Along with The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) and their follow-up, Next Movie (1980) were my earliest exposures to R-rated comedies. Where I grew up in Canada there was an independent television station that would show these comedies with very little censoring. Seeing them at a young age made quite an impression on me. Cheech and Chong’s first two movies, in particular, were a fascinating window into not only Latino culture, but also the stoner subculture. Their unique brand of crude humor was perfect for me at that young age because it is largely childish in nature. Watching these movies now I notice all kinds of subversive humor and adult references that went over my head as a kid.
As soon as the opening groove of “Low Rider” by War comes on the soundtrack in Up in Smoke, you are instantly transported back to the 1970s as Pedro (Cheech Marin) spruces up his beaten-up pimpmobile, appropriately nicknamed “Love Machine.” He’s driving along the freeway when he spots what appears to be a busty hitchhiker but it turns out to be Anthony (Tommy Chong), a musician who’s bailed from his high society home to kick start his career. They quickly bond over a monster joint of marijuana-laced Labrador dog shit. Pedro and Anthony soon run afoul of the cops and try to get a band together.
They end up looking for some pot while staying one step ahead of the cops. They hook up with a dealer named Strawberry (Tom Skerritt cast wonderful against type), a Vietnam War veteran who is still experiencing the war, and Anthony inadvertently gets a woman to snort Ajax cleaner (she assumes its cocaine). Her reaction is priceless. Stacy Keach plays the square, undercover cop (whose attire anticipates Herb Tarlek’s fashion sense on WKRP in Cincinnati) intent on busting Pedro and Anthony and their van made entirely out of pot.
Like any good counter-culture comedy, Up in Smoke continually thumbs its nose at authority figures and the establishment, be it narcs or nuns. The film also successfully took Cheech and Chong’s shtick from their stand-up and records and put it on the big screen, including a restaging of one of their classic bits, “Earache My Eye.” While tame by today’s gross-out movie standards, it is refreshing amiable and a fascinating snapshot of the times during which it was made.
After the commercial success of Up in Smoke, a sequel was inevitable but the comedy duo decided to use their clout to exert more creative control over their follow-up, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie by not only writing the screenplay but having Chong direct as well. The end result was an even funnier, trippier experience. The guys are up to their usual hijinks as the movie begins with them stealing gasoline (putting it in a garbage can no less) and sloppily pouring it into the gas tank of their car. En route to Cheech’s work, Chong rolls a joint and lights up thereby igniting the gas fumes and creating a small explosion. Cheech visits a friend who works on a film crew (one of the aspiring actresses is played by a young Rita Wilson) and inadvertently disrupts it by telling a guy that looks like a red version of the T.V. show’s the Hulk (anticipating the comic book version by 28 years!), which wall he’s supposed to crash through.
We then get insight into Chong’s daily routine, which consists mainly of smoking pot (along with a bug), antagonizing his neighbors by revving his motorcycle so that obnoxious smoke kills flowers, and playing his guitar incredibly loud. So loud, in fact, that when Cheech comes home he has to fight through the wall of sound to turn off the amp. Some memorable bits from this first half of the movie include Cheech and Chong tricking out their van; having a hydraulics battle with another vehicle (with Chong getting a little too enthusiastic) and then insulting a Latino family all to “Tequila” by the Champs. Best of all, Chong pulls a prank on Cheech by tricking him into snorting from a bag of cocaine that is actually powdered soap, which causes him to panic and accidentally drink from a vase of urine that Chong was going to use for his drug test.
Next Movie follows the same rambling, lack of narrative approach from Up in Smoke by going from one comic situation to another and the fun comes from how each sequence is set-up for some kind of comedic pay-off. Not every set piece has a punchline per se, sometimes Cheech and Chong merely find themselves in a funny situation. Most set pieces involve Cheech and Chong making fun of uptight “straight” people, but they also show the chaotic horribleness of a local welfare office as low income people try to get money out of the government. This sequence also gives a pre-Police Academy (1984) Michael Winslow a showcase for his considerable sonic talents. Chong just lets it play out as Winslow does his thing while he looks like he’s genuinely laughing his ass off while in the background Cheech is trying to have sex with his girlfriend Donna (Evelyn Guerrero).
The story, such as it is, doesn’t really kick in until halfway through when Chong meets up with Cheech’s brother Red (also played by Cheech Marin) who has a big duffle bag full of weed at a hotel where they’re harassed by an obnoxious hotel clerk (played by to obnoxious perfection by Paul Reubens). In Next Movie, Cheech and Chong are in pursuit of simple pleasures with the former always trying to get laid and the latter just wanting to get (and stay) high. As with Up in Smoke, this movie revolves around the duo creating chaos in the process of achieving their respective goals as they upset the natural order of straight society, which includes uptight neighbors, hotel clerks, cops, and rich socialites. The second half of Next Movie loses a bit of its momentum when Cheech and Chong are split up. For all of his gregarious gusto, Red just isn’t as interesting a character as Cheech who is saddled with a thankless storyline that goes nowhere. That being said, it does end on a fantastic turn when Cheech and Red encounter a UFO, which leads to Chong giving Cheech some space coke with bizarre effects.
Richard “Cheech” Marin grew up in South Central Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. After college he got involved in the draft resistance movement, participating in demonstrations at draft centers and burning draft cards. As a result, and coupled with his student classification, he was reclassified and drafted for taking part in these demonstrations. In 1968, he went to Vancouver, Canada to avoid the Vietnam War and wrote articles for rock and roll magazines.
Thomas “Tommy” Chong grew up in Calgary, Canada. He played guitar as a youth and quit high school to play in a few R&B bands. He eventually quit them and ended up working at an improv club in Vancouver where he met Cheech in 1969. An editor for one of the magazines Cheech worked at knew Chong and introduced them. Cheech started writing for the improv troupe and when that fell apart he and Chong stayed together.
They formed a band and would perform sketches and engage in comic banter between songs. These would get better reactions than the music and they became a comedy act. After nine months, they moved to L.A., playing night clubs and strip clubs. According to Cheech, they were the only ones doing pothead humor at the time. They soon caught the attention of record producer Lou Adler. He had grown up among Chicano culture and understood Cheech and Chong’s brand of humor.
Four eight years they worked the club circuit and recorded four very successful comedy albums. Cheech said of this time, “We did thousands of miles in eight years of touring, just me and him telling our stories.” The next natural step was to make movies. In 1978, they made Up in Smoke for $2 million and it went on to gross $47.3 million, which led to Next Movie. In the first seven weeks it made more than $30 million. At the time, Cheech said, “Our movies show the state of the art of Middle America’s acceptance of dope.”
Before there was Bill and Ted, before Wayne and Garth, before The Dude, there were the original pothead slackers, Cheech and Chong. While they helped pioneer the stoner comedy, in their own way their brand of anarchic comedy carried on in the tradition of the Marx Brothers, which also used absurd humor to poke fun at the establishment. Cheech and Chong merely updated it to reflect the times in which they lived in – the late ‘70s and early 1980s. Their movies comment on class and race issues, suggesting that we’d all get along better if we chilled out and smoked more pot.