Reunited once more for their most ambitious tour in over 25 years, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong take it to the boards of the Count Basie on May 1 for an evening of mirth, music and munchie-inducing classic routines.
By TOM CHESEK
Is this any way to observe 420 Day? If you’re the elder stoner statesmen Cheech and Chong, you’ve spent that nationwide celebration of cannabis culture in seemingly uncharacteristic fashion up before the sun, doing tightly scheduled rounds of press, and interfacing with fans on social media platforms that range from Facebook and Twitter to Pinterest and everything short of Christian Mingle.
Truth be told, Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong have a collective work ethic that’s seen them embrace new tech, new formats and new channels of distribution almost as fast as they’re dreamed up and, with their first big tour in over 25 years now underway, the Grammy-winning kings of most media have a lot of lost time to make up.
On Wednesday, Cheech and Chong’s Third Reunion Tour finds the gold-plated “cult” stars of stage, screen and stereos heading into Red Bank for an 8 pm appearance at the Count Basie Theatre in which the pair recreate many of the classic, bongwater-basted sketch routines from their smash comedy records of the 1970s a post-Woodstock era that routinely saw single releases like Basketball Jones, Earache My Eye and Sister Mary Elephant” crashing the Top 40 charts (and causing as much angst among radio programmers as among parents of the nation’s easily corrupted youth).
It’s a debut for the duo, in the borough that claims a couple of their spiritual offspring Jay and Silent Bob as “homegrown” favorites. It’s also a chance for the veteran comedy team to promote the first new Cheech and Chong project in a generation the soundtrack to the feature-length Cheech and Chongs Animated Movie!, with nine all-new songs augmenting a cartoonified collection of vintage vignettes from such discs as Cheech & Chong’s Wedding Album, Los Cochinos, and Big Bambu (coincidentally, Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie! kicked off its tour of screenings and podcasts on 4/20).
With Marin having stretched his mainstream chops in recent years (through projects that ranged from playing cops on network TV series to producing a series of children’s music albums) and with Chong’s intermittent screen appearances overshadowed by a controversial 2003 federal prison sentence (documented in detail here) for selling drug paraphernalia online the stock characters of the street-savvy Chicano and the eternal hippie look to take on new dimensions of time and tide and life experience.
4/20 came and went without a scheduled phone interview but an apologetic Chong called the Comedy Desk at redbankgreen the following evening to bring us up to date. Flip the record over for more, man…
redbankgreen: Thanks for making time for this. I got a look at your itinerary for 420 Day and it looks like you guys didn’t get a chance to inhale a breath all day long. Doesn’t it kind of fly against the spirit of 420 though, to have such a structured day, where you get up early and do everything in 15 minute increments?
TOMMY CHONG: There are people who are lobbying to get April 20th officially designated as Cheech and Chong Day, but really, theres no such thing as 420 Day for us! We have so much press to do, so many things on the schedule, that weve gotta be the most alert out of anybody. It’s like we’re Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny: we’ve got one day of the year where we really can’t afford to lay back.
Would it be spoiling things for anybody by this point, to suggest that your slacker stoner characters are actually hardworking pros who show up on time?
We’re actors, man! We have a show to take out on the road, we gotta make sure the trains are runnin’ on time. Same as when you’re directin’ a movie: you’re the guy who has to keep on schedule or you’re hearin’ it from everybody. I’ve had the chance to direct four or five and they’ve done really well for the most part a lot of directors are lucky if they get to do just one or two.
Well, being in my 50s, I was of the generation that was most susceptible to corruption by Cheech and Chong. You guys were being compared to Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, but to us you were more like Huntley and Brinkley… you were the news! A whole nation of suburban pre-teens picked up an awful lot from your old routines. But when you look back on it, your humor was pretty self-deprecating and good natured compared to a lot of comedy that followed. The Leonard Maltin book calls UP IN SMOKE a silly pothead comedy that breaks down all resistance with its cheerful vignettes, and that about says it there.
That’s exactly right, man. We took the mystique, and the danger, away from the pothead lifestyle. And we took away the scary edge from the Chicano thing, made it all fun and friendly and something where we could all have a laugh together. See, I don’t like it when comedians get serious or mean… I don’t like to see people get hurt. I grew up on Bob Hope, Red Skelton… I hated it whenever THEY got serious, but a lot of what we did kind of relates to the way those guys did it. A lot of comedy that’s out there is mean-spirited, but in our kind of comedy nobody gets hurt: the cops and the authority figures get teased, but everyone gets high and gets happy.
We’re seeing the legacy of your earlier movies to this day, in things like THE HANGOVER. They’re probably still not teaching NICE DREAMS in film school, but you could trace the Cheech and Chong vibe back through Mike Myers, Kevin Smith, definitely something like THE BLUES BROTHERS.
Oh, Aykroyd and Belushi were big Cheech and Chong fans. Lorne Michaels and the rest of the people on the show, not so much. Belushi in particular was a good friend; they both came to our set when we were filming, and Aykroyd actually directed one scene uncredited. It’s when I’m supposed to be peeing and you can see the prop guy’s hand in the shot, holding a hose. We decided to leave it in. Why? Because it’s funny, man!
So yeah, I like to think that we inspired a lot of movie makers. And I feel that we’re also kind of responsible for Howard Stern; that we kind of opened doors up for a lot of other people to come through. Chris Rock, who called us The Masters, and guys from that generation.
And how sweet is it to be able to bask in that appreciation while you’re still around to hear it?
It’s great, but I gotta tell you there was a time when we were hotter than hot. I remember once we played a concert, and there’s Richard Pryor helping us off the stage, like he’s some valet or something. Richard Pryor, man! And when Carol Burnett copies you, you know you’ve made it. We were so hot that [Jeffrey] Katzenberg chartered a private plane to come up to Victoria, British Columbia just to get us to do a cameo in It Came from Hollywood. I was with my family after my mother’s funeral, Katzenberg shows up in person saying ‘we NEED you to do this movie’ how can you say no?
And now after all this time you’ve got a new feature to promote together, one that sidestepped the whole Hollywood thing entirely by doing a special one-day release, then going to Facebook before dropping on disc. What can you tell us about the ANIMATED MOVIE project?
It is all the original routines, just the way you heard ’em on record, only we visualized everything in cartoon form, which is something we did back with the original Basketball Jones film. With the distribution, we took kind of the Louis CK approach, you know, where he produced a special and sold it directly to the fans. And it’s been doin’ really well already with foreign sales. We’re already smilin’!
The other thing we did with this project was something that’s brand new in Cheech and Chong history: a soundtrack album, where we had a new songwriter come in to help us create a whole bunch of new songs.
It’s kind of coming full circle, isn’t it, to the days when network TV wasn’t exactly clamoring to put you on the air, and when you used records and the rock audience to punch a hole into the mainstream? Would you describe it as an alternative, even experimental, way to have established your act, so far outside the standard comedy circuit?
It’s something that George Carlin, and maybe one or two other people, were sort of able to do. But we were kind of workin’ our own thing, and we were fortunate to have the support of people who knew their way around the business. We had the pleasure, just the other day, of inducting our producer, Lou Adler, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Carole King was there with us; she sang afterward. It was a real thrill to be there, to be able to be part of that.
It was a no-brainer for you to have always incorporated music into the act, and you’ve toured off and on with bands over the years, including Tower of Power and War, who you’re playing with out west later this year.
This leg of the tour is just Cheech and Chong and Shelby Chong, my very funny, very beautiful wife, who opens the show. My son Paris Chong is with us too; he’s our road manager and he plays bass onstage with me. We do a podcast, or pot-cast, together also The Chong and Chong Show. I am all about my family. My kids, Rae Dawn Chong, Robbi, Marcus, Paris, Gilbran, and Precious Chong, are all really talented.
This is something that you get asked in some shape or form all the time, but do you see the slow creep toward legalization of weed as genuine progress, or just the continued blockage of an evolution that should have occurred a generation ago? Bear in mind that we’ve had at least three presidents now who’ve copped to having partaken at some point.
And you just KNOW that Ronnie Reagan did it early-on Ronnie anyway. Yeah, it’s something to stop and think about, especially when you see the surgeon generals come out in favor of legalization as soon as they leave office. But maybe even more of a dramatic change in our lives has been the computer, the cell phone. It’s made the roadside phone booth disappear, for one thing! But we’re livin’ in a world now where as soon as you say something, even before it’s totally out of your mouth, everyone’s checkin’ up on what you said. Everyone’s recording it, callin’ you on it. Hypocrisy has it rough these days. Hypocrisy’s runnin’ out of places to hide.
That leads into the question of what one thing, more than anything else in 21st century America, truly blows your mind?
Besides the computer? You just need to look at who’s been elected President of the United States for two terms. And even after all that there are still a handful of Republicans who don’t believe their eyes, who are still waiting for the mirage to disappear. There’s a frustration and a disbelief that works its way out in a lot of negativity, and it’s like nothing’s ever gonna change their minds.
With me, man, it’s all based on love. It makes comedy club owners very nervous when I go into spiritual mode, when I go into my love mode. But I was brought up in the jazz culture, and that’s a big part of how I approach life.
When I was 15, 16, I met people like Wes Montgomery, Jon Hendricks. The jazz musicians were the wise sages. They knew the answers long before Cheech and Chong. They turned me on to books, to ideas, and to the jazz credo of taking a theme and improvising with it, going off in another direction and always coming back to that theme. I use that jazz credo with our humor, and with everything in my life.
Tickets for the May 1 appearance of Cheech & Chong are priced from $38 to $88, and can be reserved right here.