Q&A: Tommy Chong
Tommy Chong is in good spirits despite his tango lesson at his home studio being cut short for this phone interview. He’s survived cancer and prosecution by the government, and reunited with lifelong friend Richard “Cheech” Marin a few years back for what turned out to be a highly successful tour featuring the best of the stoner-comedy duo’s classic skits. Chong spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about Cheech & Chong’s current show—revised since the first tour and scheduled for selective dates this year including a June 24 appearance in Las Vegas at Treasure Island—as well as growing up Chong, reuniting with Cheech and his new brand of cannabis products.
You’re taking tango lessons, and you seem busier now than you have been in years. Should this be taken as a sign that you’re in control of your dance with cancer, if not having defeated it?
Oh yeah, yeah. So far I’m “cancer-free,” but no one really is once you’ve had it. I’m off chemo, I’m off all the treatments and I’m dancing the tango. I gotta go in next week and do a blood test and do a check up and make sure I’m okay, but it looks like I’m done.
I’ve never known anyone in my experience who recovered so completely while publicly showing so few signs of illness, at least in the photos we’ve seen.
Yeah, well, I caught it. I didn’t mess around. As soon as I found out I had a tumor I got it out right away. I just didn’t go through the bullshit. I was warned by the doctors that treated Farrah Fawcett. We had the same thing, and she just used holistic treatments, went to Mexico and all that bullshit. In the meantime the cancer just ate her up, so as soon as I found out I had it I went immediately to the doctors, where they could take it off me.
I assumed when your Vegas shows were scheduled that there were part of a tour, but I think there’s only one or two scheduled shows right now, correct?
We’re being very fussy. We’re not looking for work any more, and the more we don’t look for work the more we get offered. Weird how that works.
I took that to mean you were gingerly approaching touring after your treatments.
It’s funny, my wife, Shelby, she’s in the show, and she just had her appendix taken out three days ago. She got it taken out then two days later she’s on stage working (laughs). She’s so tough, but we cut the touring down to the nice theaters … where there’s a lot of Mexicans. That’s my criteria. Gotta have a lot of Mexicans, you know.
Does having Shelby open the show contribute to keeping a marriage healthy while on tour?
Oh, for sure. Absolutely. I pissed off a lot of comedians when I put her in the show (laughs). Like Paul Reiser. He was, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” The only way you can stay together is you got to be together. It’s very lonely on the road.
She doesn’t have to think about your temptations, you don’t have to miss her.
Absolutely! I passed that part of my life a long time ago, and I just want to be with someone that I know is cool. Like Charlie Sheen found out, you can play with fire when you’re out there. You never know who you’re with or where they’ve been (laughs). It’s a lifesaving thing, you know? Be with someone where you know where they’ve been.
You both look really healthy and a lot younger than you are, and your son Paris seems like a really sharp kid. What was it like to grow up Chong?
I was lucky. I was the middle child. I had an older brother than took all the slack. He sort of protected me. I didn’t have to worry about my life, I could just pursue my art. I’ve been pursuing it all my life, like playing guitar, you know? My parents were—you know, the fact that I could play dance music and we put a band together—very supportive, the kind of parents where you could turn the living room into a studio, a practice area. They had no problem with that at all, and they just encouraged me.
Do you think you paid that forward when you raised your own kids?
Absolutely, oh absolutely. My dad, he was a truck driver. He told me, “No matter where you are son, if you need a ride you call me.” I thanked him and he just told me, “This is the way you treat your son when you have one.” So when my son, my kids came up, I treated them the same way and it just worked out so well. I wouldn’t ask what they were doing, but if they needed a ride I just got up, put on my clothes, get in the car and drive and get ’em, and spend that quality time with them, you know? Sometimes I had to go bail them out of jail, pick them up. Very few times were they intoxicated to the point of oblivion because I never had any rules about that. “Use your own judgment,” and they did, and they’re all excellent, excellent. We all have a beautiful relationship. In fact, when I was sick, (my son) Paris, he became my doctor. He did all the nasty things that nurses usually have to do. Paris was right in there.
His devotion comes through pretty strong in (2006 documentary) a/k/a/ Tommy Chong.
I don’t know much about your parents, but your dad is Chinese and two things occurred to me: he must have encountered some racism coming up, and he must have had incredibly strong character.
My dad was very tough. He was only 5-foot-3 but he was like a running back in football. Him and his older brother Tommy, who I’m named after, he was a diving coach at the University of Alberta. He was, like, 84 and he came over to my house one time, and he did a handstand sitting in a chair. He grabbed the top of the seat, and from a sitting position he did a handstand. Eighty-four years old, but he was in great, great, great condition. They were tough, and so nobody really messed with them. The racism was short-lived wherever we went, because whenever we got hassled by older kids my dad was there. He would come up and chase them. He wouldn’t hurt ’em, but he made sure that everybody knew if you messed with us, they had some troubles ahead.
What did he think when your career got into swing, when Cheech & Chong got established? I’m picturing him getting his copy of (1972 album that’s cover was designed as a single-serve pack of 12-inch rolling paper) Big Bambu hot off the presses and opening it up. “Ah, what’s this?”
(Laughs) Oh, yeah. But you know what happened is my mother, she stayed in touch with all her relatives. She was the leader of the fan club. When I’d have relatives pop up, “Oh, yeah, your mom wrote us to tell us you were coming.” There’s a look that my family has, kind of like Beverly Hillbillies. When they’d come to our concerts, Cheech would get a real kick out of them because they all looked alike.
Is it true that the last thing Rick James did before he became famous was produce a solo album of yours?
No, I don’t think so. The only thing I did was direct a video for Toto. Lukather. That’s the only thing I did rock ‘n’ roll wise.
You made a video for Steve Lukather?
I directed it. He was a big fan from Up in Smoke, so he asked me to direct a video. And I wanted to make it real sexy. It would have been a sexy video, but his wife was doing no-nos to all the naked women that I wanted in the show. It was a good video. That was the only thing I did.
That’s why I asked. You know how it is. People copy and paste things without verifying. Rick James producing you would be an interesting footnote to your career.
I’ve met so many people before they were famous. I once had a private concert with Wes Montgomery, the guitarist, where everybody in the club—it was in Canada, Vancouver—everybody that was left for the second show had either passed out or they just left. I was the only guy left standing in the club, so Wes and I had a nice conversation. I told him I was a guitar player, and then he played a whole set just for me. I’ve had encounters with practically every famous icon living today.
I wish you could see the expression on my face when you said “Wes Montgomery.”
Can you imagine being a guitar player then all of a sudden you’re sitting there? I touched his amplifier. That’s how close I was sitting to him.
In that context, that was like Jimi Hendrix before Jimi Hendrix.
Yeah! And then, check this out, I’m in England with a band and we’re playing a little club. It was a favor to Berry Gordy. We backed up one of his singers in England, first time in London and we’re playing this little club, and all of a sudden Hendrix comes through the door leading about 200-300 people behind him.
They came in the club and filled up the club, and Hendrix sat in and played bass for a set. They had to pull the plug on him. We would have kept playing. And then we went back to our hotel room and Hendrix came up and spent a great deal of time in the bathroom. I used to do a bit called “Getting High with Hendrix.” I would light the joint and put my hand down to the floor to hand it to Jimi. But he was a big fan of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers band in Seattle, when he lived in Seattle. That’s what I’m saying. I’ve had encounters … I’ve had an encounter with every Beatle except Paul. Paul’s the only guy I haven’t met yet, but I used to hang out with George all the time. George and I were pretty good friends.
I first remember listening to your albums at age 10. That would be the late-’70s right after Up in Smoke, and I had two older brothers who introduced me to Cheech & Chong. I have all the material ingrained in me, but I remember seeing your albums and one of the first thoughts I had was why you weren’t in jail. Did it ever occur to you that you avoided being busted most of your life despite being a high-profile target, or did you have legal issues that weren’t as well known as Operation Pipedream?
Yeah, what happened … when I was real young, you know, I was a juvenile. I was 15, 16 years old, and I ran with a rough crowd. One time a friend of mine stole a car and it stalled on him, and I was trying to help get it started and then we got chased down by the police. The police came along and they put us in jail for the night. Then I got out and went to court, and we pleaded guilty to joyriding and got fined. That was the only police record that they had on me, but when I got arrested my lawyers said, “Why didn’t you tell us about Calgary?” Well, I’m a juvenile. That’s not supposed to be allowed … you know, it’s supposed to be expunged, or not allowed. You know how the government is. They don’t have any rules, any laws. That was probably why they decided I needed jail time. Other than that I probably would have gotten house arrest like a college student, graduate or something like that. But I was a high school dropout, and I ran with a rough crowd. Nothing serious. No stealing, no assault of anything like that. Although I did have an arrest on my thing, but those charges were dropped because the guy that got assaulted wouldn’t press charges. But that was it. Other than that it was just a … it was a political bust.
Yeah, in your documentary it looks like they suddenly realized they had overlooked you for too long.
Yeah, that’s what they were thinking. I was the bait. Everybody knows Cheech & Chong, and now Chong’s selling pipes and that’s illegal and therefore … no, it wasn’t illegal to sell the pipes. It wasn’t illegal to buy the pipes. It was only illegal to ship paraphernalia through the mail. That made it a federal offense. You know who crafted that law? Joe Biden.
I was gonna say Ashcroft.
No, it was Joe Biden that put that law into effect when they had the big drug scare back in the ’70s and ’80s. They took advantage of it. I got a good picture of how corrupt the government is during that time. When I was in prison there were literally people that were not supposed to be in jail, but the jail people wouldn’t let them out. They wouldn’t obey any judges’ order to release people.
Looking back on it, it kind of looks like the last gasp of irrational drug policy.
You know what happened? Sanjay Gupta, when he did a report on CNN where he shows a 1-year-old baby literally cured with cannabis, that ended all discussion. (In 2013, CNN medical correspondent Gupta reported on the successful treatment of Charlotte Figis’ severe epileptic seizures with cannabis beginning when she was 5.) And then you have Montel Williams successfully treating his MS with weed. It’s helped a lot of people. Tons of people that I know of. I wouldn’t have been on Dancing with the Stars if I hadn’t been a pothead all my life. You know what is does? It affects the brain. The brain is the control center of the body. The body usually gets in trouble when it’s being stressed anyway. And you know, like a rope, you put too much tension on a rope it’ll break or it’ll fray, or the tension causes wear and decay. That’s what I think, and that’s what I learned with the marijuana. The brain controls your life. You can live with a mechanical heart, but you cannot live without a brain. So far they haven’t been able to replace that organ, and I don’t think they ever will because that is a spiritual part of us that connects us to the universe that’s eternal. And it’s the brain, the thought. Once you get your thoughts in order you can have good health the rest of your life.
I agree with you in more ways that we can get into right now. And thinking about it as objectively as possible, I don’t think Cheech & Chong made me curious to try cannabis at all. I think that came much later.
Yeah, at first … like I watched my son. They didn’t know what the sex jokes meant, had no idea what the cannabis thing meant until it was time for them to try it. Even myself, I was 17 before I smoked my first joint, but I was 12 when I started drinking. I didn’t like the taste, but I was way young, too young to drink. In fact, I’d play guitar when I was 10 years old they would hand me a beer. I’d put it under my chair. I hated the taste.
I listened to those albums at least five years before I tried pot. The satirical characters did not romanticize pot for me. They were what I did not want to wind up as. It did introduce me to the culture, although I still don’t know what a “lid” is.
A lid? It’s the top of a Player’s tobacco can, you know, like the round lid? And when the dealer used to deal they would fill up a lid, and that would be about an ounce. In the old days pot had everything in it: seeds, stems, everything. So they were quite generous when they sold a lid. A lid costs, I guess, 20 bucks, 10 bucks. Depends on the year. And then there was another tobacco, I forget what it was called, and it was the same thing. You fill of that tobacco lid, and that was “a lid.” … We used a lot of ’70s talk. “Acapulco Gold.”
The best part about a/k/a/ Tommy Chong was seeing Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski, the gym owner from Nice Dreams. Do you feel you kind of gave Paul Reubens a boost that helped him set the stage for Pee Wee Herman becoming a phenomenon? Before Pee Wee arrived a lot of us knew Paul Reubens as “the Hambuger Guy” from Nice Dreams.
Yeah, well, I directed the movies and I was known as the improv buff, like the Groundlings and the Committee. I tried using those guys in the movies kind of as a payback because Cheech and I were so inspired by the improvisational theater, people like the Committee and Second City. So I got Pee Wee out of The Groundlings, and he was like the big star. He stood out like he did, like he does, and he’s a great guy. Paul Reubens and I, we really get along fine. I gave a lot of people their first shot, like Rita Wilson/Rita Hanks, Tom Hanks wife. She was in, I believe it was Next Movie. Body by Jake [Steinfeld], I put him in as the Hulk, and Zabo, my buddy, and all the bodybuilders. I just had a ball. Being a director, I could use all my friends, people that were struggling. They would approach me, and then of course I’d put them in.
You guys split for only about seven years. Did anyone try to persuade you to change your image at the time?
It’s weird how Hollywood is, especially movie moguls, guys in the studios. For some reason … most partnerships don’t last. Even the Beatles, they were only together for seven years. They have a shelf life of five to seven years. That’s really what happened to Cheech & Chong. Once we did the five or six movies that we did, we started to repeat ourselves. Cheech wanted to do more with his life. He didn’t want to do that Chicano funny character all the time. He wanted to be what he was in Nash Bridges. And that’s really what happened to us. It was like the natural order of things, but Cheech tried to change us more than anything. We were getting all these offers to do the stoner movies, and when we got an offer to do The Corsican Brothers it was a nice paycheck. Cheech insisted that we don’t do any dope in the movie, and I think that helped hasten out departure because once we became actors like everybody else, then there was nothing special about Cheech & Chong. And that’s what happened. We ran out of newness. We were no longer the new kids on the block.
What made Cheech become stoner-friendly again?
There were no other offers. He would have been very happy to playing bit roles, like in Disney. He was in Cars and all that, but there was so much money waiting for our reunion. We quit before a lot of people had seen us, and so when we went back on the road the money was big. Big, big concerts. I think that tour lasted about a year, the first reunion tour, and so there was a lot of money involved in it. I personally didn’t want to do it. I was happy just with my wife and I on the road. I loved my life, but my son Paris, he intercepted an email that I was sending to Cheech and he sent another one that (read) we should get back together again. He arranged it, then he told me what he did. I went along with his judgment. I love Cheech, and I was glad to be back with him. Very glad, happy now because we sort of have gone through that break-up thing and now we’re creating again. It was a good move all around.
What should audiences expect? Does this pick up where the “Light Up America” tour left off?
No, we changed it. The first tour we did a lot of different bits that were very popular: “Harry and Margaret” and the dogs, vintage Cheech and Chong bits. Now we do more of an older version of ourselves and we do more talking to the audience, and current everyday stuff. My wife Shelby, we start off with her moderating the show. She does 20 minutes in front of us, and then we … we’re more ourselves now that we’ve ever been, and it’s really, really resonating with the audience.
Do people really dress up like you and Cheech at shows?
Oh, all the time, and they have so much fun because there are like young people who never saw us in our prime and they never had that experience of the hippie culture. And they miss it! Aw, they love it! We had so much fun during that Woodstock era. They try to do it now with Coachella, but it’s all corporate now. It’s not the same as it used to be. In those days it was makeshift. It was like having a block party every week. The people that dress up like us, they’re nostalgic for that era that they’ll never be able to experience.
Chong’s Choice debuted last month. It’s actually several different strains, correct?
Yeah, we tried one strain, but the strains change every month now. What we did was we decided to contact the best growers, or they’d contact us, and then if their weed is up to our standards then we put out brand on it. We’ve got tremendous success. The growers, they’ve got the goods but they don’t have the name, the recognition, so branding Chong’s name … it’s really popular. We can’t keep up with the demand.
It looks like you decided to have an indica, a sativa and a hybrid.
That’s correct, absolutely. We’ve got it all covered. And we’ve also got good medical stuff. Good oils, lotions, all the good stuff.
There’s a whole spectrum of Chong’s Choice products. Can you cite some examples?
It’s too much for me to keep track of. I don’t have a list in front of me. All I know is we do the pre-rolled joints. We’ve got a package, like a cigarette package with, I think, five or seven joints in there. They’re pre-rolled and they’re guaranteed to put you in a good mood. And then we have some big tins that come under the Chong’s Choice banner. We’ve got grinders, we’ve got T-shirts and all the paraphernalia. I’m in the midst of creating an art piece. I’m going into what I call into what I call Chong art, Cheech & Chong art. Cheech, so far he hasn’t gotten on board with me, but I’m going to be doing fine art. All the dispensaries are going to get a piece of my art, which includes a bong. You know that drink kombucha tea? I’m using kombucha bottles. It’s a recycling plan of mine. It’s a bong that’s attached to a picture of me, so you can literally light the bong and have me smoke it, even though you’re smoking it. You can get high with me. You’ll see it. I’m just in the process of putting then together. They’re going to go to the dispensaries that sell a certain amount of our product. It’s going to be their reward.
Oil Cartridges, vape pens and THC breath strips.
We’ve got it all, and there’s more coming. There’s more products coming, like we’ve been working on medicine. There’s never really been anything tested, properly tested, so we’re working now to get everything clinically tested so that when we advertise something we’ll know what it does and what it’s good for, like for sleep. There’s certain strains that are good for sleeping, and there’s certain strains that are good for creating, or migraine headaches. Certain strains are better than others. We’re into it that heavy, and Chong’s Choice will only advertise the really, really good stuff.
How to you feel about this phase phase in your life? Did you expect this or are you living in the moment and just happy with the way things turned out?
Basically I just stay in the moment. I’m very happy with my life. Who wouldn’t be? Even when I was laying in my bed recovering from cancer I could do sit-ups, and so I was happy there (laughs). And I’ve got a new bud. I’ve got a colostomy bag and I’m starting to write bits about my bag, so I’m just happy with my life, man. Whatever comes, it’s just another adventure.
You’re carrying around a colostomy bag now?
Oh, yeah. It changes everything (laughs), but I’m digging it. I’m a comedian. Like I named the bag itself Donald after The Donald, Donald Trump, because it’s always full of shit and hot air.