Where There’s Smoke There’s . . .
By David Silva
heech and Chong are on the road again, pissing off the straights while turning on everybody else with their marijuana-infused brand of subversive sketch comedy.
When they arrive in the IE for a one-night show March 15 at San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highland, the duo will have more than 40 years of experience working together. That is, of course, if you don’t count the 20 or so years they spent in separate corners following one of those “I’ll see you in hell” breakups for which the entertainment world is famous.
So it tends to surprise Tommy Chong—the taller, more politically active half of the pair—when younger fans ask why he and partner Richard “Cheech” Marin chose to leave film and television to start a stage act.
“The younger guys will come up to me after a show and say, ‘I didn’t know you guys did live performances, too,’” Chong says in a phone interview. “They honestly don’t know that we started off in stage comedy.”
For the record, kids, asking Cheech and Chong why they traded the screen for the stage is a lot like asking whether Michael Jackson had any siblings in the music business. Before they broke box-office records with the classic Up in Smoke and before the two launched successful television careers and certainly before Chong became America’s coolest federal inmate, they enjoyed an enormous cult following with their live sketch comedy.
A lot has changed since the days when Cheech and Chong were cutting their comedic teeth on Canada’s underground club scene. For starters, when they take the stage Thursday at San Manuel, the pair can be reasonably assured the sound equipment will work. Or that they’ll have sound equipment.
“In the early days, club managers would come up to us and say, ‘Will you guys be needing microphones?’” recalls Marin in a separate phone interview. “And we’d say, ‘Well, yeah, there are 5,000 people here. We’ll probably need microphones.’ Now, there are facilities that are used to having large shows and the productions have gotten much more sophisticated. The biggest change, as far as we’re concerned, has been the arrival of the casinos. That’s saved the touring industry.”
Chong acknowledges something else that’s changed, both with himself and in his act. The Cheech and Chong of the ’70s and ’80s were known for their incredibly physical performances—one celebrated sketch had them wildly crawling around on their hands and knees impersonating dogs. While remarkably fit for 73 (Chong is known for being a fitness buff), he admits to being far less inclined to risk injury for the sake of the craft.
“Years ago, we were so active—we were wrestling onstage, crawling around,” he says. “That’s slowed down a bit, but we get more into the head now, into the thinking process. We’re more cerebral now. It evens out. What you lose in energy, you gain in timing.”
Marin, eight years younger than Chong, sees things a bit differently.
“Well, the act is a combination of both—there’s a lot of physicality,” he says. “And there’s a lot more music in it this time—we’re doing a couple more catalogues that we weren’t doing before. There’s also a section in front where we come out into the audience and answer questions. It’s an introduction to the audience that works out very well.”
Despite their public identity as a unit, a kind of yin and yang of the stoner persona, Marin and Chong have always been very different people with very different ideas about where to focus their considerable energies. It was these differences that forced their breakup in the mid-’80s, and ultimately took them on highly divergent career paths.
Chong chose to maintain his pot-smoking hippy image by starring in stoner classics like Half Baked before taking on the recurring role of Leo in television’s That ’70s Show. He also remained an outspoken critic of American drug policy, a stance that earned him both great respect in pot-legalization circles but also the fierce enmity of the federal government. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of selling pot paraphernalia across state lines and spent nine months in a federal prison.
“It was like I spent nine months in a spiritual retreat, much like what monks do in Tibet,” Chong says. “It was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me, to tell you the honest truth.”
Marin took a different route, distancing himself from the pot scene through film roles like Disney’s The Lion King and Tin Cup and serious TV roles on shows like Nash Bridges. While a supporter of marijuana legalization, Marin was never an active advocate for it.
“That’s something that’s Tommy’s image, and that’s fine,” Marin says. “I’m all for legalization, but it’s [quasi-]legal already. I’ve shifted my focus—I’m going to focus on getting medical beer.
Along with the medicinal use of Budweiser, Marin also channels his energies toward other endeavors, including assembling one of the largest collections of Chicano art in the country. He’s currently working on a book of essays on the Chicano experience titled “We Come in Peace, and We Have You Surrounded.”
Cheech and Chong at San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, 777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, (800) 359-2464; www.sanmanuel.com. Thu, March 15, 7:30pm. Tickets $25, $35, $45.