Just Joking


Questioning authority has moved from sit-ins on the front steps of City Hall to virtual debates in chat rooms on the Internet. Pot smoking is becoming less a symbol of the counterculture than the over-the-counter culture.

The attitudes of the 1960s and '70s are long gone.

But for some folks, the more things have changed over the past 20 to 30 years, the more they've stayed the same. Just ask comedian Tommy Chong.

Formerly half of the Cheech and Chong 1970s comedy duo, Chong is six years into a solo stand-up career. And though his routine is now Cheech-less, the comedy is reminiscent in theme to that of the couple's good old radical days.

"The setups change, but the punch lines always stay the same," said Chong, who will perform Saturday at Ventura's Doubletree Hotel.

The show will mark the 14th anniversary of its presenter, the Comedy Club of Ventura, which presents weekly comedy shows at Hornblower's restaurant at Ventura Harbor.

"Some jokes I do have been around for 50 years, some are brand new, some I think of that night," Chong said. "What you're looking at with comedy is a style, a delivery that basically stays the same. Just the content of the joke changes: Instead of Nixon, it's Clinton."

With Chong playing the laid-back, stoned-out guy, and Cheech the hyper stoned-out guy, the duo in their heyday served as poster boys for the counterculture, marijuana-smoking set. They recorded six gold comedy albums including the Grammy-winning "Los Cochinos" (1974), and starred in seven films including "Up in Smoke" (1978).

Cheech and Chong went their separate ways in 1985, the former stepping up his film and television career as he drifted away from his drug-inspired image, the latter trying his hand at a movie career before returning to the comedy club stage in 1991.

While they were together, Cheech and Chong managed to strike a chord--an "altered states" kind of chord--with the public. Chong, now 58, said the "pot theme" comedy of yesteryear still works with today's audiences.

"I represent a whole culture--at one time it was the forefront, now it shares the spotlight with other cultures," he said. "A lot of people in the audience are my age, they're grandfathers now, and some weren't even born when Cheech and I did our movies . . . There are some people who have never smoked who just love the culture."

Chong, who at times shares the stage with his wife Shelby, said his humor appeals as much now to people's memories as it does to their present-day experiences.

"Everybody from the '60s, they all gathered at Woodstock and left and became doctors and lawyers and thieves and schoolteachers and unemployed iron workers and airline pilots and presidents of the United States," said Chong, a resident of Vancouver, Canada. "Yet they all retained their memories."

And tapping into those memories are the keys to a successful show, said Harry Caypart, owner of the Comedy Club.

"If people are coming out to see Tommy Chong, they're going to want to see the type of humor they expect and know from Tommy Chong," he said.

Caypart expects comedy fans to come to Chong's show in large numbers. That's why he changed venues for the evening--from the 100-seat Hornblower's venue to the 600-plus seat Doubletree site.

A large crowd, he said, would not only be a good way to celebrate an anniversary, but would help attract year-round attention to his club.

"We have a core group of fans, but you want to stimulate the general public, and with comedy the only way to do that is through a big name," said Caypart, who served as Chong's publicist for 1 1/2 years early in Chong's solo career. "It brings people out who wouldn't ordinarily come to comedy clubs."

Over the 14 years he's operated the Comedy Club at Hornblower's, Caypart has seen live comedy go through several phases of popularity.

"Comedy makes people happy, they can forget about their troubles, it gives them a different perspective on things," Caypart said.

"There was a huge demand for comedy in the mid-to-late '80s. People were coming out in droves and that spawned a whole other element of comedy--[TV] shows like 'Comic Strip Live' and Showtime and HBO doing all kinds of comedy specials. As a form of entertainment, it started off in a very limited capacity and then all of a sudden people became very comedy savvy."

With their newfound sophistication, comedy-club goers became more choosy about where they spent their chuckle money, Caypart said.

"It helped the comedy club business for a couple of years, but after that people realized they could stay home and watch comedy, they didn't have to see it live," he said. "People like comedy as much as they've always liked it, it's just that they are more selective."

For Chong, there is no set game for making people laugh.

"The audience determines what bit they are going to get," Chong said. "If they are older, I can do a lot of sex jokes. If they are younger, I can do a lot of getting stoned jokes."


Tommy Chong, formerly of Cheech and Chong comedy team, will perform Saturday at Doubletree Hotel, 2055 E. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. The show, to include performances by two other stand-up comics, will begin at 8 p.m. $15. Reservations: 643-HAHA.

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