Edmonton-born Tommy Chong is out of prison and lighting up the stage in The Marijuana-Logues.
Thu Dec 2 2004
Photo: Courtesy Carsey-Werner
One thing you notice talking to Tommy Chong on the phone (which we did, catching him at his house in Los Angeles) is the veteran pothead's accent: It's not as stoner-dude as you might expect from the taller half of Cheech & Chong—it's Canadian. Chong's voice signals his roots in Edmonton, where he was born 66 years ago, and Vancouver, where he started out in show business as a backing musician for American R&B singer Bobby Taylor. That gig led to a Motown Records contract and a sojourn in Detroit.
One thing you notice talking to Tommy Chong on the phone (which we did, catching him at his house in Los Angeles) is the veteran pothead's accent: It's not as stoner-dude as you might expect from the taller half of Cheech & Chong—it's Canadian. Chong's voice signals his roots in Edmonton, where he was born 66 years ago, and Vancouver, where he started out in show business as a backing musician for American R&B singer Bobby Taylor. That gig led to a Motown Records contract and a sojourn in Detroit. In 1969, Chong returned to Vancouver, shifted to comedy and hooked up with Richard (Cheech) Marin. The rest, as they say, was hysteria: chart-topping albums, box-office hits and certifiable icon status. Since those heady days, Chong has seen highs and lows—the most recent downer being a nine-month stretch in a federal penitentiary for interstate trafficking in drug paraphernalia. Out of prison since July, Chong is in good spirits, working on a Cheech & Chong reunion movie and preparing for the New York stage, where he'll be appearing for two weeks in The Marijuana-Logues.
This is really kind of appropriate, because I'm high on cold medication.
[Laughs] Hey, you want a good cold cure, check out oil of oregano. You can get it from the health-food store and snort it like cocaine. It cures you, I'm telling ya.
Sounds good. You've given up smoking pot, right?
I had to. I was in federal custody and getting drug-tested. Besides, smoking pot was getting kind of redundant for me.
I got to the point where I was smoking so much, I'd forget to get high, so stopping was easy.
Let's talk about your arrest. Basically the authorities got you for selling bongs on the Internet.
They were overreaching. It was my son's business; he manufactured these great glass water pipes. But the feds disagreed with my position, which was that marijuana shouldn't just be made legal, it should be mandatory. I'd been going on the air, where people like Attorney General John Ashcroft could hear me talking like that. So it was like, "Let's bring him down." The DEA set up a phony buy in Pennsylvania, where it's against federal law to ship drug paraphernalia interstate. They were trying to say I made billions of dollars selling pipes.
No. I owed money. They looked at the books and I guess they felt embarrassed putting a guy in jail for nine months for selling art.
Is it true that when the feds got to your house, and asked whether you had any pot, you answered, "Of course, I'm Tommy Chong"?
That's part of a routine that I put in my stand-up act. But yeah, there was pot. I grew some in my yard for medicinal purposes, which is totally within the California law.
Do you have glaucoma or something?
No. I wasn't using pot for life-threatening diseases or anything, just to relieve stress.
How were you treated in the joint? Did you join a gang for protection?
Oh, I was treated wonderfully by everybody. They all knew I shouldn't have been there. And the gangs—well, I was invited into every one of them, from the white-supremacy guys to the bikers to the blacks to the Chicanos to the Chinese to the Jews.
They have Jewish prison gangs?
Oh, big time. But you know, they're in charge of the library.
Okay, so now all of that is behind you, and you're doing The Marijuana-Logues here in New York. How come?
Well, I love New York. I love working onstage. It's such an honor, being onstage in New York doing anything.
What's the play about?
It's like The Vagina Monologues, only it's three guys. And instead of talking about our pussy, we talk about our pot. We do talk about bush, only it's a different kind of bush.
Given that the feds are on your case, aren't you worried that appearing in this play is like waving a red cape at a bull?
My whole attitude has always been that I play a role. In real life, I'm not that guy in Up in Smoke. But I've held back on doing stand-up, because that is personal. I talk about the administration and everything else, and I couldn't afford to do that, because the government can do so many things to me. But with The Marijuana-Logues, I'm protected. I'm just an actor.
You're back working with Cheech Marin on a reunion movie. How's that going?
Slow, because I got sidetracked for nine months. But we're working on it. I wrote an outline; in fact, we're meeting today about it.
You and Marin were estranged for a long time. Why?
With every act, especially comedy acts, you reach a point where you need a break. So Cheech went off and did his thing. I maintained the image, and Cheech left it behind. I used to rag on him a bit, when I was doing stand-up, making jokes about how he became a cop and all.
And that bugged him?
Well, his dad was a cop, so he grew up in that cop mentality. It was natural for him to want to change his image. And Cheech is quite a brain. Part of the reason that we broke up is he got tired of playing the dumb Chicano. Now, enough time's gone by, people want a new movie, we want a new movie, and we need the money, so it seems right.
What are you going to call it?
My wife wants to call it Grumpy Old Stoners [Laughs]. Because that's what we are. And we're going to come right back, as if we'd never left. Because the truth is, we never did.