Tommy Chong’s High on Life
Listen to our interview with Tommy Chong above.
You know, for a guy who’s probably smoked a couple of acres of marijuana in his day (or maybe just yesterday), Tommy Chong’s memory is pretty damn good.
He can take you all the way back to the first time he smoked weed at the age of 17 ("As soon as I found it I never left that universe."), he recalls the first meeting in a Vancouver club back in the '60s that would lead to such an iconic comedy duo and he sure as hell remembers being jailed for selling autographed bongs back in 2003.
The immediate present, though, is perhaps a bit more of problematic purple haze…at least depending on what time of the day you catch him at.
“Hello is this Andre?” asks the recognizable voice of Chong heard on so many turntables in the early ‘70s. “Have I talked to you yet?”
Now, that’s the perfect way to begin an interview with the actor, comedian and cannabis activist. (I resisted the urge to reply with “Dave’s not here”, I promise.)
It’s been over a decade now since his nine months behind bars but the time away only gave Chong a stronger voice and deeper resolve to speak up for a culture he feels continues to be misunderstood. His advocacy is just another addition to a long list of jobs the man known for his offbeat humor has held over the years.
It started with music.
Chong’s a pretty accomplished guitar player and he joined the Calgary soul group The Shades in the late 50’s, playing gigs around town before the band was tossed out of the city by the mayor and an irate chief of police for causing too much of a ruckus. They hightailed to Vancouvern needing no better excuse to vacate Calgary, changed their name to Little Daddy & the Bachelors, recorded a single and were off. Along with band member Bobby Taylor, Chong opened the first in a string of nightclubs. In 1965 they were signed by Motown Records, released album number one and a single that hit 29 on the charts. They would open for the Jackson 5 that year but Chong was later fired from the label for missing a meeting. He was trying to get a Green card so he could legally be in the States.
“I decided I didn’t want to work for anybody who would fire me for trying to do things right,” Chong tells Ottawa Life about his rationale for not pleading his case to Motown and pursuing that career. “I quite Motown and decided I’d just become a song writer, live on the beach and work out. That’s what I did. I moved my family to California.”
When his Canadian clubs started to go under, he headed back North and converted one into an improvisational comedy club. Ever the opportunist for something new, Chong started performing on stage and found he had a knack for making people laugh. One night he met another young comedian named Cheech Marin and a man who had lived a few careers already would embark on the one that would soar higher than the others.
Soon came the albums that launched a thousand stoner ships, multiple comedy tours and the adoration of the hippie counter-culture still clinging to whatever remnants they could of the ‘60s. Popular art was changing and comedy was no different. Cheech & Chong would surf the tip of that wave all the way to Hollywood. Their first film Up In Smoke would become one of the highest-grossing of the year and it kept the duo gainfully employed well into the ‘80s before they went their separate ways.
“The parting was very tough on me for sure,” recalls Chong. “Cheech was tired of being the little Chicano. He wanted to show the people that he had more. I understood totally but I wasn’t tired of being my character.”
In 2008, with the help of a well-timed email by Chong’s son, the duo would reunite for a series of successful reunion shows that kicked off in Ottawa. They still perform together from time to time. Despite a few dips in the road –including a battle with prostate cancer which he cured
Despite a few dips in the road –including a battle with prostate cancer which he cured himself of with hemp oil– the 78-year-old Chong looks back on his life as a series of gifts and he’s not ready to stop now.
“There’s no reason to die. I have no reason to retire because I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do. It’s fun. I love my life.”
The Grammy-winning comedian will perform at the Algonquin Commons Theatre on November 24. We had a chance to chat with Tommy about his various careers, his relationship with Cheech and his views on the differences between Canadian and American cannabis culture.
Ottawa Life: You’re one of these dude’s I think many people look at and say: “Oh yeah, he’s Canadian!” You budded in Edmonton but soon moved to Calgary to an area you called the Dog Patch. We were inching towards the end of World War II. As a dual citizen, what are your views on Canada these days?
Tommy Chong: Well Canadians, they tend to believe what they see and what they hear. We’re like hockey players. For instance, we don’t have a gang problem in Canada because we form them on hockey teams. We sort of supervise the savages to be violent with a stick and have skates on a and little puck you can shoot around. If you’re going to have a fit you need to do it on ice. The Canadian thing is, well, we’re very close to nature. It gets too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter and everything is bigger than anything else anywhere. We survive everything.
You want to talk about a land of immigrants! I was just watching Donald Trump worried about people coming into the country. Now, when I was growing up the Hungarian revolution hit and we just automatically took in the refugees. All of my early memories of Calgary come from talking with people from other countries either there from the second World War or when the communists took over. Canada is a very basic, tough place to be from.
I read that a jazz club, Lenny Bruce and the age of 17 all factor into the first time you smoked pot. Obviously, that would become a big facet of your existence. Do you remember that moment?
Oh, like it was yesterday. I can remember everything about that moment. Raymond Ma was a Chinese base player and he gave me a joint and a Lenny Bruce record. I put the joint in my pocket and the record by my guitar. Raymond went on to light his. We then smoked up and heard a record by Ornette Coleman called Lonely Woman. It was my first time listening to jazz and being transported into another universe. As soon as I found it I never left that universe.
I think that turned out pretty well for you.
At the time weed wasn’t a problem in Calgary because nobody knew what it was. Alcohol was the big problem so you could smoke anywhere. We would be at concerts and light up. They had a you-could-smoke-anywhere-rule, basically. They had sections in street cars! One car where everybody smoked. Not like now where you can’t smoke anywhere.
Certainly different times! Now for you, you’ve had a few different paths set out for you that you could have walked: you managed night clubs, played guitar in Little Daddy & The Bachelors, these are a few things that come to mind. Why did you decide to pursue comedy and why do you think it stuck?
What happened was I got fired from Motown because I went to get my Green card and the road manager didn’t know what one was and he didn’t want to know what one was. I told him I had to miss a gig and they would have to do without me and he told me if I left don’t bother coming back. I told him I had to go because Berry Gordy was paying for my green card. I couldn’t argue with the guy so I went to get my card, came back, and was literally fired.
Then I had to go up to the clubs, they weren’t doing well, and I changed the the strip club that we started into an improvisational night club. I thought I’d just be doing this until we got a band back together but I found out that I loved doing comedy and improvisational theatre.
You and Cheech actually first met during you 60’s Vancouver days. Do you remember anything about that first meeting that would go on to become such a legendary comedy team?
I remember everything. First of all, when I put the improv group together you needed a straight man. I had another partner named David Graham. He had long hair and a beard and I had long hair and what I called a beard and we had another straight man, Rick. Rick was a legitimate actor. When we started the club we attracted a lot of actors and theatre types.
Nick’s wife found out what he was doing and made him quit so that’s when I met Cheech. I asked him if he wanted to join the group and he said he had to look at it first. Ah, good ol’ Cheech. I don’t think I asked him if he had any acting experiencing and he volunteered that he did. He was lying like a dog as he didn’t have any but he learned by watching and was an understudy for a few months.
When the group broke up Cheech and I ended up doing all of it. When we got fired from the improv club Cheech was the only one who wanted to keep doing it. Well, we formed a band first but we never played a note. We became comedians! We became Cheech and Chong.
When I saw the effect we had on all these rock and roll people I knew we were going to be bigger than we could have ever dreamed.
Your albums certainly were part of that rise. They have become legendary. With so many classic bits to choose from, how did you two approach writing the material that would eventually be part of your stand up and records?
We improv'ed. Everything was improv'ed. When we did the movies I was one of the first in the industry with video assist. Now they shoot a lot of movies on video. The way we worked we never really rehersed. We would improv a scene. Sometimes the rehersal is what we really wanted. I made sure we shot everything and that’s how we did our records.
We never had anything written down. I mean, every once in awhile I would write down a basic idea but when Cheech and I would get into the recording studio we just started creating. It was just so much fun. I knew our audience from experience and that people like to laugh at silliness and disgusting things. Cheech and I just had a ball. I would give him a little hint at something and he’d just carry it. We just had that magic that came with it. When we started doing movies that kind of got in our way because you couldn’t have two directors. That had to be me. Even though I wasn’t a good bandleader I was a good improvisational theatre director and I knew from my music experience what would resonate with people.
The same thing kind of happened to Monty Python. You were all part of this different form of comedy going into the '70s.
Oh yeah! You gotta remember they had to do television and they were all trained professionls. They were educated up the ying yang. Cheech and I were the opposite. I never made it through highschool.
Would you say the counterculture of the time factored into your success? Right place, right time.
Totally! The hippie movement, the anti war movement was at it’s peak and they found a home in the Committee and the Second City. I was in San Fransico when the war was right at it’s hight, right when Cheech and I were doing our records. We did our Vietnam bit and were barred! Robin Williams went over to perform for the troops but we were bared because of our drug humor.
We just represented that outlaw. I looked like a biker and Cheech had a Chicano gang look. It looked like a hells angels and a gang member got together and did comedy.
It all just seemed to lead to the movies. Did you find the transition into film was a bit difficult?
It was so simple. It was so ordained. Everything we did on the records was visual. You could see it in your mind. If you saw it in person you’d die laughing. Cheech’s experessions and the way we played the chacaters, I mean. We still do it. That’s what we do when we play live. We just pull out our comedy chops that we’ve hoaned over the years. The movies were just a piece of cake. We were meant to do Cheech and Chong movies.
It shows. You two really amped up the output in the early 80s: 8 films, 3 albums all before 1987!
You know the reaon we got into film was that our live act was so popular that we could play America and then spend American summer’s playing Australia which was their winter. For three years, maybe four, we never saw summer in either country. We were always in the winter. I wasn’t comfortable doing that because there were no Mexicans there and it was hard to come up with bits people could relate to. That was half our act! In the states if we played a Mexican crowd I could really relax.
So, instead of going back, I wrote a movie. It was called Cheech and Chong in Jack and the Weed Stock. We never got around to doing the movie. Then I wrote a song called "Up In Smoke". Then Cheech said that would be the name of the movie. Then we did the top grossing comedy of the year.
Yeah, and that was the year that saw the release of Grease, Animal House and Superman so that’s not too shabby!
Not too shabby, yeah. It was the longest running comedy. We had people running movie theatres come up and thank us for their house and cars that they bought with the proceeds from our Up in Smoke movie.
It was around that peak you two decided to split. Looking back, how would you say your relationship with Cheech has evolved?
It was tough on me, for sure. I found out when we started doing live shows, where I started doing a little bit of standup that I liked it. I loved it. I would not have learned to be a standup comedian if we hadn’t have broken up. I now had another career. Then I got lonely on the road so I convinced my wife to come on the road and taught her to be a comedian herself. Now she opens the show. She’s such a natural. So, (Cheech and I) breaking up allowed us to open doors into the other talents we had.
But when it was time to get back together we just couldn’t agree on anything. Cheech didn’t want me to director anymore and I certainly didn’t want to deal with anybody else. After our first meeting it looked like we weren’t going to get back together. It just wasn’t going to happen. I hadn’t seem Cheech for years and it was really nice seeing him. I wrote him an email telling him how even though we were not going to work together it was nice to see him, how much I missed (him) until I saw (him). Then my son found the email and stopped it. He wrote another email saying why don’t we get back together again. Next I know Cheech agreed and we were back together on tour.
I think that was certainly the best choice for the fans not to mention the new one’s you’d develop this time out. Now, you did mention persuing those other avenues. Do you think it was kind of inevitable that you’d become a marijuana activist?
Oh yeah, especially when I went to jail. That’s when I realized I really was an activist. That’s why they put me in jail. It wasn’t because I broke any laws. I was the kind of type, you know, who would protest the war. Bush was getting ready to invade Iraq and he needed a diversion so he picked the bong industry. Next thing I know I had Feds at my door and I ended up in jail for nine months. That’s when I really became an activist. I had no choice. That’s where I am today.
Would you say there have been some advancements made in marijuana culture since you started out?
Oh yeah, tonnes. Are you kidding me? The advancement is the fact that it has medical use that just boggles the mind. It has been proven now to help with the curing of cancers, epilepsy, and it just goes on and on. It just blew apart the pharmaceutical companies. I did nine months in jail for selling a water pipe. Can you imagine.
Being a dual citizen, how would you compare Canada’s pot views to the current one’s in the United States?
Again, Canada is very naive. You have to retrain the watchdogs, the cops and the lawyers. The cops are benefiting off of it being illegal. They are having a hard time getting used to that. Like pot shops. Look at the way they handled liquour. Canada has this democracy but it also has this dictatorship kind of attitude in all the provinces. Like in Alberta, for instance, for a while they had this bible thumper on Sundays who closed the bars down at 11:30 because they wanted everybody in church. As far as weed goes, they have this same kind of weird attitude.
What the weed does is it affects the brain in the youth and suddenly they're being reasonable. You can’t get away with a lie. I was in Canada when they busted the singing group the Four Tops for a roach. A maid reported it and the cops broke down the door and arrested everybody. They went to jail in Vancouver. That was for a roach! One time I coming through Canada and I had one seed in my passport and it was like stop the presses! The cell phone has educated everybody and if you don’t know about weed now all you have to do is ask a kid. But the Canadians themselves, the old style cops, it’s hard to change that attitude.
I like the justice system there anyway because at least the judges say it’s against the constitution. Case dismissed. That’s happening now. I feel Canada will fall in line and pretty soon in the whole world it will be legal.
You credit, at least in some way, cannabis for helping you get cancer free. What have been the other benefits of your continued usage?
I’m married to one of the most beautiful women in the world and I owe that all to pot. Had I done alcohol I wouldn’t be alive now. I’m young enough looking, I have to stay young, and it got me into bodybuilding. It didn’t interfere with that. In fact, it enhanced it. Nothing like a good workout when you have a little buzz going. It’s helped me with my health, with my kids. I tell them I don’t mind them smoking pot, I don’t want them smoking cigarettes or get an alcohol jones. I live in a beautiful home in the Palisades and have my taxes paid up. Now I am getting on the verge of getting in the marijuana business so that if I want to retire from touring I can without any problems. That’s why I am trying to stay healthy. I don’t want to leave all this and stay around as long as I can. I want to enjoy the benefits of it all.
You’re still out there even now when most people would have retired. What keeps you going?
It’s just fun. I just love doing it. That’s my whole thing in life: if it’s not fun, don’t do it. It’s not about money. I read a study that one thing that potheads lack is a concern for money. For me that is so important. Money to me is a way to keep track of things but you want to share. That’s what potheads do. We’re all connected with this miraculous plant and that’s what I learned.