Frontlines

Livin’ on a cloud— of smoke

Patricia Goldstone October 22 1979
Frontlines

Livin’ on a cloud— of smoke

Patricia Goldstone October 22 1979

Livin’ on a cloud— of smoke

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Patricia Goldstone

They met in Vancouver at the tail end of the ’60s.

Chong: “I was running a halfway house in Canada for Americans who didn’t want to fight in Vietnam. We were under federal laws to fulfil certain racial quotas and we had an opening for a Mexican or an Indian ...”

Cheech: “I had a face that could go either way, so whenever the guy came round I filled in.”

It was love at first sight.

Chong: “I tell you, when you got Mexicans for friends it’s hard to lose them.” Cheech: “Especially around payday.” Tommy Chong—tall, gentle, half-Canadian, half-Chinese. Cheech Marinshort, manic, Mexican-American. But they were both “heads” (dope smokers), creating an immediate symbiotic kinship—Laurel and Hardy with marijuana and hair. In 1969 they emigrated to the United States together, performed improvisational theatre and became a comedy team that ended up speaking for the drug subculture.

Chong: “It took me six years to call myself a comedian.”

Cheech: “That’s because he couldn’t pronounce it.”

But it didn’t take their act six years to take off. In 1972, after a snowballing nightclub career, they commandeered record mogul Lou Adler to make their first record, Cheech and Chong. By 1974 they had four gold albums to their credit, as well as many Top 10 singles such as Basketball Jones and Earache My Eye. Their blatant drug-based humor was imitated on other stages and wherever people gathered to partake of byproducts of the cannabis plant. They were an institution, a metaphor for the droll state of mind so often induced by smoking marijuana. They would imagine two dogs running after cars—and getting stoned from the exhaust. Dope in the classroom. Dope in bed. One classic dope-joke was Mr. Ashley Roach-Clip speaking out for Heads and Hemp—and forgetting his speech.

On the lips of imitators their material sounds merely silly, and in many cases vulgar. Coming from its creators, its occasional puerility is redeemed by the strength of the duo’s main strength: characterization. Early on, the two comics developed a stable of stock improvisational characters such as Sister Mary Elephant (a psychotic nun in charge of a classroom of incorrigibles) and her male counterpart, Sergeant Stedenko. And, instead of “polishing,” doing the same bits over and over again every show like most comics, Cheech and Chong kept altering the situations

to suit their audiences. These extended story lines, and the strong visual quality of their material, made it a short hop from vinyl to celluloid.

In 1976, after cutting Sleeping Beauty, Cheech and Chong stopped making records to write movie material. The result was Up in Smoke which, released in 1978, has by this fall topped $104 million in worldwide box-office gross (on an initial investment by Paramount Studios of just more than $2 million). The duo is now “Hot Stuff” in the eyes of the Hollywood establishment: they are scheduled to begin filming Cheech and Chong Go Hollywood this month, with Tommy directing for Universal; and they have just signed with Columbia to write, star in, and presumably direct a third project.

In person, Cheech and Chong are far from their dropped-out film personae. They are intelligent, articulate, attractive and, according to themselves, “completely in control” in the studio environment. “People have the wrong impression of studio execs,” says Chong. “You don’t get to be an executive by becoming an idiot first. Everybody that runs a studio is extremely intelligent and perceptive. They may be social cripples but they’re smart.” Cheech adds, “Man, they even gave us a key to the garage.”

It may seem strange that their current film is not being made for Paramount: studios usually try to rope in their big moneymakers with multi-picture contracts after their first proven success. But, like any other Hollywood success story, theirs is fraught with “creative differences”: subsequent to the film’s release, the team had a rude and permanent split with Adler.

“So we ended up with this New York Jewish gold-chain character,” and Cheech finishes the sentence: “Suits. Suits Brown. That’s what we call him.”

“Suits”—Howard Brown—is their millionaire partner. He, Cheech, and Chong have set up C.C. Brown Productions, an independent film company, to

produce Cheech and Chong movies and also to develop the work of other comics.

But the partnership is not equal in all respects: “There’s only one director,” says Chong, “and I’ve always been it. You can’t have two people telling the actors what to do. But when we do things Cheech has as much voice as I have. If he feels strong about one thing and I feel strong about the opposite, it’s the war of the worlds.” “Then we hammer it out among ourselves and it’s resolved,” says Cheech. “It’s like being on a basketball team. He’s better at rebounds because he’s taller, and I’m better at dribbling.”

The team is now breaking in a cast of unknowns on Cheech and Chong Go Hollywood.

Chong: “First we have meetings with everyone individually. They tell us stories that happened to them. We take their greatest hits.”

Cheech: “And turn them into customtailored suits.”

Chong: “

write separately.

But when we get an idea we throw it in there and work it out among ourselves. We polish everything together.”

Cheech: “It’s like music. You know, when you start a riff and the other guy chimes in. We’ve known each other so long and have such a backlog of experiences together.” Chong: “We’re good at finding subjects too. People tell us their stories all the time. It’s even easier, now we got money. Now they’re serious. Now they want to get paid for it.”

Cheech: “It’s really amazing how people will come up to a celebrity and tell him the most intimate details of their lives.”

The end result is somewhat unique within the studio system. Usually a finished shooting script is around 120 pages long. Cheech and Chong are renowned for refusing to deliver anything more than a treatment or outline (■Cheech and Chong Go Hollywood runs

about 46 pages), which they use as a “launching pad,” according to “Suits.” Rather than getting ants in its pinstriped pants, the studio has learned to live with the apparently slipshod arrangement, perhaps a mark of the team’s professionalism.

Cheech and Chong Go Hollywood has been described as “maniacal” by topranking Universal executive Thom Mount, an ex-radical himself. While trading on the duo’s new image as movie stars, the film will focus on the low-rent side of Hollywood: Cheech plays a studio gofer and Chong his biker roommate. “It’s basically a continuation of .. .” Cheech begins the sentence. Chong cuts in “. . . our incredible life. The funniest people in the world are those who don’t owe anything or own anything. Our needs are so basic that we’re the universal comedy trip. Like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Only difference is that instead of going out and drinking beer we go home and smoke dope.”

But the homes they go to are far from the low-rent affairs they knew in their early days. Chong lives in the secluded estates of Bel-Air; Cheech in “The ’Bu”—the famous Malibu film colony. As “ ’60s people,” they manage to remain unaffected by what is commonly called the “Hollywood lifestyle.”

“I’m independently wealthy enough to have my own lifestyle,” remarks Chong. “I don’t have to chase deals or go to the parties unless it’s strictly for pleasure. I’ve got a strong family life” (consisting of three teen-aged daughters). “I’ve got a pretty strong love for watching TV and smoking dope too. Right now I smoke a better brand of dope out of a better pipe and watch a better TV set than I did in the ’60s.”

For the moment, their prosperity is based on the fact that the hippie lifestyle is relatively new to films. Their huge cult following includes such exalted figures as directors Tony Richardson and Hal Ashby, Warren Beatty, and ex-New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, all of whom gather to watch dailies. What will the pair do if dope and hippie jokes dry up?

“Retire to some $10-billion estate and raise dope and wait for the Second Coming,” says Chong.

“Or to some tropical island and call ourselves sun gods,” Cheech adds. “But hey, that’s like asking when will people not want to get high anymore. People get high in lots of different ways, and our forte has always been lots of different things. The dope and hippie jokes are just a peg.”

They have had offers to split up the team, for both comedians to do something different. But says Cheech, “We’re married—and it’s nice.” (Cheech is recently married; Chong has had two divorces and now a steady lady friend.) Would the alternatives ever include going back to work in Canada? No, says Chong, who recently bought a house in West Vancouver. “Being Canadian is a lot like being Polish,” Chong explains. “The problem is that there’s things to do but no one to do them with. My motives for buying a house there were real selfish. Being rich down here doesn’t mean much. In Canada it means a whole lot. When I was growing up in Canada, I never got to go skiing. I barely ever got out on the water. Now, to go back and live in West Vancouver, I feel like I’ve really conquered something.”

Maybe. But the real victory came from Cheech. As he left the Universal commissary, a long line of tourists formed at the cash register. Even though he was late for a meeting, Cheech got in place at the very end. Now, in Canada that might not mean much. In Hollywood, it means a whole lot.