COMEDY

Last Laugh

Tommy Chong outside his home in Los Angeles.
TOD SEELIE
Tommy Chong outside his home in Los Angeles.
After spending nearly 50 years as a stoner hero and advocate of marijuana use, Tommy Chong finally finds himself on the right side of the law.

The sun hadn’t risen the morning of February 24, 2003, when the banging came at the door.

The scene: The front porch of a large white house looming above a curvy wooded street in the bosky canyons of L.A.’s Pacific Palisades, where as a rule comfortably wealthy people live pretty calm lives.

The commotion continued. A sleeping couple was jolted out of bed. A man answered the door — and a dozen DEA agents, heavily armed, streamed into the house.

The leader of the agents looked at the homeowner. “Sir, do you have any marijuana here?” he asked.

The man laughed. “I’m Tommy Chong,” he said.

– – –

Some months later, Chong was convicted and sent to prison. Not for marijuana — though there was plenty of it in the house that day — but for selling drug paraphernalia across state lines, a federal charge. Chong’s company, which did indeed purvey artisan glass-blown pipes, was called Chong’s Glass. Chong says he pled guilty to the charges to protect his son, who was running the business. (Chong ultimately served nine months.)

Flash forward 13 years. Chong and his wife of more than 40 years, Shelby, laugh as they recount the arrest story for the umpteenth time. The evil weed that put Tommy Chong in prison is on the cusp of being fully legalized in California, the world’s sixth-largest economy. After all the controversy, after his bust, the irony that pot is now legal is as funny to Chong as one of his old routines.

There are undoubtedly some people who don’t know exactly why the words “Tommy Chong” and “marijuana possession” were basically synonymous for decades. Tommy Chong was half of the comedy duo Cheech & Chong. In a series of best-selling albums and then a money-making string of movies, Cheech & Chong were a generation’s guide to a genial, absurdist world where those for whom pot was a glorious part of one’s daily life did battle with the buffoonish authority figures out to control it.

Now, Chong sits contently on the back porch of the same house where the feds came knocking. Inside, a glistening grand piano is silhouetted against modern art on the walls. A blue swimming pool is set against a curtain of emerald as the greenery of the hills comes pouring over the back fence.

His own bongs, which he carves by hand, are on a bench in his garage, which is left open to the street, just like that of any other suburban hobbyist.

Chong will celebrate his 80th birthday in May, but he looks a decade younger; the marks of his lifelong fondness for bodybuilding remain. With so much behind him, there is an air of beatification that radiates from his face. The look belies the focus — some would say a controlling nature — that made him successful as a musician, a comedian, a businessman, even a film director. He’s raised five kids with two wives. He’s even stared down prostate cancer — and rectal cancer, too.

He doesn’t feel old either, he says. “It really wasn’t until ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” he says. “I never realized how old I was — until I saw myself on that show. I thought, ‘Jesus, you’re old!’”

—–

Cheech & Chong released their first, self-titled, album in 1971; it was an immediate hit. Cheech was Chong’s friend, Cheech Marin, then, as now, a gifted mimic and a fearless performer, inhabiting his signature Chicano everyman but also a variety of other characters. Chong, by contrast, was more the traditional comedic straight man, his drawled delivery and ample beard hiding an amused mien and cool intelligence.

They are remembered for their cannabis-fueled adventures and the unusual pairing — Marin the Hispanic, Chong half-Asian. But their place in comedy history is an important one: They were the first successful act in alternative comedy in the 1970s. Before them were guys in suits and ties: Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, the early and conventional George Carlin; after them came the New Wave — hippified Carlin, the National Lampoon recordings, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and “Saturday Night Live,” which brought alternative comedy into the mainstream.

With movies like “Up In Smoke,” Cheech and Chong brought their popular stoner humor to the big screen in the 1970s and ‘80s. MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

With movies like “Up In Smoke,” Cheech and Chong brought their popular stoner humor to the big screen in the 1970s and ‘80s.

After Cheech & Chong broke up, Chong went out on his own as a comedian and did a variety of the things one does in the half-life of a celebrity. And he was, of course, a stoner icon. The years passed, boomers grew up, and yet somehow cannabis was never fully legalized. No fewer than three successive U.S. presidents have acknowledged marijuana use of the sort that — particularly in conservative areas like Arizona, Oklahoma, and the Deep South — could get normal folks months or years in jail, and much worse if the local DA decided that plant in their backyard was evidence of a distribution network.

Was Chong surprised it took so long?

“Every generation has to learn how to walk,” he sighs. “Every civilization has to go through that infantile stage.”

His arrest, however, put him on the front lines again and made him a tireless campaigner for legalization at events and conferences across the country. “He got arrested and that changed everything,” says Steve Bloom, a one-time editor of High Times magazine and now editor-in-chief of Freedom Leaf magazine. “He was hands off, but after that he was a man on a mission.”

Again and again, Chong goes back to the unequal enforcement of the country’s drug laws. “Marijuana is still one of the biggest reasons most black people get stopped,” he says. “It won’t die easy, but it is dying. I tell everyone: Just don’t get too relaxed!”

– – –

Chong’s life would be a remarkable American story if it weren’t a Canadian one. His father was one of thousands of Chinese workers brought to that country in the 1920s to build the Canadian National Railway, under dismal conditions. His mother, Scotch-Irish, was an orphan who had been working as a housekeeper from the time she was seven. Chong grew up — through the Depression and the Second World War — on barren land on the outskirts of Calgary, in a house without indoor plumbing or electricity. His mother suffered from tuberculosis; his father, who worked as a long-distance truck driver and served in the war, sometimes left his children in the care of a Salvation Army orphan center.

Yet Chong’s memories are only fond ones of a poor kid in Alberta. Chong found just below Canada’s bland surface a mix of people — black and native kids from his high school — through whom he eventually fell into music. He played country and the blues, until the day a friend gave him a jazz record and a joint. “A week later I dropped out of high school and became a musician,” Chong says.

For an avatar of antiauthoritarian comedy, Chong’s life is incongruously family-based. “[My parents] were very supportive from the time I was just the little guy playing guitar at a party,” he says. “My dad, if I needed a guitar string…,” Chong stops, shaking his head at the memory. “It was funny, we were so poor. If I broke an E string, we’d have to go into town, miles into town, and I would buy… one string. It cracks me up when I think about it.”

Chong (left) as a member of R&B group Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers in New York City, 1968. JAMES KRIEGSMANN/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Chong (left) as a member of R&B group Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers in New York City, 1968.

In the 1950s, the blues turned into rock ’n’ roll. Chong was a working musician for nearly two decades, and he can prove it. “Look at this,” he says: “Chuck Berry thumb!” He shows off a right thumb bent back at nearly a 90-degree angle, the badge of years as a touring guitarist gripping a pick.

After being thrown out of one town, Chong says, and chased by the mob in another, Chong settled in Vancouver and brought his family out to run nightclubs. “He was the kind of guy who could see a vacant place and talk the landlord into letting him make into a club,” recalls David Graham, who worked with Chong at the time. Graham also saw signs of the Chong who would later make himself a star and maintain the position for decade: “He likes to be in control,” he chuckles.

Chong ran a club, The Elegant Parlour, in a rough part of the city. “There were pimps and loggers and barroom brawls every night,” Graham says. “All the acts [i.e., big names touring through Vancouver] would come after hours. Diana Ross, Redd Foxx, Ike and Tina Turner…”

Chong’s personal life during this time was a tangle of relationships that Chong clarifies with phrases like, “My white wife, who lived in Vancouver…” and “My black wife was living in Detroit at that time…”

(In reality, he’d married Maxine Sneed in 1962 and had a child with her. His first daughter, the actress Rae Dawn Chong, was from a previous relationship, but raised by Sneed. The “white wife” was Shelby Fiddis, who he’s been with since the late 1960s but didn’t actually marry until 1975. The pair have three children.)

Meanwhile, he’d met a drummer passing through town, one Bobby Taylor, who was possessed of a larger-than-life personality and one of the great voices of the era.

“Bobby Taylor had all the pimp moves,” Chong recalls. “He had all the women in the world. He was very well, ah, endowed. All the girls would follow him around, just to get a piece of it.”

Taylor became a front man, and Chong joined his band; billed as Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, they were signed to Motown. Chong co-wrote a Top 10 song, “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” The song doesn’t mention race, but it’s obvious it’s about an interracial relationship.

One night, the Vancouvers played on a bill in Chicago with a family singing act with an amazing young vocalist. When young Michael Jackson went to Detroit with his family to meet with Berry Gordy, everyone stayed at Bobby Taylor’s expansive high-rise apartment.

– – –

On tour, Chong had seen the hip new American comedy — Second City in Chicago, the Committee in San Francisco. He began adding theatrical bits to the stripper routines, with he and Graham and others filling out parts in what became an off-kilter comedy troupe. With strippers.

Then Chong met a local alternative newspaper writer named Richard Marin. Marin had grown up working class in Los Angeles — his father was the first Hispanic police captain there — but wound up in Vancouver after fleeing the draft.

He and Chong hit it off, and Marin joined the troupe, such as it was. In time, the two men formed a comedy act, albeit an unconventional one: They’d leave their props in a pile on the floor and build their routines out of thin air. One of the most potent bits involved a pair of talking dogs that spent most of the scene sniffing each other’s hindquarters.

Cheech and Chong’s hit single, “Basketball Jones,” helped vault the comedy duo to the top of popular culture in 1973. ED CARAEFF/GETTY IMAGES

Cheech and Chong’s hit single, “Basketball Jones,” helped vault the comedy duo to the top of popular culture in 1973.

They struck on the name Cheech & Chong and decided to go to L.A. It wasn’t easy; Chong couldn’t work in the U.S. legally, and Marin was wanted by the FBI for draft-dodging. The pair sneaked across the border using others’ driver’s licenses. “Different times,” Chong notes. Ultimately, Jimmy Carter’s amnesty for draft dodgers rescued Marin; in the 1980s, Chong got citizenship under a Reagan-era amnesty program for illegal immigrants.

They lived like the starving comedians they were, crashing on girlfriends’ couches and rushing to gigs on the back of Chong’s scooter. The pair evolved Marin’s Chicano character, and audiences responded. And then one night, while the pair were playing the Troubadour’s Hootenanny Night, a woman walked up to a guy from the music industry in the lobby. You should check these guys out, she said.

Lou Adler owned the fabled Sunset Boulevard club the Roxy and had his own record label, one of whose first releases was Carole King’s blockbuster album “Tapestry.”

“The first time I saw them, they were on their knees at the Troubadour doing the dog act,” Adler says. “I said to the guy with me, ‘I’m going to record them,’ and he thought I was nuts. I was taken.”

The pair’s self-titled debut album became an unlikely hit, partly because of a cosmic, stoner homage to “Who’s on First,” “Dave’s Not Here,” about a guy on the lam trying to get into an apartment. It became a pre-internet viral hit and jump-started the album’s sales. (Cheech & Chong lore has it that the routine was an impromptu creation of their first L.A. recording session; Chong’s old friend David Graham affectionately but firmly says that he and Chong had done the bit first in Vancouver.)

In the druggy culture of the 1970s, Cheech & Chong were instant icons, with hit albums and sold-out concert tours. Then came movies. “Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke,” directed by Adler, was a profitable hit. Many other movies followed, with Chong taking on writing and directing chores. Eventually success, and Chong’s increasingly dominant role in their creative process, led to the pair’s split.

The onetime radical star is wont to ruminate on his unexpected life in an unexpected way. “I’ve always known this feeling of … being cared for,” he says. “There’s a verse in the Bible.” Chong articulates the words individually. ‘“He will perfect that which concerneth thee.’” He repeats the words to himself. “I realize that’s what I’ve been doing. I’d never thought of directing a movie. And I’ve directed five! The thing is, you can have or do anything you can visualize doing. Nothing is impossible. That’s what has taken me to this point.”

– – –

Chong has enjoyed the celebrity life; besides “Dancing with the Stars,” he’s done everything from posing for Playgirl to a regular role on “That ’70s Show.Today Marin and Chong are reconciled. They will graciously accept first-class plane tickets and a big paycheck to appear where asked, running through raggedy versions of their old routines — with Chong’s wife Shelby, a comedian in her own right, opening for them.

Relaxing in his hotel suite before a recent Cheech & Chong show at an Indian casino outside of Albuquerque, Chong raves about the future of marijuana in California and the plant’s health benefits, marveling at the opposition that remains in some quarters.

“The medical system today is driven by money, not good health,” he says. “I like how they used to do it in China. The emperor paid the doctors to keep them healthy, and if they died they killed the doctors. There was lots of incentive to keep him in good health.”

Son Paris, who works on Chong’s Choice, which licenses Chong’s name for certain cannabis strains, pokes his head in the room to let him know it’s time to leave for the show.

But Chong is in a philosophical mood and keeps talking. He knows the fight isn’t over yet, but he’s willing to take what he’s got.

“It’s beautiful,” he says earnestly. “I’m glad it’s happening in my lifetime. For a while I thought it would never happen. I’m enjoying both that and the electric car.”