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Cheech & Chong Fire It Up Again, 20 Years Later
Cheech & Chong are, shall we say, fired up again.
When we last saw them, the comic duo from East L.A. were, as Richard “Cheech” Marin puts it, “the popes of dope” — irreverent, stoned-out counter-culture comedians getting laughs out of marijuana culture and an imaginative combination of skits and songs.
Some 20 years after they last worked together, however, Marin notes that “we’ve become lovable.” But, he contends, “we always were. We were never threatening. We were just a couple of guys singing funny songs and stuff.”
Most importantly, Marin and partner Tommy Chong are united again after an acrimonious split sent them “Up in Smoke” in the mid-’80s.
Marin, 62, reports that the duo is, in fact, “getting along better than ever,” celebrating with their first concert tour in 25 years and talking about future projects.
“Over the years, we tried to get together and do something,” Marin explains, “and we always ended up arguing about something or other, then just continuing on with our own separate careers. But now we got to the age we figured that if we were gonna do something again, it’s now or never. The thing we could argue least about was probably the live show, so we decided maybe there was a chance to do that.
“There was always a great love between us. We had a lot of respect and admiration for each other. I think egos got in the way. Now we both realized we (each) had half a treasure map, but we’re not gonna be able to get the treasure unless we put the two halves of the map together again.”
Cheech and Chong discovered their joint path in the early ’70s, when Marin moved to Vancouver to dodge the draft and met Chong, now 70, who owned a strip club there. As part of the improvisational comedy troupe City Works, they honed what Marin calls a “hippie burlesque,” which they took back to Los Angeles and were subsequently discovered at the Troubadour night club by music producer Lou Adler.
Cheech & Chong caught fire quickly and released nine albums between 1972 and 1985, six of which went gold and four of which were nominated for Grammy Awards — with 1973’s “Los Cochinos” taking home the trophy for Best Comedy Recording.
“Big Bambu,” meanwhile, was for many years the top-selling comedy album of all time, and the duo hit the Billboard charts with singles such as “Earache My Eye,” “Sister Mary Elephant” and the Top 20 hit “Basketball Jones.”
Their act translated to movies as well, as they co-wrote and co-directed eight features; the first, “Up in Smoke,” took home more than $100 million as was the top-grossing comedy of 1978.
But while the duo was most celebrated for its stoner humor, Marin contends that aspect of their act is a bit overstated.
“Well, that’s a big factor,” he acknowledges with a laugh, “but, really, maybe 15 percent of our whole body of work was about dope. All our big hits had nothing to do with that.
“I always maintained, even in the heyday, that we were middle-of-theroad dopers. That was the norm. That was what was going on at the time. So our bits were of their time — but they transcended their times, too. People still laugh at them.”
After the “Born in East L.A.” parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1985 and the film of the same name two years later, Cheech and Chong set off on their own paths.
Marin stayed busy with films such as “Desperado,” “Tin Cup, “From Dusk Til Dawn” and “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” as well as TV roles in “Judging Amy” and “Lost.” He also did voice work for animated features like “The Lion King” and “Cars.”
Chong acted as well with roles in “National Lampoon’s Senior Trip,” “Mchale’s Navy” and “Half Baked,” among others. But his pot connections — he remains an advocate for marijuana law reform — haunted him. He served nine months in jail for helping finance a drug paraphernalia company owned by his son — an investigation that’s been criticized as flawed. And earlier this year had 10,000 DVD copies of the documentary “a/k/a Tommy Chong” seized in a raid of its distribution company.
Marin acknowledges he’s surprised that he and Chong were able to put their differences behind them to work together again, but he’s gratified that their comedy has endured over the years.
“The bulk of our audience coming wasn’t even alive the last time we were on stage,” he says. “Those bits are all classics and they’ve endured just like they came out last month, which is great.”
The reunion has Cheech & Chong looking toward the future, too. “A lot of things are starting to boil,” notes the former, though the only definite project is a DVD from the tour. But the fact that they’re talking, Marin says, is a hopeful sign.
“We’re taking a look at all the options,” notes Marin, whose own upcoming projects include voice work in “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and a role in “Perfect Game” about the 1957 Little League championship team from Mexico. “We’re getting offers to tour other places outside the country, so we might look at that.
“There’s a lot of things we could do. If something comes up and we can agree on what to do and how to work, why not, you know? Why not?”
Cheech & Chong and Shelby Chong perform at 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 20) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Tickets are available for the 10 p.m. show only at $59.50, $39.50 and $29.50. Call (313) 961-5450 or visit www.livenation.com.
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