The fans who have come to see Tommy Chong, of the legendary Cheech and Chong comedy duo, are gathering in Barnes and Noble’s events room, clutching vinyl albums, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with marijuana leaves. Tommy Chong is waiting to “go on” in a secret room on the top floor, and that is where this Mirror reporter gets to have some time to talk with Chong about his new book, Cheech and Chong: The Unauthorized Biography.
Still looking youthful at 70, Chong, who is on the phone with his wife, asks how many people are at the event. I tell him that it is already standing room only. He looks pleased.
How does Tommy Chong come to be writing this book? “I wrote another book, The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint,” he tells me. That book, published in 2006, dealt with his recent incarceration for selling “paraphernalia.” “I promised [to write the Cheech and Chong story] 10 years ago to Simon and Shuster – but it took a while to get going with it.” The prison book came first, as it seemed to have more immediacy. Chong says he ended up writing Cheech and Chong in “about two months” but he had been “working on it” for several years.
Chong and former partner Richard “Cheech” Marin had been “estranged,” (Chong’s word) for a number of years after being the best-selling comdedy group of the 1970s. “We weren’t talking. The book begins with my seeing Cheech at the airport, and I see him but I don’t talk to him. And then I get to thinking about what a weird journey we had. We were so together – and then not able to talk to each other. I go back to Cheech’s early beginnings and then to my early beginnings – more mine than his because it is unauthorized.”
Were there any other people whom Chong had to deal with in terms of being able to write about them?
“Well, these days when you write a book, you have to sit down with lawyers,” Chong says. “The lawyers went over every line in the book.” But he says that he is “kind” in his reminisces about Cheech.
The Canadian-born Chong can do a fair imitation of his East L.A. partner. I tell him that the 1973 routine “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” is a favorite of mine, because it encapsulates the whole 1960s counter-culture and its aftermath. Chong chuckles and does Cheech’s lines: “A little bit for Santa, a little bit for the reindeer, a little bit more for Santa.”
“We had intended to do a Christmas record every year, but that was the only one we did. I think [that routine] says more about Cheech and Chong than anything else.”
Chong has a lot more to say later when he talks to the fans. Much of his talk – part stand-up routine, part philosophical rumination – is devoted to an account of his arrest, prison experience, and his thoughts on attitudes toward recreational drugs.
“The reason they put me in jail was because of the movies I made. They thought I should do time because I made fun of law enforcement and I ‘glorified’ drug use.”
Chong had lent his name and image to his son’s bong business, which the DEA targeted as “Operation Pipe Dreams.” He gives us a harrowing and yet laugh-punctuated account of his arrest on the charge of “conspiring to send a bong across state lines.”
“‘Conspiring,’ ” says Chong, “means I thought about it. Oh yeah, I’m thinking about sending a bong in the mail.”
He pulls no punches in saying that he believes “the government uses these laws to get you because they can’t get you any other way.” And he also observes, to great applause, that the real “gateway drug” that parents should guard their kids against is “beer. Alcohol. Alcohol is the worst.”
The really good news though, is that Cheech and Chong are getting together again. They will soon be kicking off the “Light Up America” national tour. No, they won’t be doing new material, just the classics. Judging by the varied ages of the people in attendance at Barnes and Noble, it looks like Cheech and Chong may be turning on a new generation to the pleasures of harmless pleasures. But…
“The greatest pleasure,” Chong concludes, “is in knowing who you are.”