Interview: Still Smoking With Tommy Chong
Cheech & Chong are among the preeminent comedy duos of all time. Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong began performing together in the late '60s at the comedy club Chong owned in Vancouver, British Columbia. After trying to form a band, the duo settled for comedy, honing their act as a pair of clueless, marijuana-addled hippies. They moved to Los Angeles where they were signed by Lou Adler, owner of Ode Records and producer of the Mamas And Papas and Carole King. Cheech & Chong were soon playing to rapturous crowds who shared their predilections for marijuana, rock and a laidback lifestyle.
The duo released five albums that charted in the Top 40, including Los Cochinos, which won a GRAMMY for Best Comedy Recording in 1973. They starred in eight films, beginning with 1978's Up In Smoke, which earned more than $100 million at the box office. After Cheech & Chong parted ways in the late '80s, Marin became an actor, best known for his role as Joe Dominguez on the TV police drama "Nash Bridges" starring Don Johnson. Prior to his role on "That '70s Show" as the marijuana-smoking owner of a Foto Hut, Chong appeared as a guest star on "Nash Bridges" in 1997, marking the duo's first public appearance together in years. They reconnected in 2008 for their Light Up America tour.
On May 17 Cheech & Chong will kick off their Up In Smoke tour with Tower Of Power and War in Porterville, Calif., in an effort to promote their recently released film, Cheech & Chong's Animated Movie. Ahead of the tour, Chong participated in an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com to discuss Cheech & Chong's upcoming tour and how smart you have to be to act so clueless.
Did you do any voice-overs for Cheech & Chong's Animated Movie?
Mostly [the producers] used the old album tracks. I had to do one voice-over to get a scream they needed. I stood in front of a little screen and had to do a few takes, some louder, some not so loud. They took our hits from the albums and strung [them] together into a plot with Buster the Crab doing little bits in between to link the stories. He talks about everything from Geraldo Rivera's moustache to the pubic hair of a redheaded school teacher. It's a pretty good movie.
Whose idea was it to tour with Tower Of Power and War?
The guys in War wanted to do it. We put them on the map when we put "Low Rider" in our Up In Smoke movie and album. They've had a soft spot for Cheech & Chong since '71. Tower Of Power took the chord changes for a song I wrote when I worked at Motown called "Does Your Mama Know About Me" and used it in one of their songs. So we go way back.
Cheech & Chong, Tower Of Power and War were trendsetters in becoming some of the first interracial acts in the music business. Any thoughts?
(Laughing) Yeah, we've come a long way, baby. Even in commercials on TV you'll see a white guy with a Japanese wife and a hybrid baby.
You got your start playing guitar in blues and R&B bands. Will you be jamming with the bands on tour?
I'm gonna take over the bands. I know the musical world as well as I know the comedy world. I'll be sitting in on guitar and treat the bands as an improvisational group. Most of the musicians I've met have great timing and a good sense of humor. Peter Sellers and Sam Shepard were drummers, so I'll probably unearth some acting talents with both bands.
Cheech & Chong Playlist
How did you meet Richard "Cheech" Marin?
I had an improvisational group — two hippies and a straight man. I needed someone to fill in at times. A friend suggested Cheech as an understudy. I wasn't impressed, but he was funny-looking. He said later he thought the same about me. One day, he was the only one who showed up to rehearse. I was going to put another band together, but we started joking and ended up doing comedy instead.
Cheech majored in English literature in college, and you've run clubs and your own businesses since you were young. How smart do you have to be to act so clueless?
The smartest billionaires I know never finished high school. I got my degree and my doctorate on the street and an advanced degree in jail. Cheech is in the genius range on his IQ tests, so he's overeducated and I'm undereducated. I only have a high school diploma. I didn't know I had a talent for comedy until 1969. I owned a burlesque club in Vancouver and needed an MC. One of my friends told me he'd MC if I'd get onstage with him. In the bands, all I ever said was, "We're gonna take an intermission; we'll be right back." This time, the comedy just came pouring out.
How did it feel to win a GRAMMY for Los Cochinos?
When we were nominated the first time, it was big. When we actually won, it was almost anticlimactic. I think we should have won for every album we did. The GRAMMY was a huge deal. It's the height of any musical career.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)