Michael Deeds: Cheech & Chong — American comedy classics

mdeeds@idahostatesman.comJuly 4, 2014 

I'm not sure how I wound up on the phone with Tommy Chong this week. I was never old enough to be allowed into Cheech & Chong's R-rated counterculture movies in the '70s and '80s. And pot? Let's just say I'm a beer guy.

Still, with a hazy cloud of smoke settling over Boise as you read this Fourth of July column, a conversation with one of the original stoner dudes seems fitting. Besides, is there anything more American than Cheech & Chong? When the comedy duo gigs July 18 at the Revolution Center in Garden City ($49.50, Ticketfly), they'll even perform "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's a nightly ritual with classic funk band War, which is accompanying them on tour.

"People love it," Chong says. "I love it. Any reason to incite the crowd. It all works. It's all good."

I'm not a person to question someone's patriotism; I'll leave that to the Bowe Bergdahl screwballs feuding on the Idaho Statesman's website. But if anyone has a reason to be mildly irked with his government, it might be Chong, a naturalized American citizen born in Canada. This is a man who was incarcerated not for marijuana, but for ...

"A water pipe!" Chong says. "Nine months in jail for not even selling a water pipe - for sending it through the mail."

In a story covered heavily by the media, his company, Chong Glass, was raided in a federal bust.

"Using the mail to ship a water pipe was illegal in '03," Chong continues. "And now ..."

He laughs. His voice trails off.

Now marijuana is legal to sell and use recreationally in two states. Others are almost certain to follow.

"And now I'm vindicated," Chong says. "I get CNN calling me up asking me my opinion. Here's this old jailbird talking to Don Lemon and all these people and just being the senior pot spokesperson! I love it."

When you're 76 years old, you learn to enjoy a lot of things. Especially your old comedy gig.

Richard "Cheech" Marin and Chong were a success for the better part of a decade, with hit albums and movies. Their last feature film was 1984's "The Corsican Brothers."

After that, Marin took an acting detour toward the mainstream, notably CBS' "Nash Bridges." Chong honed his skills as a stand-up comic.

But in 2008, the friends revived their old act.

"We ran out of options, basically," Chong says candidly. "I mean, actually, I was fine. I still am fine. I put a stand-up career together. I had my life together. And Cheech had his life together. Except the movie roles kind of dried up for him. So he was ready. Then he wanted to go back and do the Cheech & Chong thing again. So we said, 'Yeah, why not?' "

Maybe because being a stoner in the '70s is significantly different than being a stoner IN your 70s?

This makes Chong laugh hard.

"Well, actually, I'm calmer," he says. "There's no excitement anymore, you know. ... I appreciate everything more."

Including his audiences, who turn out for a non-stop dose of laughter and hippie-era nostalgia.

"When people pay that kind of money, they know what to expect," Chong says. "They know they're going to hear the old Cheech & Chong bits that we did on the records, on the radio. And they know War's going to play their hits. It really is like a Mexican wedding, you know. There's one thing for sure: Everybody's gonna get high."

If you're not a Cheech & Chong diehard, the inclusion of War might seem odd. But the band's song "Low Rider" was Cheech & Chong's opening-credit theme in the duo's 1978 breakout movie "Up in Smoke."

"We were kind of responsible for their longevity," Chong says.

Um, that depends on the strictness of your parameters for "longevity." There's been so much change in the band that there are 24 ex-members, according to Wikipedia.

"It's so funny, yeah, because War was a black band that catered to Chicanos," Chong says, chuckling, "and now it's a Chicano band catering to Chicanos! With a black singer!"

Yeah, well, things change. Pop-culture references get updated in jokes. Drugs get legalized. And comedians get out of prison - with a positive attitude about it years later.

"You're a writer, so you can understand," Chong tells me. "Most people, any writer, when they heard that I went to jail, they get all excited because it's part of our job to investigate. And what better way to investigate than to participate?"

Call me un-American, but I think I'd rather just go to the comedy show, if that's OK.

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