13 Questions with Tommy Chong on His 80th Birthday

Stoner icon Tommy Chong turns 80 today, May 24. Here are highlights from interviews Freedom Leaf has conducted with Chong in which he talks about his long partnership with Richard “Cheech” Marin, the ending of Up in Smoke and other subjects from his 65-year-career in entertainment.

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. It was the first time I ever smoked. It changed my life. The next day I quit school.

How did you meet Cheech?

Cheech & Chong at New York’s Bitter End in 1972 (Photo by Allen Green)

He was a draft dodger from the States. 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. He had real short hair, because he was dodging the draft from America in Canada and was trying to blend in. His name was Richard Marin. He never did a Mexican accent.

How did you get the name Cheech & Chong?

We won a battle of the bands without playing a single note! We did 45 minutes of comedy and the crowd loved us. That night we were driving home in the rain. I asked Cheech what his nickname was. He said, “Yeah, it’s Cheech.” Cheech & Chong! Perfect. I was going, “Cheech & Chong, Cheech & Chong,” and that was it.

Cheech & Chong reunited in 2003.

What was it about Cheech that made you guys so special together?

Cheech can imitate practically anybody. He’s one of the greatest mimics ever. His comedic mind was just through the roof. But I had to kind of pry it out of him. We used to do typical hippie humor until we got to L.A. The minute he said, “What’s happening, man,” in his low rider voice the crowd immediately went crazy. That was the beginning of a very lucrative career.

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.

“Pot calms everything. I couldn’t live without it.” 

Why did you change the original ending of Up in Smoke?

Lou Adler’s cut didn’t have an ending. It was an it-was-all-a-dream kind of ending. When we screened it, the Paramount brass gave us that look, like, Oh boy, you guys really fucked up. I told everybody that we had to reshoot the ending and I was going to direct it. So I ended up directing the ending of Up in Smoke.

Which are your favorite Cheech & Chong movies?

I guess Up in Smoke. After that, probably Still Smokin, because it was our live show and it was shot in Amsterdam. So we turned it from a concert movie to a real movie. I also love The Corsican Brothers.

Why did Cheech & Chong split up in 1986?

By that time, Cheech was tired of doing Cheech & Chong. He wanted to get away from the drugs. 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.

Tommy Chong promoting his weed brand, Chong’s Choice.

What do you think of the Green Rush that’s currently happening around cannabis?

It’s so exciting. Everything happens for a reason. Being illegal, as it was, created this super plant we have today. We know how to grow it, we know how to cure it, we know how to make oil out of it, we know how to use it medically. We know all this stuff in spite of the laws of the land. We have a system in place. So these laws that they’re trying to pass—you can’t have a dispensary near a school and all these stupid, alcohol-related laws—are laughable. People buy pot because they need it. It’s not like alcohol. Pot is so relatively harmless. What happens to people that smoke too much pot? They have a good sleep. Making laws that treat it like a dangerous drug is ridiculous.

“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.”

What does it do for you?

Because I got high on pot I came up with all of these great ideas. 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. Pot calms everything. I couldn’t live without it.

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.

Tommy Chong helped celebrate Freedom Leaf’s first birthday in 2015.

What’s the secret to becoming 80?

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.

These quotes appear in the following interviews:

Tommy Chong – ICBC Berlin, 2017

Tommy Chong – ICBC San Francisco, 2016

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