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.”