Tommy Chong: ‘We were always high. That was the job’
How does half of stoner duo Cheech and Chong cope with coronavirus lockdown? Fine – thanks to drugs, his wife and the experience of nine months in prison for selling bong pipes
Tommy Chong has got the munchies. It’s early afternoon in locked-down LA, and last night he was on the pot cookies. “My wife, Shelby, just made a whole batch of them – oatmeal and maple syrup.” He stops to correct himself. “I put the pot in there, and of course I put too much in. Last night it got me almost comatose. Shelby got kinda mad at me. You know like when a kid gets so stoned all you do is sit there and grin.” Chong is 82 next month.
He sounds about four decades younger – his voice is deep, sexy, pulsing with life. Chong is one half of the most famous stoner comic partnership in history, Cheech and Chong. In the 1970s, they not only sold out their live shows, they topped the album charts and had huge box-office hits with movies such as Up in Smoke and Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. The double-act were as radical as they were bonkers. And while the films were ostensibly about two aspiring rock stars in search of the next spliff, they introduced audiences to a downtown, multiracial Los Angeles rarely seen in movies.
Their characters, Pedro de Pacas (Richard “Cheech” Marin ) and Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong), were hopeless wasters, but heroically so. In their frequent spats with the police, they invariably won – even if they didn’t have a clue how or indeed even notice that they had.
But there is more to Chong than Cheech, as he is quick to point out today. After they split up he enjoyed success as a solo comic and businessman (though that ended up in a jail sentence). Before Cheech and Chong, he was a guitarist with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, co-writing their hit single Does Your Mama Know About Me – a gorgeous song about a mixed-race relationship. Although they only had the one hit, the band were influential – something Chong is again quick to point out. A young Jimi Hendrix played with them, and they were partly responsible for the Jackson Five (who opened for them in 1968) signing to Motown. Or rather Chong was.
“I was the lawyer who signed the contract for them,” he says. Hold on, I say, you’re not a lawyer. Chong laughs. “Well, I was the whitest guy they knew. I looked like a Jewish guy, a lawyer. So literally Bobby Taylor took the contract and gave it to me and said what d’you think?” Chong gave it the OK and the rest is history.
Chong segues from one celebrity anecdote to another, all of them connected by one degree of separation – himself. And now we have landed at British royalty. “I played Does Your Mama Know for Prince Harry. We were in the Spencers’ house. We went there for a wedding two years ago.” Did he get high with Harry? “He was busy with the wedding,” Chong says, discreetly. “He took a liking to Shelby because she had read all about him and knew his life story.”
England is probably the most racist country in the world with its royalty and its caste system
He may have a lot of time for Harry and Meghan, but not for the royal family as a whole. “England itself is probably the most racist country in the world with its royalty and its caste system.” Chong does not like to hold back. “You still have the system that colonised the world. Meghan wasn’t white enough. She would never be white enough. I can see why they left. Megan could never be accepted into the royal family. She knew that and the whole family did. The whole English system is set up that way.”
From the royals he turns to Donald Trump. He doesn’t know Trump personally, but he says he remembers coming across his type as a young man in British Columbia. “I knew people like Trump all my life in Canada – we called them gangsters. And they hung around the Stock Exchange in Vancouver. That’s where his grandpa made all his money. Running whores, and gambling joints and bootlegging.”
Chong is convinced that once he leaves office, Trump will face criminal charges. “He is a Russian asset. History will show that. He’s been colluding with Russia from the get-go – the Mueller report even said it. The only reason they couldn’t do anything is because he’s the president, and the minute Trump’s not president they’re gonna put his ass in jail.”
It’s a big claim. Do you really think Trump will end up jailed? “Yes. If Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are an example, yes, I think he will. So he’s going to go. He’s insulted too many people.” When you go after judges, he says, it comes back to bite you in the ass.
One of the things he finds most offensive about Trump is his attitude to people of colour. “Just because you were born with money don’t make you any better than anybody else on the planet, but he’s still sticking to that thing that because he’s white and privileged he somehow is better than other people.”
I knew people like Trump all my life in Canada – we called them gangsters
Race, and racism, has been at the heart of Chong’s life and his humour. He grew up in Calgary, a conservative Canadian city, the son of a Chinese father and a Canadian mother with Celtic roots. He still sounds shocked by the attitudes he experienced there as a child. “You know, they would sell brazil nuts in the grocery store and they’d call them nigger toes. And they had little black liquorice beans called nigger babies. ‘Can I have five cents worth of nigger babies?’ Again he laughs – this time appalled. “That’s where I grew up.”
As a young boy he remembers his whole class apart from him being invited to a birthday party. “I just looked out of the window of the second storey and could see my friends gathering around the fire. I was uninvited ’cos the girl’s father was worried she might end up with a coloured guy or Chinese guy.”
By then, he was already used to being isolated. When he was a baby, his mother contracted TB and he developed pleurisy. “My first memories are hospital and my mom was quarantined in a sanitarium. I never saw her for the first three or four years of my life. So I feel I’ve been through this pandemic before with my mother.”
How is he coping? He says he is missing his five children and the grandchildren. “It affects everybody’s life. We can’t do our family reunions. It’s lonely. Even though you’ve got your kids a phone call away, you still want to hold them and hug them and be part of their life.” But, he stresses, he’s lucky – he’s got Shelby’s company, her gourmet cooking and the pot cookies.
It was in the late 60s that he teamed up with Richard Marin, a Mexican-American whose nickname was Cheech. They played music and did comedy sketches in a Vancouver strip club. The funny stuff soon took over, and the strip club became a comedy club.
Cheech and Chong prided themselves on taking things to extremes – spliffs the size of tubas (famously smoking labarador poo in their first film, Up in Smoke), idiocy off the IQ ratings and staggeringly incorrect sexual politics (in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, Cheech only desists from having sex with a woman who seems to have died on him because she wakes up).
He says his favourite Cheech and Chong sketch is Hey, Margaret – about a husband describing a porn film to his wife. First, an elderly woman has sex with the pizza delivery man, then she has sex with a dog, and the husband reports it all back to Margaret with relish. Finally, she has sex with a “god-damned coloured guy” and the husband turns away sickened. It was bad-taste comedy with bigotry as the butt of the joke.
Why does he think they were so popular? Simple, he says. “We communicated with people. They would get high to come and see us and then we’d act crazy and make them laugh.”
Could they really be such dedicated stoners and still be so prolific, or was it an act? Chong sounds slightly offended by the question. “Oh no, for the most part we were always high. We always smoked a little before we went out there. That was part of the job.”
Drugs, he says, were essential to the creative process. “It was my job as a writer and performer to deliver the goods. So if that meant being stoned, I gladly did it. I found that the more stoned I was, the more crazy the movie was, and the more successful we were.” What was his drug of choice when writing? Oh, he says, there were a few. “A little bit of cocaine and the acid and then the weed.”
Cheech and Chong appeared to be having the time of their lives. But by the mid-80s they had fallen out. “We had some pretty heated arguments. Cheech would go on vacation and I’d be left alone to write the movies. Then he’d come back and I’d direct them, and he got tired of it. He was thinking I got too much credit.” Did he have a point? “ Well, I maintain that if he’d listened to me it would have been better all the way around.”
The only way people listen to you is if you’re the director. If you’re not the director, people don’t give a shit what you’ve got to say
In his memoir, Marin called Chong “the world’s humblest megalomaniac”. Talking to Chong today, I get a sense of what he means. Alongside the hippy-dippy mellowness, there is a man who clearly likes doing things his way. “The only way people listen to you is if you’re the director. If you’re not the director, people don’t give a shit what you’ve got to say.” So it was a power struggle between him and Marin? “Well, yeah, for sure. Because what Cheech wanted was the part where you got the power.”
Chong calls Marin a genius – not just for his comedic skills, but for his photographic memory and the sharpness of his brain. As for himself, he says his great gift has always been for teaming up with the right person – whether it be Marin or Shelby, his second wife, to whom he has been married for 45 years.
At times, he sounds calculated when he talks about what Marin brought to the table. “We clicked from the off. And I soon realised I’ve got a goldmine with this guy because LA is made up mostly of Mexicans. So I realised, oh man, we can own this place with comedy. And we do. I mean our comedy’s lasted longer than anything.”
In the end, he says, it was money that did for them. “I always say we broke up ’cos we got rich. My joke is you can’t make a rich Mexican do shit! Hehehe! That still makes me laugh.” Did wealth change them? “Yea. You make the wrong decision. You’d rather do your summer house than go on the road again.” Chong says if you’re in the entertainment business and you’re not 100% dedicated to entertaining, you might as well give up. And they did.
After the split, Chong developed his solo standup. But he hated being away from Shelby. “I couldn’t leave my wife at home. She’s too beautiful to leave alone.” (He tells me three times how beautiful she is and how much he loves her.) So Shelby learned how to do standup and went on the road with him. Occasionally, in his live act he would phone Cheech, but Cheech refused to play along. “He wouldn’t be funny, so I quit phoning him.” And they fell out some more.
In 2003, at the age of 65, Chong was jailed for nine months for selling glass pipes on the internet that could be used for smoking cannabis (though they were produced as collectible works of art): each bong had his name and a picture of his face on it. It was a family business, and Chong agreed to plead guilty in exchange for the non-prosecution of Shelby and his son Paris.
He says jail changed him, physically and spiritually. He spent his time reading the I Ching and became more at peace with himself. His hair and beard turned white, and he emerged from incarceration looking rather professorial. Since then he has seen off two cancers, and returned to the road.
Despite the rise of rightwing populists, impending environmental catastrophe and the Covid-19 pandemic, he says life has never been better.“I see today as the best time to be alive because we weren’t content with what we had. We were always looking for that better club, the better audience to play in front of.”
In his 80s, he has never been more occupied – gigging with Shelby, launching his own brand of marijuana (Chong’s Choice) in 2016 when the drug was legalised for recreational use in California, and spending time with his kids. He even made up with Cheech, thanks to Paris. A decade ago his son found an email from Marin on Chong’s computer asking if he wanted to try to put aside differences – Paris didn’t bother to tell his dad, wrote yes and hit reply.
Since then Cheech and Chong have been gigging again, with Shelby as their opening act. On the day we speak, he is supposed to be promoting a Cheech and Chong video game, but he is too excited about new opportunities to mention it. Doe he think the duo might make another film? Silence. But I can sense his boyish excitement at the other end of the line. “Well I can’t really tell you that now,” he says coyly. So there might be one? “I’ve got to wait till it’s a reality as opposed to telling you dreams. I’ll turn it into a reality and then I’ll tell you.”
And with that he’s off to satisfy those munchies and realise his dreams