With a new box set of their classic movie, the high priests of stoner comedy parse what’s changed – and what hasn’t
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Cheech and Chong on 40th anniversary of ‘Up in Smoke’: “It was: ‘We represent the norm: middle-of-the-road-dopers. You just don’t realize it yet.'”
When Cheech Marin picks up the phone, he’s already in character. “Hello, Jack in the Box! What the fuck’s up?” he bellows in his trademark gritty voice. It’s about 11 a.m. where he is in California, and despite his chipper demeanor, he says, “I’m just drowsing into consciousness here.”
Similarly, his comic foil for four decades and counting, Tommy Chong, still seems like he’s emerging from a purple haze when he speaks with Rolling Stone around the same time of day, about a week later. “Hey, I’ve been waiting to talk to you, man,” he says in his signature sweetly stoned lilt – and that last word, “man,” sounds exactly the way he’s been saying it since Cheech and Chong became underground breakouts in the early 1970s thanks to their radical, sketch-based LPs.
Almost a half a century has passed since the two comedians met in Vancouver, launching an enduring improv routine that they still regularly perform live on the road. And even now that each is in his 70s, they still seem to have the same spark (pun intended). Their collaboration has earned them a Grammy, four gold records, a fat filmography, millions of fans and bragging rights to having made what’s arguably the most iconic stoner flicks of all time, Up in Smoke.
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Now they’ve prepared a surprisingly lavish 40th anniversary box-set reissue of the film that includes a new documentary, the soundtrack, a vinyl-sized book, a poster and, naturally, comically oversized rolling papers. “We’ve heard every story that you can possibly about how people have rolled giant joints with their friends,” says Marin of the gag, which the duo first included with its Big Bambú LP in 1972. “It’s like a communal thing.”
That sense of community propelled Cheech and Chong into superstars after Up in Smoke became a surprise hit when it opened in 1978, its impact reverberating over decades. Ice Cube has said he’d hoped his own stoner comedy, Friday, would become a “hood classic” in the vein of Up in Smoke; rock bands from Soundgarden to Korn have covered their songs; the duo has been name-checked countless times by hip-hop artists. And most recently, their song “Earache My Eye,” which first appeared on the group’s 1974 record Wedding Album and was featured toward the end of Up in Smoke, was sampled on Eminem’s Number One–charting Revival album. Cheech and Chong established a social currency with Up in Smoke that Hollywood had severely underestimated – a film about a subculture it had been ignoring – and, as both critics and audiences embraced it, it helped signal a turning point for comedy.
When Chong watches the movie now, he says he’s amazed by the way they were predicting today’s cultural conversation, from depicting hippies and non-Caucasians to liberal marijuana use. To commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary, he wrote some new lyrics for the mariachi-inflected ballad “Up in Smoke” and recorded them with his partner. One of the better lines, sung by Marin, goes, “Some things have changed, and some have stayed the same/Now mota is legal, but I’m still illegal, so nothing’s changed.”
For Marin, though, the thing that strikes him when he watches it today is the approach to comedy. “What stands out to me is how different it is from comedies being made today,” Marin says. “It was more of a naturalistic way of filming things. We let the audience decide what was funny, instead of chopping it up with real short edits. Sometimes I feel like a goose being force-fed the cues to laugh.”
The duo originally conceived their first feature film as a compilation of its “greatest hits” (pun still intended) from the records and live shows. And while they managed to squeeze a few favorites in there – “Earache My Eye” and a callback to the eternally brilliant “Dave’s Not Here” – they eventually decided to focus it on two characters. Marin would play Pedro de Pacas, a lecherous pothead known for driving his tricked-out lowrider and wearing a half-shirt with suspenders (“What’s the use of working so hard to have a six-pack if nobody sees it?” Marin asks now). Chong played Anthony Stoner – a bandana-wearing burnout better known simply as “Man.”
“We had to concentrate on our strongest characters,” Marin says.
“Those were the two characters with universal appeal,” Chong says.
Marin and Chong first met in 1968 and bonded over a love of improv. “We started in a strip bar that Tommy’s family owned in the worst part of Vancouver,” Marin says. “He wanted to do improv theater, but he wanted to keep the topless element at the same time in order to preserve the audience that was already there. So it became topless improv, hippie burlesque. You had Cheech and Chong and naked girls … I don’t know if there was a choice of what to look at.” He laughs.
As they worked out their routines, they figured out that their aesthetic was to take everyday situations and exaggerate them. “Real life in Cheech and Chong is the funniest stuff,” Chong says. “That’s what drove everything. In Up in Smoke, Cheech peeing in the hamper was a true story. He came home one day drunk and thought he’d found the toilet. And the scene where he wakes up with all the kids around him, blaring the television, that was from when Cheech stayed with my first wife and the family. He would sleep on the couch and every morning my kids would turn on the TV real loud.”
Eventually, they stumbled on a comedy concept that Chong calls the “Most Of” rule. “You can’t just get high,” he explains, “you’ve got to be the highest you’ve ever been. And you can’t just roll a joint. It’s got to be the most of; It’s got to be the biggest joint ever. That’s what people respond to.”
They refined their material on the road, and, according to Marin, worked more than 300 days a year. Record producer Lou Adler, who worked with the Mamas and the Papas and co-owned the Roxy venue featured in Up in Smoke, spotted their act and offered to put out albums of their bits. When the time came to make the movie, it was Adler who worked as a producer attempting to sell it to prospective studios. “This was 1975, maybe, and I’d say, ‘I want to make a movie about marijuana with a Chinaman and a Mexican,’” he says. “Not a lot of people were jumping at me and saying, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. Somebody over at Paramount understood it. I ended up financing it myself and they paid me back.” When filmmaker Floyd Mutrux walked away from the picture after failing to connect with the actors, Adler took over the directorial reins as well.
The film became famous not just for its comically oversized spliffs for the comedians’ sense of improv. In a scene where Cheech and Chong are standing outside in Tijuana and a dog comes up and eats a burrito right out of Chong’s hand, the moment wasn’t scripted – it was just a hungry canine. In some ways, the movie was a precursor to the way that shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm are made – with a mere hint of a plot and the actors improvising the dialogue – though Chong contests that there was a “loose” script.
“I personally wrote pages on a yellow pad,” he says. “I’ve still got ’em in my basement. It had a smattering of dialogue. But it was mostly a roadmap.”
Cheech and Chong eventually concocted a zany narrative where Pedro meets Man and they go to Tijuana to pick up a van constructed from marijuana. As they try to smuggle it across the border, they witlessly evade a narcotics unit led by a Sgt. Stedenko (actor Stacy Keach) and make their way to a battle of the bands. “It was a day in the life of Cheech and Chong, or Pedro and [the] Man, which was much more interesting than a plot,” Cheech says. “It’s, ‘Two guys meet, they decide to form a band together, but first they need a joint.’ Therein lies your plot.”
The movie was relatively easy to make, Chong says, “because we didn’t know any better.” They rarely rehearsed, and Adler allowed the duo to feel scenes out. “He had no ego,” Chong recalls. “If we changed our minds halfway through a shoot, and said, ‘Oh, let’s do this instead,’ he’d say, ‘OK, no problem.’”
Throughout the picture, they included hilarious glimpses into their real lives. The character Strawberry, Pedro’s cousin, played by Tom Skerritt, was based in part on the duo’s lighting guy from its hippie burlesque days. “It was snowing, and there was a garbage strike, so these big black bags were piled high,” Chong recalls of meeting the real Strawberry. “And this redheaded hippie was sitting in a pile of garbage in the snow underneath a street light; he looked angelic. He was bumming for money. I asked him his name, he said, ‘Strawberry,’ and said he needed a place to stay.” Chong hosted him in the strip club’s lighting booth, and he became the duo’s first critic. “When we did a bit that didn’t work, he’d go, ‘Ah, man. That really sucked.’”
Was he a good lighting tech? “No, he was terrible,” Marin says. “He’d miss the cues. ‘Oh, sorry, man. I took some really good acid this afternoon.’ But it was hilarious. How are you going to get mad at a lighting guy when you’re doing improv in a strip club?”
They linked up with Skerritt through mutual acquaintances of Robert Altman, whose art director, Leon Erickson, worked on Up in Smoke. For some of the other roles, they looked to their funny friends. Their friend, June Fairchild, played a cokehead partygoer who snorted three lines of Ajax that made her do what sounds like an impression of Donald Duck imploding, and they cast other buddies as extras in the party scenes.
As they bonded with some of the other actors they didn’t know, as well, such as Zane Buzby, who plays one of the hitchhikers that accompanies them to the battle of the bands, they heard stories they liked so much that they altered the plot of the film. “The ‘Fuck me, Alex’ bit was really written by Zane,” says Chong, referencing a scene where Jade talks about a friend having sex and Chong has a leg cramp in the van – making everyone outside think they were getting it on. “It was her story about how her roommate would scream when she made love. So we put it in the movie. That’s why the movie changed so much radically when we were making it.”
The only plot point they changed outright was Adler’s proposed ending. “The way it went was it would go back to the scene where the cop pulled us over when the car was all in smoke, and we’d roll down the window and it’d be Stacy Keach in uniform and it had all been a dream,” Marin recalls. “I harkened back to when I was a sophomore in high school and our English teacher said, ‘I want you to write a one-page story on any subject you want, and the only thing you can’t say is, “And then I woke up.”‘” Adler eventually relented, and they shot the ending that made it into the film.
The only unrealistic aspect of Up in Smoke was just how much marijuana Cheech and Chong smoked on set: practically none. Although Adler contends the duo was toking up on lettuce, Chong recalls rolling up tobacco, “mostly herbs,” from India. “We got high [socially] but we couldn’t do it with dope,” he says. “We couldn’t do those big joints.”
“Kristen Stewart said she loved Up in Smoke but that we’re not really acting – it’s just who we are,” Marin says of the Twilight actress’ claim that the duo had to have been smoking pot on set. “Well, thank you very much, Kristen, but you’re not as dumb as you look either.
“We maybe smoked after shooting,” he continues, “but not when we’re working. We had to sustain a level of energy, especially making movies. We had long days on set. If we got stoned, we wouldn’t get it done.”
Despite how the movie was made, Cheech and Chong are proud of how they blazed a trail (pun always intended) for marijuana legalization today if not just by normalizing it in the movies. Chong has gone on to found a smoking accessories company (which landed him in jail for selling bongs in 2003) and he now sells his own cannabis line – Chong’s Choice – in states where recreational weed is allowed. He’s since become an outspoken advocate for hemp and its many uses.
“People used to call weed a gateway drug, but the only thing it’s a gateway to is sobriety.” – Tommy Chong
“Weed has been perfected by nature, God, whoever you want to talk about, over the centuries,” he says. “You don’t need to add anything to it. You just put the seed in the ground, let it grow, wait ’til it’s ripe and ready for harvest and use it. You can make rope, fabric, fuel – you can do everything with it.
“What needs to happen is that the humans who regulate – the government – have to catch up with the knowledge of what this plant can do,” he continues. “The plant is done. It’s the people now who need to figure out a way to legalize it and put it in the mainstream. They’re the ones who have to come to grips with themselves and their own greed. All they have to do is Google weed and realize it’s not only harmless, it helps people, whether replacing sleeping aids sex aids, diet things. It’s a magic plant. It also the answer to the opioid crisis. When people are waiting for their dose of heroin, they smoke a joint and they survive until their dose comes in some cases. People used to call it a gateway drug, but the only thing it’s a gateway to is sobriety.”
Although Marin hasn’t been involved in weed advocacy the way Chong has, he’s still passionate about seeing it fully legalized on a federal level. “It’s been voted on by the public,” he says. “you have to grow it in a state you can sell it in, but you can’t cross state lines with the same weed. It has many aspects of prohibition, but it’s quasi-legal. It’s like being quasi-pregnant.” He’d like to see doctors be able to do more clinical research on it, but he likens the eventual legalization to a lava flow. “You can’t stand in front of it,” he says.
One point where Marin and Chong seem to diverge regarding legalization is with forgiving the criminal records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses. Where Marin seems pleased that in Los Angeles there’s an effort to expunge people’s records, Chong says people should recognize a conviction as karma. “When I went to jail, I could have taken the position that I was unjustly incarcerated,” he says. “But I said, ‘No, this is a great adventure.’ I got to see what jail was like for nine months. The I Ching says jail is a place where you go to correct your behavior, so you can’t really do a blanket thing just because something that was illegal became legal.”
Incidentally, one of the reasons Chong thinks he’s got sent away the way he did was for mouthing off to a cop about Up in Smoke. “Sgt. Stedenko was a real cop, and he became a legend in Canada thanks to Up in Smoke,” he says. “He was a real cop that would try to bust us for smoking weed. When I got busted for bongs, I ended up in a room with the arresting officer and I started telling him, ‘You know, there’s a chance I might make you famous like I did Stedenko.’ The cop did not laugh. In fact, the told the judge. I think that’s why I ended up being the only guy in the bong business to do time in jail. It was worth it.”
Cheech and Chong knew they had a hit on their hands when they held test screenings in three cities in Texas – Houston, the hip, liberal city, Dallas, where the conservatives were, and San Antonio, where there was a larger Hispanic population. It killed.
Adler also ran the film by his good friend Jack Nicholson, who gave it a painful thumbs up. “He had just had a car accident and had broken or dislocated his shoulder,” Adler recalls. “He wasn’t supposed to laugh, because every time that he laughed, it would hurt him. And I showed him the film, and I was basing it on those [agonizing] “uh, uh, uh” sounds coming out of Jack. I could judge where the joke hit and not to go over the joke. I heard a lot of ‘ugh’s’ and ‘oh’s.’ Yeah. He almost wanted me to stop.”
When the film came out, it was an instant success, though Cheech and Chong didn’t feel it monetarily. They had a bitter falling out with Adler over the way the money was split, and Chong went on to direct all the films’ sequels himself (a move he thinks may have led to Cheech and Chong’s eventual split in the Eighties). Except for The Corsican Brothers, each of the films continued the mythos of Pedro and Man, even if they stopped using those names. With the third film, 1981’s Nice Dreams, they brought back Stacy Keach as Sgt. Stedenko and amped up the surrealism – an aspect to their style that Marin credits to watching foreign films and an admiration for filmmakers like Luis Buñuel. Marin cites Next Movie and Still Smokin’ as favorites, but both he and Chong cite Up in Smoke as the apotheosis of Cheech and Chong. “You always remember your first,” Marin says, underscoring the sexual overtones of that statement.
Marin, Chong and Adler are now all on good terms today. Cheech and Chong still tour, and they appeared with their former producer-director (though not together) in bonus content for the box set. Each is still incredibly proud of the way the film broke through barriers – a feat that seems even greater in hindsight.
“We were so far ahead of ourselves when it comes to how we showed marijuana and the idea of legalization,” Chong says with a laugh. “And we showed dreamers [immigrants] on film before anybody else was showing it.”
“We were just dumbfounded that everybody wasn’t doing this – defining the high-minded hippie street scene,” Marin says. “We came right up from the streets with an unfiltered view, but it was what was normal to us. We kept saying, ‘We are middle-of-the-road-dopers. We represent the norm. You just don’t realize it yet.’”
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