"The pot humour came out of us opening for jazz
groups. There were no comedy clubs. There were
just black jazz clubs. And we got booked to open
for, like, Cannonball Adderley and Carmen McRae
and Bill Withers. All these different jazz singers.
And we found that the audience responded to
our stoner bits, so we started putting them in."
– Tommy Chong
Guy MacPherson: How many times have you performed the Marijuana-logues?
Tommy Chong: Two weeks. I did two weeks in New York. It's up in a little playhouse called The Actor's Playhouse in SoHo... or, in the Village. I performed it for two weeks.
GM: And it went over well?
TC: Oh, great, great.
GM: Arj Barker, I know, helped develop it.
TC: I took his place. I don't know what happened to him. He got some kinda deal down here. Some sitcom or something. I'm with Tony Caman and Doug Benson.
GM: When you take his place, are you adding anything of your own or are you reading his lines?
TC: No, I have to. I tried reading but (laughs)... and it wasn't just his, it was everybody else's. They sort of tailored... The director, I forget his name, he came in from Toronto and the tried to tailor the existing monologue to me, but I had to put my own stuff in.
GM: So it's easier for you.
TC: Well, easier for me, easier for the audience. I mean, I've got stuff that's been around longer than all of those guys.
GM: This play is just perfect for you. Tailor-made, almost, even though you weren't the original guy.
TC: Yeah, absolutely. And the thing I like about it is it has insights that I would never think about. A collegiate look at it, you know. Just different little interesting looks at it. And it works great because it gives the audience... There's something for everybody.
GM: You say "something for everybody". Is that everybody even if they don't smoke marijuana or particularly care about the drug culture.
TC: You know what I'm saying. The different types of smokers. The Napolean Dynamite type, you know?
GM: I saw a fairly extended clip of the show on Bill Maher's show and I was really impressed. It was really funny. And it seemed to be not just typical stoner humour.
TC: Yeah, like I was saying, they got away from... In fact, there isn't any kind of typical stoner stuff in the monologues. It really is legitimate... like an intelligent look at it.
GM: Yeah. And funny, too, which is the main thing, I guess.
TC: Yeah. Funny in an intellectual playwright sort of way, so that the material rises from, say, the Cheech & Chong approach.
GM: Cheech & Chong started up in Vancouver, right?
TC: Exactly. In Chinatown. 'Shanghai Junk', corner of Pender and Main.
GM: How did you get so well known? Was it from Vancouver or had you moved off?
TC: Oh, no. (laughs) We played two clubs in Vancouver, two gigs in Vancouver and then boom, down to LA.
GM: After playing two gigs, what made you decide to say, 'Hey, we can take this to LA'?
TC: Well, I was a musical guy. I was with a group called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. And we were with MoTown. We got signed with MoTown from Vancouver. Barry Gordy and the Supremes came to town one time and saw our act at the Elegant Parlour. The old Parlour. And from there they signed us and we went to Detroit and recorded a record. And we took another Vancouver guy with us, Tom Baird, who unfortunately was killed in a boating accident in the sixties. Off the coast of Malibu. But he co-wrote Does Your Mama Know About Me? Then he went on to produce Rare Earth, you know, the white group, the MoTown group. But anyway, Bobby Taylor did a solo career. He discovered the Jackson 5 and then went on sort of a solo career. I ended up quitting the band, or getting fired. And then I came back to Vancouver. And he had a couple of strip clubs in Vancouver. The Shanghai Junk was one of them. Uh, two clubs, the Parlour and the Junk. And then I put an improvisational group into the strip club. Instead of the stripping entertainment, we used the strippers in the improv group. We had the first and only naked improv group. And then Cheech joined and the rest is history.
GM: That's what improv is missing now, I think.
TC: (laughs) Yeah. It always did. It was a nice touch because it (laughs) really kept your interest. The strippers got such a wealth of material. My original partner was a well-known Vancouverite named David Graham, lives on Denman Island now. David is the Dave in Dave's Not Here, you know, the first comedy record we did.
GM: Vancouver was different then, wasn't it?
TC: Vancouver was weird. They had these draconian pot laws. They had a detective named Stadenko running around busting people for pot. A good friend of mine that was living at my father's house got a year in jail for selling a baggie of pot.
GM: Times have changed.
TC: Yeah (laughs) and now what a change, huh? What a change.
GM: When Cheech & Chong started, did you start with stoner material?
TC: No, we had very little stoner material. We got a lot of jokes out of Playboy magazine. Because none of us were theatre-trained, thank God. It never held us back.
GM: So how did you stumble across the stoner stuff?
TC: Well, the stoner material... Actually what we did, we formed a band and we played at the Gardens – remember the ice rink at the PNE? Danny Basita promoted a battle of the bands thing. And I put a band together with Cheech singing. But Cheech and I just went out and did our improv material and we never got around to singing or playing music. And a lot of the kids were dope smokers then, so we did just a little bit of pot humour then. When we took it down to the States, then we started playing different clubs and the pot humour... Actually, the pot humour came out of us opening for jazz groups. There were no comedy clubs. There were just black jazz clubs. And we got booked to open for, like, Cannonball Adderley and Carmen McRae and Bill Withers. All these different jazz singers. And we found that the audience responded to our stoner bits, so we started putting them in.
GM: Really, your problems in the last year being arrested and incarcerated, stemmed, as your defence team said, from your persona, a character.
GM: I mean, there's obviously something in your real life, too, but it was only because the audience demanded this type of humour...
TC: Yeah, it was a type of humour that the improv group The Committee and Second City, they touched on it. Because that's where we got our start was watching... Because when I was with the band, instead of going to blues clubs, I would go to the improvisation clubs, you know? Second City. I didn't even know what it was. I thought it was interesting. I went in there and got blown away by all this good improv. And so when I started my own improv group, I just naturally took to bits that I saw from Second City and The Committee and reworked them into the topless improv. And then Cheech and I, a couple of the bits were like our staple. One of them was about a couple guys smoking a joint, but they turn out to be cops. But all the stoner material was original stuff, because that's what we used to do in between shows. We would smoke up and then come on stage and have a good time.
GM: Part of it is making fun of the stereotypical stoner, right?
TC: The guy that my character's based on was a real guy. He was the light guy in our group. His nickname was Strawberry. He actually existed. He was a red-headed kid. I've met him a few times since. He's a businessman now. He morphed into a real businessman with a suit and everything. But he was a living-on-the-streets hippie with beautiful long red hair and just the best attitude ever. He'd bust us. We'd come off stage and he'd say, 'Boy, that really sucked, man. No one laughed. Wo!' (laughs) That whole attitude just gave us the base for our stoner guy.
GM: Most people, like the prosecutor, just assume this is who you are.
TC: Well, the American justice system is a very cookie cutter kind of thing, you know. It goes back to 'If you're black, you must be a criminal.' It goes back to that.
GM: But you're not black.
TC: Or 'If you're Chinese, you must be dealing dope.' It's all stereotypical attitudes that John Ashcroft is proud to... You know, he admits he's that person. They tailored laws for my character. Those laws they brought out that put me in jail were hidden. They were brought out in the Clinton era and they were tacked on to other laws that would get passed. Then they tack on these paraphernalia laws, for instance. And they bring them out when they need it. It's a political bust. Purely political. When Clinton was telling everybody he didn't inhale... stoners know a fellow stoner.
GM: It's interesting to see that you got busted for selling bongs when I see them at almost every corner store in Vancouver. But I guess you have them in the States, too, but you can't take them over the state line, is that what the problem was?
TC: This is the same law that got Jack Johnson. Going across the state line you create a federal offence. Federal laws in the states can be way different than state laws. There's no state law against what kind of smoking material is being sold in certain stores. Now, Pennsylvania is very strict and you won't find a bong in Pennsylvania. Guys have gone to jail. It's crossing the state line. A guy did over a year in jail for cigarette papers. That was before my bust. But he had a big factory going. He had a thing going. But they took him down. They bring it out. It's a commerce law, where you're making money supposedly illegally. Even though we're paying taxes. My company had a licence and we paid taxes. It wasn't drug money. But they've bastardized the laws down here to include anything that even has the word 'drugs' around it. They can take your possessions; your house, your cars, your money, whatever you got, if you've made money so-called 'illegally'. It's just a typical Weapons of Mass Destruction mentality they got down here.
GM: How long did you spend in prison?
TC: I did nine months.
GM: When did you get out?
TC: I got out July 6th.
GM: Of last year?
GM: So you're still on probation?
TC: I'm on probation till July.
GM: There are some terms you have to follow, right?
TC: Oh yeah.
GM: I'm surprised you're allowed to be in the Marijuana-logues.
TC: Well, you know, it's a free speech thing. I was a little bit hesitant about performing while I'm on probation, but then I realized it's very unpatriotic of me to hesitate exercising free speech. You know, I can see me not selling bongs - which I never really did; it was my son's company - but being afraid to talk even though part of the administration would love to have that effect on me, but that's totally against what people are dying for in Iraq. You got people dying for freedom and liberty and here I am huddled in my house afraid to go on stage and talk? I just said to myself, 'Come on!' Yeah, they can do anything they want, but if they do, well then too bad. Because that's one thing that I have to do to honour people like the soldiers and that who are dying in Iraq. I have to do that.
GM: What other kinds of terms do you have on probation?
TC: Actually none. The only term I have with them is that I'm not supposed to talk about it. That's the only term. They told me, you know, 'Don't bring us into this.'
GM: Obviously you're allowed to leave the country and come up here.
TC: I was born in Canada, so that's the only reason. They've got my passport. And because I don't need a passport to come into Canada, I'm allowed to travel to Canada.
GM: Are you still a Canadian citizen?
TC: Yup. Oh, I'd never give that up. Thank God. And I'm a naturalized American. I learned a long time ago that they can't keep me out of Canada and they can't keep me out of the States.
GM: You'd think the Canadian government could have saved you; stepped in and made an international incident out of it.
TC: Well, unfortunately, had I been Nelson Mandella, maybe. But even Nelson did twenty years. Arnold Schwarzennegar, a guy that I smoked a joint with, wouldn't lift a finger. The thing is, stoners are political footballs that everybody wants to kick around but nobody wants to stand up for. Well, look at Clinton. The law was passed during his administration.
GM: They talk about Schwarzennegar possibly running for president and there are pictures of him smoking joints. How does he remain so popular?
TC: It's the same old Republican say-anything-to-get-in-power. The American public is so gullible and they're ruled with fear. I'm talking the red states. It's all fear. Fear and fanaticism, you know? The Christian fanatics.
GM: It was a little chilling that you were sentenced on September 11th, wasn't it?
TC: Oh yeah! We tried to get that changed. You know, when I went back for the arraignment, they kept telling me, 'Oh, nothing's going to happen to you. Just plead guilty to one charge. You'll get house arrest." My lawyers were telling me different, though. My lawyers said that we really gotta show them that blah, blah, blah, show them that you're a nice guy, this is only a movie. But they knew... All the defence lawyers down here, their hands are tied. Except when it comes to getting into your pocket. They untie their hands to get into your money. Just before I went to be sentenced I asked for a continuance on my sentencing date to take it off from 9/11. And they said no, absolutely not. The first time, according to legal people that I've talked to, the first time they could remember that a sentence wasn't changed. They change sentences just because the judge just doesn't feel like working that day or a defendant has a dentist appointment. They change for any reason. It's a sentencing date. But it was a ploy by the ... Well, you know, it was an event by the government. A media event. And listen, I'm honoured.
GM: They wanted to make an example of you. You're a high profile guy and it might scare some others, right?
TC: That's right.
GM: Do you think it's had an effect?
TC: On the industry?
GM: Yeah, on others going, 'Hey, we better not, because look what they did to Tommy."
TC: Oh yeah! Oh absolutely! It closed down the bong industry. I mean, it closed for the government getting their taxes. I mean, the blowers are still blowing. The only thing it closed down were the warehouses that legitimately kept stock. Now it's all underground like everything else. Or coming in from China. There's websites in China where you can order your bongs from. And they come in. They're coming in, sure. Kelly Gross, on All Things Considered, she interviewed the prosecutor, Mary Beth Buchanan, and she said, 'Did this have any effect on the way people smoke pot? Don't you think there are other ways they can smoke pot besides a glass bong?' And the prosecutor says, 'Well, regardless, there are millions of bongs that won't be used by our young people.' Because they destroyed them.
GM: Hadn't they ever heard of a joint?
TC: (laughs) It was all polit... They keep your mind off... Distraction. It was all distraction. Just like Bush now. He's got his budget and he doesn't include the Iraqi war in the budget. That's a billion dollars a week going down the drain, and he doesn't include that in the budget. It's not only crazy, but people are... It just shows you that people don't read the fine print. They read headlines.
GM: We're all guilty of that.
TC: Yeah. I force myself now to take time and read. I mean, because I'm also a comedian and looking for material. But I just have to force myself. There's been days when I don't even open the newspaper, like if I'm on the road and come home and there'll be a pile of them there... And news of new pot laws or something, you could miss all that. But that's the nature of people, you know. And this is what kills me about Canada: I talk to people up there and they say, 'What do you think of our liberal pot laws?' Well, you look at your pot laws. They're the same as ours. The only difference is you won't get popped for having a little amount. It's still against the law but they won't arrest you because no judge will be serious about it. But if you get caught growing or selling, it's 15 years waiting for you. So it's the same state that's down here. Except down here, if there's a gun involved then they'll enhance your sentence. I was in jail with guys who were finishing up 20- and 30-year sentences for growing pot. They were on a farm and they got a .22 rifle leaning against the door, and because of the gun their sentence doubled. So it went from like 10 years to 20 years. And that's legitimate people.
GM: What was your average day like in prison?
TC: Get up early, count, work for a few hours – actually with me, it was like 20 minutes of work...
GM: Doing what?
TC: Sweeping, picking up cigarette butts. And then I'd volunteer in the garden, I'd work in the garden. We had a nice little garden thing going. And then go back for lunch and count...
GM: What do you mean 'count'?
TC: Where they count you. And then go to school or go to class. I took a agricultural... I learned how to grow grass (laughs). I took my GED, I studied for that. I'd do that for a couple of hours and then come back and have a nap -- an hour hap or a two-hour nap, whatever I could squeeze in there -- and then get up and count again. You know when you count, you have to stand up in your cubicle until they come by. Then it was dinnertime. We would cook... I was with a group of guys that cooked in the microwave. It was much healthier than the mess hall. We'd eat early: 4:30, 5:00. And then watch a little TV or go for a walk and watch the sunset, that's what I was doing. Play a little bocce ball and then be back for another count at 9 o'clock, and then go to bed.
GM: A nice little retreat.
TC: It was very nice, in that respect. I was down with some of the most intelligent people on the planet. Really beautiful and sweet. People that had been in jail a long time, they really respect a person's privacy - because you don't have any. It was very, very cool. There were tensions that come up now and then between people. And there were dramas. It was the most exciting time of my life.
GM: Would you do anything different?
TC: Well, I would never have a bong company to begin with. I knew that things were coming down. When 9/11 hit, everything changed in America.