The comedy duo of Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong redefined American comedy in the 1970s and ’80s with seven albums and six feature films, including their debut, Up in Smoke, the most successful movie of 1978. One generation after another has been influenced by their hilarious but painfully honest take on the stoner lifestyle, and there isn’t a single person in this country who can’t hum the first three bars of their 1974 hit single “Earache My Eye.”
Or so says Tommy Chong, who may have been stoned when he wrote Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography (which wasn’t printed on hemp paper, as far as I can tell). For one thing, he’s forgetting — or choosing to ignore — that another R-rated comedy called National Lampoon’s Animal House came out the same year as Up in Smoke and grossed $120 million compared to Up in Smoke‘s $44 million. Grease and Superman also came out in ’78 and grossed $159 million and $134 million, respectively.
Maybe Up in Smoke cost less to produce than any of those blockbusters, but if I quote any more box-office numbers I might get accused of harshing Chong’s buzz. Then again, he doesn’t like how “the Republician [sic] Party with the Axis of Evil — Bush, Cheney, and Rove — has systematically torn the Constitution of the United States of America to shreds in the past seven years they have been in power,” so it seems hypocritical of him to mangle history and facts for his own hagiographical purposes, doesn’t it?
Luckily, The Unauthorized Autobiography isn’t a long rant against the Bush administration. Chong probably got that out of his system for the most part in his previous book, 2006’s The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint, which he wrote while he was in prison for nine months in ’03 and ’04 on drug-paraphernalia distribution charges. But throughout his new book there are so many ridiculous boasts and distortions of the truth that I often found myself asking, “Are you high?!”
For instance, in 1982 the long-forgotten spoof film It Came From Hollywood “was in trouble and needed some star power to put some butts in the seats. Cheech and Chong were the hottest movie stars at the time, so [Paramount Pictures executive] Jeffrey [Katzenberg] flew to Vancouver Island to get my support.” Are you high?! I was only six in 1982, but I still knew enough to know that Cheech & Chong were not the biggest movie stars in America.
Chong writes that the pot-humor duo “have had generations after generations watch and study our movies to learn the culture of the sixties,” but growing up in the ’80s and ’90s I didn’t know a single person who owned a Cheech & Chong album or had seen their movies. Granted, I wasn’t a stoner, but the stoners I knew were firmly under the influence of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, not Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie.
I saw Up in Smoke for the first time recently, after picking up Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography. There were one or two funny moments, but I got the feeling that Cheech & Chong were stoned when they made it, slowing down their own comic timing, with potential laughs going up in smoke in the process. Chong says they improvised most of their dialogue in their films, and it shows. Animal House holds up 30 years later because the screenplay by Doug Kenney, Chris Miller, and Harold Ramis had terrific characters, scenes, and jokes right from the start. Director John Landis and his cast merely had to live up to their end of the bargain during filming by not screwing it up, though they ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations. (It’s Landis’s best film, as well as John Belushi’s.) Animal House was constructed with care and craftsmanship, but Up in Smoke, like the van made of marijuana that Cheech & Chong drive in the film, wasn’t built to last.
A friend of mine who grew up in the ’70s confirmed for me that Cheech & Chong were comedy superstars at that time, with their albums selling millions of copies and their comedy sketches and pop-oriented singles, like the “Love Jones” parody “Basketball Jones,” receiving lots of radio airplay. (Before he became a comedian, Chong was lead guitarist for Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, who were signed to Motown in 1967. Chong claims that the interracial-romance subject matter of his song “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” a Top 40 hit for the Vancouvers, “changed the way Motown songwriters wrote,” paving the way for “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Love Child.” I repeat: Are you high?!)
But my friend also said that the jokes and bits he liked on their albums when he was in eighth grade had already become stale by tenth grade, which gels with Richie Unterberger’s All Music Guide review of the 2002 Cheech & Chong anthology Where There’s Smoke There’s Cheech & Chong: “You do wonder who the core audience of this retrospective is going to be — present-day kids might actually find the junior high-level drug humor that dominates the material tame. That leaves it to the people who, um, grew up on these albums when they were in junior high school in the 1970s. And if there are a whole lot of people that are still into Cheech & Chong as adults, doesn’t that say something rather peculiar about a segment of our culture?”
Dying is easy, comedy is hard. But it’s even harder to make comedy that can sustain itself over multiple generations. Chong came of age listening to Lenny Bruce records and admiring stand-up comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. But if I listen to Bruce or Pryor today, the timing doesn’t feel quite right when placed next to comedians like Patton Oswalt or David Cross. Comedy, like any other art form, keeps evolving, and as comedians’ rhythms change, so do those of audiences in terms of what they expect from the people who are telling them jokes. I wonder if my kids will think the Bill Hicks and Chris Rock CDs in my collection are hopelessly dated. (They haven’t been born yet, so it’s okay for me to cast doubt on them.)
Since The Unauthorized Autobiography was written without the input of Marin — hence the unauthorized aspect — Chong, a Chinese-Caucasian Canadian, spends a lot of time at the front of the book recounting his early days as a musician in the late ’50s and ’60s. In the era of “free love,” Chong grabbed as much as he could, having three daughters with three different women and moving them around the country several times as he pursued his comedy career in the early ’70s. He wasn’t a deadbeat dad, but when he writes about taking acid with his second wife, Shelby, right before watching Thumbelina with their three-year-old daughter, Precious, you’re not left with the impression that he deserves a “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug. But what about a “World’s Greatest Dad” bong? Far out, man …
Marin ended his partnership with Chong in 1986 when he decided to write, direct, and star in the film Born in East L.A., based on their song from the previous year, by himself. (The song, like the film, was made without Chong’s participation.) The book comes to a close with an aborted attempt by the two comedians earlier this year to patch up their differences and mount a reunion tour, after failing to patch things up and tour in 2005. According to Chong, Marin got angry when Chong rejected his tour proposal — the same one Chong proposed to him three years earlier. Their meeting then devolved into angry insults and accusations. “I felt that he had lost his comedy chops,” Chong says of his former partner.” I realized I could no longer work with the guy. He had changed.” Wow … bummer ending, man.
But the light in Cheech & Chong’s roach clip hasn’t completely died out, folks. At the end of July, two weeks before the publication of The Unauthorized Autobiography and one week before the release of the hit stoner comedy Pineapple Express, it was announced that the high Cs were finally reuniting for the “Light Up America” tour, which began September 12 in Philadelphia. The tour’s website says that “Cheech and Chong co-wrote and starred in a total of eight feature films together, all directed by Chong.” For the record, they starred — I’m not counting cameos in movies like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours — in six films together, and Chong was credited as director on four of them. Stoners, you can’t be paranoid that people don’t trust you if you don’t tell the truth to begin with.
Have they finally learned how to get along with each other again? Well, according to Marin in an Associated Press Radio interview, “There’s this veiled hatred.” But, he added, “We’ve kind of resolved that.” In other words, the price was right. On the other hand, “We’ve gotten to the age where we don’t feel like fighting anymore because the end is a lot closer than the beginning.” This is true: Chong turned 70 in May, so maybe I should go easy on his unauthorized version of 1978 box-office figures, his impact on the songwriting of Barrett Strong and the late Norman Whitfield, his assertion that his wealthy, live-at-home, thirtysomething stoner character in Up in Smoke represented “everyman,” and his portayal of himself as a comedy legend whose brilliant career fell victim to the solo acting ambitions of his ungrateful younger partner in the mid-’80s. After all, memory loss is common in senior citizens, particularly those who’ve been smoking pot every day of their lives for the past 50 years.
One last Chong anecdote: the duo’s record producer, Lou Adler, directed Up in Smoke, but when it came time to make Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980), Chong wanted to see his vision on the screen, not anybody else’s. Still, he doubted his ability to direct a film on his own, and since Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven) was his favorite director, he called him to see if he’d like to helm Next Movie. The reclusive filmmaker politely declined by saying, “No one can read your mind — if it’s your vision, then you have to see it through yourself.” But I’m pretty sure what he wanted to say was, “Are you high?!”
Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $23.95) is available at Amazon.com.