The comedian and author discusses growing up in a family of police officers, the influence of Bobo Brazil on his aspirations as an entertainer, and his new memoir Cheech is Not My Real Name…But Don’t Call Me Chong!.
Comedian and Actor Cheech Marin
Cheech Marin is best known as one-half of the influential comedy duo, Cheech & Chong. He is out finally with a new memoir. It’s titled “Cheech is Not My Real Name, But Don’t Call Me Chong!” [laugh]. And I am pleased to have him back on this program. Cheech, good to see you, my friend.
Cheech Marin: It’s always nice to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: So I didn’t know the back story for how you got this nickname, but the story itself is funny.
Marin: When I was a little bit just coming home from the hospital two days old, my uncle looked in the crib and he said in Spanish, “Chicharrón. Looks like a little Chicharrón.” Chicharróns are pork rinds, you know, pig skins all curled up. They’re like a Mexican potato chip, you know. So that stuck in the family. So it was always Chicharrón, but they shortened it to Cheech right away.
Tavis: That’s not the best compliment that you look like a…[laugh].
Marin: Well, if you’re Mexican, this has a certain connotation [laugh].
Tavis: And that name stuck all those years.
Marin: Yeah, in my family. To the rest of the world, I was Richard. Then when Tommy and I are trying to come up with a name for our now duo, he said, “What? Richard and Tommy? Marin and Chong? Do you have a nickname?” I said, well, Cheech is my nickname.” And he said, “Cheech & Chong”, and that was it.
Tavis: Yeah. But isn’t that funny, though, how things — I mean, you’re literally coming home from the hospital, you get this nickname, but the nickname works so well with Chong, and the rest is history.
Marin: Yeah, that’s fate [laugh]. What can I say? Yeah, it is, you know, and it was beautiful.
Tavis: I had no idea. I mean, I learned so much about you in the book which is why, I guess you wrote it, I guess.
Marin: Well, the statute of limitations on a lot of that stuff was is over. It’s now…[laugh].
Tavis: Speaking of statute of limitations, I had no idea and it’s funny, given the subjects of your movies and the trouble you got yourself into. You’re the son of a cop? Your dad was a cop?
Marin: Yeah. LAPD 30 years.
Tavis: How did that happen that you end up…
Marin: You know, that was a family profession. Two of my other uncles were cops. My Uncle Rudy — he’s not really uncle. It was Mexican uncle — he was the highest ranking Chicano on the force. They named Hollenbeck Station after him. So that was the family business, you know, so it was cool.
Tavis: And you didn’t feel chastised about your behavior, given that your father is an officer of the law?
Marin: You know, the funny thing is cops were our biggest fans. Really, wherever we went, because they got the humor of it. They dealt with those people every day and we had these kind of amiable personalities.
My dad loved it because he was working juvenile all those years, so he wanted free records to give to the juvies. “Hey, you ever heard of Cheech & Chong?” “Yeah.” “Well, he’s my son. Here’s a free album. Come over here. So have you seen this guy? [laugh]
Tavis: Use what you got, man.
Marin: Yeah, you know.
Tavis: I was thinking — and I’m so glad you talked about it in the book — but this is the 30th anniversary of “Born in East L.A.”
Tavis: And for those of us who know the movie and know what the movie is all about, what do you make of this being the 30th anniversary of that film in this moment of immigration being such a…
Marin: It’s like Groundhog Day, you know. It keeps happening over and over and over. We don’t seem to have learned — we seem to know less about the subject right now and that whole process. But, you know, I view it like a lava flow. You can stand in front of it.
I wouldn’t recommend it, but this is this inner weaving of Mexico and the United States that’s never gonna be unwoven, never, ever. Nor do we want it to be. Mexico is our biggest ally.
Tavis: What do you make — I don’t mean to make you political unless you want to go there — but what do you make of the all-out assault and affront on the issue of immigration?
Marin: You know, I don’t think it’s based — it’s based on fear, and it’s based on not a lot of information. I cover the country as I’m sure a lot of people do, but I travel the country all the time and I see the integration of the Latino influence all over.
I mean, New York, the biggest concentration of Latinos are Mexican in New York City. Chicago, second biggest concentration of Mexicans in the country. Topeka, Kansas has more Mexican restaurants than McDonalds, you know. And it is a gift to the country, not a threat.
Tavis: How were you treated or maltreated as a kid growing up because of your background?
Marin: Well, I was Mexican in a Black neighborhood, so…[laugh]. “You’re a Mexican!” I grew up in South Central. They were predominantly 90-some percent Black and the rest Latino and one lost white guy running around there, you know. So it was normal for me. That was all my friends. That’s who I went to school with. There’s a good story in there about Bobo Brazil, the wrestler…
Tavis: Um-hmm. The wrestler, yeah.
Marin: So then my dad was involved in a shooting next door at the barbershop. Then we moved after that, a couple of years after that, to Granada Hills. So one day, everybody in our neighborhood was Black and the next day everybody was white. So it was like how does this go? I don’t know this tune.
Tavis: As a kid, how did you process that?
Marin: I kind of ignored it, you know, unless they kind of confronted me. But it was like an opportunity to like live in the country and hear crickets and orange groves and stuff like that.
Tavis: But how did you process, though, going from an all-Black neighborhood to an all-white neighborhood? That’s a…
Marin: It’s a change, man.
Marin: And I just like — okay, I was always the littlest kid in every class I was in. So that’s kind of how I processed this. I’m a little kid in this new neighborhood and everybody’s bigger. It didn’t really matter to me if they were Black or white. They were bigger [laugh].
Tavis: You mentioned Bobo Brazil. Go ahead and tell the story.
Marin: Bobo Brazil was a…
Tavis: I used to love him as a wrestler, man, yeah.
Marin: He was my guy. He was a legendary wrestler, first Black champion, and he was a big, big guy, 6’5″, 230 of solid muscle and he had the Bolo Punch or the head butt. When you’re a kid wrestling, it was a thing I used to watch with my grandmother who spoke no English because you didn’t need a language for wrestling, you know. “Look out behind you!” [laugh] That’s how it was.
So I used to watch it with her. It was at the Olympic Auditorium, which wasn’t too far from my house. So my best friend, Jesse, who lived across the street, right across the street from the school, his mother did Bobo Brazil’s laundry. So he used to pull up every other week in a big, long white Cadillac convertible with zebra…
Tavis: Zebra covers?
Marin: And the whole school would rush over to his car and, Jesse being my best friend, he would call us over to the fence and he’d give us a quarter. Me being the best friend, I got a quarter too, and the whole school was like my first brush with show business. I thought, well, I’m into this. You know, it was great.
Tavis: When did you know — I mean, there’s some great stories in here about how you and Chong actually got together with the club that he owned. Maybe you’ll tell us some of that. But when did you know that entertainment was what you were destined to do?
Marin: First grade, maybe kindergarten. I was in the Christmas play for the class and we were singing “Up on the rooftop, boom, boom, boom”. For some reason, I got chosen to play the kettle drum and I was the littlest guy, so you couldn’t see me at the kettle drums [laugh].
The one thing we had was this paper band with a gold star, and all you could see was this little gold star bouncing around. Then “Up on the house” and this little hand with a mallet, “Boom, boom, boom”, and everybody started laughing.
And I didn’t know why they were laughing, you know. So the next time it came around, “Boom, boom, boom” again, bigger laughter. And then by the end, they were convulsing. I said, hey, well, this works [laugh]. I could do this. All I need is a mallet [laugh].
Tavis: And you’ve been hitting ever since.
Marin: You know, it was just like I knew that I was destined. I was a little kid singer when I was five years old. I made my first record. I was an anomaly. I was a little kid that could sing in tune, squeaky but in tune, yeah.
Tavis: When we think of your work over the years, we think clearly of the Mexican, Hispanic, Chicano influences. Yet I want to go back to that neighborhood you grew up in South Central. How much did Black culture influence your stuff?
Marin: It was one of the primary influences on my early life, you know, because the music was next street over from Central Avenue which all was happening. Johnny Otis used to play down the street and R&B. I didn’t hear any other music besides R&B.
And growing up, that’s my sense of humor that came from that, that relaxed attitude. And Tommy, the same thing. He grew up in Canada and found the only Black neighborhood in Calgary, you know [laugh]. Really, I swear to God.
It was in Amber Valley. All this neighborhood came from Texas and they said, “What’s the farthest away from Texas we can get on this money?” They ended up in Canada at this place, Amber Valley. And his wife, Maxine, and her brother, Floyd Sneed, who was the drummer for Three Dog Night, eventually.
There again, Tommy was immersed in that R&B scene, you know, of Black music. Recorded for Motown and has those kids, Rae Dawn and Robbi. So that’s how we understood each other, a lot of that, because we understood, okay, it’s the rhythm, the rhythm or the cadence of that comedy, you know, that can be half dozens and half insightful at the same time.
Tavis: I mentioned earlier that this year is the 30th anniversary of “Born in East L.A.”, but we’re pushing up on the 40th anniversary of that classic film, “Up In Smoke”. Here again, you’re ahead of your time. I mean, last year there were more ballot initiatives. What do you make of the, again, the timeliness 40 years later of that film?
Marin: You know, it was amazing because we had gone through a period where we made albums, did concerts, blah, blah, blah. At the end, it started waning a little bit. All of a sudden, we got into movies and then boom.
Then it starts waning again, but what the movie of the period identified was this global stoner culture. It was global, so we were international right away from that because they could see it. They could see who these two guys are. Oh, those kind of guys look like me, you know. That was a big thing.
Tavis: Yeah. Put you on the world stage.
Tavis: Pretty quickly.
Marin: Yeah, but immediately.
Tavis: Before I let you go, tell me a bit about the decision you made to sort of go solo. Obviously, it worked out. You’re acting. You’ve been on all kind of hit TV shows. I mean, but sometimes when you step — and there are plenty of examples of this — people step out and it doesn’t quite work out.
But you stepped away and it worked out and you guys have come back together when you needed to. But just tell me about the journey of going solo and being so successful.
Marin: Well, you know, I had a really a lot of confidence in doing that. It wasn’t like I couldn’t write and direct and star in a movie. I’d been doing that. All sort of movies, whether credited or not, didn’t matter to me. But as far as being able to lift 100 pounds, I’ve been lifting 100 pounds every day since I remember. So I knew I could do it.
It was nice to get a chance to make that kind of political commentary in this kind of street comedy, you know. I’m a classic picaro. Charlie Chaplin, [inaudible]. They were picaros. Guys who liv by their wits on the street had a certain amount of charm and a certain amount of rascalness. That’s who I was and I knew I could do it and I knew that the audience was ready for it. It was cool. I felt good.
Tavis: Growing up in South Central, did you ever have any idea that it would turn out to be this good for you all these years later?
Marin: Well, you know, I just wanted to have a job [laugh]. Somebody’s gonna pay me to sing? Watch this [laugh]. I mean, I was always a good student, you know. I was a straight A student in school and blah, blah, blah. But I was the teacher’s worst nightmare. I was a straight A student who was a wise [bleep]. They couldn’t shut me up [laugh] and they couldn’t fail me [laugh].
Tavis: You still got it all these years later.
Marin: Yeah, baby.
Tavis: The book is called “Cheech Is Not My Real Name, But Don’t Call Me Chong!” Cheech, a wonderful book. Good to have you on the program. Come back again, my friend.
Marin: Thank you. I’d love to.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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