REDEFINING THE MAN : Now That Cheech and Chong Has Gone Up in Smoke, Stand-Up May Be One Partner’s Salvation

<i> Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who covers comedy regularly for O.C. Live! </i>

“It was frightening.” Tommy Chong is talking about his opening night in June at the Comedy Connection, a comedy club in suburban Greenbelt, Md.

As the bearded, laid-back half of Cheech and Chong, the counterculture comedy team that struck gold in 1971 with its first album and later scored in Hollywood portraying a pair of pot-seeking doper dudes, Chong had performed live before sold-out crowds across the country.

But the Greenbelt gig was different.

Chong and partner Richard (Cheech) Marin split up five years ago. And in June at the Comedy Connection, Chong not only performed his first full set of stand-up comedy in a decade but his first full set ever as a single: At 53, a Cheech-less Chong.

“It was frightening,” says Chong. “When you’ve got a partner, you’ve got everything: You’ve got an audience. You’ve got somebody to play off of. You can ignore the audience if you want to, or you can work with them.

“When you’re there by yourself, you’re there by yourself. There’s nothing. It was weird.”

The three-night stand in Greenbelt was the first of a dozen clubs Chong has performed in during the past four months as he carves a new career path as a solo. He’ll play the Strand in Redondo Beach Saturday and the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday.


The man who played the burned-out hippie opposite Cheech’s high-energy Chicano homeboy in a handful of movies in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s is sitting in the living room of his Pacific Palisades home.

Chong is barefooted and looks tan and fit in blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. His trademark long brown hair is shorter now and, like his once-dark pirate’s beard, flecked with gray. He’s soft-spoken, his Canadian accent is intact and, yes, he seems quite mellow indeed--except when his 17-year-old son Paris starts bellowing in another part of the house and Chong yells: “I’m doing an interview, so shut up!”

The spacious living room of Chong’s domain is all hardwood floors, white walls and floor-to-vaulted-ceiling windows, which provide an unencumbered view of the back yard and requisite swimming pool.

The man the bad boy of comedy, Sam Kinison, bowed to when they first met a few months ago, exclaiming, “Oh! You’re a comedy god! You’re a (blankety) comedy god!” seems right at home in the lap of luxury.

And guess what? There’s not a single headband or bong in sight.

There are, however, two black BMWs in the garage and a black Chevy pickup truck in the driveway. Chong, who is now a grandfather, still has two of his five children living at home--Paris and 11-year-old Jilbran. Actress Rae Dawn Chong is Chong’s most famous offspring.

Several minutes into the interview, Chong’s actress wife, Shelby, returns home from the supermarket. On her way to the kitchen, she asks him to help carry in the bags. Chong flashes his familiar “I just scored a lid” grin and says: “I’m being a star now, I can’t. Get your kids.”

Kids. BMWs. Grocery bags. Whoa, heavy domestic trip. But that doesn’t mean Tommy Chong doesn’t still “toke up” from time to time.


The grin returns:

“Always. Definitely. And I beg for dope from the stage, too,” he says, chuckling: “Oh! It takes a lot of begging nowdays, boy. Years ago, they’d throw it on stage. Now, because it’s so expensive and all that, it’s really hard to get. I don’t travel with it. I’m lousy being paranoid, so I never travel with it. . . . Not knowingly.”

Despite his screen image as the insatiable pothead, however, Chong maintains that drugs have never played a big part in his own life.

“Never,” he says. “Never a big part, never a problem. Ever. I’m addicted to weightlifting. That’s all. I’ve been working out 33 years.”

And unlike some comedians, Chong maintains that he never does stand-up when he’s high. “It’s like flying an airplane,” he says. “You gotta be there.”

Which leads to the key question: Why, after a decade away from the stage, has he returned to stand-up?

“I got tired of doing the movie wars,” he says. Chong never wanted to see Cheech and Chong break up, he says, and he was hurt when he learned his partner had accepted an offer to star in and direct his own movie, “Born in East LA.” Chong, who directed most of their movies, says there was a part for him in Cheech’s film, “but it wasn’t a partner part. It was a bone. It was kind of like, ‘Well, you can be the cop or something.’ It was an insult.”


While Cheech has gone on to direct and star in two more films, Chong’s own solo movie effort last year, “Far Out Man,” fizzled after only a week in theaters.

“I was in purgatory as far as the movie industry goes,” he says. “I was doing deals and I was doing meetings and I was writing scripts, but I was getting nowhere. I was becoming very frustrated.”

At the same time, he was running into comedian pals such as Paul Reiser at parties and catching Dennis Miller’s stand-up act and, Chong says, “I just got that bug. I was so jealous of these guys having so much fun, I said, ‘I want to do it.’ ”

Chong says he made two stipulations for his solo in Greenbelt: “I didn’t want to headline and I didn’t want any reviewers. And, of course, I headlined and I had a full-page review in the Washington Post.”

Chong had wanted to start out as a middle act rather than a headliner so he could break in his material. As he says of his opening night in Greenbelt, “I did a very loose 45” minutes.

Walking out on stage at the Comedy Connection with a suitcase full of props and a yellow legal pad full of notes, Chong immediately launched into a personal update for the audience--what it’s like being a “doper dad.”

“My kid is helping me quit,” Chong said. “He’s stealing my stash.”

Big laugh.

“At first, I suspected my gardener. I said, ‘Hey Cheech’ . . . “

More laughter.

But, as the Washington Post reported, there were painfully long lulls in which Chong had to consult his notes. At times, the audience yelled out for him to just talk, and to fill time he ad-libbed anecdotes about how he and Cheech first started working together in the improv group Chong ran at his father’s Vancouver strip joint in 1969.


(Chong had previously played guitar for a band called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers; Cheech was a singer from Los Angeles who had come north during the peak of the Vietnam War. Jokes Chong: “He was part of a secret force that went up there just in case the Viet Cong attacked from the north.”)

Twenty minutes into his 45-minute set, Chong opened the suitcase he had brought on stage. Donning a floppy hat, sunglasses and a raincoat, he did a character he had done on the first Cheech and Chong album in 1971: an old blues singer named Blind Melon Chitlin. (“Uh, yeah-uh.”)

The remainder of his set was vintage Cheech and Chong.

Asking for a woman volunteer from the audience, he did their old routine called “Harry and Margaret,” in which Chong plays a Shriner watching a porno movie with his wife.

With another female volunteer he did another classic Cheech and Chong bit called “The Dogs,” in which he and his “partner” got on all fours and crawled around the stage chasing each other’s rear ends. (“It was always one of our killer bits,” he says.)

The audience, most of them Cheech and Chong fans, whooped it up. As Chong acknowledges: “They were there to see what we used to do before.”

One character he doesn’t do is his familiar burned-out hippy from the movies. “You know, with stand-up, you don’t have the time to be that laid-back,” he says with a grin.

Even during the years he and Cheech performed their act live, their doper dudes (Pedro and the Man) made up only 10 or 15 minutes of their act. And, says Chong, “they were not always the most popular of our stand-up--until we did the movie (‘Up in Smoke’ in 1978). Then, after we did the movie, everybody thought that’s who we were and when we did different characters they were like, ‘What are they doing that for?’ ”

But that was the late ‘70s. And even Chong acknowledges that joking about dope is not the “politically correct” thing to do in the ‘90s.


“In fact,” he says, “a lot of comedians are judged on whether you do dope humor. They don’t like you doing dope humor. ‘They’ being the straights. They like you to work clean and they don’t want you to do dope humor, and I do both.” He laughed: “I work dirty and I do dope humor. I’m still the same.”

As Chong sees it, comedians merely “reflect what’s going on. When you start, like, presenting one side or the other, then you’re no longer a comedian. You’re a politician.”

Besides, he maintains, all this talk about a war on drugs is just media hype. He did an anti-drug comedy show in Toronto, he says, “and all the comedians I worked with partied like it was the ‘60s. . . . Go to the beach, go to concerts, go anywhere. I’m telling you, prohibition never worked with booze. How is it going to work with pot? How can it work with coke?”

Since Greenbelt, Chong has continued to refine his act. He devotes more than half of it to the old Cheech and Chong material, although he now asks for only one volunteer from the audience--for “The Dogs” routine.

For the other routines, he simply pretends that the other character is there, “or sometimes I do like (Richard) Pryor and do both sides of the conversation.”

Although he’s no longer as close to Cheech--Chong likens the breakup to a divorce--the two remain friends. Cheech even did a cameo in Chong’s movie last year. And, according to Chong, their old “magic” was still there.


“I kind of was holding out like little hopes that maybe if his career didn’t go very well and, you know, he would want to go back together and do Cheech and Chong movies, Cheech and Chong anything. I see no reason to break up, but for whatever reason he doesn’t want to do it.”

Chong says one of the reasons he tells people he’s doing stand-up again “is because I’m probably one of the biggest Cheech and Chong fans, and just seeing half of a Cheech and Chong is better than none.”

Although Chong doesn’t see any chance of a Cheech and Chong reunion any time soon, they’ve come as close as they may ever. While on the road, Chong has telephoned his old partner several times from the stage:

“I say, ‘I’m at a club. You should be here, man. All the girls are naked. We’re having a great time. Party!’ I ask him what he’s doing and he’ll tell them.”

Cheech, who has even sung over the phone for Chong’s audience, hasn’t been home the last couple of times Chong called from the stage. But Chong says he may try again at the Coach House on Sunday.

Failing that, he can always place a call like the one he did in a club on Long Island. Recalls Chong, flashing that grin again:

“I phoned the police station and acted like I had the wrong number and told them, ‘I’ve got the dope. What’s the address?’ These guys are going, ‘ What? ‘ ‘Hey, I got the dope, man. I forgot your address. Hey, come on, the cops are looking at me. They’re driving around. Just give me the address, I’ll be right over.’ ”

Who: Tommy Chong.

When: Sunday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

Wherewithal: $15.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.