When I began loosely experimenting with cannabis like most 16-year-olds, cannabis culture naturally came with it. And the ringleaders, Cheech and Chong, reign supreme, whether you indulge, previously indulged or simply enjoy comedy. At the time, I wasn’t sure what category my dad, who was a lawyer for over 40 years, fell into; all I knew was there aren’t many things that bring my dad to tears from laughter, but the “Maui Wowie-Labrador” scene from Cheech and Chong’s most adored movie, Up in Smoke, was one of those things.
It goes like this: while Cheech is driving, he takes a couple of puffs from a massive joint passed to him by his new buddy Chong.
Cheech: “Hey, what’s in this shit, man?”
Chong: “Mostly Maui Wowie, but it’s got some Labrador in it.”
Cheech: “What’s Labrador, man?”
Chong: “It’s dog shit. My dog ate my stash, man, so I had to follow him around with a little baggy for three days. It really blew the dog’s mind.”
Since Up in Smoke, Tommy Chong has been in more than 40 movies—he directed four of the Cheech and Chong films, and co-wrote and starred in all seven with his comedy partner Cheech Marin. He even crossed over to Disney, voicing the scruffy but enlightened Yax in Zootopia in 2016. Additionally, he has more than a dozen television credits, including his recurring role as “Leo” on That ’70s Show—he appeared in 65 episodes.
Chong has also racked up six Grammy nods in the Best Comedy Recording category and won with Cheech Marin for their 1973 hit, Los Cochinos (The Pigs). He actually began his career in showbiz as a musician—in 1965, Chong was in a short-lived band, the Vancouvers, who signed with Motown Records’ subsidiary Gordy Records. He even co-wrote “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” which reached No. 29 on the “Billboard Hot 100.”
Now in his 80s, Chong has survived two bouts with cancer and nine months in prison for selling bongs through the mail. He spoke to me before a recent visit to Santa Cruz to promote his new cannabis brand—a visit which revealed a fanbase that has grown exponentially over multiple generations. (Chong returns to KindPeoples in Santa Cruz on Friday, this time with Marin.) His comedy will always be relevant, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
What have you been up to?
TOMMY CHONG: I’m looking at yacht books, you know, the books that sell yachts and private planes. I smell incredible wealth in my future.
You have been a part of my life since I was a sophomore in high school when my dad, who was a lawyer for over 40 years, introduced me to Up in Smoke.
You know, we replaced that sex talk that everybody used to have. Now, when kids come of age, [parents] give them a Cheech and Chong record or a movie.
That scene when you and Cheech smoke the blend of Maui Wowie with “Labrador” still brings my dad to tears.
We had so much fun. Cheech and I got together yesterday for a photo shoot, and it becomes another event. People just stand back and record because once we get together, it’s all over. I’ve actually been with Cheech longer than I’ve been with my now-wife. I’ve watched him grow up. I’ve watched him grow into an old man.
You tweeted about the Super Bowl halftime show this year and how much you enjoyed it.
Well, I love the fact that Dr. Dre paid for the sets. They were little houses in East L.A. and South Central. And they performed on the roof of the houses. And then when the cameras went down to the houses themselves, that’s where the dancers and other singers and other performers were. It was introducing the world to reality, because rap has taken over the music industry. What used to be rock is now rap, so it was like watching a Phoenix rise out of the ashes. Think about it: South Central, the ghetto and Death Row Records? They’re the biggest acts in the world. Dr. Dre is almost a billionaire—from earphones.
You and Snoop Dogg are buddies, right?
Oh, yeah! We’ve known each other for a long time. I was in Snoop Dogg’s and Dr. Dre’s movie The Wash. In the bit, I was giving the weed out for free, but I was charging for the bongs. And then I end up going to jail for bongs.
I read that you recently got into the Grateful Dead and even consider yourself a Deadhead. What took you so long to embrace them?
Because I was working at the same time they were. I had the same kind of trip going on in Vancouver. Maybe a little longer. I started before the Beatles. I started at the beginning of rock and roll. I started playing country—I was a guitar player for a fiddle player. It was just for a neighbor—our farm area.
I knew about the Dead when they were the Warlocks. Then they went kind of country or bluegrass. Yeah, Jerry was a bluegrass player, and that’s why he became such a great guitarist. He could single-pick any tempo, and then he started playing the blues and tried all these different things to see what worked.
I was already playing music like that—I guess it was a little of everything. But the Dead were jamming, and they’re in the moment. And people were doing acid, so you had the light show—marijuana was always there, but it was mostly acid, and acid is such a spiritual trip for everybody, whether they know it or not.
I was never a fan because I was always a performer. That’s why I never really connected with the Dead. I was basically doing the same thing. Now I’m a fan. When you get out of music, playing it, you can listen, so I never really had a chance to sit down and take in a Dead experience.
Now, I love everything they did; I love their whole approach to music. [The Dead] were always such good musicians. I always respected the fans. They always played for the fans; the fans were more important than the music. I grew up with that same outlook. We could take a Motown song and play it for hours if we wanted to. Music is continuous. You may stop playing, but the music never stops. I’ve always had that mindset, especially with the acid in those days.
Talk about Cheech & Chong’s Takeout cannabis delivery service.
We figured that we have a product, but we need a way to get it to you without leaving your house. We’re going to do the customers a great service. We came up with it during the pandemic. Weed was considered essential during the pandemic—they never shut down the weed shops because it’s medicine for so many people. And now, as everything opens up again, we’re going to be able to spread the love because love is in a joint or a capsule or a gummy bear. It’s a lot of love. And that’s what we’re selling everywhere. Love.
What else do you have going on?
We’ve got a documentary movie that’s gonna kick butt. We started four or five years ago. We’re waiting to release the documentary at the right time, which might be in a few years. But that’s the great thing about what we’re doing.
Eventually, [weed] will be legal around the world. I think it’s nature or karma; it’s just how the world works. And nothing happens that quick. It seems to take forever until it’s there, like legalization. People got 20 years in jail, or life and all that stuff. Now we’re working on getting those people out of jail because they don’t belong there. It’s all growing. Authorities are adjusting from the forfeiture law, where they could take your house or car if they found a joint in your possession or something. Now, weed is essential during the pandemic. We need the weed.
One of my biggest sellers is Tommy Chong’s Good Vibes CBD. We also sell the sublingual strips and the tincture. And the Nice Vibes and Nice Dreams CBD oil.
I started rolling my own joints again. I love the factory-rolled joints, but I don’t want to lose the touch.
You have prerolls, too?
We have a one-gram “Hashtronaut” and hash-infused prerolls. For a while, I was doing suppositories.
I had prostate cancer, so I was treating the area with suppositories; it reminds me of a joke. There was a guy who took Preparation H suppositories for about a year but for all the good it did him, he might as well have shoved them up my ass.
Yes, I’ve tried all entrances. I don’t know if it helped, but it got me really high. It was a good way to do it. But I’m okay now, as far as cancer goes.
What would surprise people most about you?
That I’m as old as I am—83 and 99 tenths; almost 84. I find out how good I look when I meet some old guy and ask, “How old are you?” And he says, “I’m 64.” Or, “I’m 71.” I don’t tell him how old I am because it’s embarrassing. They’re hobbling along.
The weed helps me stay young and talk to people like my surfer son, who refuses to let me grow. He says, “No, dad, you can’t [grow old].”
It’s genetics, too. My dad was Chinese, my mother was Scotch, Irish, English and Native [American]. So, I got a mix of everything in me. But I learned the secret of staying young: Weightlifting, bodybuilding.
I’ve noticed your arms in a couple of your movies, and I always think, “Man, how is a pothead so ripped?”
I did that on purpose. Cheech and I both wanted to show people that potheads can look good.
You went to prison about 20 years ago on a bogus paraphernalia charge and had to leave ‘That ’70s Show’ and your family. How did you deal with the anger of getting locked up for essentially no reason?
I was very lucky. Everything that happened to us during that time became a challenge. Our life was going too well, and then that came up, and we had to make some changes in our life. First of all, my wife was super. My wife could always make money. That’s what attracted her to me—my ambitious nature. I wasn’t just a musician; I owned the nightclub we played in, and we got discovered by Motown. I was going for broke, and she recognized that fact. So, when I went to jail, we immediately turned it into a plus for both of us. As soon as I realized that there was no way out and I was going to go to jail, we changed. She started planning on her life without me, and I was looking forward to my time in prison because I’m a celebrity. I was embedded with the troops, and everybody loved me. The only time the prison got down on me was when they said, “Okay, Tom, no more pictures with the visitors.” The visiting room was getting too crowded on weekends because you got to take a picture with Tommy Chong.
Are you going to seek a pardon?
I turned down a pardon from Obama. Cheech met Obama—he was awarded some Chicano thing and mentioned to Obama that his partner was in jail. And Obama said, “Do the paperwork, and I’ll sign it.” But I didn’t want the pardon because it’s like admitting that you did wrong. I never did anything wrong, so I want to appear before the judge and change my plea. You can do that. It’s not very common, but you can appear before that judge or another judge and change your plea. Because it is already my time, but if I change my plea and get a not-guilty plea, they got to give me back the $100,000 or whatever it was that I had to pay in fines. And then they confiscated money that had nothing to do with the pipes. So yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’m gonna wait until the right time. And then I’ll get a really good lawyer and go in there before the same judge, which is in Pennsylvania, and change my plea.
That would be great, if it works.
I think it can. It’s very simple. Just get before the judge and bring out all the papers and the report because I got railroaded. They were going to put me in jail regardless. Everybody else got house arrest or probation. They knew it was a bogus charge.
They’ve always known that marijuana is more like medicine than anything. That’s why the government tried to take out a patent on weed many years ago, but you can’t patent a plant. They did the next best thing: They made it illegal, and that was during the ’30s. Part of the reason they made it illegal was to combat prohibition, but they found out that there were many revenue wars and cops with no jobs when they ended prohibition. And so, they needed some substance to keep the DEA, so that’s what they did. When you think about it, all drug laws are stupid.
They’re all connected to the freedom to put whatever you want in your body. They’re talking about vaccines and worried about vaccines, but what about heroin or morphine or cocaine or any of those drugs? Yeah, they’re bad for you. Cigarettes are bad for you, but they’re still legal. Come on with that shit. It’s just people making money off these prohibitions. You can’t fight that because it’s an industry. You fuck with their industry, and you’re fucking with their livelihood. That’s why a lot of DEA people are in the weed business, because they know it so well.
You have a graphic novel coming out soon, ‘Cheech & Chong’s Chronicles: A Brief History of Weed.’ How did that come about?
I have a friend of a friend, and her niece was raw. She’s a writer, a comedy writer. And she suggested it. So, they went ahead and did it. We helped as much as we could, and now it’s getting out there. I think they’re selling it to networks to see if they want to animate it. It looks good because we’re not the young Cheech and Chong, and we’re not the old Cheech and Chong. We’re somewhere in the middle. I love comic books. Anyway, I grew up with comic books. And this is a graphic novel. It’s more like I’m looking at a stack of novels on my desk right now. My dad used to have a saying, “One of these days.”
What’s the most recent book you read?
I have books read to me because I’ve got bad eyesight. I read spiritual books more than anything. I have to be hooked up with God. I go right to the top man. You don’t mess around. I want to go to the big guy. And you can; there’s no problem, all you have to do is think about it.
Happiness is being able to control your thoughts. You adjust everything, so it’s just right. It’s all in your mind. You can accomplish anything that you desire. If you want it bad enough, you will get it no matter what. It’s just controlling your thoughts. By controlling your thoughts, you’ll never get angry. You control your anger. I ride with people all the time. If someone cuts them off, changes lanes, or is too slow to move, they get angry. It’s such a waste of energy. It’s hard on your body when you get angry. Your body goes into all sorts of weird trips because there’s a fight or flight thing. When you get angry, you stop stuff from working—circulation, breathing, all that stuff, so if you can control your anger, that’s when forgiveness comes in. You asked me earlier about jail. I forgave everybody—the cops, the judge, the lawyers, everybody. Clean the slate every chance you get.
Tommy Chong returns to Santa Cruz—this time joined by Cheech Marin—on Friday, April 15, 1-4pm, at KindPeoples’ Ocean Street location in Santa Cruz. Meet the ganja comedy gurus and pick up a free signed poster. You can gain VIP access to the meet-and-greet by spending $50 or more on Cheech’s Stash, Tommy Chong Cannabis or Cheech and Chong’s Cannabis products. (Paper receipt required). Tommy Chong’s Cannabis products are available at KindPeoples, 533 Ocean St. and 3600 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. kindpeoples.com. tommychongshemp.com.