Freedom Leaf Exclusive Interview: Tommy Chong
For the last 14 months, Tommy Chong and I have made five stops on the International Cannabis Business Conference circuit, starting in San Francisco in 2016. As his personal interviewer, I created a biographical program about Chong’s life. I ask the questions, we show historical photos and play audio and video clips, and he offers pithy answers about his life as a standup comedian in Cheech & Chong, as an actor and director, and his overall career in cannabis. The latest stop was in Berlin, on April 11 at the Maritim ProArte Hotel. Here’s an abridged version of our talk.
How do you like Berlin?
I like coming to marijuana conferences, because there’s always a gift involved. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. A lot of good smoke, that’s why I’m here.
You’ve had several bouts with cancer the last few years. How are you doing?
No more cancer, it’s all gone. I’ve got a clean bill of health. I don’t have an asshole, but no cancer.
What do you attribute to your recovery?
Marijuana. It gave me an appetite. When you get old and you don’t eat, you die.
What are memories of Europe in the 1980s when you lived in France?
While I was making Up in Smoke, my wife, Shelby, learned French and lived in Paris with her sister. As soon as I got a chance to shoot a movie in Europe, I took it. We shot The Corsican Brothers in France. The only problem I had with the movie was to convince Cheech to do it in France. That’s when I really became a movie director.
Why did you choose France?
I wanted my kids to have a taste of Europe growing up, and why not? Paris was very beautiful. From Paris we went to Morocco on vacations, and to anywhere there was really good weed.
With Donald Trump now the president of the U.S., have you giving any thought to moving back to Europe?
No, not at all, but it shows you that God has a sense of humor. God said, “I’m going to give your Trump, but I’m going to give you pot too.” Pot will get your through the Trump years, believe me. During the Donald Trump follies we’re going through now, it’s the marijuana that will get us through.
You were born on May 24, 1938 in Edmonton, Alberta, and raised in Calgary, in Canada. What’s your heritage?
My mother was Scotch and Irish. My father was from China. My mother’s sister married into a Ukrainian family, so I was also raised Ukrainian style. My background is so diverse. That’s the great thing about Canada, it’s such a melting pot. That’s why I feel so at home in Berlin, because I feel like I’m in Canada somewhere.
When was the first time you smoked pot?
I was 17 years old at a jazz club in Calgary. A Chinese jazz musician brought back a Lenny Bruce album and a couple of joints from California. He gave me the Lenny Bruce record and the joint. We lit his joint up, because I saved mine, and I got high for the first time.
You were in the Motown group, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. What was that like?
Our big claim to fame is we played with Jimi Hendrix one night. He sat in with the band. It was a lot of fun, until I got fired over not having a green card. But [Motown founder] Berry Gordy gave me $5,000, and that started my solo career.
What are your first memories of Richard “Cheech” Marin?
He had real short hair, because he was dodging the draft from America in Canada, and was trying to blend in. He was the first Mexican I ever met, so I just wanted to touch him. When he met me, he’d never seen anything like me before either. I had real long hair, a Genghis Khan kind of look. Ultimately, we snuck Cheech back into America and went to Los Angeles. We scuffled around trying to make it as a comedy team and we finally did.
How did you get the name Cheech & Chong?
We were going to be a band at first, so I put a band together. But Cheech and I went out and did comedy for 40 minutes and never played one note. That night we were driving home in the rain. I asked Cheech what his nickname was. I was going, “Cheech & Chong, Cheech & Chong,” and that was it.
What’s the story behind your most famous Cheech & Chong routine, “Dave’s Not Here”?
Cheech didn’t know I was going to stall. In the original version, he swore a lot. He was really pissed off at me because I wouldn’t open the door. It gave us a path to how to do comedy. Basically, I tortured Cheech for nine albums and six movies.
What was it like back then?
It was a lot of work. We were constantly working. We’d be in the studio, then on the road, then back in the studio while were on the road. We were working, working, working. We even opened for the Rolling Stones.
Which are your favorite Cheech & Chong movies?
Still Smokin, because it was the last time we did our nightclub act on the screen. It was supposed to be a concert movie. But when they offered us a million dollars to do a concert movie, I thought, “Wow, a million bucks, I could do a real movie with that,” especially in Amsterdam. So we turned it from a concert movie to a real movie. I also love The Corsican Brothers. We didn’t do any dope humor in it. That’s what Cheech wanted. By that time, Cheech was tired of doing Cheech & Chong. He wanted to get away from the drugs. Unfortunately, that was the last movie Cheech & Chong ever made.
In 1986, Cheech & Chong split up. Was that the main reason?
We spent almost 10 years making records and doing live performances, and then another 10 years doing movies. That’s enough. Cheech wanted to try other things, and he did.
Your life took an unexpected turn in 2003, when you were arrested for interstate paraphernalia sales. You spent nine months in jail. How did that affect you?
I was always fascinated with jail, so when my turn came, I was like, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.” Also, I was in my late sixties and I needed to rest. It was one of those minimum-security prisons. We cooked out own food and had our own garden. I met a lot of lawyers and doctors in jail, and a ton of pot-growers. When you go to prison and you’re a celebrity, it’s a whole different environment. I spent a lot of my time taking pictures with everybody.
What are thoughts on mass incarceration in America?
If you look at it from a practical standpoint, you can see it’s good and bad. It’s not good that they arrest people based on race, which they do quite a bit, especially with the drug laws. But on the other hand, when you go to federal prison, if you don’t have a high school diploma, you have to go to school. Schools are available for you in prison. So I went to school in prison. I studied and tried to get my GED, but I failed it.
How has cannabis helped you?
If it wasn’t for pot, I wouldn’t have anything that I have today. I don’t know what I’d be doing. But because I got high on pot I came up with all of these great ideas. Medically, it calmed me down, and I started having thoughts of healing. I pictured myself healing. I pictured myself walking out of the hospital healed. Life really is consciousness. If you can manipulate your consciousness yourself—like yogis and people that mediate or are into martial arts do—then you can do anything. Not just heal your body of cancer, you can write great novels and invent great things. When I became a comedian, the first thing I learned was how powerful laughter is. If you can make people laugh, that’s so much power. If you make people laugh and smile, they always want to be around you. There’s humor in everything, no matter what’s happening with your life.
Inside, I’m not old. When I buy clothes I still go to the skateboard shop. I dress like a teenager because I feel like a teenager. That’s really the secret for me. It’s consciousness. If you can keep it at a high, loving level, you will, if not heal the disease, understand what you’re going through. When you learn all you can on earth, then you evolve to another plane of existence.
You’re in Germany promoting your company Chong’s Choice, which is available wherever marijuana is legal in the U.S. Will your products be sold in Europe soon as well?
We’re going to get it all over the world. I’m personally involved in testing the products. The only thing I can guarantee is that when you taste or use a Chong’s Choice product, it will be of the highest quality available in that area. We talk to people who want to be involved with me and my philosophy and my way of doing it.
I hear you’re also working on a reality show.
My son Paris and I are doing a TV show called The Search for the Most High. We’re going to go around the world like Anthony Bourdain and look for the best of the best wherever. Actually, we’re just going to follow me around with a camera because that’s what I do anyway.
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