Interview of Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong)
By Michael McCarty
It that time of the year for building snowmen, Christmas shopping and listening Xmas classics like “Santa Claus and his Old Lady.” The Cheech and Chong song barely reached the Top 40 peaking at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1971. The song has become a cult classic ever since.
And here is the video for “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” by Cheech & Chong
I interviewed Tommy Chong for my book ESOTERIA-LAND, which is now out of print. Here is a reprint of the interview. Hope it gets you into the Christmas spirits…
(Photo of Tommy Chong, by Michael McCarty, when he performed at the Davenport Funny Bone, in the late 1990s…)
Far Out, Man!
Talking with Tommy Chong
By Michael McCarty
Tommy Chong is still smokin’, but not pot – he’s smokin’ hot in comedy. The Grammy Award-winning counter-culture comedian was part of the doping duo Cheech & Chong. During their reign, the twosome rolled plenty of gold … comedy albums, that is (six of them, to be exact), and starred in eight films, including Up in Smoke, Next Movie, Nice Dreams, Things are Tough All Over, Still Smokin’, and The Corsican Brothers. Chong directed, co-wrote and produced most of them.
Chong has flown solo in such films as McHale’s Navy, Half-Baked, The Evil Bong, and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. He was a regular on the smash FOX TV series, That ’70s Show, playing Leo, an older hippie and proprietor of a Fotomat store.
Chong has performed stand-up, but this time around, he is on the road with his wife, Shelby Chong (who also appeared in Things are Tough All Over, The Corsican Brothers, and Far Out Man).
(Photo by Michael McCarty)
Chong is also the author of The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint by Pocket Books and Cheech & Chong: An Unauthorized Autobiography from Simon Spotlight Entertainment, a division of Simon & Schuster. This interview was conducted at a recent stop in the Quad-Cities and by phone from his California home. Tommy even joked about the location of the interview. “There’s a lot of good pot in Iowa. Of course, I brought it.”
(Editor’s note: Since this interview, Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin have reunited to do comedy again after a twenty-five-year separation. The legendary comedians are calling their reunion tour, Light Up America – a.k.a. The Felomony Tour. Cheech and Chong appeared on TBS, December 2008, in Cheech & Chong Roasted, which also featured such performers as Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Carell, Penn &; Teller, and Shelby Chong. They also made Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie in 2013).
MIKE McCARTY: Forty years ago, you got your start doing stand-up in a strip club in Vancouver. Was it hard to do comedy in front of naked women?
TOMMY CHONG: My family owned a nightclub called Chong’s Topless Bar. No, it was actually very fun to do. It kept your mind off the nakedness. It was just perfect. Nudity and comedy go hand-in-hand, or should I say cheek-to-cheek (laughs).
MIKE: Do you know if the band Blind Melon got their name from your comedy routine Blind Melon Chitlin’?
CHONG: I have a very strong suspicion that they did (laughs). They don’t admit it. It was very hip of them to use that name.
MIKE: What was your favorite Cheech and Chong movie?
CHONG: My favorite was Still Smokin’. It was the lowest-budget movie. I directed it. We were in Amsterdam, and it was the last time Cheech and I did our live show together.
MIKE: In After Hours, you played an art burglar. In Yellowbeard, you were a pirate. Do you think you’ll ever do more roles like that?
CHONG: It is very hard to say. I played a con in Half-Baked and I played a bus driver in National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. I like to stay with the stoner. I like to stay with what I know.
MIKE: How come a nickel bag costs twenty-five bucks? (Laughs)
CHONG (laughs): It is worth twenty-five for one thing. What you used to get from a nickel bag was a lot of seeds and dirt and not very much good pot. A nickel bag nowadays, twenty-five dollars is not bad for the quality you get. Quality goes up, the price goes up.
MIKE: Do you still smoke pot after all these years?
CHONG: Yes, I do. But I don’t smoke marijuana anymore. I smoke hemp. Studies show that hemp is much healthier for you than marijuana. If you don’t want to smoke it you can make your clothes with it, you can eat it, you can rub it on your skin, you can feed it to the birds, you can dry paint with it, you can build houses. Marijuana – you just go to jail for that.
MIKE: After doing comedy for four decades, how do you still keep it fresh?
CHONG: By doing it in front of people. An audience will let you know immediately if you’re hitting that nerve. Or if that nerve is too dead – hit too many times. An audience is like a junkie’s arm: you always have to keep finding a new vein.
MIKE: What’s your favorite dick joke?
CHONG (laughs): He resigned from office. Nixon was really my favorite dick joke.
MIKE: Who are the comedians who you admire?
CHONG: My first hero was Lenny Bruce. Right up there with him is Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx is probably my all-time favorite. He made me laugh harder than anybody. I learned a lot from Richard Pryor and the two groups, Second City and the Committee. I learned and stole from them, too.
MIKE: Talking about different comedians, you discovered both Michael Winslow (also interviewed in this book) and Pee Wee Herman. Didn’t Pee Wee appear in a couple of Cheech and Chong flicks?
CHONG: Yup. I used Pee Wee in two Cheech and Chong movies – The Next Movie and Nice Dreams. After that, he was on his own. He became too big. He is just one of those geniuses in comedy.
MIKE: You also met Jimi Hendrix. What was he like?
CHONG: Hendrix would put on a tribal show. He used his guitar like a spear and the audience was the lion, and he’d get the audience going crazy. He’s the John Coltrane of Rock ‘n’ roll. People are still trying to figure out what he was doing with that guitar. Every time you hear his stuff, it triggers a response. It’s like legal dope.
Jimi Hendrix sat in with my band. We were in London. It was right at the beginning of the psychedelic revolution. My band was still with Motown, and we still had our little Motown suits on and we were still doing Motown cover tunes. Jimi came along. He’d been a fan of ours from Vancouver (Canada). He used to go up to Vancouver when we played there, when he was still Jimi James. He knew me. He met me and talked to me, but I didn’t remember the kid.
When we saw him again, in London, it was a big thrill on our part and like a homecoming on his part.
MIKE: Why did Cheech and Chong break up?
CHONG: I just finished writing a book about it called Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now. We broke up because we stopped performing in front of live audiences.
Cheech, he got tired of being Cheech, and wanted to be Richard (his full name is Richard “Cheech” Marin). I was the opposite; I always wanted to be Chong. I never wanted to be Tommy Chong, the movie actor. Maybe Tommy Chong the pot smoker, but not the actor (laughs).
MIKE: You’ve both done voices on an episode of South Park. You had a recent reunion with Cheech in Nash Bridges. What was that like?
CHONG: Doing the Nash Bridges show together was really weird. It was like meeting an old girlfriend and looking into her eyes and seeing that the person you once loved is no longer there.
MIKE: Do you think you’ll ever do another Cheech and Chong comedy album or movie?
CHONG: I doubt it. I recently saw Cheech at the Oklahoma airport. He’s an actor now. When you become an actor you really do surrender your own persona for whatever persona you are hired to play.
When you are in a partnership, you give up a little bit of yourself to become that one whole. When you stop being a partnership, you have to gain that one part that you gave up.
That is why (Dean) Martin and (Jerry) Lewis never got back together. When Dean was with Jerry, he gave up being in-charge and being in-control. He was the set-up for Jerry’s jokes.
When Cheech and Chong were together, I was Cheech’s director and Cheech’s writer as well as Cheech’s co-star. I took a back seat to Cheech purposely, because he was the lead singer and I was the rhythm guitar player.
MIKE: How many times were you on the cover of High Times?
CHONG: More than anybody, apparently. Five or six times.
MIKE: Didn’t High Times recently ranked Up in Smoke as one of the top five movies in their magazine?
CHONG: Yes, it was number four of the “Top Dope Movies of All Time.” We got beat out by Easy Rider. I understand that. Up in Smoke had two things: it had a message and it made you laugh. Easy Rider had a message and made you think and made you scared.
Comedies don’t get the respect that they deserve. Comedy is pure truth. Even the farcical, stupid stuff like Mike Myers and Dumb and Dumber. They are so ridiculously funny, but there is so much truth in them.
Bob Hope never got an Oscar. Look at some of the stuff that he did. He was a good actor, but because he had that wisecrack for anything that happened, no one would take him seriously. He was never even considered.
(Author’s note: Bob Hope was the recipient of four special Academy Awards, but he was never nominated for an Oscar.)
MIKE: Is there a difference between performing with your wife Shelby on stage, and performing, in the old days, with Cheech?
CHONG: Yes. It’s getting better and better and better. It is getting very exciting.
With my wife it can be more real and deeper. We’re starting to get into the depth of the characters. She has been on the road with me for five years now. She started out with no stage experience and is now doing a twenty-minute set on her own.
I started on my own in ’91. But the truth is, I started with Cheech in ’69. If you just started, you always have an excuse (laughs).
MIKE: Last question: when you die, do you plan to get cremated and smoked by your friends?
CHONG: Yeah. I want my ashes either with some really good primo or as fertilizer for some plants. Ashes from dead people make good fertilizer.
If you like this interview … please check out my book of interviews:
MODERN MYTHMAKERS: 35 Interviews With Horror Writers & Filmmakers
Barnes & Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/modern-mythmakers-michael-mccarty/1008846244?ean=2940153349589&quickview=true