The old hippie stoners are back. Yes, Cheech & Chong – the legendary duo that turned comedy upside down in the ‘70s with hilariously irreverent skits about “Sister Mary Elephant,” “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” and, of course, “Basketball Jones,” plus pro-marijuana films including “Up In Smoke” and “Nice Dreams” – takes the stage Sunday night at the Hard Rock Live near Hollywood for a show benefiting the Broward House.
The pair parted ways in the mid-‘80s, but has been touring sporadically after reuniting a few years ago, and is working on a new movie together.
Tommy Chong talked to Miami.com about his break-up and reunion with Cheech Marin, his arrest and incarceration in 2003 after his company Chong’s Glass was raided for selling drug paraphernalia, and his early years as a successful musician, during which The Jackson 5 opened for his band.
You guys have so much material to choose from – what can we expect from your show?
Well, we’ve been doing the show now for almost five years again, so we’re pretty well set in our technique. Being funny is all about technique, and we got it back.
Why did you break up, anyway?
We broke up mainly because we had run our string out, you know? Everybody has a string, and we left the party early enough so that we could get back together again. It was one of those things – I wasn’t too happy with the split, but it was inevitable. I joke about it that Cheech got divorced and I was part of the divorce settlement. The wife got me.
And then what led to you reuniting?
We had been trying to get back together for years, probably a couple years after we broke up. You know: Cheech was ready, I wasn’t; I was ready, Cheech wasn’t. And then finally, I went to jail, and that sort of kept me in my spot. And then Cheech came to visit me and we started work on a movie, and then the movie turned into a live performance. The movie fell through, but we liked working together and so we started doing live shows, and then next thing you know, we’ve been working together for five years, and we’re working on a new movie.
Are you talking about “Up In Smoke 2”?
Yeah, if you wanna call it that. It’s called “Grumpy Old Stoners.” It’s going real good – we’re getting a deal probably after Christmas, and the way things work in Hollywood, we’ll probably be shooting next summer for a Christmas release. So a year from now, we’ll probably be talking about opening our new movie.
When you and Cheech got back together, did it feel immediately comfortable, like you hadn’t missed a beat?
Yeah, it did. To me, we looked like the runners-up of a Cheech & Chong lookalike contest [laughs] – the older version. But there’s a bond that’s very magical. Our whole career has been ordained, you know? When he went up to Canada to get away from the draft, he ended up in my hometown. And then when we met in Vancouver, it was just … the gods wanted us together. We had a mission to do, and I think legalization [of marijuana] was probably the main job that we had to do. And we did it.
Do you mean in Canada?
No, all over. The legalization in Washington and Colorado, California, the medical marijuana. All that was … when we did our movie, we showed the world how stupid the drug laws were. We de-demonized the weed. We made it acceptable. And once it became acceptable, then legalization was right behind it. Because it was all about money. So I think that was one of the main reasons Cheech & Chong was formed to begin with.
But isn’t there still a lot of work to be done? I mean, it isn’t legal across the board, throughout the country.
But the mental aspect is. Now it’s all about the details – the devil’s in the details, of course. And especially, me going to jail was showing the world how stupid the drug laws were. The only reason they put me in jail was that stand I took – I was showing the people how stupid the laws were, and they resented that, and I was right.
You served nine months in jail for selling glass pipes, not even drugs, right?
Yeah! They called my bluff, because I thought, “Oh, they won’t put me in jail for selling a pipe!” I mean, where’s all our freedoms here? And the truth was, there was only one state that would enact that law, and that was where the D.A. was from, Pennsylvania. They did not want to prosecute me in California, or anywhere else, just in Pennsylvania. And had I fought it, I probably would have won. But I would have lost, kind of, by admitting that I was doing something wrong. By giving up the way I did, I showed what they were. So it all worked out good.
You even served your entire sentence. Murderers don’t even do that!
[Laughs] I know. Well, they’ve got all sorts of weird drug laws – the whole legal system’s all screwed up right now. And what they do is keep saying the jails are all overcrowded – they fool you with headlines that say they should empty the jails. But they never do – they just stay crowded, and the headlines pass like a fart in a windstorm.
Before becoming a comedian, you started off as a pretty successful musician.
Club owner, too. I owned some nightclubs with my family, and that helped me put a band together, like a dream band. Thank God I got into comedy, though – I met a guitar player named Gaye DeLorme, and he literally took the guitar out of my hands and played on my set-up, and it sounded like Jimi Hendrix [laughs]. And that’s when I decided that I’d better become a comedian.
And I imagine you’re happy with that decision.
Oh yeah. It was incredible. When I got my first laugh, it was a high that I never experienced, ever, anywhere. It was the most thrilling thing. When you get a laugh, it’s so powerful that it’s a high that a lot of comedians never come down from.
And you’re still chasing that first high, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s why a lot of comedians are always “on.” They’re junkies, and they can’t stop themselves. Luckily, I had that musical ability, and when I played music, I played with black guys, black jazz musicians. So you didn’t play anything or say anything unless it was meaningful. Because they would bust you in a minute.
Is it true that The Jackson 5 actually opened for you?
Yep. We discovered them. After we played with them in Chicago, we took ‘em to Detroit and they stayed with singer Bobby Taylor for a month before [Motown founder] Berry Gordy finally got around to seeing them.
So you knew Michael Jackson?
Oh, I knew Michael. I knew ‘em all. They were kids. Michael was 10 years old, I think, when we met. And I used to joke about it, but Michael actually slept with my daughter [Rae Dawn Chong]. They all stayed in the same apartment.
Do you still keep your guitar-playing skills sharp?
Oh yeah – I play in the show. You know what I’ve learned to do, I’ve learned to play within myself. I used to chase other guitar players and try to do their licks, and now I’m old and I’ve got my own style. You know, I’ve been playing longer than Hendrix – can you imagine that? Hendrix used to come up when we had a club in Vancouver. He was stationed in Whidbey Island, and he would come up to our club and sit in the audience. I didn’t know him then, but he knew me.