As one half of the legendary Cheech and Chong comedy duo, Tommy Chong’s name is synonymous with weed. Years after parting ways with his comedic partner, Chong still embodies the spirit of the hippie generation and has been unapologetic and vocal about his beliefs. We recently talked to Chong about politics, the chances of a Cheech and Chong reunion and the mandatory talk all parents must have with their kids about drugs.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
Las Angeles, California – Pacific Palisades. I’m originally from Calgary, Canada.
Obviously, you are best known for the Cheech and Chong comedy act. What is it like when you look back on that period of your life and how often do you watch your old movies and albums?
I sign a lot of them, but I don’t watch them. I haven’t for a long time. Basically, my wife and I do standup and I still allude to that time period and I’m still very much involved in the legalization of pot, so I’m still the old hippie. I’m not a young hippie anymore, I’m an old hippie.
What do you think it is about your movies that makes them so iconic? Why do you think Cheech and Chong films are so beloved even after all of these years?
They were really the first reality show, you know what I mean? We weren’t playing characters or doing some historical thing or some murder thing – it was a day in the life of a couple of guys in America that were caught up in an interesting time. We came around in an era when LSD was legal and pot was really demonized in some areas. We were the blossoming of a whole culture. I think Woodstock was really the official kickoff of that whole culture.
Do you have a favorite moment or scene from your time in Cheech and Chong?
Yeah, back in the day, there was a play called The Age of Aquarius. That play, if you remember it at all, it crossed all color lines – blacks, whites, women. And that’s really what hippies represented, we represented humanity without any race or creed or financial – like rich or poor, you know. They were all together at Woodstock. And that’s really what we personified.
There have been rumors of a Cheech and Chong reunion. Have you been in talks with Cheech Marin about reuniting and what are the chances of it actually happening?
We’ve been off and on since 2002 actually. I think it was 2001–2002, my daughters tried to get Cheech and I to do another movie together and that process lasted for almost five years. And then, the movie company we were going to do it with didn’t like the script, so they bought out of it, they didn’t want to do it. Since then, I wrote a script. But Cheech and I don’t really get along anymore because he wants to change his image and I want to further it.
So do you think there is any chance a reunion will happen or have you given up on it at this point?
I’m never giving up on it because my door’s always open. I’m a hippie. I’m ready to party anytime.
So has Cheech given up marijuana?
He hasn’t, he went over to the rich side of life. He hangs with the billionaires and George Lopez and he’s really become a Chicano activist and spokesman. And his view is that the character he played was detrimental to the Chicano community in as much as it was like a lowrider – the lowest common denominator of the Mexican culture. I never changed my views. Cheech has evolved into like a rich guy. I was rich – my movies, I was a rich kid that wanted to smoke dope and play music. I’m exactly the same way.
As you mentioned, you and your wife Shelby tour around the country doing a live show. What can fans in attendance expect to see at these shows?
It’s like a little hippie vaudeville, really. My wife is becoming a very powerful force in the women’s comedic area because for some reason women have sort of stopped being shown in comedy clubs and that. She’s one of the few that is still struggling with it.
So she comes on first and she does a lot of women’s humor. Then she brings me out and I do a lot of hippie smoking dope humor and then we work together. It’s a throwback to the old vaudeville era where you had an act and you performed your act and that’s what people come to see and that’s what we do.
At some point in their lives, most parents sit their kids down and talk to them about drugs. Did you have a conversation about drugs with your kids and, if so, how did it go?
Well, that’s very interesting. I’ve had two sets of families. I had my older daughters, Rae Dawn Chong, who is a very famous movie actress, and Robbi Chong, who is also another famous television actress. I was a very friendly father – if they wanted to get high, they could smoke with their dad. My one daughter used to just ask me for joints and I’d give them to her and then she’d sell them to her friends at school. “Hey, do you want to buy a Tommy Chong joint?” Her friends were people like the Chili Peppers. I was very free with the kids, my older daughters.
And then my three younger ones, the two boys and my daughter, they made their own choices. They didn’t have to sneak it around me, but I preferred they did. I told them, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t tell me.” So I was more of like a hands-off parent and it turned out really well because I believe in kids living their own life, right from the get go.
If they’ve got to come and ask me whether or not they should do pot, then my answer is no. Because if you have to ask somebody, then no. You only do pot when you want to do it so much that you’re going to sneak around and do it anyway. You’re not going to ask anybody, you know what I’m saying? So that was very easy. Of course, I’m a parent – the answer is no. But I don’t enforce anything and like I said, “I don’t care what you did …” And I know my older daughters, they had all sorts of adventures that they never told anybody about, like all kids do.
But the one thing that I did talk to them about is smoking cigarettes. That was my one thing that I said I don’t want them developing a cigarette habit. Now, I know that my one daughter, she was a ballet dancer, that she used to smoke but she never smoked in the house and she doesn’t smoke now. And I caught my one son smoking cigarettes and I marched his little butt home and told him, “I don’t want you smoking cigarettes. It’s as simple as that.” And I didn’t punish him or anything, I just told him, don’t do it. And he quit.
When Paris Hilton went to prison, you appeared on MSNBC defending the heiress. How exactly did you end up on as an on-air pundit and after your heated conversation with Contessa Brewer, do you think you will be invited back on MSNBC?
They actually thought, because I’d done time in jail, they thought I was going to bash Paris. In fact, what they did is they had me wait for a long enough time to me to kind of get pissed off because it seemed like they were jumping all over this girl for no reason compared to what other people had been doing, like the Bush administration.
To put a young person in jail because she was late for a court appearance to me is a little excessive. They were pandering to the press. And I saw that, so I called them on it. And I don’t care if I get invited back or not. I know one thing – that bit played all over the place. They loved it because Contessa didn’t know what to say. In fact, I said at the end, “You weren’t expecting that, were you?” She said, “No.”
That’s the media – they’re just talking heads. They’re puppets. And they just say whatever anybody writes. And I’m so sick of seeing Americans being manipulated by this administration and by this right-wing press that whenever I get a chance, I speak out.
If you were president for a day, after you legalized marijuana, what would be the second change you’d make to the country?
I would make all the fast food people liabel for their product. For instance, if people got fat and got diabetic, I would make the fast food companies pay for their medical expenses. That would be my healthcare program is that I would make people liable for their products, including gun manufactures. I’d make everybody liable for whatever they sell to people. In so many ways, all of these products that are so-called legal are killing millions of people daily.
And, just like the oil companies – I’d make the oil companies clean up the environment. They’ve got the money. And if their product is causing global warming and pollution, then I would give them the bill for the hurricanes and the clean up that happened. And I can say that because I know I’d never be elected president. But if you asked me my wish list, that’s exactly what I’d do.
Do you think pot will be legalized in your lifetime?
Yeah, the thing is, it’s legal now; you just have to be very smart with how you smoke it. You have to make sure you have a medical card and don’t be carrying a whole lot on you. Because really, right now it’s only illegal to have large amounts that you sell. Right now, it’s really a slap on the wrist, unless you’re a black guy or a Chicano and they want to put you in jail and they’ll think of a reason. But pot really is so legal now that you can get pot faster than you can get a pizza. I’ve ordered both and the pot always showed up first.
Do you think that society’s attitude toward pot is very different now than it was during the Cheech and Chong era?
Well, America got hijacked by the Bush administration. What happened over the last say eight years is America got complacent and lazy with Clinton. Clinton had everything going for him, the economy. And although we were being attacked by terrorists around the world, Clinton was responding properly and he wasn’t overreacting.
When the Bush administration hijacked the election, in other words, they really stole the election in Florida through the Supreme Court. And John Roberts, by the way, was sent by the administration to brief everybody on how to present the case to the Supreme Court because he had been a clerk for Chief Justice Rehnquist. It turned out that Florida had voted more votes for Gore than Bush, Gore really should have been the president, but the Republican party hijacked the presidency and then they hijacked it again with the second election. And as a result, America’s been thrown into this criminal case, where these criminals run rampant – the Blackwater people, the privatization of everything including prisons. The Republicans just went absolutely crazy with greed.
And what happens in this world, especially this universe is the universe is perfect and there’s such a thing called karma. For every action, there’s a reaction. For every evil deed, there’s a price to pay and we’re watching that come about now because there’s nothing to do but sit back and watch.
The world now, everybody is getting so enlightened. Like in the past eight years, just the Internet, cell phones and all this technology that’s come up, it’s forced the administration to come clean because if they lie, they get caught right away. And so, we’re watching a very interesting phenomenon right now.
The people really have taken over the government, in as much as YouTube, MySpace and the computer world. And this next election is going to be a revelation because again, everybody’s soul is bared. You can’t hide anymore. Bush and the boys can’t hide. And they’ll take their billions or trillions and go quietly into the sunset and they’ll be in court for the rest of their lives after that. It’s going to be fun.
With all of this information circulating now, why don’t you think we haven’t seen protests like there were during the 60s and 70s?
No, no, when I got busted, you see, they wanted protests. The administration, they’re geared for protests. In fact, they want protests so they can put their [riot control personnel] in there to make it look even worse, like they did in the ‘68 protest. That was the worst thing that happened. If you remember the ‘68 elected Nixon. So it’s the worst possible scenario for freedom and for people.
No, our approach is the proper one. And it’s funny because they forced us into this approach. That’s why marijuana or pot is so important to our culture because it forces us to sit back and do nothing and that’s what you have to do with this world. You acknowledge the creator when you sit back and admire his work rather than to jump in and try to fuck it up. You can’t fix the universe. You can only fix your own attitude toward the universe.
We realize it either accidentally or on purpose – pot is a peaceful, mellowing agent that’s useful for MS because the problem see with MS and Parkinson’s disease is that there’s too much stimulation going on in the body. That adrenaline – there’s too much of it in the body of the people who have this stuff, like Michael J. Fox. So, when you smoke pot, it lowers the dopamine levels and it lowers the excitement levels and that’s what the American people really, really need, especially the Republicans, you know?
The other thing I would do if I was elected president, I would put schools all over the country showing people how to smoke pot because so many people don’t know how to smoke pot.
Changing gears a bit, what comedians impress you? Who would you pay money to see?
Jim Carrey, probably to me, is one of the few guys who will make me laugh until I cry. Steve Martin is also in that category. When Steve is being funny, there is no one funnier than Steve.
I would pay money – you mean the local guys that are out there? I don’t know their names because I’m on the road the same time they are. So I hear a lot of good things about them. Chris Rock, David Chappelle. All those guys, they impress me. There’s so many. I like every comic, to tell you the truth. Because, it’s an honest way to make a living.
What does it take to be a successful stand-up comedian? And what words of advice would you have for someone thinking of giving it a shot?
It’s like being a movie actor or being a racecar driver. If you’re going to do it, nothing can stop you. But if you’re not going to make it, nothing can help you. So, a lot of people have tried it, but they’ve fallen because it’s not them. If it’s you, you’re going to do it regardless. You don’t listen to anybody and that’s the way it is.
The reason I did it is because I found out that I’m not that good of a guitar player because I wasn’t interested enough to really learn and go through all the stuff that guitar players have to go through. But comedy was so instant – when you get that laugh on stage, there’s a power surge that goes through you that’s unequal to anything. And when you die on stage, it’s the same thing. It’s a very honest way to make a living.
But my advice to anybody is don’t rush it. Just take your time. No matter how good you are, and this is, a lot of comics will tell you this; you can’t call yourself a comedian until you’ve been doing it on the road for at least 10 years. So it’s time and energy, that’s what it takes.
What do you think you would have ended up doing for a living if you never got into comedy?
Oh, probably working at Starbucks. (Laughs.) I have no education. I’m telling you. I dropped out of high school, I tried to get my high school diploma in jail and I failed algebra. I’m not very good in that area. And I’m not a good business man. I can sweep floors; I’m really good at that. That’s what I did when I was in jail. So if I wasn’t a comic, I’d probably be sweeping floors somewhere right now.
How often do you get recognized in public and how do these encounters with fans go?
Very sweet encounters. I’m approachable. First of all, the character I played Leo, he’s very approachable. I’ve never really been “the star,” you know – Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, so I’ve never had that burden of being the star. I’ve always been a half of a team – Cheech and Chong, Tommy and Shelby, City Works. I was always a member of a group.
And in that way, when they recognize you, that means that they sincerely see you for who you are and I love my encounters. And I get recognized probably every day.
Have you ever wished that you were the star?
No. I’ve always been the guy – I’m a director. I’m writing a book now about the Cheech and Chong story and I’ve realized that my natural thing would be to direct, I’m a pretty good director of Cheech and Chong, for sure, and I used to direct the band, when I had a band I was kind of the director. But I would take suggestion from everybody, I wasn’t a megalomaniac.
I’m like the guy on a basketball team that was like fourth string who became a coach because he sat on the bench throughout his whole career and he figured out the game from the bench. Pat Riley of the Lakers was like that. He was never a star but he was a good coach because he sat and watched the game, learned the game from watching it.
Do you see yourself doing more directing in the future?
Yeah, I write and direct my wife now. I’m watching her come up. She’s passed the 10-year mark and she’s really funny now. And it’s so exciting because I can write her things now that she will understand, you know? So I’m still directing, still writing and still having a good time.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I think most people think I smoke more dope than I do.
How often do you do it?
Maybe once or twice a week. And that’s on a good week. I’ve gone years without pot. I’m not a pothead. I think that’s a big misconception because of the movies. I’ll go work out in a gym sooner than I’ll go smoke pot. That’s more important to me than smoking pot.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, December 2007.