Tommy Chong is the living embodiment of “chill.” After 11 albums, eight movies, and two Grammys performing as one half of the iconic comedy duo Cheech and Chong, and five decades spent as one of the world’s most preeminent celebrity stoners, the Alberta native’s rep precedes him. And all it takes is 30 seconds on the phone with him to realize it’s not just an act.
When Chong opines on pot’s medicinal properties or the pitfalls of the draconian War on Drugs, it’s coming from a place of experience — Chong has battled cancer twice, and spent nine months in jail in 2003 for the “unconscionable” crime of shipping a bong across state lines.
But while those experiences may have harshed a lesser man’s vibes, Chong has managed to stay remarkably zen, staying true to his famously happy-go-lucky persona. Now in his late 70s, Chong is also keeping remarkably busy — he’s got his own talk show, a new movie planned with Cheech, and a burgeoning pot empire with his son Paris called Chong’s Choice, the first multi-territory, branded cannabis company of its kind in the States.
With Up in Smoke playing as the opening night movie at the third annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival in Mammoth Lakes, California last night — coincidentally, the same day Chong turned 79 — Sharp spoke with the comedy legend about looking back on the cult classic that started it all, his take on the current state of marijuana laws, and his plans for bringing his pot empire to Canada someday.
I just realized it’s going to be your birthday the same night you’re doing this screening of Up in Smoke.
Yeah, it’s my 79th birthday.
Do you expect to get any special “presents” from audience members? Do people try and give you pot everywhere you go at this point?
I demand it. It’s in my contract. [Laughs.] I don’t go anywhere without it…
It’s part of your rider.
Because I don’t like to carry it. But I sure love to smoke it when I get there.
When’s the last time you watched Up in Smoke?
Oh, probably a couple years ago. We went to a special screening here in LA. And we did a little panel after with [director] Lou [Adler] and Cheech. This time, I’m going to be by myself, so I’ll be able to tell the truth.
What’s the one question you get asked most about this movie?
“Did you think you’d ever see pot legal?”
And now it is. At least in California, where this festival is happening.
And they’re trying their best in Canada. But Canada’s always been five years behind. Canada’s always been five years behind anything. If the world came to an end, Canada would end five years later.
Watching Up in Smoke now, I think it still holds up really well. Were you guys surprised by how influential it became?
You know, that movie was the first movie a lot of folks saw. Period. A lot of kids, that was the first movie that they ever saw. So, we shaped a lot of lives with that. And now they’re the ones that are running studios and businesses and everything else. They had Cheech and Chong in their brain, right from childhood. We really affected the culture. Not just America, but the whole world. Because I go around the world and there’s fans. And that movie had quite a bit to do with it.
I was watching CNN last night, the news on Trump, and next thing you know, they have a Cheech and Chong segment. Because Chuck Schumer was posing beside an object, it looked like he had a joint in his hand, and he was talking to another guy who was in a jogging outfit. So all the memes came out that it looked like Chuck was getting high. And then they flashed Cheech and Chong on the screen getting high. And it just blew my mind, because I wasn’t expecting it. But it just goes to show you the effect that we’ve had on the culture. Because now when people think of anything with pot, it’s always Cheech and Chong.
You basically started the entire stoner comedy subgenre. Do you see anyone out there right now as the potential heir to what you and Cheech were doing?
Key and Peele maybe. They were very close. Let me think… As far as movies go, it’s a tough one. Because Cheech and Chong, that was strictly improvisational humor and improvisational movie-making. So, people who we influenced, I can name more of those. Like Quentin Tarantino. He’s told us to our face how we inspired him and affected his movie-making. So, guys like that, and Seth Rogen and that crew. Oh and Ice Cube, when they did Friday. That was a big homage to Cheech and Chong. When I met Ice Cube, he gave me a big hug and a thank you for inspiring people like him. Because if you look at Up in Smoke, we got all the stereotypes in that movie, from the Vietnam vet to Curtis selling the dope and the guys in the band. We hit every minority stereotype we could, including the white cop! So, there was something for everybody. [Laughs.]
What made you guys decide to make the shift from comedy albums to movies? Because you had been working together for about a decade before Up in Smoke.
It was Australia.
We were due to go on our third Australian tour, and I did not want to do that. Because every time we went to Australia we would miss summer in America. We would catch winter in Australia, and then by the time we got back, we were back in winter in America. So it would’ve been our third year without summer, and you know, I’m from Canada. Man, I need my summer! So I told Cheech, I said, “Man, we’ve gotta do a movie.” We’d always said we were going to do movies. I’d written another movie with a screenwriter, and Lou Adler heard what I was doing and got us a movie deal right away. But he wanted us to do “Cheech and Chong’s Greatest Hits.” And instead of doing “Cheech and Chong’s Greatest Hits,” we wrote Up in Smoke.
That tour, it would’ve been the endless tour. And I just wanted to do movies. I felt that it was time. And not only that, but the whole Cheech and Chong phenomenon was ordained. It was written in the stars. We just had to follow the ordained path. Everything that happened, including us breaking up, it came at the right time. And that’s what we’re doing right [up] to today — getting back together was the right thing to do. And marijuana has a lot to do with that. Because if you smoke the best bud, you’ll get creative thoughts that will eventually lead to incredible success.
What’s your take on the current state of marijuana legislation right now?
Well, take Canada. We’ve known for years that pot was good for you. And the Canadian justice system has known for years that pot should not be criminalized, but the police and the law enforcement agencies, they’ve geared up budgets that give them millions of dollars to fight potheads. And it’s really tough weaning the cops off of that money. And that’s in America, in Canada, all over the world. Even though, health-wise, we’ve proven that marijuana is good for you. And financially, for the government. And it’s been proven to be effective with all these different diseases, including cancer, which affected me. So, the legal or the law enforcement people, they’re the ones that are dragging their feet. And some of the defence lawyers. And the penal system, the jails. They love potheads. Because potheads are creative and they don’t cause trouble. So, Canada, when they get it all sorted out — and it’ll take a few more years— but once they do, the world will be a much better place to live in.
I know you and your son have your company, Chong’s Choice. You’re basically becoming the Paul Newman of pot. Do you have any plans to bring the company to Canada once pot officially becomes legal here?
Oh, absolutely! We’ve been trying off and on. I’ve been meeting with people up in Canada, in Vancouver and in Toronto. In fact, I was hooked up with a grower, but I think he got busted. We’re just waiting for the legal thing to get done, but oh, for sure. Are you kidding? Canada’s one of the best places — that’s where I learned how to smoke pot, you know. [Laughs.] Pot helped me survive Canada!