Comic duo Cheech Marin & Tommy Chong

The Grammy winners talk about their counter-culture history and reuniting for new projects.

After initially being discovered at L.A.'s famed Troubadour nightclub, the iconic Cheech & Chong defined an era with their no-holds-barred routines. Their phenomenal success began on the stand-up circuit, and includes nine hit comedy albums, multiple Grammy nominations and eight films, which they also co-wrote.

Richard "Cheech" Marin is a director, writer, musician and actor with credits of more than 20 films, the popular drama, Nash Bridges, and several other series. A third-generation Mexican American, he's a well-known collector of Chicano art and has received numerous awards for his humanitarian work on behalf of Latinos. He serves on the board of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Tommy Chong began his entertainment career as a musician in a Canadian-based R&B band. He eventually landed a gig with the Vancouvers and co-wrote the band's 1960's hit, "Does Your Mama Know About Me." Turning toward acting, he formed the City Works improv group where he ultimately met Marin and has had roles on both the big and small screens. He's also the best-selling author of two books.

The two buds are on the road with their 2014 Up in Smoke tour and are also set to reunite on the big screen for their first official movie together since 1983's Still Smokin'.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: It’s been five decades since the Grammy-winning duo Cheech and Chong first got together. Along the way, they’ve done stand-up, performed in movies and on television series and, over the years, have become synonymous with a kind of antiestablishment humor that continues to draw sold-out crowds.

They’re currently on tour with the rock group, War. Let’s take a look at a clip from the tour.

[Clip]

Tavis: I gotta stop singing. I got caught up, man.

Richard “Cheech” Marin: Oh, baby.

Tavis: I got caught up.

Marin: You and the audience [laugh].

Tavis: Is that one of the greatest songs ever written or what?

Marin: Yeah. We end the night with that.

Tavis: As you should, as you should. You look like you’re having fun.

Marin: Oh, we’re having a ball, man…

Tommy Chong: Really.

Marin: With the band, ’cause we do stuff with them. They sing some of our songs and play some of our songs and we come in back and forth. So it’s really the vitalities of the show.

Tavis: So let me start at the beginning. First, I’m honored to have you both on the show.

Marin: Oh, my pleasure.

Chong: Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start at the very beginning. For those who don’t know the story of how the two of you guys first got together, do you remember, first of all?

Chong: Uh, kind of [laugh]. Well, he was the first Mexican I’d ever met [laugh], and still fascinating.

Tavis: How’d you guys first connect?

Chong: I was up in Canada.

Marin: He’s Canadian. That’s why he’s from there.

Chong: I converted a family-owned strip club into an improvisational acting theater.

Marin: But he kept the strip element.

Chong: Kept the naked girls, right.

Marin: Okay, okay, okay [laugh].

Chong: And I didn’t tell too many people either. So a lot of the customers didn’t know that we were acting [laugh]. We had an acting ensemble. I had another partner named Dave and another straight guy named Rick Lenz.

Rick was a real actor and his wife didn’t know really the situation that he was – she thought he was working in a legitimate theater and then we hit the newspapers and…

Marin: She came down one night.

Chong: And Rick was posed between two strippers with their breasts right on either side of his head. So he actually had to quit the show.

Marin: He got yanked off-stage by his old lady.

Tavis: I guess he did, yeah [laugh].

Chong: So a friend of mine, a mutual friend of Cheech’s, suggested that I meet this guy, a real funny guy named Richard Marin.

Marin: Yeah, I was Dick then.

Chong: Richard Marin who was a writer for an underground newspaper. So I drove out with my wife, Shelby, and we went out and we met Richard.

Tavis: The rest, as they say, is history?

Chong: And then I invited him to the show and he had to think about it. He said, well, let me think about it. He had to choose between, what, delivering…

Marin: Delivering carpets, hanging out with naked women and doing improve. Hmm.

Tavis: Tough choice [laugh]. Tough choice.

Chong: So Cheech ended up being the straight guy. Then the whole group fell apart as improve groups do and Cheech and I were the only guys that stuck.

Marin: We stayed together.

Chong: We showed up for rehearsal. There was nothing else to rehearse, but we were the only ones that showed up.

Tavis: So that’s how it began. Let me advance and I’ll come back. What do you make then, Cheech, all these years later the fact that you guys still have this rapport, that audiences still dig you guys? What do you make of that all these years later?

Marin: It’s part of our DNA, you know. ‘Cause we were split up for quite a number of years. And then when we got back on stage, it had been like we had been apart for 27 seconds, not 27 years. And it’s part of our DNA. I mean, you can’t get rid of it.

You know, comedy teams are a real hard thing to do. That’s why you don’t see any of them. You don’t see comedy teams now. We’re the only ones because it’s a unique combination of talents. You know, it has to be fat and skinny, slow and fast, and that’s why…

Chong: Slow and smart. He’s smart; I’m slow [laugh].

Tavis: What is it that makes the chemistry work when you do have a comedy duo? Because you’re right. There aren’t many. I mean, you got Penn & Teller over in Vegas doing their thing, of course, but you guys are iconic. What makes a duo – the chemistry work?

Marin: You have to have the same frame of references, experiences.

Chong: What it really is is that we’re a powerful entity together. Separately, we’re okay, but together we’re powerful.

Marin: It’s like the Everly Brothers. They were great harmonizers, and that’s what we are.

Chong: It’s freaky the way it turned out, you know. I think another thing too is that we are ourselves. Like we never invented characters to become in order to entertain. You know, like we weren’t like Martin and Lewis, for instance. You know, they were Martin and Lewis, but separately they were Jerry Lewis was separate than Dean Martin.

Cheech and I, we sort of like – we’re like musicians that aren’t really good enough to be really good musicians [laughs], but we’re funny enough to be funny. And we’re good enough musicians to get by a little bit on that side.

Tavis: And yet during the break-up, though, Cheech, you stayed busy, man. You been acting and your art collection, and you…

Marin: I’m a Chicano. I have to have three jobs [laugh]. That’s in the DNA too, man. I’m always busy. I felt weird when I didn’t have a job or didn’t have a gig. I would do anything. Catholic education, you know, prepares you for anything that’s gonna happen here in the 12th century, you know.

Tavis: Was it by design or did you fall into the acting thing? We’ve seen you on, you know…

Marin: Yeah. You know, I just did the next gig, whatever the next gig was. Okay, animation? Oh, sure. I’m a great animated guy.

It’s like when I met Tommy. I made this resume that I was this great improve actor. I was improving at the time I was saying it [laugh]. He goes, yeah, that sounds good and that’s what we were doing, you know.

Tavis: Are there bits that work, Tommy, years ago that can still kill today, that still work today?

Chong: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Marin: All of them. It’s amazing.

Chong: Practically every one. You know, you have to change the point of reference. Well, that’s what I mean about the truth. See, our success began when we both discovered that Cheech was Chicano [laugh].

Marin: No, really.

Chong: That’s when our success started. Well, actually, when we got together, our first gig, we had a band. We put a band together, a drummer and, you know, I play guitar and Cheech sings.

And we never played one note. We just went out and did comedy. Then after the gig – and, by the way, we won the Battle of the Bands [laugh].

Marin: Without playing.

Tavis: Without playing a note [laugh].

Chong: Then the other band – our humor’s a lot of musician humor. It’s the stuff that musicians do backstage, you know, before they go on or onstage. They do funny things, you know, and that’s really the basis of our comedy.

But when we got to L.A., we were doing our crazy stuff, but it wasn’t going over. And we played one club, it was a dance club, and the people had to stop dancing to watch Cheech and Chong, and they weren’t too thrilled about it. So the first show didn’t go that well.

So in between – then they went back dancing and in between the gig, Cheech and I got together and I said there must be a character that you can do that these people can relate to. And Cheech says, yeah, I got one, and the Low Rider was born.

Marin: And it changed everything.

Chong: See, in Vancouver, we had no idea of what a Low Rider was.

Marin: Didn’t have a lot of Mexicans in Vancouver.

Tavis: Right. What made the Low Rider – what made that character work? What were people relating to?

Marin: They were relating to something that they had experienced, some person that they knew was their best friend, their neighborhood was part of that. But then they related to it in New York too because of the way we did it, you know. ‘Cause we do basic stuff. It’s like having pancakes or a hamburger. We used to call it the Omni burger.

The Omni burger just had the right amount of meat, tomato, avocado, blah, blah, blah, and it would taste great in Atlanta and the next night it tasted great in Toledo and then it tasted great in Washington. And it takes a long time to put that recipe for the Omni burger together and that’s what we did.

Chong: And what we really did was we glorified who we were as opposed to trying to stereotype who we were. You know, like I’m half white, half Chinese, and Cheech is all Mexican.

Marin: 100% [laugh].

Chong: So we used that, you know. Back in the day, you had Jewish guys playing Mexicans, you know. And you had, you know, the stereotypes. And there’d never been like a half Chinese comedian that I could remember.

So people didn’t relate to me as being Chinese or white, just being a hippie, a long-haired hippie. So our audience just encompassed everybody. We didn’t leave anybody out.

Tavis: What were the challenges, though, Cheech, of trying to break into a comedy circuit as people of color?

Marin: They didn’t – it wasn’t necessarily people of color. It was they didn’t want comedy in the hippie age in the bands. Oh, we don’t have comedy. Comedy is dead and blah, blah, blah. And just getting them to say, hey, no. We’re hippie comedians.

‘Cause we didn’t start off as straight comedians like George Carlin and then convert to being hippies. We were hippies. And it was trying to get the club owners to, yeah, just give us a chance. Put us on. They’ll dig us.

Chong: And we could play loud music when we had to.

Marin: Yeah, we played music. That was the thing.

Chong: In fact, we used the guitar and the amp as like a weapon [laugh]. If the crowd got too unruly, yeah. We used to play a club in Manhattan Beach that was owned by the Smothers Brothers. It was a beer joint and it was so rowdy that the Smothers Brothers wouldn’t play there.

Tavis: And they owned it.

Chong: They owned it and they wouldn’t play there [laugh]. And in fact, they told everybody. You can’t do comedy there. We were there for about a couple of months.

Marin: Yeah, yeah.

Chong: Every weekend.

Tavis: And as I mentioned earlier, Cheech, you have this – you guys have become famous – became famous years ago for this sort of antiestablishment humor. Tell me about the design of that as a frame and why you think that frame worked.

Marin: Because we said from the beginning we are not antiestablishment. We are the mainstream.

Tavis: Right.

Marin: And we kept repeating this. We are the mainstream. This is what the mainstream looks like. The mainstream looks like us. You know, it always cracked me up that the ideals of the hippie culture was this Chicago Low Rider and his half Canadian Chinese friend.

But that was the hippies. That’s what they looked like, you know, because it was inclusive of other sections and other minorities and everything. That’s what the new thing was about.

Chong: And like I say, we were musicians and musicians historically always got high. We smoked reefer.

Tavis: Historically?

Chong: Back in the day…

Tavis: Historically [laugh]? Snoop was just here.

Chong: Well, go back further. Go back to Louis Armstrong, you know. Go back even further than that. Go back to the beginning of jazz. Go back to the day…

Marin: To guys with the rocks. Hey, hey, hey [laugh].

Tavis: And what was that about? What is that about? Why do musicians need that kind of…?

Chong: It calmed you down.

Marin: Yeah, it sends you to another deal, man.

Chong: It calms you down.

Marin: Since time immemorial, everybody’s looking for some kind of intoxicant to get them out of the everyday humdrum situation, you know, and you need it.

Tavis: So do you think that enhanced your creativity over the years or diminished it?

Marin: Absolutely. Oh, it enhanced it absolutely.

Tavis: It enhanced it.

Marin: Absolutely, absolutely.

Chong: It’s still enhancing [laugh].

Marin: It’s enhancing as we speak [laugh].

Chong: Like we said, you know, we were apart for 35 years and we’re back together again. And all it took was a joint [laugh].

Marin: I swear to God. I mean, it’s a curse and a blessing too. I could do this so easy. I’m gonna be with him for the rest of my – but, hey, you know.

Tavis: So what do you make of how the culture has changed in that you now have states that are legalizing it?

Marin: It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna be legalized around…

Tavis: Jerry Brown said not in California. Not under his watch.

Marin: Well, his watch is gonna be over [laugh].

Chong: Christie said the same thing, so those guys better watch what they say.

Tavis: Well, what do you make of that sea change, though, in the culture?

Marin: Well, it’s a cultural change. It’s been a long time coming. I met President Obama before when he was a senator. I was in Chicago and he was at a Mexican museum benefit. And he had just made the speech at the Democratic National Convention, so it had some spotlight.

And I said, hi, Mr. Obama. I’m Cheech Marin. He says, “I know who you are.” He says, “I was raised in Hawaii, the surfer.” So I went back to my room and Googled him. Surfer, Black guy, raised in Hawaii, hmm. Wonder if he smoked dope? So I thought, well, if that’s the president, then it’s gonna absolutely occur.

I mean, you know, we got close to it with Clinton and then he got to the edge and goes, I didn’t inhale. Oh, man [laugh]. How lame is that, you know? Come on, brother [laugh].

Tavis: That has to be the greatest faux pas of his presidency in terms of a one-liner.

Marin: Yeah.

Tavis: Of course, you got, I did not have sex relations with that woman. But, I mean, something funny at least.

Chong: I believe that.

Tavis: I didn’t inhale? That was hilarious. I tried it, but I didn’t…

Marin: In retrospect, you look at it, what did he have to lose? It was the second term. It wasn’t like he wasn’t gonna get reelected. Well, he got reelected anyway. It would have doomed the Democratic Party? No.

Chong: It was a lawyer knee-jerk reaction.

Marin: Yeah, it was. It was a like a lawyer.

Chong: A trained lawyer.

Tavis: But there are a lot of forces in our society, though, Cheech, who still think that legalizing it is the wrong way.

Chong: They’re called Republicans [laugh] and they’re wrong.

Marin: My dad was a cop, LAPD, 30 years. All my uncles were cops. My Uncle Rudy was the highest-ranking Chicano in the LAPD. The station in East L.A. is named after him, Rudy De Leon Station.

And they all think that it should be legalized, you know, all of them. Because this is bogus, this minor intoxicant is – they’re putting people in jail and in prisons.

Chong: It’s a medicine and it always has been a medicine since the beginning of recorded history. The Chinese have used it for medicines for various illness including cancer and I’m using it today for cancer treatment, and it works.

I used it for the flu. I had the flu the other day. I took a huge dose of THC and I was incommunicado for a day [laugh].

Tavis: But you felt better when you woke up.

Chong: But I’m here [laugh].

Tavis: Cheech, I’ve often wondered whether or not back in the day ’cause you and I kind of – I want to talk in a moment about the Hispanic comedians that have come after you, that you were the forerunner for.

But back in the day, were there certain bits, certain things that you did that created an impression that you got pushed back on from some Mexicans for advancing an image of your culture that they didn’t find savory?

Marin: Not many.

Tavis: Yeah? You got some of that, though?

Marin: But not enough to register. Not enough to move the needle, you know. No, ’cause they were all coming with us. You know, really the people – the Chicanos or the Mexican Americans or the Hispanics that were in power in certain places like San Antonio, Texas, you know, they wanted to be, you know, kind of Hispanic, but the rising tide was for Chicago.

But they were the mayor, the dog catcher, the chief of police, whatever, but they kind of saw the benefits of this being Chicago, being politicized. And they saw the rising tide, you know. I mean…

Tavis: But you played Chicano weed head.

Marin: Yeah. Well, if they didn’t like weed head, they certainly didn’t like Chicano weed head [laugh]. But nobody comes out of the culture. It’s called marijuana. It’s not called weed, and the real name. But they had no trouble with it.

You know, one thing Tommy was saying before, very early in our career when all this furor arose over this has no medical benefit, he says what if we’re right? What if it does have all these benefits? And now we see that there is.

Tavis: So what then – the community came with you then and they thought the stuff was funny then and they still think it’s funny now. What do you make then of the advent of the new Hispanic comedian? I mean, has the pace moved as swiftly as you thought it would?

Marin: Sure.

Tavis: Are you happy with the progress you’re seeing with the exposure that they’re getting?

Marin: Yeah. You know, I really am because, you know, we see all kinds of Chicano and Latino comedians who started after us, Freddie Prinze, George Lopez…

Tavis: P. Rod, Paul Rodriguez.

Marin: Paul Rodriguez.

Tavis: They got George Lopez.

Marin: And now Fluffy’s come along.

Chong: Fluffy’s back in stadiums.

Marin: Yeah. There was no where I gotta break through. No, he’s funny and he broke through and that was it. There wasn’t nothing, you know. And we had to break through being hippies. Really, that was the break-through, you know, saying that hippies got a thought.

Chong: The thing is about the Chicago and Latino is the voting. You know, the huge political influence…

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Chong: That they have, and as long as we keep, you know, heading in the direction we’re heading, you know…

Marin: Get them involved.

Chong: The minority’s already the majority.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, in a number of states.

Marin: Last year, of all children born in the United States, 50.6% Latino, all children.

Tavis: But what do you make of the fact, though – all jokes aside, what do you make of the fact, Cheech, that there’s still this fight, an uphill fight, no less, to try to get real meaningful immigration reform, to get the respect – I mean, what do you make of this?

Marin: I look at it like a lava flow. You know, you can stand in front of it, but I wouldn’t recommend it [laugh]. You know, because every one of those 50.6% children are gonna have 100 kids apiece because that’s how we roll [laugh].

And the thing is that in every state simultaneously, you go to Pittsburgh, you go to New Orleans, you go to Hartford, Connecticut, they’re large and thriving and they’re under 27, under 27, the majority. That’s prime baby-making years, man.

Chong: And that’s just the Chicano. Let’s look at the other races that are in the race that are taking over.

Marin: The thing is education. Education is the primary influence. I sit on the Board of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and our goal is to get everybody that we can educated because, other than that, you’re just numbers.

Chong: You know what the minority really is now? Rich white guys. That’s the true minority. And when they recognize that and start doing something about it, until then, you know, we’re gonna have the Donald Sterling thing.

Tavis: And what do we make of the fact that he doesn’t want Black folk at his games when his girlfriend is half Black and half Mexican, Cheech?

Marin: I, I…

Chong: She’s a girl [laugh].

Marin: I have no way. This guy’s a Jewish guy from Boyle Heights in East L.A. That’s where he grew up. I don’t understand that one. There’s some wiring off here.

Chong: I think the government should let him graze his cows wherever he wants [laugh]. That’s what I think.

Marin: He’s gotta pay his taxes.

Chong: If he wants to have his cows on federal land, that’s his business [laugh].

Marin: Yeah. Me too. I’m right there with you. Hey, man, give me some of that.

Tavis: Cheech, at some point, I have to come see your Geraldo – Geraldo Rivera and Cheech Marin are really good friends. Geraldo is the first person ever put me on national television, as you know.

Chong: They were gay lovers, you know [laugh].

Marin: You say it like there’s something wrong with it [laugh].

Tavis: But Geraldo’s told me for years about your art collection.

Marin: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I mean, you’re like seriously into – tell me about your collection.

Marin: It’s a collection of Chicano art exclusively. And I noticed in the mid-80s -I was always interested in art from a very young age and I discovered these Chicago painters. And I thought, oh, these guys are really good and they’re not getting any shelf space. They’re not getting traction.

So I started collecting them. I put a big collection together and started turning it. And it has been my goal to get them as much recognition as possible. So to that end, I’ve been touring these collections for years and years all over the country, you know.

And they’re big tours. I still got one now and it’s the joy of my life, you know, to give these guys – here’s the face of America.

Chong: So you kind of own these artists?

Marin: Well, I’ve found it’s cheaper to own them than to just…

Chong: So you’re the Donald Sterling of the Chicano art [laugh]?

Marin: I let my artists graze wherever they want. To that end, this summer at the end of June, we are representing the City of Los Angeles in the City of Bordeaux, their sister city, and they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of that association. So the Chicano collection is the face of L.A.

Tavis: So you’re going to Bordeaux?

Marin: Oh, absolutely.

Tavis: That might be the trip for me to go see your art collection.

Marin: I’m hurt [laugh].

Tavis: I think that’s where I want to go see it.

Marin: Oh, that would be the…

Tavis: We’ll talk about that.

Marin: All right.

Tavis: I love how this works after all these years. These guys still have it and they’re still busting peoples’ sides with humor. They are on tour this summer with the band, War. So if you can get a ticket, go check out War, get some good music and some great comedy.

Marin: It’s a fun show; really it’s a fun show.

Tavis: Looks like it, man. I want to see it myself.

Marin: Okay.

Tavis: In the meantime, Cheech, good to have you on.

Marin: Tavis.

Tavis: And, Chong, good to have you on.

Chong: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: Cheech and Chong, love you both, Tommy and Cheech. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm