In 2003 comedian Tommy Chong, long-associated with the comedy duo Cheech and Chong, was arrested for “conspiracy to manufacture and distribute drug paraphernalia” as part of a nationwide sting dubbed “Operation Pipe Dreams.” Chong, who had been marketing personally-branded bongs, was the only defendant (out of the 55 defendants involved with the case) without a prior conviction and the only one to serve time in federal prison. Filmmaker Josh Gilbert chronicled the events leading up to Chong’s incarceration in the documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong. Chong spoke with Daedalus Howell about the ordeal, the documentary film, the nature of comedy and Chong’s pending reunion with Cheech Marin.
DH: So I’ll start with the “First time caller, longtime fan” number. I remember seeing Up In Smoke, probably on HBO, when I was about 7 or 8, and it blew my mind and as well as my kid brother’s. I think it has set us both on a personal streak that has benefited us most of our lives.
TC: You know, I love those stories. I guess we kinda corrupted some people. So far, I haven’t met them yet.
DH: Yeah, well, because they’re in jail.
TC: (laughs) Yeah, one time I was introduced on a talk show as having gotten more people into drugs than Noriega. (laughter)
DH: You and Cheech kinda played outsiders and my brother and I had just moved to a new town, so we related – we definitely felt like outsiders. I think in a lot of ways, your pairing spoke to a lot of people in that position, either in real-world terms or personally. It really made you feel like you were a part of something.
TC: Well, are you guys Hispanic, or …
DH: No, just a couple of white suburban kids.
TC: White suburban kids, but you related to that feeling? Well, that’s great.
DH: Yeah, absolutely. I dug your documentary. I watched it the other night, and I think that director Josh Gilbert really captured something there.
TC: He did a bang-up job, that’s for sure.
DH: What was it like knowing that there was an end product, in this case a film, that was being produced during the ramp up to your incarceration?
TC: Well, you know, thank God we had Josh. He just motored on. We all had to deal with emotions, and the last thing you want is a camera in your face when you’re going through a crisis.
DH: I was gonna say, it seems like a very private time in a lot of ways.
TC: Yeah, I mean that was one of the reasons that when Josh said he wanted to do it, you know, I told him “Sure.” See, he said something about going fifty-fifty and I told him, “No, it’s yours.”
It would never have gotten done if I had any kind of ownership to the film.
DH: Also, I think it gives him a sort of journalistic space.
TC: That’s what I’m saying. And that’s what I realized when I first started [in entertainment]. When we, Cheech and Chong, were first going to do a movie, we were looking for a director and I had seen this one movie called Badlands with Terrence Malick. I just loved the movie. I don’t think it did much at the box office, but it was the most incredible movie I had ever seen, and the direction and the art direction and everything else was such a fabulous, fabulous trip. So I called Terrence Malick myself and asked him if he wanted to direct our movie. We had a nice talk and he just said, “If you wrote it, then you should direct it yourself.” Now he might have been putting me off, a nice way of saying “No,” but I took his advice to heart because he said no one can “get inside your head,” you know?
TC: “It’s your vision, so you should protect your vision, direct it yourself.”
So I did, and it worked out pretty good.
• • •
DH: After watching the documentary and getting more information on the process and the actual laws that you were assumed to have broken, I got the distinct impression that you were targeted. Did you feel targeted?
TC: Oh, totally. Totally, totally, totally. And, you know, more than anything, I felt this desperation. That was my first inkling. I wasn’t a political guy. I would just take whatever government came and worked around them, you know? Because we had gone through Nixon, Kennedy, Clinton, all those guys, Bush, the first Bush, Reagan, and we survived, you know? We managed. But when they started targeting me, I started feeling (laughs) I felt kind of honored, you know? Like my time had come. (Both laugh)
DH: You finally arrived.
TC: Yeah, finally arrived. Got busted, finally.
DH: By the feds, no less. (laughter)
TC: Yeah, and it was like a big-time indictment and everything. The funniest thing was that the feds anticipated my popularity to be a lot more than it really was, because when they sentenced me, you know, they moved the sentencing to a large courtroom, to accommodate all the protesters they were expecting.
DH: And what happened?
TC: One guy showed up with a cardboard sign saying, “Free marijuana.”
(DH laughs and can’t seem to stop.)
I didn’t know if he was giving away free marijuana or if he was trying to say, “Free marijuana.” I couldn’t figure that one out, but that was the extent of this huge courtroom.
DH: That’s really funny.
TC: They sentenced me on 9/11…
DH: Ugh, that’s just tacky.
TC: …Just to underscore the point how drug use in America has caused terrorism.
DH: Which is just the most spurious of connections, I mean. Come on.
TC: There is no connection. And these guys know it, too. The Bushes and the Cheneys and all these people, they’re just puppets that are put in place by the Saudis – the real people that run and control the world.
DH: Now after you went through this entire legal process and actually did the time, it seemed, I kind of gleaned this from the documentary, that a bit of an activist was awakened in you. This is interesting because your earlier films, and a lot of your comedy was in some ways an advocacy of a kind of lifestyle. Do you feel that this process has politicized you?
TC: Oh, totally, totally. They more or less gave me my license, you know. I went to activist school and I graduated with a PhD. Now, they go to me. I’m the go-to-guy for any pot or jail things –
MSNBC will call me up, or CNN.
DH: Yeah, you’re like an expert witness now.
TC: I’m one of those guys, you know?
DH: You’re a pundit. But that’s a powerful place to be. I mean, you can actually convey a message that will be heard by mass media without having to set up a movie to do it.
TC: Exactly, and the thing is, the way the movie industry is going, the reality approach seems to be the better way.
DH: Yeah, it seems so. But you remain active. You’re still doing a lot of creative work, too, aren’t you?
TC: I’m working as we speak. Well, Cheech and I are getting back together again, you know. We’re going to put the act together and go on the road for a season.
DH: I didn’t know that. That’s great! That’s great to hear! I actually interviewed Cheech for the release of Cars. Speaking to you is great because now I have the “complete set,” as they say. (both laugh) That’s cool. Are you going to revisit some of the old stuff?
TC: Yeah, yeah, totally. That was the whole plan.
DH: That is really cool. Well, in the documentary you mentioned how you guys, in many ways, have changed as your lives have developed and the character that was “Cheech,” as you explored it in your comedy team, didn’t seem to be as accessible as it once was to him. He had moved past that. Is that going to be a stumbling block?
TC: Well, I’ll tell you it’s a concern to him, but we had a little talk yesterday and, see, I’m the director – when a director talks to an actor, what he does is he gives him ammunition, almost like a lawyer talking to a client. We tell them why they should do certain things, and one of the reasons I told Cheech was – he didn’t want to do the reality show leading up to the concert tour – and I told him, I said, “Well, actually, it wouldn’t be interesting unless…they could see some kind of growth.”
DH: That’s a good point.
TC: I mean, seeing someone become who they really are is not interesting. But seeing someone like Cheech – “You’re educated, you’re brilliant in a lot of ways and to see you put on your Chicano, low-rider persona, and more or less lower yourself to the street level, you know, almost like a low-rider, letting the air down,” and the next thing you know, you’re like (in Cheech-speak) “Hey, what’s happening?” That HAS to be a fascinating process.
DH: That is. Just separating the persona from the person, for both of you, would be fascinating for audiences to see.
TC: Well, here’s the trick. Here’s what happens. It’s like magic. You don’t want the people to see too much of the tricks, how the tricks are done, but in the acting world, the truth is that you really are that person, but what you’re doing is you’re coming in with a different outlook.
DH: That’s interesting.
TC: You see? You’re coming in with, let’s say, a low-rider outlook. I mean, he really is Cheech without the education, without, you know, all the knowledge, and so what you do, you come in there with a gut-level feeling, and then when you approach any problem, you come in there with that street feeling, and that’s what always defined Cheech and Chong. That’s why everybody – young kids, especially – understood our humor, because it was very simple, but it was very hip.
DH: Right, and there’s an element of play, too. It sounds like you channel yourself through a particular filter. Say, “We’re going to style it this way, so I’m going to put myself through that,” and what comes out is the character.
TC: Exactly. Exactly, and how would this guy react under this circumstance? And there’s a few hard-fast rules I stay away from. This is what Cheech, because I’m the writer-director, missed.
DH: And you’ve always kind of driven the ship that way. Back when you formed your first comedy troupes in Canada, it was your conception.
TC: Yeah, because I’m the one that did the acid trips and the pot trips. (laughs)
DH: You came back with the experience, right. (laughs)
TC: And I lived in the black world for many years, so I really got my hipness from the jazz greats of the world. That’s what I passed onto Cheech, and with Cheech, I just give him a little guidance here and there and he understands and away he goes. That’s why we’ve always worked well together.
DH: When was the last time you two performed together as Cheech and Chong?
TC: As Cheech and Chong? In the movie Cheech and Chong’s Still Smoking.
DH: So this is going back then about 25 years.
TC: Yeah, at least 25, 30 years, yeah.
DH: That’s pretty exciting, coming full circle like that in your career.
TC: Well, it was a choice that I didn’t make easily. I turned down the idea for quite awhile.
DH: Yeah, I’m sure there were plenty of people trying to get you guys together for various reasons.
TC: Well, everybody loved it, you know, especially movie companies. I’d pitch them a project and they’d say, “If Cheech is in it, you’d have a ‘yes’ right now.” Finally, we both realized, what are we doing? We don’t have too much time on this planet, so why don’t we cash in on what we got? Cash our chips in and let’s enjoy our last go around to the fullest. Let’s go out on top.
DH: You guys always seemed to enjoy working together, so why not?
TC: Oh, that was the easiest thing. Cheech always said it. I said it, too. It’s funny, he’s got this impeccable timing and insight for the popular culture. I don’t.
DH: You mean he’s attuned to what the trends will be?
TC: That’s exactly it, and he’s always been ahead of the curve. He’s like a writer, and in fact, that’s what he was. He was a reviewer-writer, and that’s what these guys are like, they have a cognizance of the latest trend, latest move, latest thing.
DH: They can anticipate.
TC: Luckily, the latest move is Cheech and Chong getting back together again.
DH: It feels right. I hadn’t heard of it when you mentioned it, but I got a visceral sense of excitement, and I think it’s really appropriate because you have at least two generations, you’ve got the Baby Boom generation and younger guys about my age who are legacy fans, and then you have a whole new group who’s going to be turned on to it, which is going to be pretty interesting.
TC: Yeah. Now the only question in everybody’s mind is whether or not this new generation is ready or accepting because you can’t give them something that they aren’t ready to accept. That’s what I’m saying about Cheech’s perception usually being right on, because when we broke up, you see, the good thing about breaking up is that he got to pursue a whole different lifestyle and movie career and everything, and I got to get on the road with my wife, Shelby, and we’ve become a pretty great comedy team. That’s why when he wanted to come back I wasn’t really ready. The thing is that I’m like the star – sharing a microphone is very tough. All the guys out there like Chappelle and Seinfeld – you try to take the mike out of their hands and you’re going to have a fight on your hands.
DH: Right. (Laughs)
TC: That’s why there are very few comedy teams out there, because there are very few people who are willing to share.
DH: Yeah, there’s a lot of sketch comedy, but not a lot of actual comedy teams just going out there doing it.
TC: See, when you share, you have to put aside the personal glories and you have to look for the team.
DH: There’s also a lot of trust, too, I’d imagine.
TC: Well, that’s it. Trust and then playing off moments, but I’m good. I like it. I’ve always liked improvisational humor. It’s always been my favorite.
DH: Yeah, it seems like a lot of your bits were born out of improv. They had that kind of energy to them.
TC: Yeah, because to me, well, when you think about it Cheech and Chong were the first “reality” show, because that’s what we did. We followed a couple of guys around and they’re getting high. (laughs)
DH: Right. Then you distill the best moments.
DH: In the documentary, there’s a nice, a great recount of the original “Dave’s Not Here” bit and that was hilarious. Just hearing the telling of the story and how it was generated, that was funny in and of itself, you know, just kind of messing with each other (both laugh) you know (in stoner voice) “Dave’s not here, man!”
TC: It was funny. Yesterday, we were in a screening room (laughs) and I told Cheech, “You want to go inside and knock on the door?” And he laughed because he really got emotional that day. He was really mad and we turned it into the real thing, and, yeah. Look at it, that was the first “reality” moment.
DH: That’s pretty good. (laughs) I’ll put that on Wikipedia for you. (both laugh)
TC: Yeah, okay.
DH: Well, Tommy, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, man.
TC: Yeah, you too, my friend.
For more information about a/k/a Tommy Chong, visit akatommychong.com.
Related: Check out this Daedalus Howell Show radio interview with Cheech Marin.