Clad in a black “Bernie for President” T-shirt, Tommy Chong sat on a stool inside a small studio tucked away behind an aikido dojo in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, cleared his throat and squinted at the teleprompter a few feet in front of him.
The comedian and advocate of legalized marijuana, best known for the “Cheech and Chong” films, was there with a small crew of volunteers to cut a political Web video to promote Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — and not just because the Vermont senator has called for an end to the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana.
“Only one candidate this year has said things I truly believe in, like supporting the legalization of ...,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “a fair and humane immigration policy.” Also on the list? Legalization of “a real living wage.”
Chong may not be the kind of A-lister that campaigns roll out in swing states, but he does have millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook, where the video will be shared. Chong’s tongue-in-cheek Web short is likely to be a hit with the vast grassroots army of volunteers and small donors Sanders is relying on to fuel his campaign — especially as he seeks to bring out progressive voters.
Though Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has collected the lion’s share of reportable donations from donors in Hollywood — 9 of every 10 dollars according to a Times analysis — Sanders has benefited from the endorsements of artists with sizable social media followings.
Atlanta rapper Michael Render, known onstage as Killer Mike, who is part of the duo Run the Jewels, has become one of Sanders’ most vocal proponents. Render did a series of widely viewed YouTube videos with Sanders and hailed the candidate on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last week.
Chong, 77, is a natural politico. He was born in Edmonton, Canada, and came of age in the 1960s when he met his stoner comedy partner Cheech Marin in Vancouver. Marin, an American, was dodging the Vietnam War-era. Chong has followed U.S. politics closely since then and occasionally appears on cable news programs such as “The O’Reilly Factor” to debate legalization of marijuana.
“He is not trying to advocate for special interests like everybody else, Bernie is for the people,” Chong said of his support for Sanders. “Bernie is ready, he is the OG Kush that is at the top of the harvest.”
Chong, who is recovering from his second bout with cancer, is still spry, witty and unabashedly upfront about his political views. He referred to Gov. Chris Christie as the “gangster from New Jersey” and said it was an “embarrassment” that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also hailed from Canada.
“I call it ‘The Donald,’” he said.
Chong said Clinton would be a fine commander in chief if she got elected. But the out-sized role of money in politics has led him to support Sanders.
“It is a money dance. They are dancing for whoever is pulling the strings,” he said. “That’s what I like about Bernie, there is no one pulling the strings.”
Chong said his son Paris turned him onto the Sanders campaign a few months ago and he started exchanging Twitter messages with volunteer activist group People For Bernie in December to see if he could help out. Chong and his social media director, Eli Graham, cooked up a script. Graham contacted the Sanders campaign and was told the senator would not be able to make an appearance in the video but encouraged the group to move ahead with filming.
Luis Calderin, the arts, culture and youth vote manager for the Sanders campaign, was grateful for Chong’s support. “I respect his honesty and his credibility,” he said. “The arts base has been incredibly important to get our message out.”
Filmmaker Alex Calleros, 28, volunteered to direct after hearing about the effort through the Glendale for Bernie Facebook group. He brought along Ryan McDuffie, 29, a co-founder of the production company Finite Films. McDuffie described himself as apolitical before he learned about Sanders.
“We are doing this for Bernie,” he said.
Chong wandered around the studio sipping on a Chai tea latte with almond milk as Calleros and Brett Banditelli, the national digital director of People for Bernie, arranged a scene for a portrait. They set up a fog machine and a fake pot plant to take a portrait of Chong smoking his vaporizer pen — still wearing the “Bernie for President” T-shirt he had borrowed from Banditelli earlier.
The shoot wrapped and Chong walked out the door still wearing the shirt — actually owned by the digital director’s brother.
“Meh,” Banditelli wrote in an email to The Times later. “Private property is theft. I already ordered a new one for him. He’s happy to support the political revolution."
For more, go to latimes.com/politics.