Cheech and Chong: Still Smokin'

Cheech & Chong, the iconic stoner comedy team who began their career on the stand-up circuit nearly 40 years ago, eventually recorded nine hit comedy albums and made eight hit films. Their pot-influenced humor even earned them a Grammy for best comedy album and their movies grossed millions. Breaking up in 1985 citing creative differences, they've waged a contentious feud ever since. But Cheech Marin, 62, and Tommy Chong, 70, have reconciled and are about to embark on their first comedy tour in more than 25 years: "Cheech & Chong Light up America." They spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about their smoky legacy, their bitter feud and unlikely reconciliation, and what fans can expect from these upcoming shows:

NEWSWEEK: A lot of people thought this reunion would never happen. Who broke the ice?
We both reached out to each other. It got to a point where we just decided to stop fighting and focus on the things we love about each other. There are a lot of things I admire about Tommy. We're getting along fine.

Will this be a sort of Greatest Hits tour?
Yeah, they'll get to see a lot of the hits that no one's ever seen on stage, like "The Old Man in the Park" and "Ralph and Herbie the Dogs." There'll be some esoteric, weird crap, too.
Cheech: You'll also see us performing a lot of music. We're both musicians and music's always been a big part of us. We'll do the "Born in East L.A." song for the first time, and "Me and My Old Lady," and "Mexican Americans" from "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie." This show will be very theatrical. We're going to take advantage of the venues we'll be playing. People will get their money's worth.

Tommy, did your time in prison [he was convicted of selling glass bongs in 2003 and served nine months] change you in any way?
Chong: It turned me into a writer. My incarceration was actually a positive thing from the beginning. I needed a gimmick to get my act going again, it gave me material. And in a lot of ways it stopped Cheech and I from getting together too soon. We were working on a movie, and I'm sure it would have been a disaster had we done it. We had to go back out on the road and get in a groove again. Being in jail also made me become more of an activist. We used to joke about the lighter side of smoking pot, but after being incarcerated and seeing guys doing 20 years for having a small pot farm, it woke me up to the all the grave injustices of this Republican administration. I'm awake now, I'm more aware of what's going on.

Is it fair to say you guys are still smoking?
Oh yeah, I was a bodybuilder before I became a pothead. I worked out with Mr. America and Mr. Universe, and these were guys who didn't even drink a soft drink because it had sugar in it and only ate steamed chicken. But they would smoke pot; they knew it had beneficial effects.
Cheech: The most beneficial effect being it gets you high. I'm all for the legalization of pot.

But Tommy, you have to be careful now, right?
Chong: If I get busted again there could be some hard time. Once you're a felon you're a target. But I hope to get my record expunged when I get these criminals out of office. I've been a good boy, I've never really been convicted of serious crime. It's a political crime. Chances are the media will help me, a judge will accept my not guilty plea and I'll get my record expunged.
Cheech: Yeah, 'expunged' with soap and water, and with a happy ending.
Chong: I'd rather do without pot for a week and have a clean conscience. I don't want to get searched in an airport. I'm careful now when I travel.
Cheech: Yeah, he lets his road manager carry it now.

How did you guys meet?
It was in 1969. I was living in Canada during the Vietnam War, I was a draft resister who made my way to Vancouver. I was writing articles for rock and roll magazines and an editor at one magazine knew Tommy, who was doing this weird improvisational theater thing in a bar downtown. He introduced us, and Tommy hired me to write for the troupe. Eventually I did all the parts, and when the troupe fell apart Tommy and I stayed together and incorporated the troupe into two guys. From there we came back to L.A. and started doing our thing on the streets. We worked mostly in black clubs in L.A. at first then got our big break at the Troubadour.

In those early days you had a bunch of characters in your act, not just the two stoner dudes. There were blues singers, game-show hosts, nuns and rednecks. Are you bringing out any of these characters in the upcoming stand-up tour?
Absolutely. We have an incredible amount of characters, over 100. A lot of our fans, especially the ones who've seen the movies but haven't listened to the records, have no idea. But these characters still live on YouTube. Before we knew what video was, people were filming our stand-up act back in the '70s and now some of that is online.

You mentioned "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie." That was my favorite. It had such a surreal vibe.
Pound for pound I think it's our funniest movie, and definitely our weirdest.
Chong: I'm very proud of that one. It was the first one we did after we left Lou Adler, who discovered us. We directed, wrote, and starred in it, and we did some innovative filmmaking. There's one scene that they actually teach now in film school: the unemployment office scene. It has five different things going on at one time. It's become a classic.

But you guys have never been a critical darling. Does critical acclaim mean anything to you?
Well, the really good critics have actually always gotten us. Pauline Kael wrote glowingly about us. The secure critics loved us. Criticism is by nature, well, critical. The only really fair criticism they could lay on us about the movies was that we were in every shot. But the people who went to our movies didn't care. All they knew is they laughed hard for the entire movie. It was funny, that's what mattered.

That sounds like when critics tried to pretentiously analyze why "The Honeymooners" was so popular, and Jackie Gleason responded by saying, simply, "It's funny."
I sat with Audrey Meadows (Alice on "The Honeymooners") for dinner one time and she told me the secret behind that show was that Jackie would never rehearse, but she was a trained actress and would learn all the words and points, and when Jackie got stuck, he'd just say "You know what I'm gonna do to you Alice?" and she'd get him back on track.

Is that pretty much how you guys worked?
Yeah, it was effortless, and that was the secret of our comedy. We didn't exert any energy or have to remember anything. All the good stuff just came naturally. Our comedy has always been improvisational. It's like jazz. You know a few of the chords and the tempo, and then you just jam.

Cheech, you've had a successful acting career, you're a serious art collector, you were the first winner on "Celebrity Jeopardy." You've worked hard to show your diverse talents. What will this reunion do to your image?
The character from the Cheech & Chong movies is part of my image, a part I can never get rid of, and I've never tried to. It's in my DNA. Some people get it and some don't. When I made "Born in East L.A.," I showed an early cut of the film to a prominent newspaper critic in L.A., and as he interviewed me he just kept staring at me. I asked him why he was staring, and he said, "You don't speak with an accent." It was unbelievable. I mean this guy should have known better. The lowrider character I played is so cemented in everyone's minds. You don't leave that and go off in 180 degrees. You take small incremental steps. My strategy with my work since Cheech & Chong broke up has basically been to do anything that didn't have a big joint in it.

Stoner buddy comedy has never really gone out of style since you guys brought it to the masses, from Bill and Ted to Beavis and Butthead to "The Big Lebowski" to Harold and Kumar to "Pineapple Express." Does that feel to either of you like vindication?
You know, the only vindication is how our movies are rented, they are rented all the time. I've gotten the same royalty checks for "Up in Smoke" for 30 years, Cheech and Chong is a rite of passage now for people who are 15 or 16, they want to hear Cheech & Chong. I am really looking forward to doing this again. We are in a unique position, Tommy and I. Not many acts in show business can go strong for 20-some years, then take a break for 25 years, and then come back and still have the following you had.
Chong: I can't argue with that. We're still doing it, man. We're still alive. I don't see anybody else out there. I heard an interview with Jerry Lewis one time and the interviewer asked why there were no more comedy teams, and Jerry said, "There is: Cheech & Chong." That pretty much ended the conversation.