Cheech & Chong: Still Smoking After All These Years
In the late 1970’s, I was a big fan of Saturday Night Live (especially Mr. Bill). I wasn’t even a teenager yet but my parents would usually let me stay up late on Saturdays to catch the show as long as I didn’t keep them up. This was also around the dawn of premium movie channels and my family was an early subscriber to the pioneering Home Box Office (HBO). When Saturday Night Live wrapped at 1AM, I always made a ritual of turning to channel four on our television and flipping the switch on the HBO box to “movies” (anyone remember that?).
In the early hours of one Sunday morning, I came across an interesting film that opened with a Hispanic man waking up on a couch when a bunch of rowdy children turned on the nearby television. As he rose from the sofa, he stepped into a bowl of cereal one of the children had left on the floor – not a great way to start your day! Tottering into the bathroom, he drops his shirt in the hamper, stands in front of the toilet and begins to relieve himself. A few seconds into the evacuation, he groggily notices his shirt hanging out of the toilet, which is actually located on the other side of the room. As the realization of what has happened begins to sink in, he looks down and realizes he has just emptied his bladder into the clothes hamper! This was my introduction to the comedy styling of Cheech and Chong through their first feature film, Up in Smoke. I spent the next ninety minutes three inches away from the television with the sound turned down low and trying desperately not to laugh too loud.
Once I reached high school, I learned that Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong weren’t just actors, they were actually best known for a series of popular comedy albums. A few tapes of these records circulated among my friends and we did our best imitations of many of their routines. It wasn’t until several years later that I got my first actual album of theirs when my uncle Lewis passed down his copy of Greatest Hit to me. It was through this best of compilation that I began to appreciate the true talent that lay beneath the crude jokes and drug references. Cheech and Chong were able to paint a tapestry of sound that convinced the listener they were really riding along with a couple of aimless stoners on their bizarre adventures.
In 1985, after nine albums, seven motion pictures, and countless other specials and appearances, Cheech and Chong finally decided to split up their stash and call it quits. Both performers found steady work in films and on television but it never completely filled the void they left as a team. There were several rumored attempts at a reunion over the years but this was unavoidably put on hold in 2003 when Chong served a nine month prison term for distributing drug related paraphernalia (he owned a company that manufactured bongs). Upon his release, the reunion rumors became more substantial, with talk of a possible new film but, again, nothing materialized. Finally, in the fall of 2008, the duo made the official announcement that they would return to their live comedy roots with a new concert tour.
When I first saw the announcements for the Cheech and Chong Light Up America Tour, it was a blast from the past that I knew I couldn’t miss. Fortunately, the Florida Theater in Jacksonville was one of their early stops and the ticket prices, at least pre-surcharges, were reasonable ($61.00 for good seats but with an extra $13.00 in tacked on fees). The rotating roster of who was attending was almost as tenacious as Cheech and Chong’s planned reunions, but I ended up with my wife Cindy and friends Dan Tuchmann and Steve Atnip sharing the show with me.
The opening act for the group was Tommy Chong’s wife, Shelby. While she was reasonably amusing, 95% of her material revolved around being married to Chong. This would have been fine if she had been giving her observations but all she did was relay stories that Tommy Chong could, and in some instances did, tell better. Shelby’s act was mercifully brief but this was time that could have been better allocated to the main performance.
For the first sketch, Cheech and Chong reacquainted the audience with their two most recognizable and best loved characters, Pedro De Pacas and Man. The largely uneventful adventures of these perpetually stoned flunkies served as the basis for multiple album tracks and the plot of Up in Smoke. These characters were so well realized that their personalities actually usurped those of Cheech and Chong and guided their comedy for their entire career. Thanks to some well employed rear screen projection, the audience was taken for a wild ride with our hemp heroes that presented a well blended mixture of old and new material. In fact the majority of the sketches followed this formula and managed to pull off the difficult task of updating classic skits to keep them fresh but still familiar.
Over the course of the ninety minute performance, Cheech and Chong played Let’s Make a Dope Deal, gave us their interpretation of the first Mexican in space, and bridged the generation gap. Old friends like Blind Melon Chitlin’, Red Neck, Alice Bowie, and even dogs Ralph and Herbie made their first new appearances in many years. In between the comedy bits, Tommy Chong talked about the history of the duo and his recent altercations with the law. The most revealing moment was when he talked about the breakup, which he claimed to have not realized had happened until several years after the fact. He attributed the cause to them becoming wealthy and it being impossible to get a rich Mexican to do anything! At the conclusion of the show, the audience joined the counterculture comedians in a lively rendition of the song that has become their anthem,Up in Smoke.
Judging from the crowd’s response, Cheech and Chong truly are still smoking. At their worst, their jokes provided welcome nostalgia but, more often than not, this was accompanied by genuine uproarious laughter. The show was fast and furious and seldom left time for breaks between one laugh fest and another. Within my group, Dan and I were well versed in the material being presented while Cindy and Steve were relative newcomers but we all agreed the show was great.
Following the performance, Cheech and Chong did a brief “meet and greet” for fans
who had made a contribution to the Jacksonville Food Bank. Just to be on the safe side, I had brought along a movie poster from their third film, Nice Dreams, which was produced by Tommy’s wife, who was Shelby Fiddis at the time. As they autographed it, we discussed the high (no pun intended) prices their movie material commands on the secondary market these days. They were even nice enough to have my poster sent back stage so that Shelby could sign it too. We took a few quick photos, congratulated them on a very enjoyable show, and left Cheech and Chong in a cloud of smoke that is just as thick as it was thirty years ago at the height of their popularity.