Friday, April 9, 2010

Still smokin’
With their new DVD “Hey Watch This,” Cheech & Chong reclaim their thrones as comic royalty
By Carl Kozlowski

Anyone who smoked a joint in the ‘70s was also likely aware of Cheech and Chong. The countercultural comedy superstars smoked and toked their way through nine albums, four feature films and thousands of concerts worldwide – offering living proof that stoners could also be ambitious and hard workers if given the right incentives, i.e., money, women and weed.

But eventually the laughs started to fade, and with the Reagan White House constantly touting its War on Drugs and overtaking the nation’s airwaves with incessant “Just Say No” sloganeering, even Robert “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong lost their buzz and decided to split up. In the past 25 years since that ignoble occurrence, which also signified the end of their friendship for nearly two decades, Cheech’s career has taken him far into the mainstream with major roles on network TV hits like “Nash Bridges” and “Lost,” while Chong wound up serving time in federal prison on highly questionable trafficking charges.

Now they’re back, revived and ready to roll (no pun intended) with a new DVD called “Hey, Look at This!” and plans for not only a sequel to their most famous film “Up in Smoke” but a nearly-completed animated film as well. The DVD – which depicts on-stage and behind-the-scenes highlights of the duo’s 2009-2010 worldwide concert tour - is a means of reclaiming their status as the greatest pot-related comedy act of all time, but also remind fans and newcomers alike that their comedy was also quite clever and covered tons of material unrelated to drugs as well. It’s no coincidence that the tour was a smash hit, opening many doors for them to make a mark in the nation’s current medical marijuana and pot-legalization debates.

Sitting down with PW for an exclusive interview (with the full audio of the chat also running on my Internet-radio show “Grand Theft Audio: The Jake, Brant & Carl Show” from 6 to 8 p.m. April 22 on, Channel One and on ITunes podcast downloads April 23), the dynamic duo looked both far into the past to explain how they met and into their suddenly vibrant future.

“We actually met up in Canada, where Tommy’s from (Chong is a naturalized U.S. citizen), and we were doing shows with a little comedy opening for a band,” Marin recalls, squinting his already heavy-lidded eyes. “Then the band split up but we stayed together, playing music as The Royal Shakespearean Strippers. Well theoretically we played music, but really did so much comedy we never around to playing any music. That’s when we realized you don’t need a whole band for comedy, just two guys, and it just seemed the obvious way to go.”

While they made their mark worldwide, Chong says they weren’t quite as wild as their image would suggest. In fact, his favorite “wild” road story really is just an amusing tale of a surprise celebrity encounter.

“Getting high with George Harrison was pretty incredible. He played guitar on 'Basketball Jones,” says Chong. “I got stoned with George one time, got high and started talking. I looked over and the guy next to me was Wally from ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ That was even more mind-blowing.”

While their split was acrimonious, as evidenced by their agreeing to voice a “South Park” skit in 2000 only if they could record at separate times, Chong now adopts a mellow tone in explaining the dissolution of their partnership.

“We had a nice string. Everybody has a string: Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, no matter how funny you are it only lasts so long,” says Chong.

“Every new generation wants their own heroes. Now if we do 3,4, 5 movies we'll run the string out again,” adds Marin.

On the other hand, there’s a certain activity that neither comic ever stopped.

“When you get older, you smoke less and less and less because it takes less to have an effect,” says Marin. “But stop? Never!”

“I'm still experimenting. I've been experimenting for 50 years and I'll say one thing – you can't get hooked on it,” adds Chong with a sly grin. “I do it in my act too, but pot smoking is really unsafe for work because you get so stoned you forget to fuck it up. We should send some more to Washington. Then they’ll forget to fuck up the country.”

Chong knows plenty about governmental overreach amid the War on Drugs, as he himself was busted for trafficking and served nine months in prison after federal authorities raided his home, even though it was Chong’s son Paris who served as the company’s CEO and handled nearly all business matters. While he expresses humorous defiance in loudly and proudly proclaiming his renewed use of weed, Chong also detailed the tricky ways in which the prison system strives to make offenders offend again, ensuring a constant flow of money into the system.

“Ironically, I'm invited to give an address for the Democratic person running for Congress in Pittsburgh against the woman who put me in jail,” says Chong. “I was really innocent. It was my son's company and technically I was innocent as I can be. The US will invade any country it wants, haha, and so the same goes for messing with your life. It was good research, though, and I'm a writer. They had all the dope you wanted but then they drug test you. Once you're in prison, when you violate their rules, they can give you five extra years with barely an honest hearing, and add more time to your sentence, so I stayed away from it.“

Chong claims that, despite seeing Marin in an anti-drug commercial (a charge Marin disputes but admits “not remembering”) and a slew of mainstream projects, he never abandoned hope that Marin would be willing to reunite. That hope remained even after the duo had a meeting in which they argued so much they briefly threw out ideas for films.

“My son read an email Cheech sent to me. We'd had a meeting and decided that we're not going to get back together again, but then I hadn't seen my buddy in so long I missed him,” Chong says. “I said even though we're not together professionally, we should see each other personally. So my son came up with the idea for the tour.”

That tour, which led them across the U.S. as well as Australia and many points in between, proved to be a multi-million dollar smash hit. And it’s shown that they’re a long, long way from ever calling things off again.

“What brought us back together?” Marin asks. “We got 150 hours of community service knocked off.”

“The real answer? M-O-N-E-Y,” clarifies Chong. “Our individual careers had petered out, and we said 'we blew it' so let's try it again. The brand was bigger than either one of us, then we both looked at each other and had some stranger running the Cheech and Chong website and making big money selling Tshirts of us. So it's harvest time now, time to bring it all in.”

“Cheech & Chong’s Hey Watch This” will be released on DVD worldwide on Tuesday, April 20 (natch).

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