8 Reasons Why Cheech & Chong Are Legendary10
By Dan Berry
8 Reasons Why Cheech & Chong Are Legendary
Cheech & Chong are one of the most famous comedy duos in history. At their peak in the 1970s, they represented the mainstream embodiment of the attitudes and lifestyles of the underground drug culture. Much like W.C. Fields shot to fame by making alcohol the focus of his act, the duo of Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong emerged from a cloud of pot smoke, simultaneously lauding and lampooning the stoner community that became the team’s most ardent supporters. It was a tried and true recipe for success that still proves popular—as presently evidenced by the comedic action series Project 420, where being a pothead is all part of a day’s work for three CIA narcotic research scientists.
While Cheech & Chong were derided by critics and dismissed by the general populace, the team’s stature as counterculture heroes was, and remains, unquestioned. For both aging hippies and dazed-and-confused teens, their comedy defined an era. And now, nearly half a century after they first hit the stage together, their live performances, comedy albums and movies continue to entertain a new generation. They are legends, and here are eight reasons why:
Project 420 – Episode 1
1. Cheech & Chong are better than boobies
After entering show business as a guitarist in a rock band, Tommy Chong (who also operated his inherited family business: a topless bar) established City Works in Toronto, a wild improvisational troupe later joined by Richard “Cheech” Marin, who had just moved to Canada from California. When City Works dissolved, Cheech & Chong continued as a duo, performing at Chong’s club, which (as I mentioned) featured topless dancers.
Prior to the comedy club boom of the early ‘80’s, it was not uncommon for comedians to perform in strip clubs (that’s also how Jay Leno got his start). Of course, with big beautiful breasts bouncing all about, it was much more difficult for a comic to captivate the audience. I mean, c’mon, we’re talking fun-bags here, folks. So, when a comedian could distract a crowd’s attention away from the ladies, it was pretty clear they were funny. Cheech & Chong had no problem stealing the spotlight from the headlights. Whenever they took the stage, boobs took a backseat to their outrageous bits.
2. “Dave’s not here.”
Aside from their live performances and movies, Cheech & Chong albums were part of what made the two men great in the eyes of their fans. Basically, the albums were recordings of live stand up routines, jokes, and skits. The albums still continue to be a huge part of what make them great.
On their self-titled debut album, the sketch “Waiting for Dave” is perhaps their most famous and is largely responsible for helping garner their widespread popularity. The outrageous, circular routine (owing a debt to comedians Bob & Ray) was actually ad-libbed by Chong, which confused and angered Cheech, thus making the performance all the more memorable because of it’s uproarious (and little-known) authenticity.
3. Big Bambu included a REALLY Big Bambu
Following the success of their self-titled debut recording, Cheech & Chong released a number of other wildly successful albums, including Wedding Album, Sleeping Beauty, and Greatest Hits; but it was their second, Big Bambu, that is their most famous (it reached #2 on the Billboard charts).
Named after a brand of rolling papers, the album’s immense popularity wasn’t so much due to the record itself, but because the original packaging included a GIANT rolling paper – perfect for rolling a GIANT joint. Not surprisingly, today, the original album is considered a valuable collector’s item.
4. Cheech & Chong introduced the world to Pee-wee Herman
Formed in Los Angeles in 1974, The Groundlings is a legendary improv troupe that has produced countless stars such as Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Conan O’Brien, Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens, to name just a few. Aware of The Groundlings’ impressive stable of highly-skilled, up-and-coming comedic talent, Cheech and Chong utilized many of the group’s members in the cast of their first three movies – subtly getting them to write much of the script while only paying them and giving them screen credit for acting duties. So excited to simply be in a movie, the comedians from the Groundlings were naively accepting of this double duty for paltry compensation. And it was a good thing they did, too, because it gave the world its first on-screen glimpse of Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman in 1980’s Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. (Personally, I prefer Reubens’ turn as the guy snorting booger sugar with Chong under a restaurant table in 1981’s Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams.)
5. Cheech & Chong got stoned with Arnold Schwarzenegger
Tommy Chong wasn’t just consumed with reefer madness, he was also addicted to weightlifting. Cheech & Chong’s second movie, Nice Dreams, even features a scene where he and Cheech (also an avid weightlifter) deliver weed to bodybuilders at Power Source Gym in Burbank, California. And in real life, the pair really did pump iron and puff pot with numerous professional bodybuilders, including legendary body sculptor/actor/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s right. The Governator loved the green, as evidenced by his celebratory “smoke” in the locker room following his unprecedented and god-like 6th-straight Mr. Olympia crown—an act caught on camera that can be seen in the epic film that launched Arnie’s career, Pumping Iron.
6. Cheech & Chong split before the act got stale
As the hedonism of the 1970s gave way to the “just say no” conservatism of the Reagan era, Cheech & Chong found little response to their trademark brand of humor. After 1984′s The Corsican Brothers, their film career ended, and in 1985, they returned to the recording studio for their swan song LP, Get Out of My Room. And with that, they thankfully dissolved their partnership. I say “thankfully” because they could have all too easily been content to tour and rake in the cash by beating a dead horse, but they didn’t. While this hurt their careers for a time, Marin enjoyed a renaissance in the middle of the 1990’s, appearing in the Robert Rodriguez films Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn as well as a prominent supporting role in Ron Shelton’s romantic comedy Tin Cup that led to a co-starring role opposite Don Johnson in the CBS detective series Nash Bridges. Meanwhile, Chong released a line of “water pipes” (see #8) and returned to the screen, appearing in the movie Half Baked and guest starring on the popular TV program That ‘70s Show.
After settling their differences and feeling the climate was again right for their brand of comedy, the pair reunited and resumed touring in 2008.
7. Tommy Chong went to jail for his “beliefs”
In 2003, Tommy Chong was targeted by two American investigations code-named Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter, which sought out businesses selling drug paraphernalia, (mostly bongs). Operation Pipe Dream was run from Pittsburgh. U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, Mary Beth Buchanan oversaw the case. The estimated cost of Operation Pipe Dream was over $12 million and included the resources of 2,000 law enforcement officers.
Chong was charged for his part in financing and promoting Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, a company started by his son Paris. Chong’s case never went to trial, instead Chong accepted a plea agreement with the United States Attorney for Western Pennsylvania’s Office in which he admitted to distributing 7,500 bongs and water pipes on the Internet through Nice Dreams. Chong agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia in exchange for non-prosecution of his wife, Shelby, and his son, Paris. Chong fully cooperated with the government and was the first of the Operation Pipe Dreams defendants to plead guilty.
At Chong’s sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, Mary McKeen Houghton stated in her sentencing arguments that Tommy Chong “used his public image to promote this crime” and marketed his products to children. U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan also was present at the sentencing in Pittsburgh and released a statement to the press stating, “There are consequences for violating the law, even if the violator is a well-known entertainer like Thomas Chong.”
While Chong argued for community service and home detention at his sentencing, the district judge, Arthur J. Schwab, denied his requests and sentenced him to 9 months in federal prison, a fine of $20,000, forfeiture of $103,514, and the loss of all merchandise seized during the raid of his business. Chong served his sentence at the Taft Correctional Institution from October 8, 2003 to July 7, 2004. The entire episode was chronicled in a/k/a Tommy Chong, the 2006, award-winning documentary by Josh Gilbert.
8. Cheech Marin (surprisingly) served as a role model
A third-generation Mexican American, Richard “Cheech” Marin became famous for smoking dope, but he wasn’t one. And even though his Cheech & Chong character was anything but a role model, his overall career served as an early example of success for Latinos in Hollywood.
For his work, Cheech has been recognized on behalf of Latinos by the Imagen Foundation Creative Achievement Award and by the National Council of La Raza and Kraft Foods ALMA Community Service Award. In 2007, he received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts for his contributions to the creative arts from Otis College of Art and Design as well as the inaugural Legacy Award for Arts Advocacy from the Smithsonian Latino Center. He currently serves on the boards of the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, as well as contributing a great deal of time and energy to promoting Chicano art.
Project 420 – Episode 2
Project 420 – Episode 3
Dan Berry began writing and performing stand-up comedy while drinking heavily and skipping class at New York University. An inexplicably instant success, he has since appeared in clubs and on college campuses nationwide, and is frequently featured on radio and television. Aside from creating the humor site “Jotter of a Rotter” and the internationally acclaimed website “The Prison Kite,” Dan has also lent his warped writing skills to a pair of failed pilots for FX and NBC, as well as to several current network shows that are somehow proving successful in spite of his crazed contributions.