Chong's Bongs Gone Wrong

Tommy Chong is in a tight spot, man. To hear him discuss it, you'd almost think he's describing the plot of one of the skits he used to do with his partner, Cheech Marin. But for a comedian who manages to find humor even in the nine-month prison term he recently served for selling bongs, his new legal woes aren't exactly cracking him up. Forced, he says, by the terms of his parole to quit a stage production called "The Marijuana-Logues," and uncomfortable with rejoining the cast even after his parole is over in July, Chong is now being sued by the show's producers for breach of contract.

As the hippy half of Cheech and Chong, a bizarro stoned Abbot and Costello, Chong became a pop pot icon along with Marin upon the release of their eponymous 1971 debut. The album of skits and songs included the classics "Dave"--with Marin as a dealer on the lam, begging his blitzed roommate to unlock the door for him--and "Cruising with Pedro de Pacas," which also plumbs the theme of dumb druggies dodging cops. But the real-life law caught up with the real-life Chong two years ago for having invested in a business that sells bongs online. On parole now, he tells NEWSWEEK that he can't do "The Marijuana-Logues" legally until he gets off probation. Still, even after his probation expires, he says, "I don't feel comfortable because I'm trying to get my record expunged. I'd still be thumbing my nose at the government [that] just finished putting me in jail."

A.C. Lichtenstein, one of the producers of the play, says he was happy to let Chong meet the terms of his parole, but once those terms expire in July, Chong should honor his contract to do 36 shows on the road. "This is nothing more than an excuse by Mr. Chong to get out of his contractual obligations."

The show, which borrows its title, if not its tone, from Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," is a juvenile, silly and often very funny ode to dope. The cast trades riffs, one-liners and little stories about their favorite herb, relying heavily on hazy zingers like: "Everybody claims that they have the best weed and I tend to agree," and "My girlfriend thinks that I smoke too much pot ... I think, on the other hand, that I don't smoke enough pot because if I did, I'd be finished."

After a successful two-week run in New York last December, Chong and writers Doug Benson, Tony Camin and Arj Barker took the show on the road. It was during performances in Vancouver and Seattle where Chong began getting paranoid about his parole--which, he says, not only forbids him from smoking marijuana but from even entering a head shop where paraphernalia is sold. "I'm allowed to be in a play because I have the freedom of speech," he says. But when the play left New York to hit bigger concert venues, he says people began lighting up in the audience. "This turned out to be a Tommy Chong smoke-out." So he quit the tour. (His parole officer declined to discuss the terms of Chong's probation, citing confidentiality rules.)

Lichtenstein, the promoter, says he had "no firsthand knowledge" of people smoking marijuana in the audience but agreed to postpone Chong's contractual obligations until he was no longer on parole. But Chong decided that, given the reasons for which he was arrested in 2003, he wouldn't feel comfortable participating in a performance that may be construed as encouraging audience members to get high.

It's easy to see why he might be concerned: Chong was arrested as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, a crackdown, instigated by Attorney General John Ashcroft, on businesses that sell drug paraphernalia over the Internet. Chong served nine months because he was a principal investor in his son's business, which sold glass-blown bongs over the Web with no explicit reference at any time to marijuana use. (His son was not convicted of any crime in the case.) Chong likes to call himself "a political prisoner." Still, his contract obliges him to travel with the show for up to 36 performances after parole. "The reason he was hired in the first place is because he is the original pot icon," says Lichtenstein. "His failure to perform has cost us excessive amounts of money out of pocket and future earnings." Chong says he is considering a countersuit for unpaid wages and damages.

Up until this contractual kerfuffle, Chong, 66, handled his legal problems with cottonmouth charm. He did his time. "Prison was devastating to my family, especially my wife," he tells NEWSWEEK. "It wasn't tough on me. Actually it was quite a nice experience." He says he approached it as a religious retreat--he attended Jewish services, Catholic mass and even frequented Lakota Indian sweat lodge ceremonies--and is now writing a book about the experience tentatively called "I Chong," a pun on the ancient Taoist tome "I Ching."

Although his solo career was never as successful as Cheech Marin's, Chong does have a recurring role on "That 70's Show" and is working on another book, this one about Cheech and Chong. "I was never a pot activist," he says, looking back on his career. "I was an actor that showed you what it was like to get stoned. I made a living making records about how ridiculous the pot laws are." And for that, he believes he was made a target by the Justice Department. (Mary Beth Buchanan, the Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted Chong, told National Public Radio in February that "his prior conduct, being involved in comedy or other endeavors, didn't make him a target."

) The most exciting news for fans, however, is that he is collaborating with his old partner again. Cheech and Chong have written a sequel to their film debut, the 1978 monster hit "Up in Smoke." The movie--with the working title "Holy Smoke," even though Chong's wife preferred "Grumpy Old Stoners"--catches up with the aging potheads 30 years after we last saw them. Chong, who says he has not touched a joint in more than two years, will have to rely on sense memory to reprise the role of Man. Three decades ago, he sang: "When troubled times begin to bother me/I take a toke and all my cares go up in smoke." Pot icon or no, these days it would probably behoove him to ignore his own advice.