Like the lives of so many other stoners, Cheech & Chong's recent history has featured much laughter and tragedy.
Though they just reunited for their first comedy tour in 25 years (featuring their classic bits and songs), it comes on the heels of Tommy Chong's incarceration. In early 2003 his home was raided by federal agents. He later pleaded guilty to distributing drug paraphernalia and served nine months in a federal prison outside of Bakersfield, Calif. He also paid a hefty fine and was forced to hand over $120,000 in assets.
The comedic duo is best-known for '70s and '80s stoner-comedy films such as Up In Smoke and Nice Dreams, but are arguably at their best while performing humorous songs. Take "Mexican Americans," in which Cheech spends the first part of the track dispelling Chicano stereotypes, whereupon Chong reinforces them by singing the word "Beaners" over and over at the end; or "The Reefer Song," which contains lyrics such as: "It's a reefer, do you want some, policeman? Or would you prefer me to shove it up your ass?"
The pair had a hit song of sorts on their album Get Out of My Room with "Born in East L.A.," a tongue-in-cheek discourse on racial persecution sung to the tune of Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A."
The new tour finds Chong a cause célèbre of sorts; he is seen widely as a victim of the Bush administration's desire to make an example out of celebrated drug usage. "Tommy was the definition of a political prisoner in that situation," says Cheech Marin. "He was being targeted by the government."
Still, Chong himself says he was treated as a hero while in the can. "They knew who I was – especially for being famous for what I was famous for," he says, adding that local radio DJs regularly spun rap songs that shouted him out.
Once he got over the initial shock and claustrophobia, Chong says his jail time was extremely fulfilling. It helped that he was housed in a "cupcake prison" – "a prison they built for Republicans during the Nixon administration, when they found out they were going to have all those Nixon staffers in jail," he claims – but also that he was given time to contemplate his spirituality.
"Who's to say that jail's a bad experience?" he says. "You can write a book, you can discover great things about yourself. I can honestly say I enjoyed practically every minute that I was incarcerated. I enjoyed it to the point where I wanted to remember every moment of my incarceration, and I think I can."
Apparently his memory isn't too bad for a man who has roughly smoked enough marijuana during his lifetime to equal the gross national product of Somalia.
Though the pair became household names due to their countercultural take on the joys of ghanja, they ceased performing together in the mid-1980s because of personal conflicts. The idea for the comedy reunion tour came after they realized they weren't getting any younger and it was time to bury the hatchet, Marin says. "It's like, if we're ever going to do a tour, it's now or never. It's a nice opportunity to put a cap on our whole Cheech & Chong thing," Marin adds. "We decided, 'Hey look, it's like owning half a treasure map; we can't access this tour without putting our talents together.' So we decided to stop arguing, to stop asking, 'Who did what when?' OK, forget it. We've come to the age where we have more in common than we do apart."
Of course, there were other factors. As Chong points out, "It was very simple. Money kind of cures all. Just focus in on the paycheck, and how bad we need it."
The show features some of Cheech & Chong's most memorable tunes, sketches and characters, with updates for a new era, according to Marin. "We looked at every single one of [the bits] and changed them in some way, how they relate to the age we are now, how they relate to how the times are now."
How getting high can be good for your prostate, perhaps?
"That's more Tommy's area!" Marin jokes. Nonetheless, the pair has had physical ailments in recent years, with Marin scheduled for knee surgery in January. (When asked if he has smoked medical pot for the purposes of relieving his pain he replies with a laugh: "Not specifically for that ... but sure!")
Chong, who at age 70 is eight years older than his partner, has had severe problems with allergies. They were mostly cured, however, thanks to some assistance from one of his L. Ron Hubbard-following co-stars from "That '70s Show." "Danny [Masterson] turned me on to a nutritionist that I guess all of the Scientologists use, and he fixed me up," Chong says. "I had a couple treatments of Vitamin C therapy and other stuff."
He doesn't expect the Scientologists to come beating down his door to try to convert him, however. "I'm not really [appealing to] their target audience," he says. Cheech & Chong fans, however, are glad to have him back.