File this one under things I never thought I’d get to say: “Hang on a sec, Tommy, I have Cheech on the other line.”
Twenty-five years after their groundbreaking (and occasionally lawbreaking) comedy team went up in smoke - and their movies and albums became the stuff of late-night, up-to-no-good fun for a generation of young fans - Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong are back on the road together. Lock up your daughters, or at least stash your stash.
So much happened between the pair’s breakup and patchup, it’s hard to believe their claim in a duo phone interview that their reunion for the “Light Up America” tour has been “effortless.”
After carrying on as a solo comic and recurring actor in the TV series “That ‘70s Show,” Chong, 70, was targeted by a John Ashcroft-led $12 million federal investigation of drug paraphernalia. His affiliation with a bong-making company landed him in jail for nine months in 2003, an experience he recounted in one of his two books and in the 2005 documentary “a/k/a Tommy Chong.” Cheech, on the other hand, became a reputable actor with roles in everything from the “Spy Kids” and “Desperado” movies to TV’s “Nash Bridges” and (currently, at age 62) “Lost.”
As the longtime comedy partners explained, though, the more things have changed for them, the more they’ve stayed the same.
Cheech: It’s now or never.
Chong: Really, we do it for the kids.
Cheech: Yes, the kids are our future. Plus, it knocks off 250 hours of court-mandated community service.
What were your first reunion shows like? Was it like riding a bike?
Chong: They’ve been incredible. We’ve been having so much fun. It’s been half the work for twice the money.
Cheech: (laughing) It was easier than riding a bike. It was like looking at a bike.
Chong: Like someone else riding the bike for you, and you just have to sit there and watch it.
Your comedy is so tied to the hazy days of the ‘70s. In what ways has it proven to be timeless?
Chong: The ‘70s are back, if you haven’t noticed. It’s deja vu. Times are messed up again. We’re at war again, like the Vietnam War, except it’s in Iraq. The economy is tough again. The country needs something to take their mind off all the crap that’s going on. That’s what we did when we started, and what we’re doing now.
How much have you had to update your act?
Chong: We can’t do Nixon jokes anymore, you know.
Cheech: But all we had to do is substitute Bush for Nixon. He fits right in there.
Recent movies like “Pineapple Express” and the “Harold & Kumar” films show your influence. Does that also make you guys more timely today?
Cheech: I don’t think they have much effect on us. Anytime would’ve been good for us to do this.
Chong: I think you see our influence not only in the movies, but in American culture itself.
Cheech: Especially our foreign policy.
Chong: Yeah, if we can get together, the world can get together. No problem.
Cheech: We tried over the years to get back together, but nothing ever worked out. Then one day I got a call from Condoleezza Rice. She said, “Listen, I’m having no trouble with these Arabs and Israelis, and I’ve gotta do something before I leave office. So how about you guys?’ So I said, ‘What the hell?”
We always see feuding rock bands getting back together. How is this the same or different?
Chong: Well, we actually like each other.
Cheech: We are a very physical act, and we improvise greatly in all the bits. The characters may stay the same, but what they’re doing is different. Even inside the bits we improvise all the time. So it’s always very alive. It’s not like a band playing the same song over and over.
Chong: Years ago, I used to play an old man. And now I am an old man. It works out pretty good that way.
How do you look back on your formative years as a comedy team (in the early ‘70s in Vancouver, B.C.)? What clicked between you back then, and is it still there?
Cheech: Great comedy teams only come along once or twice in every generation, and we seem to be it. There’s something about the meeting of two guys who have a certain affinity and a certain connection with each other, and how they see the world, their sense of the world. When I first heard Tommy talk about things back then, I knew exactly what he was talking about, and vice-versa.
Chong: We weren’t individual comics that teamed up. We started as a team and only later did we become individuals. Now we’re back being a team, and it’s a stronger thing. Like I say, it’s half the work for twice the money. Seriously. Being a single performer out there is very tough.
One of the great things about being a comedy team, though, is you don’t even really need an audience. You have an audience right beside you. If no one else laughs, I’m still happy if I make Cheech laugh.
At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, how do look back on the rift that split you up?
Chong: You look back and realize how silly it was. What it was, was success. That’ll do it to you. That’s why groups break up. When you’re trying to make it, you have a common goal. And then once you made it, then your goal is to enjoy what you’ve made. Cheech had his life he wanted to pursue, and I had my life.
Cheech: Tommy said it right the other day onstage. He said, “I finally got my Mexican back. You can’t get a rich Mexican to do anything.”
Tommy, did your imprisonment affect the relationship between you two or lead to this reunion in any way?
Chong: Well, it helped (us) because it really helped me. It sobered me up. I had nine months to sit and ponder, and I realized that what we had done had really affected a lot of people, especially the kind of people who go to prison (laughs). It was like, “You can’t go home, you have to live with your fans.”
It was very eye-opening. I learned how to be humble. That was my problem before. There was a lot of pride and ego. If you go to prison, you have to put that aside. You’re in trouble if you don’t. So now, I’m one of the most humble guys I know. Humble is me.
Cheech: (laughing) He’s writing a book about how humble he is.
Is it fair to say this tour is a way of recouping your legal fees?
Chong: Oh yeah. You better believe it.
Cheech: We call this the “Felomony Tour.” It’s half for his felony and half for my alimony. And it’s for the kids, of course, because they’re our future.
Cheech, in addition to your general influence on comedy, you also became a pioneering Latino icon of sorts. How have your experiences as a Latino entertainer changed?
Cheech: I think it’s deeper now than it ever was. As I went off and did all kinds of things in the Latino world, I got to see and be influenced by all that. The art tour that I’ve promoted for the last six years, and being on a bunch of boards, and being an inspiration to other comics growing up. All of them - George Lopez, Carlos Mencia, Gabriel Iglesias - they all say they grew up listening to Cheech & Chong records. That’s very cool.
You guys also influenced Mitch Hedberg, the comic from St. Paul who died in 2005. Were you fans of his?
Chong: Yeah, I worked with Mitch. I was a big fan. He just had a great comedic mind. It was same thing with Bill Hicks. Yeah, Mitch was, “Whoa!” When I met him, he was filming a home movie between gigs. He’d go around and just shoot this weird movie. I’d love to see whatever came of it.
How sharply are things different on tour now that you aren’t 28-year-olds living the high life?
Chong: We get more sleep, that’s for sure.
Cheech: (laughing) We choose our hotels based on how much sleep can we get between shows.
Chong: The only party we go to now is when our grandkids are having a birthday party.
Cheech: It’s great, though, we’re not out there prowling the streets at night.
Chong: Actually, I’m getting back into jazz. I’m gonna make enough money on this tour, I can afford to be a jazz musician.
Cheech: (laughing again) It’s like that book, “How to Make $1 Million Playing Jazz.” First, start with $3 million.