The original tokers
There is chuckling. There is laughing.And then there is the soul-enriching, can’t-control-it belly laugh that is the source of life-extending energy, according to medical experts.Such was what I felt when I first heard Tommy Chong’s first line in his first movie, “Up in Smoke.” It was his manner of speaking, concentrated yet thick with confusion. The voice went so far beyond the initial stoner image that one had a hard time figuring out whether Chong was acting.Sitting in that dorm long ago, I thought, “Man, there’s no way anyone like that could function in society.” But according to Chong, I was wrong.”Cheech & Chong were and are probably the first reality show. If you look at the movies, it was reality. It was no fiction,” he said from his home near Malibu, Calif., last week. “We really reflected a lifestyle that’s still around.”It’s hard to disagree, especially in this valley. Aspen in particular has its fair share of THC aficionados, and has for awhile.”Cheech and Chong used to play Aspen all the time,” recalled Cheech Marin by phone while driving in Los Angeles recently. Before their movie career, there were albums and stand-up tours, including multiple stints here.Chong said the first time he was ever on skis was on Aspen Mountain in the early ’80s.”I hold the record for the longest time coming down the mountain: two days. Since then I’ve learned how to ski and I’ve always loved Aspen,” he said.After 20 years apart, they are reuniting in Aspen and on a screenplay for a movie to be shot this spring. Marin said the working titles are “The Passion of The Cheech & Chong” or “Lord of the Smoke Rings.”Legendary talentsIt is hard not to like a film as lighthearted and goofy as “Up in Smoke.” And few didn’t. It is one of Warner Bros.’ highest grossing films ever. An “Up in Smoke” posting by Jim Emerson on Amazon.com says “even New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael liked it (the movie, that is), adding that it was ‘an exploitation slapstick comedy, rather than a family picture, such as ‘Blazing Saddles’ or ‘High Anxiety’ – which means that it’s dirtier, wilder and sillier.'””They were extremely funny,” Cheech said of the six movies he made with Chong. “We were talking about stuff that everybody was involved in but nobody was talking about.”
Asked whether he thought the duo was on a level with Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, Marin said, “absolutely.””It’s not just my ego talking, it’s just that [Cheech and Chong] have withstood the test of time,” he said. “I’ve gotten the same royalty check for ‘Up in Smoke’ for almost 25 years. I just got it the other day and it was greeeat.”Asked about the same comparison, Chong said, “Oh gosh, way, way past. You ask any kid now, they know the name Laurel and Hardy, but they couldn’t tell you anything they were in.”We created a language. We had the drug czar in the Clinton era refer to medical marijuana as a ‘Cheech & Chong ploy.'”Both comedians have musical roots that run deep. According to a biography of the two on their website, Chong started western Canada’s first rhythm-and-blues band, the Shades, before relocating to Vancouver. He bought his own “after-hours bistro” there, the website says, and “played guitar for the house band – Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.” They were signed by Motown Records and produced the hit song, “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” which was later recorded by the Jackson Five.Cheech was raised in East Los Angeles and later the San Fernando Valley. In high school he began singing in rock bands, but music has been in his life as long as he can remember.”I play guitar and sing. I’ve been a singer all my life. It’s a discipline: I love it and it’s fun,” said Marin, adding that he still “plays every day.”Cheech and Chong both say their musical backgrounds have proved invaluable in comedy.”You look at any top comedian and they usually have some kind of music in their background,” Marin said. “It has to do with timing and listening, knowing when to come in and when to be soft and when to be loud. Tommy was a musician as well. We’re more prone to listen to each other. People always ask me, ‘How was it [working as] a team?’ It’s the hardest thing in show business to do a comedy team because of the level of compromise you have to reach. That really comes from music.”Chong agreed that music is “the basis for the comedy. I’ve always felt that musicians make the best comedians. Peter Sellers comes to mind. He was a renowned jazz drummer.”When you’re a musician, you hear detail. When you’re a comedian, same thing. It’s all about listening. When Cheech and I were directing the movies, we wouldn’t watch the play-back, we’d listen to the play-back. We could tell by the sound if we hit it.”Their next movieMarin, 58, said reuniting with his longtime partner, who is 66, on the upcoming movie has not sparked any problems this time. Prior attempts to get the two back together resulted in “old animosities” flaring up, he said.”It’s like trying to get together with your ex-wife: Eventually the past is going to surface,” Marin said.
Currently, they have been able to put aside their differences after coming “to the decision that this might be good,” he said. “We’re at the age where it’s like, hey man, this is stupid to fight over this sh–. Let’s just create something good.”Dark daysJust as they were starting the latest screenplay, Chong was ensnared in a federal drug sting that would eventually imprison him for nine months. Convicted of selling bongs and pipes over state lines, Chong was freed July 7, 2004.Cheech said the news that Chong was actually going to go to prison caught him off guard.”I was very surprised. I thought this was really typical of Ashcroft and our current administration,” he said. “Lying, cheating scumbags. Ashcroft is a Nazi.”For Chong, prison was not unsurprisingly a life-changing experience.”What happens when you get busted is you go through these stages of denial first. It went from disbelief to anger – ‘They can’t do this to me’ – to reality – ‘Not only can they do this to me, they’re doing this to me.’ – and then acceptance. Acceptance is a spiritual awakening, which I had,” he said. “It was like an epiphany, like this is all happening to me for a reason.”He said being behind bars brought out his true self.”I became what I really was. I was faking it, I was saying to myself I’m an actor, a writer, and pot is a common denominator for a generation of people and I’m just lucky enough to be part of it. Then it was a realization that, no, you talk the talk and now you gotta walk the walk. The director, Quentin Tarantino, was actually kind of jealous that, you know, I’m the real goods.”I consider the incarceration the most important experience of my life.”Chong maintains that he was put behind bars because of his reputation.”It was for making movies and exercising my right as an American. And I [went] to jail for it because there’s an administration that doesn’t agree with my humor.”Chong is on probation until July and is drug tested regularly. I asked him if the person doing the drug testing can believe they’re actually testing the Tommy Chong.”Oh yeah. It’s their job. They don’t care,” he said.
He then spoke at length about the karmic implications that the Bush presidency is having on the planet, and the conversation drifted into areas far removed from comedy and laughter. In fact, he spoke about the polar opposite of those arenas: fear.”They promote it like crazy. That’s how they rule. Well fear is a horrible emotion to have. It’s the worst because people will do desperate things.”Which perhaps explains why federal prosecutors gave Chong the longest sentence of anyone charged in the multistate sting. Not that that did any good. Marijuana use continues unabated, with stronger and stronger strains flooding in from Canada, Mexico and people’s basements across America.”The present administration are like the dinosaurs at the end of their era where they’re thrashing around with their tails and destroying things,” Chong said. “But they’re disappearing.””Our audience now is 10 times bigger than it was in the day,” Marin said.The federal government agrees, saying 11.5 million Americans are currently toking up. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, at least one-third of the U.S. population has used marijuana sometime in their lives.The nation’s marijuana culture, Chong said, is stronger than ever.”It’s in every culture, every walk of life. I heard a minister on a religious channel talking about, ‘I know some of you parishioners go out in the parking lot and smoke a joint before you come in.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK, but you’d enjoy the experience better if you were straight.’ Which I dispute highly.”And so the influence of an unlikely pair of heroes continues to this day. Asked whether he had seen recent films that had marijuana smoke wafting through them, such as “Half Baked” and “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle,” Cheech said no, but that people have mentioned the films to him.And what do they say?”They’re not Cheech and Chong.”The legendary comedic duo of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong will screen their first and arguably most popular film, “Up in Smoke,” tonight at 7 at the Isis Theater as part of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.At 10 p.m. at the St. Regis, they will be at the Wheeler Opera House for Cheech & Chong: Together Again, their first on-stage appearance together in two decades.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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