"It's two real strong personalities that clash. If we ever want to do anything else, we have to figure out a way around that clash. But at some point it's just not worth the trouble."
– Cheech Marin
Guy MacPherson: Looking at your career, you've done it all: music, comedy, drama, voice work, children's stuff, art, Jeopardy! champ, cooking. What haven't you done?
Cheech Marin: Oh, let me see... What haven't I done? Any gay roles.
GM: (laughs) Is that a personal choice?
CM: Well, actually I have done gay roles. Never mind. Forget that. I've done everything. There's nothing left for me to do. Just wallow in my glory. (laughs)
GM: It's amazing you never got typecast as a stoner from your Cheech & Chong days.
CM: Because I didn't just keep playing stoners.
GM: Was it difficult to get casting agents to see you as something else?
CM: Sure. Absolutely.
GM: How did you get past that?
CM: How do you turn a supertanker around? It doesn't stop on a dime and go 180 in the opposite direction. It's a big long arc. And you have to have a persistence and kind of a vision of what you want. And you have to learn to eat shit until it tastes like caviar.
GM: (laughs) And then it becomes caviar, too, I guess.
CM: And it becomes caviar (laughs).
GM: So what was your vision leaving Cheech & Chong? Did you have a grand vision or did you just take it one project at a time?
CM: I just took it one thing at a time. That's kinda been the hallmark of my career: just do the next thing. You're presented with choices or go after choices. You know, it's a lot like fishing. You don't say, "Well, I'm going to drop the line here and I'm going to get a halibut." You get whatever bites on the line. "Ooh, that's a big fish. Can I eat this? Yeah! I'll try!"
GM: Are there roles or parts that you wouldn't play?
CM: Not so far, no. (laughs)
GM: Not so far. Whatever comes your way, huh?
CM: There hasn't been a fish that I can't eat (laughs) so far. Ugly though they may be, I mean, they're edible.
GM: It's funny that in this political climate, you get to be this children's performer given the Cheech & Chong days, especially when you think that Paul Reubens can't do anything as Pee Wee Herman anymore.
CM: Yeah, well I didn't have my dick out in a movie theatre. You know, the thing is, the public is very smart. They have instincts. They know who's for real and who isn't. The public will give you a lot of leeway that the people in charge – the decision-makers – won't. It's all a Catch-22, getting beyond the harbour police and out in the open sea.
GM: You were doing pot jokes with Cheech & Chong, yet your dad was on the LAPD?
GM: How did he like your humour?
CM: He actually loved it. Cheech & Chong were extremely popular with young people and he was in the juvenile division, so it was his entree into the community. He'd say, "Hey, you guys know Cheech & Chong?" "Yeah, we do." "Well, he's my son. Come over and talk to me." And so he'd get a lot more cooperation than they had before. He wasn't seen as just Oscar the dirty juvey, you know?
GM: So it actually helped him.
CM: It actually helped him. Not that he's thanked me for it!
GM: And maybe it helped you on occasion?
CM: Yeah, could be. Police were our biggest fans all the time.
GM: Really! Why is that?
CM: Because they had a great sense of humour. Because they were dealing with the same thing we were dealing with, it's just that we were doing them on a very benevolent, cartoonish level. And they saw that. They were dealing with the real stuff everyday. And police tend to have a gallows sense of humour. So they immediately identified with Cheech & Chong, these two bumbling idiots. They saw what we were poking fun at.
GM: They never saw the act as more of an extension of you two?
CM: No. The police thought it was an act. You know, we were on stage.
GM: Just characters.
CM: Yeah, exactly. They thought we were funny. You know, Walt Disney had a great thing to say. He said there are two emotions you can't fake: fear and laughter. Either it's funny and you laugh or it's scary and you get scared, or it's not, you know? When you make people laugh, it kind of dissipates a lot of things.
GM: You moved to Vancouver as a "political refugee".
CM: Yeah, there you go.
GM: That's what I read.
CM: Yeah, sure.
GM: Was it easy to return, then, to the States?
CM: Yeah, you just had a phoney ID and came back.
GM: (laughs) But at some point, did you get clearance?
CM: What goes around, comes around. See, I got drafted illegally and so when I came back, I came back illegally. And then my case went to the Supreme Court and got thrown out. So the government did something illegal, they were caught at it and they were told, "Don't do that again." Well, "don't do that again that way." They tried to redraft me at that point, which was three years later. But in the meantime I had broken my leg skiing and I got 4F'd out of the army.
GM: Thank God for breaking your leg.
CM: (taunts) Na-na-nana-na.
GM: When did you first get the name Cheech?
CM: Right when I was born. I was born and my uncle looked in the crib and I was this curled-up little baby and he says, "Oh, he looks like a little chicharron." The chicharron is a deep-fried pig skin, you know? And I looked like this little curlycue, like a curly fry. And he said, "Oh, he looks like a little chicharron." So that became my family name, Chicharron. And that got shortened to Cheech. Actually, that's my middle name. My first name was Fuckin'. Every time I'd go out it'd be, "Hey, it's fuckin' Cheech."
GM: Does anyone ever call you Richard?
CM: Uh, my mom.
GM: When you met Tommy Chong, were you doing comedy in Vancouver?
CM: No, I was delivering carpets. Which had its own, kind of, sense of humour. Yeah, I was delivering carpets at the time, but I was always a musician all my life. And then he wanted to start an improv theatre. And I had seen improv theatre so I improv'd that I had been this improv actor. And he bought it. So it must have been a good improv.
GM: And this was the topless improv?
CM: Yeah, which was as much fun as a boy could have.
GM: Yeah. You don't see that much anymore.
CM: Not as much.
GM: How close was that improv to the kind we see on Whose Line Is It Anyway? on TV?
CM: Not very close at all. You know, improv theatre companies, groups that have a kind of set deal that they do and make it look like improv, very little of it is actually improv because it's like watching somebody write. Sometimes they write good and sometimes they write not so good. Generally what you want to see is the product after they've written a lot and edited it and polished it and then presented it to you. Watching actual improv is witty, but you know, it doesn't go anywhere. Sometimes it just flops.
GM: So it was more like sketch?
GM: You guys stopped performing as Cheech & Chong in 1985, correct?
CM: Could be, yeah.
GM: What precipitated the break-up?
CM: Uh, you know, we had come to the end of what we were going to do for that time period anyway. And you've been together for so long and you get tired of hearing the other guy's opinion. The thing for a comedy team to be successful, what people don't realize is that it involves a great deal of compromise. And the most successful comedy teams – or any kind of teams – are teams that have two very strong personalities. And when they clash is where the real creativity takes place. Lennon-McCartney, Keith Richards-Mick Jagger, you know, two very different personalities and strong the same way.
GM: It's interesting that we don't see many comedy teams anymore.
CM: It's the hardest thing to do. You have to give up so much. And it just comes along once in a while because you have to have two parts that fit perfectly together. And very rarely do they find themselves together. It only really happens once a generation.
GM: It's funny, but performing the night before you get here is one of the longest-lasting comedy duos, the Smothers Brothers.
CM: Oh, now see, they have a... I just played golf with Tommy Smothers a couple of weeks ago. And they have a good thing going. They've managed to, over the years – and I think all groups do – over the years groups either disintegrate or they kind of figure out a way to manage their anger at each other or the relationship. I was talking to Tommy Smothers and he said they went to counsellors after a while. It's kind of like, how [do we] maintain this without killing the goose that laid the golden egg?
GM: It's kind of like a marriage, then, isn't it?
CM: Oh, very much like one. It's exactly like one.
GM: I read you were a Laurel & Hardy fan growing up.
CM: I love Laurel & Hardy. I loved Amos & Andy, too.
GM: Oh really! You don't hear too many people saying that anymore.
CM: I loved Amos & Andy. They were hilarious. Tim Moore ["the Kingfish"] was just hilarious.
GM: They don't fly anymore, but...
CM: Well, you know, what can you say? It wasn't the black people who shut them down, it was the white people.
GM: That's probably right, isn't it? It's always that way. It's those fearing for what others might think, when the others might not think anything bad at all.
GM: You had a bit of a reunion with Chong in 2005 at Aspen.
GM: How did that go?
CM: It went well as long as it lasted. (laughs)
GM: For like 90 minutes or something like that?
CM: No, for those two days.
GM: And then after that nothing?
CM: And after that nothing. We tried to get it together. We had a movie deal going, and then Tommy got busted and then went to jail. We tried to revive it after that. And it's just... you know, it's two real strong personalities that clash. If we ever want to do anything else, we have to figure out a way around that clash. But at some point it's just not worth the trouble.
GM: You were in this recent documentary on him [a/k/a Tommy Chong], weren't you?
CM: I believe I said something.
GM: Did you see it?
GM: No interest?
CM: Uh, well, you know, the guy... Actually, I did. I saw a version of it. Yes. They sent it over to me.
GM: You guys aren't that close, is what I'm getting.
CM: No, not really. You know, if we weren't a partnership... We don't really have anything in common.
GM: You're this art collector as well. Largest private collection in the world?
CM: Of Chicano art, yeah.
GM: How did you get into this?
CM: At about the same time Tommy and I broke up, I discovered Chicano art. And the more I collected, the more I saw this big picture emerge and the picture was of, through art giving the experience of being Chicano. And I've always been interested in art all my life. I was self-educated from a very early age. I couldn't do it so I learned about it. I went to the library and took some books out on art and seeing what the deal was and acquainted myself with world art so by the time I got to the Chicano art, I knew what good painting was. And I started collecting the work and one thing led to another.
GM: But you say you don't do it yourself. You're not an artist?
CM: No. I know my limitations.
GM: And now you're presenting these Chicano comics to a Vancouver audience that doesn't see a lot of them.
CM: Yeah, exactly. I was the only Chicano in Canada as far as I knew! (laughs)
GM: You probably were!
CM: Yeah, everyone thought I was Indian.
GM: Tell me about the four comics you're presenting: Al Madrigal, Marilyn Martinez, Joey Medina and Carlos Oscar.
CM: You'll love 'em. They range from very polite to extremely rude, which is nice.
GM: Did you know them before?
CM: Yes, I did. I knew all of them before.
GM: Is there a Latino comic community?
CM: I guess there is. It's just kind of, I don't know, happenstance that I got involved.
GM: You're the name. If it was just the four of them, some people might go, "We've never heard of them so we're not going to go."
CM: Yeah. That's the draw. They come to see me and see my other guys as well. My disciples.
GM: Do you do standup now?
CM: No. I never had a standup act. I mean, I was in a two-man acting troupe and we were always in character. But what I do now is I do a lot of music from Cheech & Chong that people haven't seen before. And they like it. In between introducing the comics I do stuff from the musical Cheech & Chong library.
GM: So you bring out your guitar.
CM: Yeah, and I have a little band and away we go.
GM: You have a band with you?
CM: Well, I pick up a band. I'm like Chuck Berry; I pick up the band where I go.
GM: You say people haven't heard these songs before. So how are they in the Cheech & Chong library?
CM: Well, they haven't heard them live before. Most of them.
GM: So you're back in your old character.
CM: Yeah. In a way, yeah.
GM: Are you comfortable being the poster child for this pot movement, if, in fact, you are?
CM: Hey, it beats work.
GM: Exactly right. What about comics like Carlos Mencia? I hear some controversy about him not really being Latino. Is that right?
CM: He's Latino. He's Honduran. His real name's Ned and he's Honduran, yeah. I love Carlos. I think he's a great guy. I think he's very funny, very edgy. I like his whole approach. I also like George Lopez. Both of them are good friends of mine. I support them all the way. Latino comics, just like other comics, there's enough room for everybody. Comics tend to be really competitive with each other. I've never been that way. I've never hung out with comics, first of all, because they're a dangerous breed. And second of all, because I'm not threatened by other comics. Hey, the more the merrier.
GM: Paul Rodriguez is another one.
CM: Paul's an old friend of mine. I love all those guys. There's enough room for everybody.
GM: It's also interesting that you were the first celebrity Jeopardy! champ.
CM: That's right.
GM: Here's this old stoner getting up there showing that his neurons are still firing.
CM: (laughs) That's it.
GM: Did you think that the questions were, uh, ...
CM: A little dumbed down?
GM: Dumbed down.
CM: Not much. No, actually, they were kind of fairly... It was about at the high school level rather than the college level.
GM: Who did you beat out?
CM: Some other dumber guys. Some other dumb white guys. They're not as smart as they look.