"We were going to call it the
'Catch 'em Before They Croak Tour'."
– Cheech Marin
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Cheech. How are you?
Cheech Marin: I'm good, man, how are you?
GM: Excellent. Where are you guys, by the way?
CM: We're on the road between Portland and Eugene, Oregon.
GM: Travelling by car.
GM: Getting along? Enjoying each other's company?
CM: We're having a good time. It's rainy, but we're having a good time.
GM: Oh, it's pouring here.
CM: Is it? I can't wait to get up there.
GM: Your old home.
CM: Yeah. I miss it a lot. I don't get there as much as I'd like to.
GM: Now you're back on stage with your old...
CM: My oooold buddy.
GM: Buddy. Nemesis.
GM: But it's going well? How long have you been on tour?
CM: A couple months now. Since September 5th.
GM: Where was the first show you did on the reunion?
CM: The first show was in Ottawa. We did Ottawa and Toronto.
GM: What was it like the first time back on stage?
CM: It was great! It was like we had never left. Like we'd been off weeks, not thirty years.
GM: How long were you guys apart?
CM: Oh, the last time we were on stage together was for Still Smokin' and that was 27 years ago. Before that we weren't on stage for, I don't know, a bunch of years. Probably 30 years. At least 30. So about 3 or around there.
GM: Did you have rehearsals for this tour?
CM: You know, very few. We just kinda sat down one day and kinda did the bit in the car and that was it.
GM: I was picturing the rehearsals going like they did in The Sunshine Boys.
CM: Yeah, yeah: "The finger! He gave me the finger!" (laughs)
CM: "Enter and come in!"
GM: When you guys started here in Vancouver – I think you only did two shows – you were in an improv troupe, too, right?
CM: Yeah, it was called The City Works. We worked out of a topless bar Tommy's family owned, called the Shanghai Junk on the corner of Main and Pender. That was a lot of fun.
GM: So you say you did very little rehearsing for this tour. Is there an improv element to it?
CM: Yeah, I mean, most of the bits, we change... There are different things in them every night. It's like we're like jazz musicians. We play the tunes and they come out a little bit different every night. It depends on how our chemistry is and where the audience is. I like that part. It keeps it alive for us.
GM: You crack each other up sometimes?
CM: Yeah, exactly.
GM: How did you get back together? Who approached who?
CM: Well, you know, over the years we'd been trying to do something, usually with movies. [garbled] It's been great. Some of the best stuff we ever did was on the stage. We were going to call it the "Catch 'em Before They Croak Tour".
GM: When I spoke to you last time, you talked about the clash that you guys had. You said, "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 that worth the trouble."
CM: Yeah, exactly.
GM: But now it is worth the trouble? Or you figured a way around the clash?
CM: We decided not to argue anymore. Things that went on, went on, and let's see what we can do in the future. And there was enough money there (laughs).
GM: That's always helpful.
CM: Yeah. We both realized that we each had half of a treasure map and we could not access the treasure without putting those two halves together.
GM: How long is the tour going?
CM: We're up until March now. There's going to be a DVD of it. We've already signed a deal. I think we're going to film it sometime before the end of March. Then tomorrow night we're going to Vegas to do a roast. A roast of Cheech & Chong, at CBS, as part of the Las Vegas Comedy Festival.
GM: Who's going to roast you?
CM: Oh, a bunch of people. What's the guy from Raymond? The tall guy? Brad Garrett. Brad Garrett is going to emcee. Geraldo Rivera, Al Sharpton, Tom Arnold and a bunch of other people. So it's going to be pretty fun.
GM: I imagine back in the heyday you guys were too wrapped up in it to really enjoy and appreciate your success.
CM: Yeah, we were just working all the time. We just did one album after the other and then one movie after the other [garbled]. It wasn't until later when it was over that we said, "Oh, wow, that really meant a lot to people."
"Tommy came back to Vancouver and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do. And what he wanted to do was improv theatre. That's when he started in with topless bars so it became topless improv. Oh, man, it was so much fun you couldn't believe it! We didn't get discovered by anything other than perverts. It was unbelievable."
– Cheech Marin
GM: How has the aging process changed you personally?
CM: (laughs) I wish I had new knees. No, I think there's an assuredness. We really know what we're doing. It's like seasoned jazz musicians. We're not counting anymore. We kinda know our instruments really well and get out there and just do it. That is the fun part, to get on stage and play. The playing is so fun.
GM: Was it like riding a bike? Or did it take you a few shows to get your timing back?
CM: It took us like 30 seconds. I'm not kidding you. It was scary. Like when you have a tattoo and you go get it off you have a scar that looks like the tattoo. It was beyond easy. It's part of our DNA. [garbled] ...taking what we do and adding to it and rearranging it. It's great. Every time you come up with something new, you throw it in the act.
GM: Is it the greatest hits, or some new things, or a mixture?
CM: It's a mixture of stuff. Some of the things people ask me they want to see. The thing is we can't even get them all in there no matter what we do. They'll say, "Well, why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do that?" And we're doing a lot of music which we've never done on stage before. We're doing really radical rearrangements. Born in East L.A. we're doing as a salsa number. Tommy and his wife Shelby dance to it. It's like Bollywood. And I finally got Tommy to play a lot. He's playing a lot of guitar and I'm playing guitar. I love it. It's really a good part of the show.
GM: And the crowds are loving the show, I guess.
CM: Crowds are digging it. The thing that amazes me is that 80 percent of the audience is between 30 and 40, which means that most of them weren't alive or were three years old.
GM: It just goes to show how you live on.
CM: And the material holds up really well. It's like timeless. And Tommy does a lot of standup in between the bits. [garbled] There's a currency and a timelessness to it. We're the only ones who are doing what we're doing right now. Everybody else is a standup, you know?
GM: This is like a combination of standup, sketch, improv and music.
CM: Yeah, exactly.
GM: I'd like to hear a little bit about the early days of Vancouver. I know you were delivering carpets. Where did you live?
CM: I had a house on Hastings Street and then... let's see, where did I end up living? Out near Burnaby. I had a place out near Burnaby. [garbled] I was just renting little [garbled] with a couple different guys. I had a good time there. And then we came to L.A.
GM: And how long in total were you in Vancouver?
CM: A little over a year. And when I first got to town, I was writing for this magazine, Poppin, which was a rock 'n' roll magazine out of Vancouver. And this guy who [garbled] introduced me to his friend, Tommy Chong: "You guys would really get along together." Tommy was running this improv troupe. I was delivering carpets for about a month or so and then I met Tommy and that was it.
GM: Was Tommy like a mini-celebrity already because of his success in the bands?
CM: Yeah, because of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and the song Does Your Mama Know About You?, which he wrote.
GM: Were you kind of like the Yoko Ono?
CM: (laughs) No, it was like the McCartney.
GM: Did you drive him away from the band?
CM: No, the band had already split up and he had come back from Detroit, where he was living because he was with Motown. So he came back to Vancouver and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do. And what he wanted to do was improv theatre. That's when he started in with topless bars so it became topless improv.
GM: That's just awesome. I wish we still had that.
CM: Oh, man, it was so much fun you couldn't believe it! We didn't get discovered by anything other than perverts. It was unbelievable.
GM: You weren't topless, I hope.
CM: If the role required it, that's what we did.
GM: Was there any kind of comedy scene here before that?
CM: No, not as far as I know. When we first started, the hippies kept getting told that comedy was dead. So as soon as we came out we found an audience right away because they were dying for some commentary on the scene.
GM: I know you only did two shows here before taking off to L.A., but do you know if what you started here with the improv was continued after you left? Or did it go away and then come back in another life later?
CM: No, no, we had an improv group. There were like eight or nine of us, four topless dancers who we made actresses. When the troupe fell apart, Tommy and I decided to take what we had and consolidate it into two guys. So we took material we had already done and figured out a way to do it as a duo and then made up other stuff. That's when we only did two gigs in Vancouver after the troupe broke up and then we left for L.A. the next day. If we were going to make it, we were going to go to either L.A. or New York. But New York was too cold and I knew L.A.
GM: So you knew you had something special after two gigs?
GM: So you went to L.A. with stars in your eyes.
CM: Uh-huh. Stars in our eyes and holes in our pockets.
GM: The improv was at the Shanghai Junk, you say?
CM: Yeah, the Shanghai Junk. It was a bar. It's no longer there. It's a bank building now. But it was on the corner of Main and Pender.
GM: Who owned it, do you know?
CM: Tommy's family. It was a family-owned joint.
GM: A family-owned strip joint. Just a Ma and Pa strip joint.
CM: Yeah. It was Vancouver's first strip joint. Topless bar.
GM: When you got to L.A., were you an immediate hit?
CM: Yeah. Wherever we went, we attracted an audience. And most important, we attracted a reaction from everybody. In L.A., we played black clubs in the black sections of L.A. because they paid money. The white clubs would convince you to do hootenanny night. So we started honing our act in black clubs. And we kept ourselves alive that way. Then one thing kept leading to another then we started playing at the Troubador on Monday nights. This was hootenanny night [garbled].
GM: You followed the crowd, in that they were the ones who wanted the pot material. You didn't start out that way, right?
CM: Well, we had pot material. We didn't have that whole Chicano element because up in Vancouver there weren't any Chicanos. So in L.A. we started incorporating that into it and it was great. And all of a sudden the pot element really caught on. It caught on in the black clubs, as well. They understood that.
GM: Did Detective Abe Snidanko ever harass you?
CM: He was a real guy and he harassed Tommy and those guys up in Vancouver. Even before I got there he was always trying to bust 'em. (laughs)
GM: I wonder what happened to him. Do you know how he reacted to your act?
CM: He hated us because we made him a part of our act. We made him famous and it blew his cover. He was an undercover guy. The RCMP, I think, sent him to Turkey for like 20 years (laughs). When he went into retirement, they wanted Tommy to sign a poster and Snidanko didn't want anything to do with it. (laughs)
GM: You used to open for jazz musicians like Carmen McRae and Cannonball Adderley. How did they react to the act? They're artists!
CM: Carmen McRae would actually come out and watch once in a while. And Cannonball Adderley ... they were big fans of ours.
GM: You never see that anymore, where comedians open for jazz musicians.
CM: Yeah, you never see that anymore. We were kind of improv jazz comedians that had hippy, r&b, rock, jazz all fused into what we were doing and everybody kind of related to it.
GM: Cheech, I have to speak to Tommy.
CM: I'll hand the phone to him and you can talk to him.
"We became stoners more than starting out stoners. Actually, Cheech was almost celibate. He was like a priest. He never did anything. Then he started smoking a little bit. We became stoners. Our audiences made us become them. Because your audience really dictates your material. And when we found out stoner material and rock'n'roll really go good together, we hit upon the golden secret, the golden key."
– Tommy Chong
Tommy Chong: Hey, how you doing?
GM: Good, how are you? This is Guy MacPherson from the Georgia Straight.
TC: You guys still in business, huh?
GM: Hanging in there.
TC: You're outlasting a lot of people.
GM: Not you guys.
TC: No, no. We're still here.
GM: And how are you enjoying the comeback?
TC: It's twice the fun for half the work. I love it.
GM: Because there's two of you, you mean. And with your wife, that's three.
TC: Yeah, we spread out the work and we get paid a lot of money. It's great. It's win-win all the way.
GM: And you guys have said you're not going to fight; you're just going to enjoy it.
TC: You can't fight when you're creating. It's very hard when you're creating. The only time you argue is when you got too much money and too much time.
GM: Like back in the old days?
TC: It got to be that, you know.
GM: I was saying that you guys were probably too wrapped up in everything back then to really appreciate what you had the first time around.
TC: We were working too hard. That's a Catch-22, you know? You've got a lot of money but you got no time to enjoy it. And so you have to break up the band or break up the comedy team or whatever. Then you have too much time and not enough money.
GM: How has aging changed you? Has it softened you or brought perspective? What is it?
TC: Aging helps you with the timing. Timing is really waiting for the right time. The older you get, the more you can wait. It's easier to wait when you're older.
GM: Are you talking about on stage or in general?
TC: Everything. Everything in life. On stage and life and business. Anything. The key to success is waiting.
GM: Good to know. Words of wisdom. Your characters are obviously big stoners. You told me the last time I interviewed you that the crowds wanted the stoner material. I'm wondering how much of that persona is you guys. Were you stoners or just casual users?
TC: We became stoners more than starting out stoners. Actually, Cheech was almost celibate. He was like a priest. He never did anything. Then he started smoking a little bit. We became stoners. Our audiences made us become them. Because your audience really dictates your material. And when we found out stoner material and rock 'n' roll really go good together, we hit upon the golden secret, the golden key. Stoner material and jazz and rock 'n' roll and music... Stoner material and music really go hand in hand.
GM: And once you have these characters, is it that the audience will be bringing you stuff and wanting to party with you so that's how you become stoners off stage, too?
TC: That's exactly it. We become them. That's what happened. They actually adopted us. The audience said, "Hey, we got our own culture; now we have our own comedians. Our very own." We weren't comedians doing stoner material; we were stoners being comedians.
GM: How long in total did you spend in Vancouver?
TC: I was in Vancouver off and on from 1958 through to 1968. Yeah, ten years.
GM: And you still have a home here?
TC: Oh, yeah. I sure do. I love Vancouver.
GM: You first came here with The Calgary Shades?
TC: Yup. We got deported out of Calgary.
GM: I heard that was a really hot R&B band.
TC: It was. It was one of the best bands around. The only trouble was we were limited. And we never had proper management.
GM: Limited musically?
TC: Well, yeah, basically. We were the Stones without an education, you know?
GM: So you came to Vancouver to play and is that when you decided you'd like to live here?
TC: Well, yeah. I was there for a year, then I went home and tried to live in Calgary for a year. That didn't work out so we came back here. We put the band together... Well, the band broke up and then this guy bought a club and put the band back together again for a little while and we went back. Yeah, that's what happened. When you're in Canada you either head east or west. We went west.
GM: That was a smart move. And you were in Little Daddy & the Bachelors?
TC: Yup. I was the guitar player in Little Daddy & the Bachelors.
GM: So Vancouver had a little happening music scene.
TC: Yeah. And we were responsible for a lot of it. Tommy Milton and I had a club called the Blues Palace and we brought up Ike and Tina Turner to open it. They came up and more or less set the blues standard in Vancouver.
GM: My father was the bandleader at the Cave throughout the '60s. Fraser MacPherson.
TC: Fraser! That's your dad. I was just talking about Fraser yesterday to the limo driver. He was from Canada and he was talking about all the band leaders and he mentioned Fraser.
GM: How about that! When you met Cheech, he was this guy writing for a music magazine. And you were a musician.
TC: Well, at that time I had an improvisation theatre group. And I was looking for someone to be a straight man. My first partner was David Graham. He was a long-haired hippie and I was a long-haired hippie. And we were looking for a short-haired straight guy. And the guy that owned the magazine, Poppin, he said, "You gotta meet this little guy from America." So I went out and met Cheech and liked him right away and hired him. Then we had a troupe. We had an acting troupe for a couple months. Then the group broke up and Cheech and I stayed together.
GM: He wasn't a performer when you met him, right?
TC: He had performed, but no, he was a writer.
GM: What did you see in him that made you think this guy would be good?
TC: His attitude. His attitude. See, Canadians are weird. Canadians, they get too comfortable. They don't want to move. That's why bands break up. Because you get good enough but no one wants to go down to the States, no one wants to cut the record. They're just content where they're at. Cheech was from the States. And I had a big urge to make it big time. And I knew if you were going to make it big time you had to go down to the States. You had to go to Hollywood. The east coast always scared me. Too many people. But the west coast, I had been there before. So Cheech was the only one who still wanted to do it. When we got fired from our club, that's when the group broke up. We never had another gig to go to so the group disbanded and Cheech and I were the only ones who still wanted to do it.
GM: You had this urge to make it big. Was it specifically in comedy or music or you just wanted to be big in anything?
TC: I thought it was going to be music. And Cheech and I actually put a band together, but our comedy was so strong that we never got around to playing any music. In fact, we never got around to playing music until we started doing movies and we'd play in the movies. And we played on record, too. But we never played live – really live – until this tour.
GM: Before you started your improv troupe, was there a comedy scene in Vancouver that you knew of or any comedians working?
GM: So you really started the comedy scene in Vancouver!
TC: I started the topless thing and I started the comedy thing.
GM: And did it continue? Did what you started continue after you left? Or did it go back to nothing? Do you know?
TC: In Vancouver?
TC: Oh, no, the topless grew almost uncontrollably. The naked thing really grew big. Then the comedy picked up years later when they started all the little comedy clubs. But that was way, way, way after Cheech and I. In fact, we went back and we played Oil Can Harry's. Remember Oil Can Harry's?
TC: I knew the owner so I told him we wanted to try out this comedy thing. He said okay, so they had a little room for us and we went in and we created memorable bits in that room in Vancouver. It was tough but we did it.
"Vancouver was very racist. Very, very racist. And they had these cops imported from Ireland and Scotland. They sort of copied whatever States' laws. They had a right wing approach to everything. Like, I had friends do time, a year in jail, for selling a dime bag of weed. That kind of thing."
– Tommy Chong
GM: You told me last time we talked about Vancouver's draconian pot laws at the time. How did they compare to the current U.S. laws? Were they as bad or worse?
TC: Vancouver was very racist. Very, very racist. And they had these cops imported from Ireland and Scotland. They sort of copied whatever States' laws. They had a right wing approach to everything. Like, I had friends do time, a year in jail, for selling a dime bag of weed. That kind of thing. And Snidanko, the guy that's in Up In Smoke, he was head of the narcs in Vancouver and he was always trying to bust us for smoking pot or anything. That's why I made him famous.
GM: Whatever happened to him, do you know?
TC: When he got famous he got shipped off to Turkey for 17 years. Then he came back and he was on the force for a while and then they finally retired him. The narcs here called me down in L.A. and had me autograph a poster and send it up for his retirement present (laughs).
GM: Is he still alive?
TC: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he's still around. I think he's in Saskatchewan or something like that. I'm not sure.
GM: The U.S. government went on to harass you and put you in jail. Was there a period of harassment before that?
TC: No, not at all. No. Had there been I wouldn't have been in jail, you know, because we were sort of operating in this grey area, much like Marc Emery is now, you know. Like, it was illegal but they weren't enforcing anything. And so they kind of snuck up on us. After Bush got in power, he just changed... snuck up on us and the next thing you know, Operations Pipe Dreams came down. They never gave me a [warning]. In fact, I could have beat it but they threatened to go after my son and my wife, you know? And this is the United States government threatening you, so you gotta take 'em serious, you know.
GM: You say they never gave you a warning? Is that what you were saying? You cut out.
TC: No, no, not at all. Not at all. No, in fact, it was entrapment. They set us up. Because no one enforcing this archaic law that they had on the books. But for me, they did, you know. It was for shipping a bong across the state line. Any drug paraphernalia crossing the state line...
GM: Do you think things will change under Obama?
TC: Yeah. Yeah, it will change. You know who wrote the law was Joe Biden?
GM: Oh really? He wrote the law that put you in jail?
TC: That's right.
GM: So how will it change now that he's vice president?
TC: [cell phone breaking up]... when they wrote it up, they included marijuana pipes in with the crack pipes [breaking up and lost contact.]
[I call back]
GM: I'll let you go. I just wanted to get that last bit you were talking about, about Biden writing the law and yet you said you think things will change under Obama.
TC: Yeah, yeah. The medical marijuana has to step up and prove that it has medical uses and get it changed from a Schedule One, which is a narcotic, like heroin, and it should be controlled, to at least a Schedule Two where it's a misdemeanour or whatever. You know, you have to have a doctor's prescription. And then it'll be fine.
GM: But that doesn't affect you, because it's not medical marijuana; it's recreational marijuana, right?
TC: No, it'll still be medical. Like it is now. That's what it is in Los Angeles. There's a ton of medical marijuana sites all over the place. But it's also preventative medicine, too. Because if you're smoking pot, instead of drinking alcohol, then you're saving lives on the highways. So it works that way. It's just a mindset. And we'll change that. You know, there's a lot of things we can change now that we got someone that's not in bed with the oil companies and the pharmaceutical companies. The first thing I'm gonna do when Obama gets sworn in is get my record expunged. My felony conviction. There's a way to do it. What you do [is] you change your plea from guilty to innocent and if they accept the plea then they wipe off the... I already spent the time, so then they just wipe it off and say, "Okay, you're no longer a felon."
GM: Does it affect you still the fact that you are a convicted felon?
TC: Oh, yeah.
GM: How does it affect you?
TC: It really doesn't but if, for instance, I was caught with a firearm for whatever reason, I'd go to jail forever.
GM: Oh, because you already are a convicted felon.
TC: That's right. I mean, anything could happen. And it's not a good thing to have. It's not a good thing to have on your record. I couldn't run for public office or something like that.
GM: Well, there's something you gotta work on next! Run for public office.
TC: Why not?