Turns out Tommy Chong, the soft-spoken comedian and archetype of stoned slackers everywhere, was also a bold visionary for legal marijuana.
“I had predicted it,” said Chong, 76, in a recent phone interview. “I used to assume it was legal 10 years ago. Then I found out it wasn’t. So everyone is catching up to me now.”
As counterculture burnouts from the ’60s, Chong and his comedy partner, “Cheech” Marin, 68, created the mold for stereotypical stoners on their 1971 self-titled debut comedy album. Four decades later, the Grammy-award winning comedian says the material is still relevant.
“Our audiences still relate because we’re like an oldies group now,” said Chong. “The young kids look at us like the way we used to look at our parents’ heroes. My dad used to laugh really hard at Jackie Gleason and I did, too. I didn’t understand half the jokes but I laughed. Laughter is laughter; it’s not hard to laugh at idiots.”
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That self-deprecating sense of humor along with a deep catalog of skits, songs and routines make up the bulk of Cheech and Chong’s material, which the pair will pull from while performing on Saturday, July 19, at Marymoor Park in Redmond.
Things weren’t always so great for Chong. In 2003 his California-based company, Chong’s Glass, was busted as part of a federal crackdown on “drug-related paraphernalia.” He copped a plea and spent nine months in federal prison.
Despite that he remains positive and insists he harbors no resentment.
“The government at the time consisted of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush and the only thing you can feel for those guys is pity. Their ignorance lives on. Everybody else has moved on. I’d be doing myself a big disservice if I was resentful.”
Prior to Chong’s arrest, Marin had split from the group and moved on to roles on TV and in movies. Chong’s career was basically at a standstill. They reunited in 2008 after nearly 25 years apart. Ironically, it’s the arrest that he credits for putting him back in the national spotlight.
Though his livelihood has been made portraying a lovable, constantly stoned loser, Chong started as a guitar player with Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, a soul group signed to Motown. After moderate success in music, he turned to comedy. Cheech and Chong recorded six gold albums and made a series of seven counterculture movies. The duo’s first movie, “Up in Smoke,” was a huge success, earning $44 million at the domestic box office, but he points out that the character is not who he really is.
“When I got put in jail for selling bongs, they prosecuted my character from ‘Up in Smoke,’ literally. We couldn’t have been those characters and wrote, produced and directed all the movies.”
As for the future of marijuana and whether it will be legalized nationwide? Chong has an unvarnished prediction.
“Absolutely. Not nationwide, we’re going to see worldwide. Because it’s a scam. Making it illegal is a big scam,” he insisted.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, but if it does, Cheech and Chong’s influence will be evident.
“The greatest compliment of the longevity of Cheech and Chong is they now sell Halloween costumes,” Chong joked. “We’re iconic in many ways.”
Jeff Albertson: 206-464-2304 or firstname.lastname@example.org