When I smoked weed for the first time my friend’s mom caught us coughing our lungs out in a cornfield behind his house. After a long lecture on the dangers of smoking and how we were already barely passing high school, she left the house. Instead of returning with the police as I was convinced she was going to, she came back with a DVD of Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke. As teenagers, we had a non-negotiable rule to dismiss anything our parents recommended but, alas, she insisted. We sat down (after sneaking out to get stoned again) for what we were convinced was going to be torture.
Instead, I laughed more than I had in years. Cheech and Chong spoke to me on a level that other comedy didn’t. It was like Cheech and Chong knew just the style of comedy that many young (and often stoned) people sought out and tailor-made their act to it. At the time I did not understand the cultural impact that the two had on the world, nor could I have predicted that Tommy Chong would end up being sent to an American prison for simply selling bongs in what was undeniably a show of force and a flex by the DEA and Bush Administration. By doing so, this transformed the idea of Cheech and Chong from just a weed-themed comedy show, to something bigger. Something that represented fighting for the plant they and so many others believed in.
If you’re new to cannabis or may have forgotten a thing or two; then it’s high time (no pun intended) to get (re)acquainted with this iconic duo.
Who are Cheech and Chong?
Tommy Chong and Richard “Cheech” Marin make up the famous comedy duo of the award-winning Cheech and Chong. The pair met during the late 1960s in Vancouver, British Columbia at the height of the Vietnam War. In fact, it was the Vietnam War that made Marin move to Canada; he wanted to avoid the draft. A decision that brought many other like-minded young American men to the Great White North. While some went back to the US after the war, a lot chose to stay in Canada.
Chong was born and grew up in Canada. His father was a World War II veteran, but, like Marin, Chong chose not to join the military. At the age of 16, he dropped out of high school, joined a band, and played guitar for a living. He made his way to Vancouver and along with Motown legend Bobby Taylor, opened up a nightclub called the Blue Balls. He and Taylor found some success with their band; Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, however, the band soon broke apart.
One day, when Cheech was working delivering carpets; he met Chong. At that time, Chong was doing shows with his comedy troupe but had found only minor success. The two hit it off, with Cheech even joining their comedy shows from time to time. However, the two had a unique connection that resonated with the era’s counterculture society, especially since most of their acts were about their stoner lifestyles.
The two soon formed Cheech and Chong and quickly found success with their bizarre, crude and at times surreal comedy.
Having found popularity in Canada, the two decided to bring their comedy duo act to the United States. In 1970, they began performing in Los Angeles. The decision to move proved to be a smart one, as they were soon discovered by Lou Adler, a famous record producer.
By the next year, they released their first comedy album, self-titled Cheech and Chong. They released their second album called Big Bambu a year later which proved to be an even bigger hit than the first; becoming the highest-grossing comedy album that year. If 1972 was good to them, 1973 was even better, when their third album, Los Cochinos, received a Grammy Award.
They also starred in their first movie, Up in Smoke, in 1978. It was that movie that ultimately catapulted them into becoming that era’s cannabis culture icons. The image of them smoking obscenely large joints in a hotboxed car was projected on screens across the country. Not only did it make history in cannabis culture, not to mention culture as a whole; it also found great commercial success. The film led to two sequels and later found second success as a cult classic. Unfortunately, however, success can only last so long.
When it All Went Up in Smoke
Due to irreconcilable creative differences, the comedy duo decided to split up in 1985.
Marin went on to write comedy shows, as well as have a successful acting career in Hollywood. People born after the 1980s may know him better as the voice of one of the Hyenas in the Lion King or one of his other famous roles.
Chong, on the other hand, decided to focus primarily on his acting career. He wrote, directed and starred in a movie called Far Out Man as well played as Leo, an aging hippie in the sitcom That 70’s ShoW.
They had worked on several projects together, but never really found their old chemistry, despite popular demand for a reunion. They had plans for a film, but the plan was cut short when Chong was jailed for drug-related paraphernalia in 2003.
While Chong continued acting, he also owned a company with his son, called Chong’s/ Nice Dreams Glass. At that time, the DEA was cracking down on weed (because all other crime in America had apparently been solved) and were investigating 55 companies (including Chong’s) that sold paraphernalia online. Codenamed Operation Pipedream and costing the taxpayers over $12 million, the DEA decided to attempt to investigate drug trafficking through the selling of bongs… Chong’s company was not allowed to sell bongs anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that the company was based out of California, the DEA decided to go forward with arrests.
Chong, in exchange for non-prosecution of his son and wife, admitted to selling and distributing more than 7,500 bongs as well as water pipes online. He was the only one, of 55 charged in the entire operation, with no previous convictions that was sentenced to jail time. His lawyers argued that the prosecution team was using his celebrity against him and the US attorney prosecuting him essentially confirmed this by saying that his name allowed him to market more effectively than others… How this makes someone more guilty and deserving of a harsher punishment is beyond logic. Chong was sentenced to nine months in federal prison. During that time, his cellmate was Jordan Belfort, the subject of the future Academy Award-nominated Wolf of Wall Street. He was released from prison in 2004.
In September of 2008, the news that fans around the world had long been hoping for came true when Cheech and Chong finally reunited for their “Light Up America” comedy tour. This tour was quickly followed by “Get It Legal.” Today, the iconic comedy duo still tours and performs live shows across the country. Their shows are no longer solely focused on stoner comedy, but edgier and more controversial topics, as well. That said, weed is and always will be present.
Cheech and Chong’s Influence on Cannabis Culture and American Society
Cheech and Chong without cannabis in their act would be like The Beatles without guitars in theirs. Just a bunch of guys from Liverpool talking about how lonely they were. It was part of the group’s DNA. It’s foundation.
At a time when cannabis was negatively viewed by society, Cheech and Chong were among the few people who normalized the use of recreational weed. Their voice and lifestyle brought recreational cannabis into the limelight and the mainstream. They were, and still are activists, who fight for the full legalization of cannabis and cannabis reform.
Chong, having battled with cancer and used cannabis to help with his symptoms, is also an outspoken advocate for medical cannabis. He regularly speaks in various cannabis summits and talks about cannabis’s medicinal and therapeutic effects.
Today, Cheech is in his 70s, while Chong is in his 80s. Both own their own cannabis companies – Cheech with ‘Cheech’s Private Stash’ and Chong with ‘Chong’s Choice. They still use cannabis and fight for its legalization, as well as cannabis tax reform. They continue to be outspoken cannabis rights activists, with Chong being a member of NORML.
More than just a stoner comedy duo; Cheech and Chong have become a folk hero to cannabis supporters, especially those who fight for the legalization of recreational use. They have played a significant role in changing the landscape of cannabis culture and how society views cannabis, be it for medical or recreational purposes.
Cheech and Chong are a symbol of the cannabis culture. Two outspoken voices we can count on in a fight that’s still raging.
The changes in cannabis culture, be it political or social, do not happen in an instant. The slow changes took years to happen before society became more accepting of cannabis. Even now, we’re still in the process of fighting for these changes.
It also took the voices of many, demanding to be heard, that we now enjoy whatever freedom we have when it comes to cannabis use. We owe this freedom and the ongoing reformist movement aimed at cannabis legalization in part to Cheech and Chong, as well as other cannabis icons who have been loud and proud of their support for cannabis legalization.