Cheech & Chong Light(en) Up America
Cheech & Chong are more than 70s counterculture icons. There’s even more to the comic duo than drug references. Richard “Cheech” Marin, college dropout with a few credits shy of graduation and Vietnam War draft dodger, to Vancouver, headed north to British Columbia, Canada where he met Tommy Chong who had started a comedy troupe at his brother’s strip club. The two hit it off immediately and eventually traveled south to Los Angeles, where they were discovered performing at the Troubadour.
Between 1972 to 1985, they released nine comedy albums, wrote, directed and starred in a half dozen films and had small roles in two others. Their 1978 screen debut in Up in Smoke pulled in more than $100 million.
Despite the success, the tension surrounding the pair caused them to split up. Marin made a conscious choice to pursue acting jobs that were far removed from his stoner past, appearing in films Tin Cup, From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado, and television Nash Bridges, Judging Amy and The Golden Palace. Currently, he can be seen in episodes of Lost and Return to Witch Mountain.
Chong took on a few recurring roles on television including That 70s Show, Dharma & Greg and The George Lopez Show, but he mainly relied on his stand-up roots and his affiliation with the drug culture. In 2003 that association caught up with him when his online drug paraphernalia business was busted, and he served eight months in prison. He wrote about that experience in I Chong: Meditations from the Joint. Last year, he authored another book, Cheech and Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography.
More than two decades passed before they reunited for the “Cheech & Chong: Light Up America” tour. Started last fall, its popularity has led to shows in Canada as well as Australia with dates running through August 2009. Besides the infamous drug references, the concert features their broadly drawn characters — inept radio deejays, a couple of rambunctious dogs named Ralph and Herbie, substitute teacher Sister Mary Elephant plus musical numbers such as “Earache My Eye,” “Framed” and “Basketball Jones” with Chong adding stand up bits. Like their classic re-telling of the Santa Claus story that has become an FM radio tradition for decades, the material still holds up today.
JPG: While getting ready for this, I listened to the compilation Where There’s Smoke, There’s Cheech & Chong. So first off, who grew up Catholic and went to Catholic School…?
Cheech: Me, Cheech.
JPG: ...because “Sister Mary Elephant” sounds all too familiar… [a chaotic Catholic school class finds a substitute teacher who can switch from docile to psychotic in a heartbeat.]
Cheech: (brightens up) Uh-huh. Anybody who’s gone to Catholic School gets that one.
JPG: ...having a psychotic nun who was after them. Did they beat you too or did they just scream a lot?
Cheech: Yeah. They were ruler people. The priests used to beat us. Hit you with a ruler.
JPG: I got rulers, pointers, yardsticks, the whole deal. So you’re promoting the tour, obviously. Are you surprised at how well it’s doing?
Cheech: Yeah, a little bit. I knew it would do good, but I was surprised at the amount of good it's doing that we're doing two, three, four shows in some cities. That's amazing!
Chong: I'm surprised that we're out at two weeks at a time. That's what I'm surprised at.
JPG: How is that schedule working for you guys, touring so much? It’s tiring for anybody.
Cheech: We haven't died.
Chong: It makes you appreciate the down time.
Cheech: Yeah, that six hours we get on Monday is just…
JPG: As far as the shows, are they set up like a theatrical production where it goes from A to Z each night in a particular way?
Cheech: Pretty much.
Chong: Pretty much, yeah.
Cheech: A lot of zigzagging in there, but pretty much A to Z.
Chong: But a lot of laughs. Lot of like really hard laughs. The show's over before you know it. And, so we get standing ovations for that.
JPG: I wondered if after doing it for a sometime, whether things change or if you improvise little things here and there or even put in new things.
Cheech: Every night it changes a little bit. Different rhythms.
Chong: It's like a dance, and the audience is our partner. If they can keep up with us, then fine. As long as they can keep up with us. We can definitely keep up with them.
JPG: Now, what you perform each night, it’s all the older material from the older albums and films…
Cheech: Some from the very end of our career. A lot of musical stuff that we've never done on stage before.
Chong: I do bits and pieces of stand up in there that we never did before. And my wife opens the show. She does her 20-25 minutes. So, there's a nice well-rounded show. There's something for everybody, and that's the comments we've been getting from people.
JPG: As a comedy team, a duo of longstanding, what would you say are the disadvantages of performing a team? What do you like about it?
Cheech: The advantage of it is you have somebody out there with you so it doesn't get so lonely. And also, it increases your energy by 100%. You've got somebody to bounce it off. Create some more energy.
Chong: Two guys, we can gang up on people. That's why comedy teams work so well. But, they have to be legitimate. Like teams, you can't manufacture it. When you do stand up alone, the hardest thing in the world to do is to share a mic with somebody. But the fact that Cheech and I started as partners, it was so easy for me to go right back into that. It was the most natural thing in the world, but it's something that… the reason it's so rare is because you have to put the miles in as a team.
JPG: You mentioned about starting, I noticed while listening to your CD that while you both play many different characters, the main stoner character is Tommy. I just wondered when you were first started, did at one point, Cheech played that bit it didn’t work as well as when Tommy did it and made the character much broader. How did you choose who did what?
Cheech: No. We just did those characters from the beginning. The Chicano character didn't really kick into our act until we hit L.A., came down from Vancouver. And then, oh, we discovered it one night and that was it for the rest of the thing. Tommy always played that [Stoner] Guy, but he evolved into that Guy. And then he evolved out of that Guy, into a different version of that Guy. (laughs)
JPG: Even when you look at the films, the characters changed a little bit from film to film as well.
Cheech: Yeah, exactly. In fact, we just change enough because we just keep doing something new every day. Okay, let's go there.’ And then all of a sudden, a month later, the guys who have seen us a month earlier said, 'Wow! You changed a lot of the show.' Oh really?’ We're not even aware of it cause it changes so gradually.
Chong: Again, it's like a dance. We're dance partners. When you get a team, there's this unwritten communication that nobody can detect that happens between us. Like our names Cheech and Chong. One time we were playing, I think it was UCLA, and this language professor, linguist, came up and she said, 'Your names are Cheech and Chong. That's most interesting. It's so perfect. It's a last name and it's a first name.’ Da, da, da and all this stuff, and it was so perfect. What it is ying and yang.’
JPG: And it works. Rolls off the tongue.
Chong: Fast and slow. There's opposites there, you know. That's what made us such a great team. The sum parts were stronger together.
JPG: Both of you have been straightforward that there’s been conflict during your time together. Looking back on it, when you stopped in 1985, it makes more sense now. The environment at that time was getting plastic and sterile and Cheech & Chong weren’t quite part of the Yuppie era…
Chong: No, no, no, no. Not at all. What happened is that we ran our string. Everybody has a time, like surfing, we rode that big wave and now the wave was finished. And we had to paddle out individually. We had to learn to do other things on our own. We had to have a life in between the beginning of our career and now the end of our career. In between we had to have a life. Much better breaking up before it was too late to get back together. It's like a marriage. If you break up before you say the vows, chances are you can get married again.
JPG: When you were honored at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2005, and maybe they touched upon this, but when people think of Cheech & Chong, they think dope humor. But, while listening to the CD, you’re much more than that. Does it bother you that you’re not given enough credit for the music, for the other characters…?
Cheech: We are given enough credit cause here we are years later being able to sell out a tour in advance after not having been together in 30 years (laughs). Not with the advantage of a hit movie, TV show, hit record, a hit nothing.
Chong: We read reviews like, we want to see how intelligent the reviewer is. We can tell based on what they saw in our show. We're like a litmus test. They have to tell us what they see. And if they only see what they want to see then that's their problem. Our work, what we do, it's deep if you want to look at it that way because you can't make people laugh unless you're saying something so true it breaks all the inhibitions down. It's the only time you can laugh at anything. That's why pot comes in handy for a lot of our fans because it's really to laugh at something when you're high, but that something has to be good because also, it's so easy to be turned off.
JPG: The one very interesting thing I find about your humor was how timeless everything is.
Cheech: It's amazing. That's when you'll see, when you come and see the show, how timeless those bits are. And they're just as much stuff of today as they were then. That's like oh, you hear the common chord.
JPG: That leads me to one of the last things I wanted to discuss. Both of you started in music, moved on to comedy and then were able to bring music in successfully to Cheech & Chong, into the comedy world. Was that one of the biggest thrills for you where the audience didn’t scream for another Pedro sketch but accepted it and some of your songs actually became hit singles?
Chong: That's when you get the audience to really kick back and be surprised. We were meant for people with ADD back in the day. (Cheech laughs) I'll tell you the truth. Cheech is kind of ADD. That was part of it. That's why he could sing, he could do all sorts of things. His taste in music went right across the whole spectrum — classical to jazz to rock…everything. Cheech is always up-to-date with everything. We could never get stuck. Same as me.
I had my musical roots in good blues, good jazz. It had to be good. It couldn't be bullshit. Neither Cheech nor I ever dealt in bullshit. Whatever it was, it was really good. And then you put that into comedy. So, everything else is little surprises for the audience. 'Oh they can play music, too?’ Oh, they can sing, too? Oh, that sounds good!' Just like our song, “Earache My Eye.” You get some real good rock musicians, they have to listen to the changes and they go, Whoa!’
JPG: That is a great riff.
Chong: Yeah, yeah. This is not just a three-chord song. This goes into a whole different other level of music. And the lyrics, the same thing. So, there's a depth to Cheech & Chong that people…they find it.
JPG: Going forward, Tommy you wrote a song (“Does Your Mama Know About Me?”) that was recorded by the Jackson Five and both of you are into Motown music. I’m based in Cleveland where there’s a Motown Records exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum right now.
Chong: Cool. I'll have to go see that. We're waiting to be inducted into that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
JPG: You can start your own hall of fame with, who else, KISS, the Stooges and so many others that are being ignored as well.
Cheech: They can't ignore us forever.
Chong: We might do our own stoner hall of fame.
JPG: That would be an interesting party. One last thing. The tour is going very, very well. It started last Fall and it has dates scheduled through May. What about other projects? There’s been a lot of talk about another film.
Cheech: Very good. We're developing them as we go along. They look better every day.
JPG: What are you discussing now?
Cheech: Films, TV, a reality show, porno. (laughs)
JPG: Well, you made one for “Things Are Tough All Over.”
Cheech: There's not any geriatric porno out there with a sense of humor. You have to have a sense of humor to do that.
JPG: Cheech, I heard you still wear the tutu for the performance of “Earache My Eye.”
JPG: How did Tommy not talk you into growing the moustache again?
Cheech: Well, I lost it in the divorce and I can't get it back again.
Chong: I understand a moustache. Like me and my gray hair. I don't have long black hair anymore. And I'm not going to have long black hair anymore. I tried it with That 70s Show, they had me in a wig. I hated it. Hated the wig. It’s not me, you know? It’s a version of me. Leo (his character on That 70s Show) was not me. So, I understand totally. Because you change, man.
Cheech: Just keep going along and whatever you are at that time, that's who you are.
Chong: And what it is is that you're not trying to hang on to…just like the rockers with the long hair. They look dead teenagers.
JPG: You always see ‘em with the sunglasses on for the photos…
Chong: Because they're old, wrinkled and…God bless 'em, you know, if that's the image they want to do, but the thing is Cheech & Chong, we’re comedians. We don't have to. We can look however we want to look. Be as funny as we can be.