Cheech and Chong Light Up Westchester
Legendary entertainer Tommy Chong discusses his historic partnership with Cheech Marin and their upcoming Port Chester performance.
While Tommy Chong’s life has been a roller coaster of incredible achievements, tremendous setbacks, and overwhelming fame, he got his start in a surprisingly tender way. “When my mom was pregnant with me, she bought a little, cheap guitar — a $15 guitar — and she would hold it against her tummy and just strum it,” shares Chong. “And for some reason, I played that very same guitar for many years. I’ve still got it. It’s in pieces now, but I’m going to have it redone.”
That simple dime-store guitar led to what would become one of the biggest entertaining duos of the 1970s and ’80s. Chong and fellow actor Cheech Marin sold more than 10 million comedy albums, starred in their own hit films, revolutionized standup, and made a cultural space for Mexican immigrants and counterculture hippies all through their long-running act. Chong later became a force in his own right, evolving into an outspoken cannabis-rights activist and appearing in countless movie and TV roles, including a lengthy run on That ’70s Show.
On April 20, Cheech and Chong will be taking the stage together at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester for a tandem of performances. “The show is almost like a play,” explains Chong. “I do two pieces of standup where I really don’t know what I’m going to say until I get out there. But the rest of the show is more tried-and-true material. We’re like old friends who are coming back to the neighborhood to talk about old times.”
The comedy duo’s roles were not hastily selected stoner archetypes but rather handpicked outsiders. “We’re actors, and we could’ve done any number of characters. But, it was the Chicano and the hippie, the lowest rungs on the totem pole,” says Chong of the decision.
It would be an understatement to say the unlikely act made an impact on the zeitgeist. “Cheech and I changed a whole culture — people’s attitudes toward a whole race of people. Until Cheech and Chong, Mexicans were only shown with headbands or as drug dealers,” says Chong. “But we humanized the hippies; we humanized the Chicanos and people of color. Whether ‘Chicano’ means Iranian, or Armenian, or Russian, or anybody who’s different, they can relate… they relate to us.”
With Paramount set to re-release the duo’s seminal cult-favorite film, Up in Smoke, on BluRay and DVD, as well as in several collectable formats this month, Chong isn’t whistling Dixie. If anything, the film is more popular now than when it first hit theaters in 1978. “It doesn’t surprise me a bit that what we did back then is relevant today,” says Chong. “The immigration problems that we touched on are still here.”
But for Chong, who turns 80 in May, even societal setbacks are a cause for optimism. “Ignorance is curable. It’s a matter of waiting for people to catch up,” he says. “I had conversations with Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery, and I learned from them that what we have to do, rather than make enemies, is make friends. And when people don’t agree with us, we don’t demonize them or put them down. We just wait for them to see the light. And that’s what’s happening now.”
Chong is referring to the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use that is currently sweeping the nation. It is a phenomenon that Chong worked hard to make a reality, working tirelessly as a cannabis-rights activist and even spending nine months in federal prison after being nabbed in a 2003 pot investigation.
“We’re like old friends who are coming back to the neighborhood to talk about old times.”
“That’s what made pot legal,” says Chong. “The knowledge that it’s not only harmless but is actually beneficial. My wife uses it for her aches and pains, and a ton of old people I know use it to help them sleep and cope with old age. And the money from the marijuana is helping to rebuild America’s infrastructure and support schools.”
Even Chong’s hardships have become something to be thankful for. “I’m grateful more than anything,” says Chong. “It just validated why I went to jail and validated everything [Cheech and I] did. Years ago, I once said to somebody: ‘What if Cheech and Chong are right, and pot is good for you?’”
Having raised six children and twice overcome cancer, Chong seems unstoppable as he sets out on yet another fleet of live shows. He credits marijuana with helping him work up an appetite after rounds of chemo, and even his stage performances seem to reinvigorate rather than exhaust him. “If you don’t move, you die; that’s my motto,” says Chong. “[Performing] keeps me relevant with the audience; it gives me a reason to get on a plane and go to a hotel. It’s a way of life that I love, and I’ve always loved it.”
Yet despite how much he may enjoy the spotlight, life for Chong has always been more about giving back than anything else. “I learned early in life that making people happy was really the goal of being alive,” he says. “Because when you make other people happy, then they love you more. And you know, it’s just a nice, beautiful trade-off.”