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Cheech & Chong, Then and Now: Young Stoner Comics Who Grew Up

Icons | September 28, 2017

Comedy team Cheech (Left) and Chong photographed while touring Australia in 1974. (Photo by Trevor James Robert Dallen/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

In the 1970s, comedy acts didn't get much bigger than the whacked-out duo of Cheech & Chong. Stoner comedy was a natural consequence of the time -- with such an explosion of marijuana and LSD use in the late 1960s, the freewheeling counterculture was bound to spawn an act that played on its own druggy excesses and ridiculousness. As outsider comics, young Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong captured the relatable stoner -- those guys everyone seemed to know in the early '70s who'd fried their brains and permanently lost touch with reality. Cheech and Chong's drug comedy shtick made them massively famous, with top-ten albums, hit singles, movies, and of course sold-out comedy shows.

Cheech And Chong Were Stoners With Artistic Ambition

Cheech and Chong in 'Up In Smoke,' 1978. Source: IMDB

In 1967 at the age of 21, after graduating from California State University with a writing degree, and during the uproar surrounding the Vietnam War, Cheech Marin fled the United States to avoid the draft. (His nickname "Cheech" is derived from "chicharron," a fried pork-skin dish that originated in Soain and is enjoyed throughout Latin America.) He ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he put his writing degree to use as a record reviewer with a Canadian music magazine. Marin knew deep down that music and entertainment was not only in his soul but would also be his destiny. During the course of his job at the magazine, Marin was introduced to musician Tommy Chong, which was the start of an epic friendship and an infamous career.  

Early Performances By Cheech And Chong Featured Strippers

Cheech and Chong in 1969. Source: Reddit

Edmonton-born Tommy Chong started out in the 1960s as a rock and roll musician, touring with Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers after dropping out of high school at the age of 16. He later put together a comedy team show called City Works Improvisational Group, which Cheech Marin eventually joined. They were hoping to be discovered, mainly for their humor but also for their musical talent. In these early days, circa 1968, the act was in danger of being overshadowed by the naked female performers they shared the stage with. Marin recalled for Rolling Stone:

We started in a strip bar that Tommy’s family owned in the worst part of Vancouver. ... 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.

Cheech And Chong's Comedy Skits Were Relatable

Cheech and Chong with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the cover of Rolling Stone, December 1978.

Cheech & Chong found that their stoner banter and low-concept skits struck a chord with audiences. Their dialogues, which were partially improvised, had an aimlessness that was just dumb enough to sound real, but just clever enough to be funny. Lines were often delivered painfully slowly, and repeated, to emphasize the characters' altered state of mind. One of their best-loved bits was "Dave's Not Here," in which one stoner who has just scored and is nervous is trying to convince his high friend to let him in.

(Soft knocks at the door)
Chong: Who is it?
Cheech: It's me, Dave. Open up, man, I got the stuff.
(More knocks)
Chong: Who is it?
Cheech: It's me, Dave, man. Open up, I got the stuff.
Chong: Who?
Cheech: It's, Dave, man. Open up, I think the cops saw me come in here.
(More knocks)
Chong: Who is it?
Cheech: It's, Dave, man. Will you open up, I got the stuff with me.
Chong: Who?
Cheech: Dave, man. Open up.
Chong: Dave?
Cheech: Yeah, Dave. C'mon, man, open up, I think the cops saw me.
Chong: Dave's not here.
Cheech: No, man, I'm Dave, man.
(Sharp knocks at the door)
Cheech: Hey, c'mon, man.
Chong: Who is it?
Cheech: It's Dave, man. Will you open up? I got the stuff with me.
Chong: Who?
Cheech: Dave, man. Open up.
Chong: Dave?
Cheech: Yeah, Dave.
Chong: Dave's not here.

Was it Shakespeare? No. But "Dave's Not Here" was a "Who's On First?" for the shaggy '70s, and the audience listening at home or at live events ate it up. The bit was a highlight of Cheech & Chong's self-titled debut album, which was released in 1971 and rose to #28 on the Billboard 200 album chart in 1972.

Cheech And Chong Comedy Albums Were Big Sellers

Source: Pinterest

After their auspicious start with Cheech & Chong, the comedy duo just got bigger and bigger. In the early '70s, there was no cable TV, no Internet, and no method for independent artists to publish or release their own material. Today, comedy is bigger than ever, with so many formats and platforms that an unprecedented variety of performers can find their audiences and niches. But when Cheech & Chong were coming up, the situation was far different -- Saturday Night Live wasn't even on the air yet. Consequently, there were only a handful of comedians who were nationally prominent, and if an act could get their material onto a label with national distribution, or sign a deal to make a couple of movies, massive fame was within reach. That's what happened with the whole Cheech & Chong phenomenon. Their next two albums, Big Bambu (1972) and Los Cochinos (1973), both went to #2 on the Billboard album chart. 

The Stoner Duo Went Hollywood, Big Time

Cheech and Chong in 'Up In Smoke,' 1978. Source: IMDB

In 1978, Cheech & Chong released their first movie, Up In Smoke, which continued their improbable rise. Critics panned the movie, but audiences flocked to theaters and howled with laughter at its nonsensical plot: Stoners Pedro de Pacas (Cheech) and Man Stoner (Chong) drive a van made of marijuana from Mexico to Los Angeles. Did you read that carefully? They aren't smuggling a van full of marijuana to L.A. -- they are driving a van that is actually made of marijuana to L.A. Up In Smoke earned $44 million at the box office, and was the 11th biggest movie of the year. Cheech & Chong's Next Movie (1980) and Nice Dreams (1981) followed the same pattern: beloved by fans, dissed by critics, made good coin at the box office. With Things Are Tough Al Over (1982), the duo's fortunes began to fade. Their last theatrical release was The Corsican Brothers (1984). Their movie-star career had more than run its course, but their achievement deserves some respect: Who could have imagined a couple dudes making joke after joke about how stoned they were would manage to release six nationally-distributed movies in seven years?

Sing Along With Cheech And Chong

Some of the skits on Cheech & Chong albums also included a musical component, and tracks like "Santa Claus and His Old Lady" (1971), "Basketball Jones" (1973), and "Earache My Eye" (1974) became novelty radio hits. Cheech & Chong's final album, Get Out Of My Room, released in 1985, kicked off with "Born In East L.A.," a parody of Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" that received significant airtime on MTV. 

Reunited, And It Feels So Good

Cheech and Chong in 2018. Source: twitter.com/cheechandchong

After Get Out Of My Room, the comedy team called it quits, and both struck out on their own. Marin pursued and achieved mainstream success, as a voice actor (in The Lion King), and as Don Johnson's partner on the TV police drama Nash Bridges. He also appeared in the first three films of the popular Spy Kids franchise. Chong's career got off to a slower start, and was hampered by legal troubles including two cases against him and his bong-manufacturing company by the U.S. government. Chong did land a recurring role on the hit sitcom That '70s Show, but had to serve time in prison, causing his character to disappear for two seasons. Today, Chong is a leading cannabis-rights activist. His wrangling with the U.S. Justice Department and prison system was documented in an award-winning documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong as well as a book, The I Chong.

Perhaps most importantly for their fans, Cheech & Chong reunited as a comedy duo. In 2008, they embarked on their first comedy tour in over 20 years, the Light Up America Comedy Tour. In addition to comedy shows, they continue to turn up in cameo appearances on TV, and have expressed their desire to make another movie.

What do you think -- if Cheech and Chong were to make a movie called Grumpy Old Stoners (as they've suggested), would you go to see it in the theater?

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Cheech & Chong | Cheech Marin | Movies In The 1970s | Stoners And Weed Culture | Tommy Chong | Trivia Questions And Answers

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.