When I discovered I was going to be interviewing the infamous Godfather of the Stoner Comedy Counterculture, Tommy Chong, the first thing I did was put in a couple of calls to the local hippie connection in hopes of scoring a two-handed Indiana fatty to smoke out with during our conversation.
As it turns out, the cards were somewhat stacked against me: I had been out of the local drug scene too long to just show up on the doorstep of the local green thumb pharmacist looking for a taste of the bubonic chronic. And unfortunately, time was not on my side, as I had less than 24 hours before Tommy’s publicist said he would call.
You have to understand that this just wasn’t the average, run-of-the-mill interview with some fly-by-night, unknown funny man destined to be flushed out of the business end of the comedy industry. This was Grammy Award winning Tommy Chong, one half of the super-legendary comedy duo Cheech and Chong, responsible for producing nine hit comedy records and eight successful films, including Up In Smoke, which was the highest grossing comedy in 1978, earning more than $100 million at the box office.
Not to mention that in addition to spending the past four decades evolving into a cultural smoke icon with his fun-loving stoner persona, Tommy Chong has also managed to become one of the most highly respected marijuana advocates in America -- a position that cost him nearly a year of his life back in 2003, after the Uncle Sam stuck a $12 million boot up his ass and essentially sent him to federal prison for being a poster child for pot.
So, it stands to reason that it was absolutely imperative that I get my hands on at least a couple shakes of middle school skunkweed before embarking on an interview of this magnitude -- a guy like Tommy would surely be suspicious of me otherwise. Time was running out, and aside from posting a desperate, cop-magnet of a status update on my Facebook page that read, “Wanted: Weed so I can properly interview Tommy Chong,” I was out of options.
Luckily, just minutes before Tommy was scheduled to call, salvation swooped in on the wings of a good old boy from the backwoods district of the illegal horticulture industry, but admittedly, after only a few tokes of what that bastard referred to as a Hoosier Hootigan, I had forgotten every single question I intended to ask the man, Tommy Chong… and then, wouldn’t you know it, the phone rang.
HIGH TIMES: So, you just got back into town after being out on the road with Cheech on the “Up and Smoke” tour, and it looks like you’re getting ready to head back out and do a few more with the bands War and Tower of Power. After all these years, do you still enjoy touring?
Tommy Chong: It’s guilty fun -- you know what I mean? It’s no longer work now. It’s so much fun that I feel guilty about it.
HT: So, it’s more like, “Hey lets book a tour and just go out and have good time?"
TC: Well, years ago, when I first started stand-up, I was nervous before I went on. Even days before I went on the stage, I had to plan what I was gonna say and hoped it worked and all that stuff. And then I met Redd Foxx at the end of his career, and Foxx would chat with me, right up until they announced him, and then he would put his drink down, walk onstage, and do a total show that looked so improvised: I’m at that stage now. I’ve been doing this almost 40 years, so when I walk on stage, it’s like walking into another world and it’s where I belong.
HT: That has to feel pretty good, because I imagine back in the day when you were performing with Redd Foxx you were like, “How in the hell does that bastard do that?”
TC: Yeah, exactly! That’s exactly what I was thinking. Now, I’ve got comedians coming backstage kind of looking at me in the same light. You know, I remember that look. I know that look.
HT: I imagine that’s a good place to be.
TC: It is, but it’s temporary. I got to tell you it’s temporary. One thing you’ll learn in this business -- nothing is going to last. My wife Shelby -- she’s on the road with us -- and when she starts complaining, I just remind her, I say, “This will never happen again. So, let’s just make the best of it.”
HT: You’re right. It seems like everyone is always bitchin’ and complaining about what’s going on with them right now, but it’s like, “Hey man, this might be as good as it gets.”
TC: That’s it! Yeah, these might be the good ole days. (Laughs)
HT: Speaking of touring with your wife…I’m sure she runs a hell of an interference on overzealous female fans, but are there still stoner groupies hanging around the venues, like I imagine there were back in the day?
TC: Not blatantly anymore. (Laughs) We’ve morphed into that area of our life where nature made sure we wouldn’t be attractive enough, because they don’t want the offspring of old guys. Nature takes care of it. I mean there’s a reason -- ugly has a purpose.
HT: That kind of surprises me because I’m sure there are still those fans from back in the day that are like, “You know what? I’ve never got a chance to fuck Tommy Chong. I’m going to try my ass off right now.”
TC: (Laughs) Well, it’s legendary now. There are certain ones that are admitting it; you know “Yeah, I fucked him.” But no, we don’t have that problem anymore. If anything we have guy groupies -- people that collect everything we ever do, you know -- we throw a napkin on the floor, they’ll pick it up and frame it. We have those guys -- Ebayers. Cheech doesn’t like them that much, but I love them -- I love Ebayers. You know, they meet you at the airport, they don’t take “no” for an answer. You can smack them and they’ll come back -- they’re just like a pet dog -- you kick them out, tell them to get lost, and then you just sit there until you forget about it and then you let them back in.
HT: (Laughs) Would you say that sex was as much a part of your touring escapades, back in the day, as it was for bands?
TC: Yeah, it was part of the job. It was part of the perks. It made up for the lack of riches -- in lieu of payment, you know. We always had that side of the equation to play with. But the great thing about being old is you forget about all that shit, you know. Pretty soon, it just fades into memories and then all you have left really is the art itself. And that’s what we’re living on now.
HT: Sure, I understand that. But did you and Cheech ever take on more than one girl at a time, or did you guys keep your sexual conquests to yourself?
TC: We’ve had our “Rob Lowe parties.” There was a time back in the day. It’s very hazy now, (laughs) and I think what happens in memories is they get better looking as time goes by.
HT: In your experience, what would you say attracts more women -- is it playing guitar in a band, being part of a successful comedy duo, or just holding a fat sack of weed?
TC: Being a comedian.
HT: Really? Because you’ve done it all.
TC: Yeah, I’ve done it all. The guitar…you’re limited. You get very compassionate groupies -- the ones that know because they have a car and a place to live that they’ve got the upper hand. (Laughs) But the famous comedian, he gets the cream of the crop -- some of them are just like “Whoa!” because he gets the ones that like to laugh. And then the old guy -- he just gets the old grandmas.
HT: That makes sense because women are attracted to funny guys -- they like a good sense of humor.
TC: Yeah. And there’s a lot of them that recognize the intelligence in the comedian. There is an intelligence factor that works with the spoken word. Whereas the band guy, sometimes the intelligence factor is missing, just simply because you don’t have to listen that hard to music. With words, you have to understand meaning and nuances and things like that. You have to be able to relate…but with music it’s just music. And that’s why musicians can travel all over the world and have an audience, because there’s no language barrier.
HT: I was watching a video of you and Cheech during a recent performance in El Paso, Texas, and you were talking a little about being on the set of “That ’70s Show” and how none of the other actors smoked pot. Was the set really that uptight?
TC: Yeah, it was. None of them, including Ashton, smoked. I thought Ashton for sure, but none of them. In fact, a couple were Scientologist, which didn’t interfere with anything -- it actually helped in some ways, you know, because they’re very prompt and on time and attentive. But no, none of them smoked -- none of the writers smoked, none of the actors smoked. It was only the crew -- the grips and the cameramen and camera operators -- they would smoke up. But actually, I had to kind of be secretive with it, you know, because we were with FOX, and networks and all that stuff, you know. They had a squeaky kind of clean image even though they professed otherwise. But actually, and I’ll tell you the truth, it was the reason for their success because you can’t really run a successful stoner anything. (Laughs)
HT: But hey, you’ve done it.
TC: Well, that’s because everybody that helped me was not a stoner. I had handlers.
HT: Not at first though, right?
TC: That’s the good thing about poverty is it keeps you from getting in trouble because if you can’t afford drugs, people will stop giving them to you very quickly. So, being poor really helps -- it’s the success that kills you.
HT: During your performances, do you do a lot of interaction with the crowd using your wife, Shelby, as the MC, or do you primarily stick to your old skits?
TC: No, we interact. I was trying to sort of emulate… what was that television show from New Zealand? What were they called? Anyway, I went and seen their live show and they kind of did the same Q and A and they sat and they played this folk guitar kind of thing. And I thought it was really cool, the way they interacted with the audience. Now, the reason they did it -- they never really had an act. I realized that because we have everybody, I can do all of those formats and get away with it. And then it makes the show even more enjoyable. It’s like love making, you know? The foreplay is the biggest part, and that’s the same thing as comedy. If you can frame your show in such a way that the funny jokes become funnier.
HT: I think there comes a time when people are interested in what the hell this person is like as a regular guy.
TC: That’s it! That’s exactly it. You know, what are they like? I know their persona, you know, their stage persona, but what are they like? That’s why it’s very, very touchy when you meet fans, because if you blow them off, you can start a cancer in your fan base that will spread like wildfire. And many acts have found that out too late. I won’t mention any names but there are a few guys that were very mean to their fans, coming up, and now the fans…well, they don’t have any fans. They just don’t have any. People say, “Well, he doesn’t want me, so I’ll go somewhere else.” I’ll stop and pose for pictures with anybody. And that kind of pisses my entourage off, you know, Cheech and Shelby, sometimes they get a little mad because we’ll be running for a plane and some guys says “Hey give me a picture,” and I’ll stop and I’ll take a picture. My theory is that you never know who the guy is.
HT: I think it was in the same video from your “Up In Smoke” tour that you were talking about being in prison and guards looking up your ass. Some people don’t understand just how bad it is to be locked up -- even for a night -- much less nine months. All tough guy shit aside, how scared were you when you found out you were going to have to do some time?
TC: I was in denial…right up until the night of the trial when I had to go face the judge. And that night, I wrote a thing for the judge. I kind of copped out, kind of like I was just going to cop a plea and say, “Yeah, I’m sorry I did all of that,” but I showed it to my lawyer and my lawyer said, “Nah, don’t bother…it’s not going to help. It’ll just make you look stupid in front of the rest of the world.” So, I just destroyed that little note. But then, as soon as I got up in front of the judge, I felt okay, you know? Because I knew I was right. And no matter what they did to me… again, it’s like standing in front of an audience. When you’re preparing to go in front of the audience, you think about all sorts of scenarios that may to happen to you, but then when you get in front of the audience, like I got in front of the judge, then I was okay. I was calm – I was cool. And then when he gave me the time, when he said nine months, you know, no one was really expecting it but yet, everybody was expecting it. It was so ridiculous that, you know, because first of all, it wasn’t my company, the government was just trying to make an example out of me -- out of everybody -- and they just wanted to distract the world from the Iraqi war, which they were just getting engaged into. So, I was like a diversion tactic. He gave me nine months. He could have given me as much as two years, but he gave me nine months, which was kind of like “Okay, I’m not really pissed off at you, so you get nine months.” Had I got snotty with him or started spouting off rhetoric, I would have got the two years, or I would have got at least a year. But nine months was sort of like “Okay, I shouldn’t give you any time, but I’ll give you nine months.”
HT: So, you just had a relatively easy time and used it to get some work done?
TC: Yeah, basically. I treated it like a religious retreat. I got into spiritual books. I actually studied all the religions, because I got invited to the Catholic thing and to the Jewish thing and the Buddhists. So, I got a chance to study all of the religions and then I got into the Native American Sweat Lodge Society, and the last say three or four months of my time was spent devoted really on the Indian property and the sweat lodge. And we had to face away from the prison, so it felt like we weren’t in prison -- we were just on the high desert.
HT: So, you recently landed a starring role in a new movie, It’s Gawd.
TC: Yeah, yeah… I get to play God, finally.
HT: (Laughs) It’s about time right?
TC: (Laughs) It is. This is a role I’ve been born to do.
HT: If I’m not mistaken, this is your first starring role since the Corsican Brothers in 1984?
TC: Yeah, actually it is.
HT: Well, tell me a little about the film.
TC: Well, I don’t know a whole lot myself because a lot of its improvised, but it’s just basically, God comes to Earth to check up on Earth because they’ve been having a lot of disasters and hard times… so, he’s there to kind of fix it. Then a lot of things happen, you know? Actually, I’m guessing at a lot of this stuff because I haven’t really seen the total script, but the outline is basically, I come, and I’m a version of God that nobody has even seen on the screen before. And it’s going to be interesting.
HT: What drew you in to taking this role if you haven’t looked over the entire script?
TC: I was approached about five years ago [by] the writer and the producer… and the director -- he was originally going to do it as a television show with Ed Asner. But he read my book and then he saw my take on spirituality and he called me up and we had a long talk and we kind of, you know, came to the same kind of conclusions, you know? We agreed on the God concept, and then, it mushroomed into a movie.
HT: There is also a rumor going around that you and Cheech are planning on doing another movie -- Up In Smoke II. Is that really happening and when can we expect a release?
TC: Well, we are. We’re planning on doing an Up In Smoke II, or Up In Smoke: Thirty Years Later, and that’s still happening. We’re just working out the script and the logistics and all that stuff, you know?
HT: So, that’s nothing that’s going to be filmed in the next couple of months?
TC: No, I wouldn’t say the next couple of months, but possibly within six months. There’s a good possibility, because once we get the script then it’s really fast.
HT: Okay, so, I imagine you’ve smoked weed with just about everyone imaginable.
TC: I’ve gotten high with practically everybody.
HT: Hell, I even read somewhere that the only one of the Beatles you never got high with was Paul McCartney.
TC: That’s right…he’s on my bucket list -- on my bong list, I should say.
HT: Who have you gotten high with that might surprise us?
TC: Ahh, let me think -- Wally, from ‘”Leave It to Beaver.” Yeah, Wally, Beaver’s big brother -- Tony Dow. Tony Dow, George Harrison and myself smoked out of the same joint.