infectious collection of children’s music, "My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver."
Marin says Adler came to him with the idea of recording the CD of children’s music, which has songs in English and Spanish. Marin wrote all the songs. “I had more fun doing that, I think, than anything.”
Nailing down “Born in East L.A.” was more difficult. Marin says he pursued Springsteen for permission to use the tune. “I had written the song and recorded it already and I still hadn’t gotten permission for that. We were doing the video. I tracked him down through his manager, who was backstage in Dublin. I could hear them on stage playing ‘Born in the U.S.A.’”
Because of their language and subjects, Cheech & Chong weren’t the kind of act radio stations embraced. But Adler released singles on his Ode Records label that were safe for the radio, starting with the non-musical "Santa Claus and His Old Lady" in 1971, and that drew attention to the albums.
"He’s a marketing genius," says Chong. "That’s the way it is. You’ve got to hand it to him. He was and still is one of the top marketing geniuses in the business."
Although perhaps best known for drug humor, Cheech & Chong weren’t a one-joke act. Other topics included parodies of products – "Evelyn Woodhead Speed Reading Course" – and programs, such as "Unamerican Bandstand." But their second album, "Big Bambu," in 1972, cemented the link between Cheech and Chong and drugs. Much of the humor is derived from drug references. The album was even packaged with a giant rolling paper.
Even so, Marin says that “Something like seven percent of our material had to do with drugs.”
The 1973 album "Los Cochinos," their third, won a Grammy Award, and showed the range Cheech & Chong possessed in their ability to portray different characters. The album included the song "Basketball Jones," a soulful tune that was a parody of "Love Jones" by Brighter Side of Darkness. With Marin singing lead, "Basketball Jones" benefited from an all-star lineup of musicians and background singers, including George Harrison, Carole King, Billy Preston, Darlene Love and Michelle Phillips.
"Music was always a big component of what we did because we were musicians," Marin says. "We’d been musicians all our lives."
But the two came at music from different angles, according to Chong. "Cheech, he was like a folkie. He was one of those guys who would pick up a guitar and play little folk songs. He loved Johnny Mathis songs. I was in a black jazz band. But Cheech, he loved everything, all that schmaltzy stuff. Then he’d be hip and sing something like ‘Basketball Jones.’"
“A lot of people, when they grow up, they don’t like their parents’ music,” Marin says. “But I love my parents’ music. They came out of that Glenn Miller age. I listened to all their records. I had a real affinity for that.”
"Basketball Jones," the single of which peaked at No. 15, drew its inspiration from a harrowing ride with actor Jack Nicholson to a Lakers game, Chong says. "There was a big line of cars to get into the Forum. Jack, he’s impatient. He went down the wrong way for a good half a mile. Cheech was in the back seat. He was nervous and started singing, ‘Basketball jones. I’ve got a basketball jones.’ I remembered that so the next day we went into the studio and recorded it."
“I started doing this falsetto voice whenever Tommy and I were together,” Marin says, “and it cracked him up.”
In the era before music videos, Adler produced an animated version of "Basketball Jones," which ran about four minutes, and released it in a few theaters in late 1973 for Oscar consideration. The short was later included in the 1979 Peter Sellers movie "Being There." The song itself was featured in the 1996 Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny movie "Space Jam" and covered by Barry White and Chris Rock for the soundtrack.
The fourth Cheech & Chong recording, 1974’s "Wedding Album," scored the guys their most successful song, "Earache My Eye," an edgy anthem about the joy of being a rich rock star. The single climbed to No. 9. Marin sings "Earache My Eye" in the guise of Alice Bowie, shown in the movie "Up in Smoke" garbed in a pink tutu. The song has been covered by the Rollins Band, Soundgarden and Korn; Marin even sang on Korn’s version.
"Earache My Eye" owes its genesis to Gaye Delorme, a guitar player who was staying at Marin’s house when the idea for the song came to him.
"He came out one morning and he goes, ‘Momma talking to me dah dah dah dah dah dah dah,’" Chong recalls. "That’s all he had. … I wrote the lyrics and we recorded that."
Subsequent albums continued to play to Cheech & Chong’s talents as musicians. The soundtrack for "Up in Smoke" includes Chong singing the title song and Marin singing an old Ritchie Valens song, "Framed," which was on the earlier "Sleeping Beauty" album (1976).
"That was one of the first songs I learned when I was playing R&B," Chong says. "It always stuck with me."
The 1980 album "Let’s Make a New Dope Deal" included two songs: a punk version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," as rendered by Marin, and "Bloat On," which was released as a single.
"Float On," a love song by the Floaters, with lyrics such as "Aquarius, and my name is Ralph/Now I like a woman who loves her freedom" was twisted into "Bloat On" by the Bloaters (Cheech & Chong) as a tribute to food: "Hamburger, and my name is Big Boy/and I love a hamburger that’s nice and juicy."
"The group wasn’t too thrilled to have their song made fun of like that," Chong says.
Cheech & Chong included a few throwaway songs on their albums in their movies, material not long enough to be singles but served as a framework on which to hang comic bits.
"Wedding Album" included a track with Cheech singing "Black Lassie (A Great American Dog)" in a voice familiar to country fans. T "It was like ‘Shaft’ kind of music with Johnny Cash singing, Cheech imitating Johnny Cash singing a black song," says Chong, who sang the slow-tempo title song to their 1978 movie "Up in Smoke.”
Cheech & Chong lent their talent to other musicians as well. They show up on Joni Mitchell’s 1974 song "Twisted," with a speaking — not a singing — part.
“She called,” Marin says. “I was hanging out with Joni at the time. She was a good buddy. So she asked, want to come add some voices on there? It was cool. We did one for Hoyt Axton as well.”
Including music in their act opened doors for Cheech & Chong. "It put us into this sort of musical group category where they could book us into arenas," Chong says. "We’d come out and do some humor and then end with music. My years with Motown taught me, when we’d play a Motown gig it would be, like, three numbers and you’re off. You come out with your hit song, then a slow song and then your new song and that was it. Music wise for our act, it was the same thing. Cheech and I, if we just had one tune in the whole act, that’s all we needed."
Cheech & Chong split in 1986, though the reason given varies with who’s doing the telling.
Marin says the two separated because he had grown tired of the drug humor. "I felt we had kind of used that subject up, and it was time to move on to do other things. He was comfortable doing that and I was uncomfortable trying to do the same thing again and again and again."
Despite their chemistry, the two are very different men. Chong’s comedic influences include Lenny Bruce. Marin, the son of a Los Angeles police detective, grew up fascinated by Red Skelton and Danny Thomas.
But Chong points the blame on the very thing that once pulled them together – music, specifically Cheech’s solo project, "Born in East L.A.," which was done with the permission of the Boss.
"That was the song that broke us up," Chong says. "Everything I wrote, it was like Lennon-McCartney, like ‘Up in Smoke.’ I wrote everything in ‘Up in Smoke,’ the lyrics and the music, everything, but it was ‘Cheech and Chong.’ But when he did ‘Born in East L.A.,’ it was all Cheech. He never left any room for me."
In his defense, Marin says “That was a point where Tommy and I were breaking up and he didn’t want to participate. So I said, all right. I was at the studio and he didn’t show up, so I finished the song on my own. That was the last straw and we just went our separate ways then. I think it was a matter of we’d just been together so long and got tired of each other. You’ve got two real creative egos there that didn’t want to listen to anybody anymore.”
Even after the breakup, the two didn’t sever all ties. Chong showed up to guest star on an episode of the Don Johnson TV series "Nash Bridges," in which Cheech co-starred, and Cheech filmed a cameo for Chong’s solo movie "Far Out Man" in 1989. (That movie included Chong’s other musical partners as well: Floyd Sneed and Bobby Taylor had parts in it.)
Post-Cheech & Chong, Marin distinguished himself as an actor, including a stint co-starring in the Don Johnson TV series "Nash Bridges," in which he played a cop, and as a children’s entertainer. He sings on the soundtrack of the Disney hit "The Lion King," in which he played a hyena, and released a children’s CD, "My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver," which Adler produced as well. He’s recorded a second "School Bus Driver" CD, which is so far unreleased, and has proposed turning the Cheech & Chong story into a Broadway musical. Marin also distinguished himself with a nationwide tour of his impressive collection of Chicano art, which was exhibited in the Smithsonian.
On the Fox reality competition, “Celebrity Duets,” Marin proved himself a capable singer in performing with the likes of Randy Travis, Peter Frampton and Al Jarreau, but he was eliminated in the fourth round.
Chong’s solo career followed a track similar to his days as "Man." He portrayed a pothead on "That ’70s Show" and continued to tour as a standup comic, sometimes also playing lead guitar in Chong and the Family Stoned Band, with his sons on bass and drums. Plans are in the works for an album, including a new version of "Earache My Eye." He also wrote a memoir of his time in prison, called “I Chong” and starred in a documentary about his experiences behind bars. Chong was sentenced in 2003 to nine months in federal prison after pleading guilty to selling drug paraphernalia: his own line of bongs.
The two men have talked about a reunion movie, but those plans have so far failed to materialize. The possibility remains that the former partners will take the stage again, although this time around more as musicians than as comedians.
"Cheech actually told me he has no interest in touring or going live on stage," Chong says. "He would like to do music, and I would too. … I think there will be the odd concert where we’ll come and play the music, but as far as getting the stage act back together, I’ve gone too far in this direction, and he can’t get into the tutu anymore."
Monday, February 5, 2007
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.
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. Read more!
The evolution of Richard “Cheech” Marin continues. Already the path has taken him from counterculture comic to children’s entertainer. His latest incarnation is that of art collector.
Formerly half of the 1970s comic duo Cheech & Chong, Marin has distanced himself from his past. While his former partner Tommy Chong toured the standup circuit and portrayed an affable pothead on “That ’70s Show,” Marin played it straight. He’s gone the Disney route with a voice-over role in “The Lion King” issued a CD for children called “Cheech the School Bus Driver” and even played a San Francisco police inspector for five seasons on the CBS TV show “Nash Bridges.”
Marin has emerged as a leading collector of Chicano art. His collection is on loan for a five-year, 15-city tour and on display in his book, “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge." The second stop was in the Smithsonian Institute, lending the previously ignored style of art greater weight.
The Chicano art movement dawned as Mexican-Americans picked up brushes and began to paint, at first, murals on the walls of Los Angeles buildings.
Marin, a third-generation American and father of three, has long mined his Chicano roots for his comedy, from playing the stoned Pedro during his Cheech & Chong days to his post-Chong role in “Born in East L.A.,” a movie about a Mexican-American being accidentally deported, which Marin wrote and directed. The success of Cheech & Chong enabled Marin to begin collecting the art he saw around him in Los Angeles.
Marin takes his roots seriously these days. And anyone used to hearing the famous routines of Cheech & Chong will be surprised at how articulately Marin speaks, without a trace of “dude” or “hey, man.” Speaking on the phone from California, Marin sounds thoughtful and passionate about the Chicano art movement.
How did you get interested in art?
From a very early age, I educated myself in art because I couldn’t do it. I started learning about it. Like in about fifth grade, sixth grade, I started going to the library, checking out all the art books and familiarizing myself with all the world’s painters. By the time I hit eighth grade, I was really knowledgeable and I could tell a Renoir from a Rembrandt, a Monet from a Manet. I just always loved art. And I liked learning about it.
What about art appeals to you?
Just the way, the expression of the different artists, how they did it and the techniques and what it represented for their age.
You said you couldn’t do it.
No. I was terrible. I couldn’t make a stick guy. All my stick men looked like they had encephalitis or something.
When did you start collecting?
I’d always been a collector of something. When I was a kid, it was baseball cards or marbles or matchbook covers. I remember early in the Cheech & Chong days I started collecting art nouveau and art deco when I had some money. So then when I got married to my wife, I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art. She was a painter. She started taking me around to all these galleries and that’s when I discovered some Chicano painters. Their imagery struck me immediately. I mean, I was just drawn to it. And also what I recognized was their level of painting because I’d been educated in recognizing great paintings, and this definitely was great painting.
So you decided to devote your attention to Chicano art?
Yeah. I started buying it and the more I saw it, the more I became enraptured by it and there were so many artists. I didn’t want to do anything else. Very early I saw a bigger picture forming here. It represented a school. It was about something. All these artists were saying something about a specific experience. That’s what made it a school. It’s not necessarily a strict stylistic concern the way they put paint on canvas, but what they were chronicling was the Chicano experience, a multitude of venues, either historical or philosophical or religious or emotional or abstract even.
Can you say a person is a Chicano artist because of what they paint, or is it the fact that they have a Chicano surname?
I think it’s mostly at this point because they have a Chicano surname and they are painting about the Chicano experience. All these paintings in the show have to do with the Chicano experience in one way or another. When you look at the world through Chicano eyes, that’s what these artists see, and that’s what they put on canvas.
Do you think having this exhibit and being in the Smithsonian is going to elevate the attention paid to Chicano artists?
Oh, absolutely. It can’t do anything else but. They’ve been known regionally for a long time, but what I wanted to do is use this tour to bust them out of regionalism into the national and international scene. The thing is that most people don’t know what a Chicano is, much less what their art looks like. So this is an education for everyone. I always say that you can’t love or hate Chicano art unless you see it. And this is an opportunity to be seen in mainstream museums that everybody can go to. This legitimizes that whole school of painting that they’ve been doing for 30 years.
How large is your collection now?
It’s large. Maybe about 170, 180 paintings.
Do you have room to display all of them?
No. I have a lot of it in my house, but at some point I realized that I was going to put on a show so I started buying big art and that went straight to storage. I was just waiting for the day that I could come and put it all up. In a couple of instances, I’d never seen the paintings actually in the flesh until they were put up on the walls of the San Antonio museum.
That was the first stop on the tour?
Yeah. Opened up in San Antonio. From there it went to the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian, that’s the place for art.
Yeah. It’s real prestigious to play there. We were a huge, huge success there while we were there.
Was the Smithsonian exhibit hard to put together?
The whole tour was hard to put together because in the days of dwindling support for the arts, to put on a show you really have to have it sponsored. It took a lot of years to finally get the sponsorship. Through the good graces and support of the Target Stores and Hewlett-Packard, we have been able to put on a five-year, 15-city tour, which is really unprecedented. I’m thrilled. Every opening we have is just like Christmas all over again.
You said that some of the paintings you didn’t see until they were on display in San Antonio. How did that work — that you didn’t see them until they were on display?
Well, some of the artists that I had bought without seeing the actual artwork, I had some of them on slides and I knew their work intimately, so I knew how the painting would look, I knew the dimensions. So I had faith that what I saw on the slide was going to be faithfully represented on canvas. I just would buy it and have it safely sent away.
Are Chicano artists seeking you out?
Oh, yeah. All the time. And that’s good because the school is ever-evolving, each new generation — now we’re into our fourth generation of artists — adds another twist and another level of interpretation to it. It’s a constantly evolving story because the experience is ever-evolving.
Were people who were painting a couple of generations ago painting different subjects?
Yeah. Different artists evolve differently. At the beginning of Chicano art, it was primarily political and/or folkish kind of art. That’s really what kept it out of mainstream museums because it was viewed as agitprop and/or folk art, and it wasn’t considered true fine art. In the interim, the artists, the individual artists had developed their own individual concerns and there hadn’t been really any show that did them justice strictly as painters. That’s why I wanted to have this show be only painters.
Do you miss these works when they’re traveling around the country? You’re going to be without them for a long time.
Well, yeah, sometimes I do. But it’s like sending your kids off to college. You’re glad that they’re out of the house and you see them every once in a while when they come home or I go out to see them, and that’s fine. But the work that they’re doing, the missionary work basically that they’re doing, is much more important than having them hang on my walls in my house, I think.
That’s a good way to put it. Are there other people collecting Chicano art now?
Yes. That’s starting to be a big groundswell now. Not only with the advent of the show, but now we have a book out there that’s really the most important aspect, after the show. It’s called “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge.” It’s now in all book stores, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon.com. It’s doing very, very well. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.
Did that take you a long time to put together?
Yep. You know, nothing is easy out there in the commercial world. I wanted this to be the definitive Chicano painting show and to go only in the biggest museums because I wanted to establish Chicano art in the mainstream. This is the big banners-waving-trumpets-blaring show that establishes it as an American school, probably the first recognized school of painting in 50 years.
Does your name open doors to these museums or is it the quality of the art?
Well, both. It’s funny. The guy who was helping me curate this, Rene Yanez, he’s been on the Chicano scene forever. He said, “You know, we do a show and maybe one reporter shows up, but when your name is attached to it, 100 show up.” So they do recognize the celebrity aspect. I use that in order to popularize this art because I think it’s worthy.
How many years did it take to put this together, to get enough where you said you had enough for an exhibit?
Almost 20. It’s almost 20 years. I got into it very early. It was a fortunate confluence of events in that I was early on the scene, I recognized what it was and I had the money to buy it, and support a lot of these artists.
Why is it important that this art be preserved and collected?
Well, first of all because it’s really good. These paintings are really, really good. And they represent a time and place in history — kind of almost like Cheech & Chong. They represent a movement that evolved into a statement of a cultural experience and as such is almost the quintessential immigrant experience. There hasn’t been another school of art or a group that has done that in quite a long time, maybe even if ever. It’s great that these painters should be rewarded for continuing to work in the trenches even though they weren’t recognized for a very long time.
Do you have to explain to some people what Chicano is all about, what that word means?
Sure. Absolutely. I mean, 90 percent of the country doesn’t know what Chicano is, much less what their art looks like. So it’s an educational process as well.
What defines Chicano?
Chicano is a Mexican-American. Chicano was originally a derisive term by Mexicans to other Mexicans living in this country. The supposition is that they were no longer Mexicanos, they were Chicanos, they were like Kmart Mexicans, some cheaper version because they had sold out their country and left it. But to the American populace, we were still Mexicans. We were this group of people caught in between. Are we Mexican or are we American? Are your influences one or the other? That’s what a Chicano is. He’s caught in between his Mexican past and his American future. Where those two worlds collide and influence each other is where the Chicano art springs up. Then, depending on where you came from, Chicano was either just a term or it was loaded with a lot of political significance, especially like in Texas or San Antonio. The Chicanos of the late ’60s took that up, they were the radical Chicanos who demanded the rights to education and job opportunities. The whole process of this show is reclaiming and redefining that word as a term of cultural pride and identity.
It means a lot more than Hispanic or Latino.
Yeah. Chicano is specifically Mexican-American. Hispanic was a census term. Latino refers to all countries of the new world. Latinos have pride in the new world and the roots that gave them their art and their culture and their heritage and their philosophies. Of the Latino pie in the United States, fully two-thirds to three-quarters of that is Mexican. If you’re in this country and you’re Mexican, the minute you step into this country, you’re on your way to becoming a Chicano.
It seems as though you and Chong couldn’t have followed a more diverse path. Chong is still doing a lot of the drug humor and you’ve done a broader range of things.
Yeah. Kind of the basis for the split-up was Tommy wanted to keep doing that. I felt we had kind of used that subject up and it was time to move on to do other things. He was comfortable doing that, and I was uncomfortable trying to do the same thing again and again and again. Read more!
Maybe it was his parentage — his father was a priest and his mother was a nun — but something twisted Stephen Lynch enough to come up with an oh-so-wrong (but funny) song called “Kill a Kitten.” The song drew protests from animal lovers outraged at the lyrics. Here’s the opening line: “When the game of life makes you feel like quitting/it helps a lot if you kill a kitten.”
No matter how many protests that song draws, there are more than enough people who like Lynch’s sense of humor and comedic songs to keep him on the road. That’s where he is now, after spending most of last year on Broadway in the lead role of “The Wedding Singer,” the musical based on the 1998 Adam Sandler movie. Lynch earned a Tony Award nomination for the role.
Since the release of his first CD, “A Little Bit Special,” in 2001, Lynch has followed that up with three more and a concert DVD, “Live at the El Rey.” His latest release is “Cleanest Hits,” a sanitized version of songs from his first three CDs and clean enough to be sold at Wal-Mart.
How would you rate yourself as a singer-songwriter? How’s the singing and how’s the guitar playing?
I think I’m an average guitar player. I have not improved in the 10 years that I’ve been playing because the focus is not on the guitar playing. I only picked it up so that I could accompany myself. The songs are, to me, what’s important. And I think I’m a decent songwriter and a good singer. I’m not a great guitar player. I know that much, though.
Any desire to get better?
Yeah, I would love to if I had the time, to take some lessons and improve a little bit. I’m sure some day I will. I think I can still make each song interesting and different from the others. I have that ability. It’s just I’m not going to bust out into a speed metal guitar solo any time soon.
You weren’t one of those people who grew up playing guitar?
No. I just picked it up in college and thought it was fun. I learned all the basic chord structures. And that’s about it. That’s all I can do.
Where did you go to college?
Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
What did you study in college?
Acting. I studied acting in college. That’s what I was going to do. I used to do a lot of summer stock theater back in Michigan and I go there every once in a while in the summer just to do a couple of shows and have a little vacation. I did “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I was Jesus.
What drew you to acting originally?
I don’t know. My dad did it, locally, when I was little kid and I saw him up on stage. It looked like something fun to do and I gave it a shot. Probably like anybody else who does it professionally or wants to do it professionally, I found out that I was pretty good at it and it was a lot of fun to do, so why not?
What was it that made you start playing guitar?
All the people I lived with in college. We all lived in one of those big old houses in Kalamazoo with seven bedrooms or something, there was constantly people moving in and out, and there was a good music scene in Kalamazoo. A lot of the guys that I lived with were in bands so they all had guitars or they played drums or they wrote songs. There were always guitars lying around and it looked like fun to me. So I had them teach me a couple of chords and figured out the rest from there.
Did you want to do humorous stuff from the beginning?
Pretty much right from the beginning, it was just a matter of trying to make all my friends laugh and then trying to make people who weren’t my friends laugh. When I started writing songs, it was purely for my own amusement and the amusement of my friends. And really that’s all it was. When I went to a party or something or went over to somebody’s house and they had a guitar, I could pick it up and make people laugh.
Who’s easier to make laugh? Your friends or people you don’t know?
Oh, people I don’t know, definitely. It’s way harder to make your friends laugh, I mean, when you’re trying to. If I were to sit down with a guitar in front of a friend of mine and try to make him laugh, that would be way more difficult than being funny in casual conversation.
What about straight music? Have you ever thought about trying to record the next big pop song?
I’ve thought about it. But I’m such an infrequent writer and I’m so non-prolific that when I actually get a song idea I’d rather use it for what I’m doing right now than start some new singer-songwriter endeavor. Maybe someday down the line I’ll get tired of writing funny songs and write something that’s not funny, but for the time being any idea that I get I kind of cherish it and try to use it, if I can. I’ve tried to write more straightforward, non-humorous songs but I don’t know. I can never get past a certain point. It always takes a turn in that direction.
How did you make the leap from entertaining friends at college to getting outside attention?
I moved to New York, first of all. I still had no intention of singing funny songs for a living. I just wanted to perform. In what capacity, I didn’t know.
What was your big break?
I ended up playing at a little club in Manhattan called the West Bank Café, downstairs. A buddy was running a show down there, kind of a variety show — comedy-based but standups, sketches, scenes, improv — and he remembered that I used to do this sort of thing back when he knew me in Michigan. He asked me to come audition and do a couple of songs. I remember it was raining and I had a nylon string classical guitar with no case so I had plastic grocery bags rubber banded around it to keep it dry. I couldn’t afford to buy a case. I went down there and completely screwed up my audition because I was so nervous, but the guy let me go up anyway. So Friday night I sang these songs that I’d been playing in college just for my friends. I played them for an actual paying audience for the first time and they went over really well so I kept going back and I kept going back and I became part of this music comedy show at Catch a Rising Star at Chelsea, when that existed. That’s where I cut my teeth, as they say. I learned how to put the songs together and talk between the songs and stuff that I had previously never done before. And then I started doing radio in New York and that was a huge break for me because it allowed me to reach a lot of people that I wasn’t reaching in those little clubs. That led to meeting my manager. It led to me meeting people from Comedy Central. It led to me forming relationships with the comedy club owners and before you knew it, I’d quit my job and this was my career now.
What job did you have?
I had several. I think at the time I was just doing temp work, actually. I went through a bunch of jobs but finally I gave into the world of the temp because it was a little more relaxed. I could work when I needed to and not work when I had to do something else.
What went wrong with the audition?
I think I just forgot some lyrics, which I still do to this day.
Do you remember what you sang at your audition?
Yeah. “Half a Man.” “A Month Dead.” These are all songs that are on the first record. Probably “Kill a Kitten.” And that’s all I remember.
How long did it take you to get comfortable on stage?
Well, I was always pretty relaxed on stage, only because I had done so much acting as a kid and in college I was used to being in front of an audience. Which is not to say I wasn’t nervous before the show. Still, before every show I’m pacing around and biting my nails. But once I got up on the stage I got comfortable and I could relax and play. It was just a matter of doing it a lot. I think my first college tour where I really learned how to make it a show and not just a series of songs. So it took a few years to actually get it to the point where it was a show.
You still get nervous?
Oh, yeah. Every show.
Why is that?
I don’t know. You never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know. There’s a part of me that’s confident enough to know that these people are buying tickets to see me. They must on some level enjoy me already. But then again, you never know what’s going to happen out in the audience. It might be a particularly quiet crowd or I might just be off that night. I don’t now. I think nerves are healthy as a performer anyway because it keeps you on your toes. It gives you energy. It keeps you alert. If you get too blasé about it, that’s when your show suffers, I think. I kind of wish I didn’t get nervous because I can’t eat before shows. I don’t want to socialize with people. I just want to get out there and do it. I wish I didn’t have that, but I do, and I’m stuck with it.
At a certain point do the nerves go away?
I would say after the first couple of laughs. When I know that things are going to be OK. That’s when I cease to be nervous. It doesn’t take long. Then I just have fun.
Do most shows go pretty well?
Yeah. They do now. I think it’s a solid show. I’ve done it enough times to know what works and what doesn’t work. Usually. There are always exceptions, but usually. And like I said, most of the people I’m playing for now I don’t’ have to win over. They already know who I am. They already like the songs. I know that. It’s not like the old days when it was a group of people who didn’t know who I was and I had to win them over. That was a lot harder. Maybe that’s why I still get nervous because I remember those days.
How does performing in front of an audience change your songs or your style?
My songs tend to evolve over the course of touring. I’ll write a song in my living room and then I’ll test it out in front of an audience and if I like it and they seem to like it, when I tour I’ll put it in the set. Usually by the end of the tour, I wouldn’t say it’s a whole different song, but a lot of things have changed. The tempo maybe has changed. I may have changed a line or two. They improve, I think. Obviously, I try to make them funny as possible and keep them as fresh as possible. That’s the only difference I would say, though.
If someone has heard your CDs and memorized them, they can still come and be surprised?
Yeah. I always try to throw some new stuff too into the shows. It’s strange when you do a combination of music and comedy because since it’s music a lot of times people want to come and sing along to their favorite songs. At the same time, you want a big laugh so you want to be able to surprise some people so you change some things around and you throw in some new stuff so that the people who want to sing along are happy and those people who just want to hear new things s are happy as well.
Could anyone sing and perform, let’s say “Special Ed,” and get a laugh, or does it have to be you doing it?
You know what? I have no idea. I’ve never heard anybody else try to do any of my songs. I get feedback from people at shows. A kid’ll come up and tell me he did one of my songs at an open mic night and that people liked it, so I assume anybody could do it. On the one hand, that’s bad for me. It doesn’t say much for me. But on the other hand, it says that the song is at least good enough that other people can do it and if they pull it off then people will enjoy it.
Did this kid give you credit?
So he says. Who knows? He may have claimed it as his own.
What are your writing habits like?
I usually kind of sit around all day with a guitar and putz around on it until I come up with music that I like and then I store that in my memory for future use. When it’s actually time to get serious, I’ll just lock myself in my bedroom and say all right, I’m not coming out until I’ve at least written something. Whether or not whatever I write turns into a song that I end up performing, who knows? But at least I try to force myself to do a little bit of brainstorming. When I come up with an idea, I pull from the memory banks some of that old music I came up with and if none of that seems to fit I’ll try to write something more appropriate for it. Once I get an idea, it takes me probably a few days to write the entire song to the point where I like it or think it can be tested out for an audience. But it’s coming up with the idea that takes me so long.
What’s your favorite song that you’ve done so far?
I like the song about Jesus’ brother, Craig. It’s still fresh. I like some of my older songs, too, but I’ve done them so many times they lose a little something in the translation.
Take me through the process. How did you get to the point where you had this song?
I know I was brainstorming and jotting down a string of consciousness ideas. Then I was looking through that list of things that I had and I saw Jesus’ brother and it just kind of clicked. I thought if he had a really funny non-biblical name it could be a good song. So I picked Craig and I shouted it out to my wife. I said, “Hey, how about a song about Jesus’ brother Craig?” and she started laughing so I knew I hit upon something. Then you go through the process of how do you shape a song? Are you singing it from his perspective or someone else’s perspective? What is his relationship with his brother like or does that even come into play? Is he just like him? Is he a loser? You go through all these things and you keep trying things out until the song takes form. Once it does that, you can fill in the blanks and put some jokes here and there. Get out your rhyming dictionary and come up with some hopefully clever lines.
Do you ever censor yourself? Or worry that you can’t sing something because some people are going to be mad?
I don’t really worry about what people are going to be mad at. What I think about is whether or not it’s funny to me, and if it’s funny to me then I have no problem writing about it. If it’s not funny to me then for whatever reason then I won’t cross that line.
Have you gone over the line?
I don’t know. I try not to. I usually try to point the comedy finger at myself and write songs from the perspective of my own failings and shortcomings. I’m sure there’s a line somewhere that I tiptoe around but I won’t cross. It’s a personal thing. You know it when you come to it and there’s things that I just don’t think are funny. I couldn’t’ define it or give you a list of things. It’s just you feel that it’s funny and something you can write about, or not. I don’t want to be the offensive comic. I just want to be a funny comic. If some people happen to get offended by a song about Jesus’ brother, I really couldn’t care less about that. But my intention is not to offend people with a song about Jesus’ brother. It’s just to make people laugh.
Obviously, a song with a title like “Kill a Kitten” is going to set off alarms with some people.
Yeah. Many more than I figured. I wrote that song long ago. You know obviously as a joke as usual. The song used to be a little different, it was a little slower and more melodic and prettier. It’s kind of lullabyish. I figured with that kind of music, obviously the joke would be I would sing about the most horrific thing I could think of. I happened to be talking to a friend of mine on the phone. She was talking about her little kittens running around. I said, “Perfect. That’s it.” People hear it or more accurately read the lyrics on the Internet and think that it’s some sort of call to arms to main small animals. I guess they don’t really get the full picture. They don’t get the joke without having gone to a show or heard the song in a proper context. I kind of brush it off now. I’m tired of that controversy. If people want to protest me, that’s fine. Do whatever they want. I know the song’s a joke. The people who hear it and have a sense of humor realize what the intent of song is.
What are your musical influences and inspirations?
Well, I don’t know what my inspirations are. I know what I like to listen to and I know that the songs that work out the best for me are songs that have that kind of singer-songwriter feel to them because it’s a great way to tell a story and you don’t want to get bogged down by drum solos. The stuff that I like in rock and roll sometimes doesn’t fit into these songs. I try to go with a real simple pattern of guitar or piano and a vocal melody. But I also have a buddy who sings with me and my brother sings with me sometimes so we can do a little more intricate stuff. I would say singer-songwriter storytellers like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. Anybody with a guitar and a voice, essentially.
Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell? What did you pick up from listening to their songs that you use in your own music?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing but maybe a sense of melody, maybe a certain finger picking style. I’m not sure. I couldn’t say exactly. I just know that I listened to a lot of that growing up so it has to come out somewhere in my playing or my songwriting.
Do you emulate other comic singes who have come before you?
Not really. Except maybe Spinal Tap. I say Spinal Tap because they were the first musical group who did funny songs who in my eyes write songs that I would enjoy playing. Aside from the fact that I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever made, the thing that really struck me about it was these guys were doing funny songs but they weren’t knockoff novelty songs and they weren’t parody songs. They were real songs, songs that if you put different lyrics in, you could hear some ’80s metal band doing them. I thought that was great. When I started to do this sort of thing myself, I really concentrated on writing actual songs, not just taking a hit off the radio and putting different lyrics to it, which is a whole other ball of wax. I wanted to make the songs interesting and catchy and fun to listen to. I like to think on some of these songs if you replace the funny lyrics with non-funny lyrics, you’d still have a decent song. That’s how Spinal Tap made me realize comedy and actual songwriting can work together.
How often do you sit down and watch that movie?
The funny thing is of course I own it on video and DVD and laser disc and whenever some new version comes out I’ll be the first one to buy it. I never pop it in to watch it, though. I always seem to just catch it on TV and I can’t turn it off. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. About a million, probably.
How do you keep it interesting to you? How can you make it so it’s entertaining to you and the audience?
Well, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just have to do what you are there to do, which is sing a song that you’ve 5,000 times before, because there are 500 people in the audience who’ve never seen you sing that song before, but for them it’s brand new. I won’t lie. It does get a little monotonous sometimes, which is why I try to change the set list every once in a while. I try to switch songs here and there and why I really try to play as much new stuff as I can because that’s the stuff that’s still completely interesting and fun for me to play.
You joke in the opening of the DVD “Live at the El Ray” about what you have in your dressing room [a huge pile of cocaine]. What do you really have backstage?
I don’t have anything except beer and water. Miller High Life and bottled water, that’s all I ask for. I figure the less I have the harder it will be for people to get it wrong. And that’s all I really need before a show anyway is to have a couple of beers and wet my throat with some water and I’m ready to go. If you bring me a big elaborate meat and cheese platter, I can guarantee you it’s just going to waste, so what’s the point?
How do you entertain yourself on the road?
A lot of time I travel with somebody. Sometimes my wife comes along on tour if she has friends in the city if she has friends in the cities that I’m going to or if she just wants to hang out. If there’s someplace she’s never gone before that she wants to go. And plus it’s kind of a grind but these shows are usually just on the weekends so I spend most of my time at home.
What do you when it is just you?
I usually fly into a city the night before a show and I’ll just hang out in my hotel room. I’ll get up really early in the morning and go do morning radio. I’ll get back and sleep for the better part of the day. I’ll get up, change my strings, practice a little bit, maybe go out and walk around wherever I am and check out the sights for a couple of hours in the afternoon, get something to eat. I always have to go in early to do a sound check before doors open. Then I do the show and afterwards I might have friends in the audience and we go out of if I’m traveling with somebody we might go hang out somewhere. Back in my younger days, when I was doing the college shows, I used to always go party with the kids after the show. And that was a lot of fun but I don’t really do that anymore.
Is your family musical?
Yeah, my dad’s a singer. That’s where I got it from.
What does he sing?
He sings old standards. Irish lullabies. Things like that.
Does he sing professionally?
Yeah, he does it professionally, just as kind of a hobby. He does it at weddings.
What does he think about your career?
He gets a kick out of it. I know he’s proud of the fact that I succeeded in what I set out to do. I don’t know that he likes all of the songs, but he’s been to a few shows and he always seems to enjoy them, he and my mom. Yeah, they’re proud of me, and very supportive of me.
How did having a former priest and a former nun for parents mess up your childhood?
Why do you think my childhood was messed up?
I’ve heard your songs.
It didn’t. It’s my adulthood that’s messed up. Read more!