Still Hazy After All These Years
Comedian Tommy Chong Keeps the Counterculture Lit
I have to confess that when I called Tommy Chong at 8:30 on a Monday morning, I had a preconceived notion of how our conversation would go. After all, this man is one of the most tenacious stoners of all time, hanging onto the culture of pot long after most -- such as his former partner Cheech Marin -- cut their hair, put on suits, and surrendered to the mainstream world. I expected to wake him up, listen to the gentle burblings of a water pipe, wait through the inevitable coughing fits, then try to piece together a coherent interview out of a mélange of mental meanderings. That's not fair, of course, and as someone who indulged in a couple of decades of pot smoking myself, I should have given Chong more credit. He was polite, alert, almost chipper, and aside from a slight excess of "you knows" and "whattayacallits," Chong's end of the conversation was entirely lucid.
Since Cheech & Chong split up in 1984, it would be hard to characterize Chong's solo career as wildly successful. He coasted on royalties for a while, played guitar on several albums, and put out a couple of movies that didn't do too well. But success is a rather subjective concept, a term that can be defined in many ways. Tommy Chong has put together a nice life for himself. He's been working the comedy-club circuit for eight years, still doing what he loves: smoking dope, playing music, and making people laugh. He has a gorgeous wife, Shelby, who appeared in several Cheech & Chong movies and who now tours with him. He has five children who love hanging out and working with him -- How many bank presidents can make that claim? -- and thanks to the re-emergence of happier, hippier times in the zeitgeist, Chong has recently surfaced on prime-time television with a recurring role on Fox TV's That '70s Show.
In anticipation of his Austin appearance at the Capitol City Comedy Club for two nights, Chong spoke with the Chronicle, waxing philosophical on the cyclical nature of culture, the stupidity of the war on drugs, Hollywood hypocrisy, whatever happened to Cheech, and roofing.
Austin Chronicle: I understand you just finished shooting another episode of That '70s Show.
Tommy Chong: Yeah, they had me on for their, whattayacallit, the finale.
AC: Did you think network television would ever support a show about that time, your glory days?
TC: Yeah. I've always thought, and still do, that I'm in the right, and everybody else has to catch up. It's the jazz-musician approach, you know. I mean, just because we're hip doesn't mean we're wrong. We're right, and by the time everybody realizes that, you know, it'll be nice.
AC: Do you ever feel that you're personally responsible for historically archiving a slice of counterculture Americana?
TC: Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one that really hangs onto it.
AC: Do you think that most of your fans from the Seventies still get high?
TC: Well, it's hard to say, hard to say. The ones you'd figure would, don't, and the ones you figure don't, do. I think it depends on the profession.
AC: What professions quit?
TC: I would say the professional professions. Like lawyers. I think they're the ones who say, you know, 'I need my brain today.' That sort of thing. But anyone in the arts, it's a prerequisite. Writing, singing, dancing ...
AC: Is that because we don't need our brains in the arts?
TC: Yeah, exactly. We can enjoy what we're doing. We let the Muse take over.
AC: True. Here's one for you, why isn't pot legal?
TC: Because potheads are too apathetic. If you're not a pothead, you think it shouldn't be legal because a) you're making so much money from it being illegal, or b) you're in the War Against Drugs and making even more money. Fighting a war that the enemy doesn't even know they're fighting. And c) you're just a misguided religious fanatic.
AC: Do you give any credence to the theory that the reason pot isn't legal is because the paper and timber companies are heavily lobbying to keep it illegal?
TC: Let's add the pharmaceutical companies. I've been reading between the lines. The reason there's no cure for a lot of diseases is because the pharmaceutical companies aren't looking for cures as much as they're looking for a way to patent the cure. There are trees and plants that could cure almost any disease on Earth, but because you can't patent a plant, such as pot, they don't want anything to do with it.
AC: You can't turn a profit. As one of the most high-profile stoners of all time, how do you avoid getting continually busted?
TC: I act like it's not illegal. I act like it's the way it should be. I don't take advantage of the fact that it's illegal, and I don't acknowledge it. There's an old Biblical saying, "Resist not evil." That's what I go on. Just because everybody else wants to play that game, fine; I don't. As a result, I don't put out that vibe of "Ooh, I'm doing something illegal!"
AC: When you go through the airport, do they act like, "My God! It's Tommy Chong!" Do they search your bags and shit?
TC: No. Most of those guys are afraid if they did, they would find something. Then they'd have to explain to their kids why they busted Tommy Chong. So they try not to. I get stopped at the Canadian border a lot. They find the odd little roach or something, but they keep it and let me go because I've got a reputation. I've almost got a, whattayacallit, it's legal for me because of my job.
AC: A special dispensation.
TC: I joke about it. I smoked pot in Canada before it was illegal, so I'm grandfathered in.
AC: You seem like a pretty happy-go-lucky guy. Do you ever get depressed?
TC: Yeah, I go through that, but not for long. The greatest thing in my life is that I spent about four or five months as a roofer. And if you've ever been a roofer, man, roofing is the kind of job ex-cons will turn down. So if I ever get depressed, I think back to those times. You know, I wasn't raised in luxury, never had a flush toilet till I was 12 years old. So hey, I got nothing to be depressed about.
AC: Have you ever tried to quit smoking pot?
TC: Oh yeah. I've quit for months on end. You know, the greatest thing about it is that I always have something to look forward to.
AC: Starting up again?
TC: Yeah, it's always in the back of your mind: "Today could be a good day." That's the great thing about pot: You can quit or slow down or do like the doctors do. I have a friend who's a doctor and he quits, like I said, when he needs his brain. Whenever I need my brain, I quit.
AC: I guess with your persona, everyone thinks you're stoned all the time.
TC: They figure I wake and bake. I've done that, but only when I've wanted the day to last forever.
AC: Exactly. When you have nothing to do.
TC: Yeah, then it's a treat. But I'm more into exercise than anything else. That's my secret, by the way. If you're going to abuse your body, you better make sure you have a body.
AC: What do you do to work out?
TC: I have two approaches. I have a serious approach that I've come up with over the years and then I have a comedic approach, of course. I did The Doper's Guide to Fitness. The first [approach] was too serious for the publisher. He obviously wasn't a workout freak like I am.
AC: He wanted comedy.
TC: Yeah, he wanted something silly, and that's exactly what it was, you know, working out with your couch and stuff. But the truth is, I'm a serious bodybuilder, I have been all my life. You take care of your body like you would an old car. You make sure you run it, keep the valves clean, and you'll enjoy it.
AC: Do you mind talking about Cheech a little bit?
TC: Not at all.
AC: When he took off as an actor, doing Nash Bridges, and you were still touring comedy clubs, did that stick in your craw at all?
TC: No. Actually, for being a comedian, it really helped. I do a whole buildup about how Cheech sold out. Then I say I feel sorry for him because there he is in Hollywood, going to all the Hollywood parties, and look what he gave up! Here I am in St. Joe, Missouri! (Laughs.)
AC: All this could have been his!
TC: Yeah! I get some big laughs out of it, and I laugh myself, too. I really crack up about it.
AC: So it doesn't bother you. You've got a good life?
TC: That never did bother me. The only thing that did bother me was the futility of his search. When I first met him, he didn't know who he was, really. He thought he was this white guy that went to college. Then I finally got him to realize, you know, "I'm a Chicano, and I'm funny!" So I turn my back for a minute, and he's back being a white guy going to college. He joined a fraternity. You know, those fraternities are like death. I'm starting to meet these guys because I'm doing a lot of television. They're the kind of guys that always have to mention in a conversation where they went to college. No one asks, but all of a sudden they're telling me, "So when I graduated from Harvard ... " or "When I went to Yale ... " So I always say, "Well, when I was a roofer ... " I come back at them with that.
AC: Is there a sense of vindication to being on That '70s Show and staying true to yourself while Cheech is on Nash Bridges?
TC: Yeah, I always knew, whether it was movies or television or something, I always knew that the culture would emerge again. I mean, it's inevitable. Because it's true, it's the true culture. And I knew that if you wait, your turn will come again. That's all you have to do. The thing is, once you step out of line like [Cheech did], well, then you've lost your place. Literally. See, what will happen is that you never do get accepted. Cheech will fool himself. If you notice, the only roles he's playing are Mexican roles. He'll play the sidekick, a caddy ...
AC: The guy who talks to the parrot ...
TC: Yeah. In Nash Bridges, I don't know what you call that, he's not even a partner, he's like, you know, he's supposed to be comic relief I guess.
AC: I've never seen it.
TC: I watched one episode and it's mostly Don Johnson. It's Nash Bridges. Except in the publicity. Then they try to pull Cheech in.
AC: "Look! Here's Cheech!"
TC: Yeah, Cheech and Don. Off on another quest.
AC: You and Cheech talked about a reunion tour a couple of years ago, right?
TC: We almost did it.
AC: The way I heard it was that he wanted to do new material and you wanted to stick to the classic stuff.
TC: That's a nice twist. He didn't want to do any warm-up gigs, he just wanted to go right for the big bucks. I had been doing stand-up, at that point, for about eight years, and I'd been doing it with my wife. I had a whole act by myself. So in order to work Cheech back in, we'd have to go out and work a few clubs, just to get our feet wet and find out where we're at. But Cheech was really broke at that time and he was just going to do it for the money. And he had no interest at all in "Cheech." So I just pulled out, said "Nah."
AC: What did he want to do?
TC: Just get the money.
AC: I mean, what kind of material?
TC: That's what I'm saying. He didn't even want to talk about that.
AC: Jesus. "Let's just go stand there!"
TC: You have to remember, people don't realize, when Cheech says he's trying to lose his stoner image, he's not joking. He really is not joking. When I met him, he was a fraternity guy right out of college. And like a lot of the fraternity guys, all they do is lie. "Yeah, I did this, I did that." That's what I mean about these guys always telling you about their college education. Who gives a shit? But I realize that's part of the culture. And in Cheech's case, it's mostly lies. Because I know what he did. [Laughs.] I read about it and hear how much education he's got, and I kind of have to crack up at that one.
AC: How do you respond to people who say, "Tommy Chong, he's just stuck in a time warp"?
TC: Oh, absolutely. I am in a time warp. I consider myself a jazz musician, that's what I am. I'm a jazz comedian. I feel that you could spend a few lifetimes in that world and not even make a dent. My credentials -- I'll be like those guys talking about their college credentials, I've played with some of the best blues musicians in the world and held my own. The thing is, I am a fad; I'm not chasing a fad, I am one.
AC: You seem like a really great family man. You've got a beautiful wife, your kids all seem to like working with you. A lot of people say, "I could never work with my old lady." Are there any tensions that arise from constantly working with your wife?
TC: It's the opposite. It's when we're not working together that stuff happens. I'm from the old Chinese culture: Family comes first. If you need someone to do something, right away you think of your family -- because in Chinese culture, that's what families were for, getting the kids to work the fields, work the house, and whatever the father was, the daughter or the son automatically became that. That's me.
When I was doing the wrap parties, I'd talk to people and they'd talk about their kids and I'd say, "Oh, I didn't know you had kids. Are they in the business, too?" And they'd go, "Oh no! No, never!" Like they're dealing drugs or something! Don't want their kids to be a dope addict! To this day I don't understand that attitude. I encourage my kids to be actors, I encourage them to take lessons. It's a hell of a good life. I've done well with it.
Both my sons are musicians. They're in a band. My son's got a bong company now. He's going to take over everything for me. Keep it in the family. One of my daughters is going to college in England, she's going to Birmingham. She was going to go to Oxford, but you need some heavy juice to do that. But I'm just as glad. Fuck, I couldn't stand to have a kid going around, "Yes, well, when I was in Oxford ..."
AC: Every parent's nightmare! Funny how every generation turns out to do something that horrifies its parents. Even if that parent is Tommy Chong.
TC: And my wife has become a fine comedian. She's a natural. I mean you work at it, you have to put your dues in. There's no such thing as someone walking onstage and, oh, they've got an act and they're great!
AC: Don't I know it.
TC: She's got respect from all the comedians that see her. At first, they come off with that "Oh sure, she's Tommy Chong's wife" bullshit, but I'll be talking backstage with them and like, 10 minutes into her act, they're distracted by the big laughs she's getting. Then they've got to go out and see what she's doing.
It was my idea to work together, because she's an actress. I was going to Guam to do a show and I told her, "Come on." She says, "I don't want to just hang out while you work." I said, "Well, you can be in the show." She said, "Really?" "Yeah!" That was five years ago. Now she does 20 minutes on her own and a good 20 minutes with me.
To me, that's one of my greatest accomplishments, getting my wife into the business. You're fighting that whole Linda McCartney-Yoko Ono vibe. Everybody has this chauvinistic thing, but when you think about it, Yoko really did help John. She made John incredibly wealthy and gave him direction. That's why he needed her. Same with Linda and Paul. She anchored him. And Paul did the same thing I did, but he did it musically. They were some talented ladies on their own, and they sure didn't deserve the kind of rap they got. But it's like me being a counterculture comedian. I take flak for it, but you take flak for whatever you do. There are certain people out there, and their only job is to give you flak. So I say fuck 'em!
Tommy Chong and Shelby Chong appear Apr 20 & 21, Thu & Fri, 8 & 10:30pm, at the Capitol City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. Call 467-2333.