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Pot Luck: Cheech and Chong Take Weed Humor to Big Screen

The world’s most popular Chicano-Chinese comedy team gambles on reefer madness and scores a smokescreen success (cough! cough!) with ‘Up in Smoke’

Cheech and Chong

Cheech Marin (R) and Tommy Chong (L) in New York City in 1976.

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

I was seven years old before I used a toilet that flushed,” Tommy Chong answers, though nobody asked the question. Warming to his choice of conversation, he continues, “We had the kind of toilet where when it was full, you covered it over and dug a new one. And in the winter, you had to take a stick with you to knock down the pile of frozen turds.”

“Same in Bragg Creek!” Richard “Cheech” Marin cries, picking up on Chong’s lead. “It got down to seventy-five below zero,” he assures us, talking about his onetime Alberta, Canada, home. “You had to back up as you pissed.” Leaping to his feet, he grapples wildly at the air in front of him as if to demonstrate the difficulty of such a maneuver.

No doubt about it, Chicano-Chinese comedy duo Cheech and Chong are back—as astute and tasteless as ever. Their new Paramount film, Up in Smoke, is brimming with their vintage brand of gutter warmth and low humor, a potpourri of dope jokes, wry ethnicity and life’s funky realities.

Together they have parlayed their gritty comic abilities and emperor’s-new-clothes iconoclasm into phenomenal success. They hold the all-time record for comedy-album sales—since 1971, four of their five LPs have gone double platinum. And their rabid fans—from ghetto neighborhoods, college, campuses, police precincts across the country—have long since memorized their routines.

In 1973, for instance, Cheech and Chong were arrested in Tampa, Florida, on an obscenity charge. During a concert skit in which they play dogs, Cheech had lifted his leg on a cop who was guarding the stage. On the way to the station house, the policemen performed some Cheech and Chong routines for the comedians, including “Waiting for Dave,” their most famous vignette, and even the same dog routine the two had just been busted for.

This sort of spontaneous imitation can be unnerving, but Cheech and Chong’s comic roots are in improvisational theater—they’re as skilled at reacting as they are at acting. “Waiting for Dave” was conceived entirely in the studio during a recording session for their 1971 debut album, Cheech and Chong. They were working on a skit in which Cheech was supposed to be knocking at the door of an employment agency. Chong, instead of opening the door, asked, “Who’s there?” and Cheech fell into the character of a stoned-out dude trying desperately to deliver some marijuana. Tommy played yet another freak who is too wasted on reds—barbiturates, to the uninitiated—to understand what was going on.

“It’s me, Dave! Open up! I got the stuff!”
“Who?”
“It’s Dave, man! Open up! I think the cops saw me come in here!”
“Dave?”
“Yeah, Dave!”
“Dave’s not here!”
“No, man … I’m Dave! Hey, c’mon.man!”
“Who is it?”
It’s Dave, man! Will you open up? I got the stuff with me!”
“Who?”
“Oh, what the fuck!!?? OPEN UP THIS DOOR! IT’S DAVE! DAVE! D-A-V-E!”
“Dave …?”
“Right man, Dave! Now will you please open the door?”
“… Dave’s not here.”

Two years ago Cheech and Chong risked losing their career momentum by retiring from the concert scene to write screenplays. They collaborated on eight scripts, one of which was Up in Smoke, the story of Pedro (Cheech) and Man (Chong), two potheads trying to form a rock band despite numerous stoned detours.

While waiting for a studio to purchase the Smoke script, Cheech and Chong undertook a limited tour. With their last hit album (Wedding Album, 1974) having long since vanished from the charts, the pair felt the need to revitalize their act. “We had to start from the bottom again, man,” Cheech explains. “We went back to Vancouver, where we first got started, and played at a little jazz club. The first week we were terrible.”

The rewards were well worth the gamble. By the beginning of November, three weeks after the film came out, Up in Smoke had brought in close to $30 million and ranked as the season’s number two grossing film in the country, behind National Lampoon’s Animal House. (During one week alone, the film was responsible for a fourth of L.A.’s total box-office revenues.) The first feature film to use marijuana smoking as a promo gimmick (“Don’t go straight to Up in Smoke,” “Contains no nicotine”), it is doing sell-out business at drive-in theaters across the nation.

Cheech and Chong are back in the limelight as never before. Hell, they even appeared on TV’s Hollywood Squares—together in one square. The United States Catholic Conference took the trouble to condemn Up in Smoke as morally objectionable in toto for Roman Catholics—possibly because of the scene in which the nuns get frisked, or perhaps for some obscene pope joke in Cheech and Chong’s past. Though reviewers tended to be critical too, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker praised the high-flying romp, writing that the film was enjoyable provided you were in what she called “a relaxed mood.”

Apart from Cheech and Chong themselves, the picture has some extraordinary comic acting. One standout is when the Ajax Lady—played by June Fairchild—snorts some scouring cleanser thinking it’s cocaine and then does an astonishing series of grimaces. A friend of Cheech and Chong’s, Fairchild used to do an imitation of a baboon at parties that knocked them out. They wrote the Ajax Lady part specifically for her.

Another noteworthy performance is by Zane Buzby, who plays Jade East, the zonked methedrine mama with thirty kinds of pills in her purse. To research the character, Buzby hung around the ladies’ rooms of several L. A. punk-rock nightclubs, and came back with enough stoned raps to construct the memorable moment when Jade re-creates the sound effects of an apocalyptic orgasm and inadvertently gives Man a reputation as a great lover. Equally amusing is the tense scene before the big rock concert in which Man, the drummer in a band called Alice Bowie, is too comatose to go onstage. Realizing that she accidentally slipped him some downs instead of ups, Jade digs into her portable pharmacy, finds an amyl nitrite capsule and ad-libs, “Well, I got a popper. We could, like, party later or start his heart now.”

But Up in Smoke is not a perfect movie, not by a long shot. And in several respects, it is a very strange one, indeed. “The plot’s kinda thin,” Cheech concedes. “It’s kinda like Woody Allen’s first movie.”

Although four name actors are in the credits, just one of them, Stacy Keach (who plays a Keystone-like cop), appears throughout the movie, while Strother Martin, Edie Adams and Tom Skerritt are only briefly onscreen. And, as Kael and other reviewers noted, the turns of the plot are often murky. “Smoke a joint and you’ll understand it,” demurs Tommy Chong when pressed for an explanation.

But one doesn’t need a heightened consciousness to figure out what went wrong. It was produced by novices: Cheech and Chong had never worked on a film before and Lou Adler, president of their record label, Ode, was making his debut as a director. The comedians were accustomed to writing material for themselves and directing their own stage act, but Adler wanted to have a hand in the writing of the screenplay. Artistic control quickly became a bone of contention. A tug of war ensued and certain pivotal portions of the scenario wound up on the cutting-room floor. For example, when Pedro and Man get busted, they land before a judge but moments later resurface unscathed back at Pedro’s place; their release from jail was one of many failed scenes that was eliminated in the final version.

A number of other quirky cuts can be traced to grave disagreements about including any routines from Cheech and Chong’s records in Up in Smoke. “Lou wanted a film based on all our old routines,” Chong explains. “He wanted it to be a ‘greatest hits’ movie. In fact, the credits still say ‘Up in Smoke or Cheech & Chong’s Greatest Hits.’ “A myna bird who chirps “Pedro’s not here” is the last remnant of Lou Adler’s numerous attempts to fit the old “Dave” routine into the movie.

As the arguments with Adler escalated, Cheech and Chong began to suspect that he was resorting to subterfuge to get the film shot his way, and they did the same. “I’ll tell you this,” says Tommy, “I intentionally ruined a lot of scenes by staring into the camera when it was a lame scene so they’d have to throw it out.”

(Rolling Stone was interested in hearing the director’s account of the filming, but his publicist indicated that Adler was reluctant to comment.)

The various conflicts on the set finally culminated in a violent falling-out with Adler. And last September, Cheech and Chong sent notification of a suit pending against him on a legal matter involving their contracts. They have threatened more suits, alleging that there was a conflict of interest since Adler acted as their agent while signing them to his own film production company. In short, their future with Adler’s Toonerville Productions does not look bright. Tommy Chong recently commented, “He can use our contract for ass wipe.”

Soggy ashes. The pungent odor of charred wood. Some arsonist in Malibu had dumped on Smokey the Bear, and the Los Angeles Fire Department worked around the clock to put a massive brush fire out. All night Cheech fought the raging flames with a garden hose in one hand and a bottle of Dos Equis in the other. As he says, “It was one lick for the fire and one lick for me.” His actress/wife, Rikki, happened to be away on the set of her first movie, Super Duper Service Station, and his hand happened to be in a plaster cast, but Cheech managed to save their Trancas Beach dream house, filled with carved woodwork, exotic tiling and stained glass.

The next day Tommy Chong walked amidst the rubble, helping Cheech assess the damage to the rest of his property. It is obvious that they are close friends as well as professional partners. At thirty-two, Cheech is the younger. He sports a black Mexican bush of a mustache, parted slightly off-center, and a gold ring in his left ear. His voice often has the growl and harsh cadence of a Chicano street tough. Tommy Chong, 40, with his glasses, scraggly beard and longish hair, could be the archetypal dazed hippie he often portrays. Yet he seems more thoughtful than Cheech and there is a certain rustic quality in his demeanor.

Onscreen Cheech’s Pedro is an especially dense kind of high-school dropout and Chong’s Man is a perpetually distracted ex-college bum. But in real life it is Tommy Chong who dropped out of high school and Cheech who got his B. A. in English. In the film Pedro has kids; actually it is Tommy who has four children (one of them, Rae Dawn Chong, 18, is an actress already working in television). Cheech is a craftsman—a potter and leatherworker—and a student of meditation. Unlike the scrawny Man, in person Chong does not shuffle or stoop: he lifts weights and is rather muscular.

Ironic, eh? Now, if we can just get the dope on how the Chicano and half-Chinese guy came to form a comedy duo in Canada. …

“My father and my mother moved to Edmonton, where I was born,” says Chong while sitting in Cheech’s art nouveau–decorated dining room. “When my father got back from the Second World War, we moved to Calgary, probably because he was wounded in the war and there was a veterans’ hospital there. He bought a five-hundred-dollar house and drove a truck, raising a family on fifty dollars a week. So I came from a real poor background.”

Chong’s family lived in an area in the outskirts of Calgary called Dog Patch—really. “It was a tough place,” he continues. “We were just wild people from the country. We used to box with homemade boxing gloves made out of burlap. Burlap, you know, it leaves a mark when you get hit, not like ordinary boxing gloves. I dropped out of high school after I got too big for the football team.”

But there was more to his childhood than sports. Chong had gotten a guitar and at age eleven started playing country & western music. A couple of years later, members of the Calgary area black community—all eight or nine families’ worth—turned him on to the most current black music, which reached this part of Canada via the porters on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He began playing R&B guitar, and his decision to quit school in 1956 coincided with his first paid gig as a musician.

He worked at such jobs as roofing and driving a truck, but all the while kept trying to form groups and eventually helped found the first R&B band in western Canada. They called themselves the Shades because the group contained a Chinese, a black, a white and an Indian who, incidentally, did an Elvis Presley–inspired act. Following several rowdy incidents after dances at the Calgary Canadian Legion Hall, the mayor asked the band to leave town.

The Shades took the hint and split to Vancouver, where Chong later purchased a black after-hours bistro called the Elegant Parlour. Black entertainers touring Vancouver spread the word about the Parlour’s bad-assed house band, an outfit called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers that included Tommy on guitar. The Vancouvers were signed to Motown in 1965; Chong cowrote a hit for them, “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” that has since been recorded by the Jackson Five and others.

While on the road in 1967 and 1968, Chong discovered a form of entertainment he’d never encountered before—improvisational theater comedy. Troupes like the Committee in San Francisco and Second City in Chicago fired his imagination with their flashes of comic genius.

He left Bobby Taylor in 1968 and eventually returned to Vancouver, where his brother had lost the Elegant Parlour and was running a topless nightclub called the Shanghai Junk. Chong proceeded to turn the revue into City Works, the world’s only topless improvisational theater troupe.

He chuckles quietly at the memory. “I had the dancers talk about their experiences and do skits, and I had rounders from the audience come up and take part and make up dialogue. The guys would always come up fully dressed but usually they’d take off some of their clothes during the act. But it was hard to keep a big troupe of regulars together. It broke up,” he says wryly, “and my brother fired me.” Also left in the lurch after the demise of City Works was an occasional participant named Cheech Marin.

He, too, has a hard-living background. He was born in Watts, a Los Angeles ghetto, and lived there until he was ten, when his policeman father moved the family to the white suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Through a cousin, young Cheech became absorbed in literature and art history, but didn’t find his creative niche until he started singing in neighborhood rock & roll bands, among them Rompin’ Richie and the Rockin’ Rubins, and Captain Shagnasty and his Loch Ness Pickles.

“I was a wiseass in school,” says Cheech, “pretty much equal parts wise and ass. I’d get away with a lot of shit because I was little and cute. I hung out with the hoodlums and the bad elements but I got straight As. I was sort of a guerrilla wiseass.

“At parochial school,” he continues, “every Friday we had to do the Stations of the Cross [a Catholic prayer ritual], so me and my friends would sneak a couple of pigeons under our shirts when we went into church and as the priest said, ‘… And here is where Jesus was scourged,’ we’d let the pigeons out—flap flap flapscrawwh! We never got caught. I got the religion award in school.

“In high school I ditched [played hooky] a lot and cruised with the greasers and lowriders at Bob’s Hamburgers. So when Tommy and I met, we fit together. He was a greaser and I was a fringe greaser.

“Where I grew up,” he says, picking away at the cast on his left hand, “I thought it was a big deal to get a six-pack of Par-T-Pack soda. That’s why I saved my house [from the fire]. Everybody else was leaving their houses. But I worked hard for this house, man! I worked on it for five years; I wasn’t gonna let it get burned. I just felt, ‘Stand there, motherfucker, and fight it.’ ”

While majoring in English at Cal State–Northridge, Cheech discovered pottery making and his creative urges took over. When he graduated in 1968, he headed for Canada to work with a potter there—a snap decision that made perfect sense to a young man who had just been classified 1-A after burning his draft card during the Vietnam War. The fella Cheech was going to work with lived just outside Calgary. Cheech met many of Chong’s childhood friends and heard a lot about “this crazy guy named Tommy who started a band called Four Niggers and a Chink.”

When City Works was started in the spring of 1969, a mutual friend introduced Cheech to Chong. At this juncture, Cheech had the cleancut style of an industrious potter/meditator, while Tommy resembled a Hell’s Angel from Mongolia. Accustomed to talking his way into jobs, Cheech claimed he was an experienced actor and signed on at sixty dollars a week, five dollars more than he had been making moonlighting as a carpet deliveryman.

When City Works folded, the two banded together in January of 1970 as Cheech and Chong. They played two dates in Vancouver and realized they should take the act to either New York or Los Angeles. They chose L.A. because it was warmer.

Of course, there was still a problem: Cheech was a draft dodger. “I snuck across the border with a phony ID,” he said. “We were playing gigs in L.A. while I was wanted. We’d be doing club dates and Tommy would joke about it onstage. He’d grab me and say ‘This man’s wanted.’ And I’d say [desperate, choked voice] ‘Will you stop it, man?’ ” Cheech laughs. “The audience thought we were just making it up.”

Cheech was soon reclassified 4-F (he has a pin in his leg as the result of a skiing accident), and the draft-dodging charges were dropped in court. No longer a fugitive comedy team, Cheech and Chong clicked with the public in a big way.

“It was like there was this giant nerve running through everybody,” recalls Cheech, “and it was where we were.” But the real question is: where did Cheech and Chong get their nerve? They were still using bits from City Works in their act, which in turn were bits borrowed from … elsewhere.

For years, some actor/writers for the now-disbanded Committee have complained about Cheech and Chong’s liberal use of Committee material. Principally at issue are three skits—”Blind Melon Chitlin’,” “Ralph and Herbie” and “The Old Man on the Park Bench,” although the duo sometimes uses other Committee-inspired bits in their live shows. Cheech and Chong have never denied this practice, seeing it more as a matter of influence than theft.

Compare a Committee routine with Cheech and Chong’s version. Both satirize the aged minor-league blues singers that folkies were forever digging up during the Sixties.

The Committee’s “Blind Melon Greed” skit begins with a pseudoacademic introduction of this rediscovered blues harmonica player. Next, the venerable old bluesman gives a rambling, unpicturesque rap on nothing much and then begins to play—terribly, coughing and belching until he spits forth his harmonica. Blackout.

Cheech and Chong’s “Blind Melon Chitlin'” sendup takes place in a recording studio, with two cynical producers discussing the senile codger they’re endeavoring to record. After a couple of false starts, the old man, who can barely speak, sings a snatch of his ancient blues: “Gonna go downtown/Gonna see my gal/Gonna sing a little song/Gonna show her my dingdong.” Asked to explain the lyric, the bluesman unzips his pants and shows a formidable dingdong that the producers agree they’ll never be able to show on the album cover.

Clearly there is direct borrowing here. And just as clearly, Cheech and Chong have developed new characters from the bare bones of the old one and added new dialogue to much greater effect. Characteristically, their version is cruder and relies more heavily on ethnic humor.

Former Committee member Garry Goodrow, now a Hollywood actor, feels differently. “Cheech Marin told me, ‘We don’t take scenes, we take the basic premise.’ I told him, ‘Well, that’s the beginning of stealing.’ And I heard some of my lines coming out of that guy’s mouth.”

Alan Meyerson, the Committee’s former director and founder, now a TV (Laverne and Shirley) and film (Steelyard Blues) director, concurs with Goodrow. “People have ripped us off for a long time, from Laugh-In on down. But the basic bad form of this [borrowing by Cheech and Chong] was offensive. If they are not creative enough to think up their own material, they should acknowledge their borrowing.

“The royalties issue is academic,” Meyerson maintains. “We would never have allowed others to use any Committee material. We felt we all owned it together.”

Tommy Chong’s response: “Everybody borrows. Lenny Bruce borrowed the basic form of his comedy from a guy named Joe Ancis; Charlie Chaplin took bits and pieces from other people and made his classic tramp. You gotta start somewhere. We were influenced by the Committee, Second City, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Cheech’s lowrider cousins, Vancouver hippies.

“We’re not snobs, we take material from anywhere. Cheech performs the ‘How do you jack off a dinosaur?’ joke that he learned from an Avis Rent-A-Car chick.” (Regarding the punch line, Chong says, “You just have to see it.”)

“We take something and we embellish it,” Chong insists, “and refine it and improvise on it, and that’s what we get paid for. If you take something and translate it into something new, it’s yours, you know? I’m not ashamed to use those old Committee scenes, I’m proud of it. I think we’re carrying on a tradition. There are people imitating us now. A Hawaiian group that recently broke up, Booga Booga, was doing straight Cheech and Chong translated into a Hawaiian scene. And their records are always sold out in Hawaii. I was pleased and proud to see that.”

Committee veterans have made no attempt to sue Cheech and Chong for plagiarism. According to Garry Goodrow, “The fact that they refused to admit stealing material was infuriating. But I don’t want to blow it up—they didn’t ride to success on Committee material, they made it on their own.”

Another frequent criticism of Cheech and Chong is that despite their ethnic humor and great reliance on the controversial topic of marijuana smoking, their comedy contains no social commentary, no searching political satire, no trace of what is usually called “relevance.” A Los Angeles Times reviewer recently faulted Up in Smoke for not being “serious.” The idea of serious comedy makes Cheech and Chong laugh—heartily.

“Serious closes on Saturday,” says Chong.

“They mean didactic humor,” says Cheech, actually turning serious for a moment. “That’s so fucking boring. They talk about Lenny Bruce but Lenny Bruce wasn’t serious. He was a funny junkie. When he got serious, he wasn’t funny anymore.

“When Lily Tomlin gets serious, she isn’t funny. You get these people trying to save the world from the stage of The Comedy Store [a Hollywood comedy nightclub]. That’s funny.

“If I wanted to be serious, I’d hang out a shingle reading, EUGENE O’NEILL. There are just times when you need a laugh. We are what you do to get relaxed.”

“Our attitude is off the street,” says Chong. “You have clear vision when you’re down there. You know who your friends are. You’re not cluttered by philosophical ins and outs.”

“We go over great in prisons for the same reason,” Cheech observes. “They dig our attitude. It’s like this,” he says, becoming uncommonly alert, “say your garage burned down and your house almost burned down. …”

“And when the insurance guy comes around,” interjects Chong, “you start telling him funny stories. ‘Yeah, this is the garage. I had—ah, I had ten Rolls Royces in there. And this here was a gold-plated crowbar. Only one in the state. Fire melted all the gold off. All lost now. You takin’ this down?’ “

Only Cheech’s insurance man knows for sure about those Rolls Royces and the executive crowbar. As for the future of Cheech and Chong, some things have been revealed. An Up in Smoke soundtrack album has just been released by Warner Bros., in time to make a Stigwood-style assault on the record charts. Soon to follow are a studio LP of new skits, more live appearances—and more films. There are those seven scripts waiting in the drawer, you know, one of which is for an animated cartoon and one for a sequel to Up in Smoke.

“We are going to elaborate the positive aspects of this movie in our next one,” says Tommy Chong brightly. “More lowrider scenes. We want to use more of our characters—there are more than eighty characters on our records.”

And what of the distant future?

“We want to be the Bob Hopes of the doper generation,” says Chong, “smoking bongs onstage and performing at the age of eighty.

“There’s a culture that a lot of people are trying to bury, like they tried to bury rock & roll after a couple of years and said, ‘Rock’s dead.’ They want to say, ‘This is the Seventies, that stuff’s dead.’ But we will keep it alive for the rest of our lives. We are so much a part of the culture we make fun of, whatever comes down we will still be part of it.

“I think it is a creative and loving and aware culture, I really do. And it’s a great lifestyle to make fun of.”

“Yeah,” says Cheech. “Smoke a joint and you’ll understand.”

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