It's a little hard to imagine what the last three decades of teen comedies would be like without Cheech and Chong. The stock character of the high school stoner -- slow-talking, good-natured but slightly mischievous, usually bearded -- is practically the invention of the comedy duo, who broke up in 1985, and it was a role that Tommy Chong embodied fully, both on the records he put out with his friend Cheech Marin in the '70s and '80s and in his daily life. Now 68, Chong still has the look -- in his picture on the cover of his new book, "The I Chong: Meditations From the Joint," his eyes are obviously bloodshot. Still, he confesses, "The truth is, I never smoked as much pot as my loyal fans thought I did."
Chong had tried before to sit down and commit the Cheech and Chong story to paper, but his first real inspiration to write came from a different source: His arrest as part of a nationwide sting called Operation Pipe Dreams that the Drug Enforcement Agency launched against bong manufacturers in 2003. On Feb. 23 of that year, armed DEA agents simultaneously raided Chong's house in California and his son's bong company, Chong Glass. The government offered him a deal: He could plead guilty and do time, or they would go after his son and his wife, who'd written the check that got the glass business started. Chong opted for prison.
The book that resulted from the experience is no straight autobiography. Instead, Chong has given us a story that's partly an account of his trial and jail time, partly a memoir about growing up half Irish and half Chinese in Calgary, Alberta, and partly a collection of spiritual advice. It's probably no surprise that the book tends to wander in some places and to go on at length about seemingly minor details elsewhere. Yet Chong's earnest charm is winning; reading his prose is like sharing in your own warm, hippie-tinged conversation with him. As in the 2005 documentary about his arrest, "A/k/a Tommy Chong," the most interesting parts of the book are those that raise questions about the logic of the country's drug policies.
I spoke to Chong by phone from his hotel in Joliet, Ill., where he was on the road with his stand-up act, and asked him about legalizing pot, the MTV generation and whether he could identify with fellow ex-con Martha Stewart.
I guess the obligatory first question is: When was the last time you smoked?
I smoked up with Tom Green -- you know Tom Green, the TV guy? Well, I did a show, and I smoked up with him. And I got a bronchiolar condition that kind of scared me, because I usually don't share bongs. And so, I haven't smoked since -- it's been almost a month.
I've cleared up my bronchiolar condition, so I'm back to normal. I don't think I'll smoke [anymore]. I think I'll get a vaporizer, or just cook it into some healthy food.
You mentioned in the book that you were going on a smoking break for political reasons.
It was a fast.
A fast, exactly.
It was so I could have control over the fact that I was going to be drug-tested [due to his probation]. It was one of those, "You can't fire me, I quit!"
Now that you're out, are you doing a lot more political work around getting marijuana legalized than you were before prison?
Not really, because my views haven't really changed, you know? I'm sort of like -- it's a toss-up between legalization and decriminalization. It's like legalizing smoking, you know. Ultimately smoking is not good for you. And the same thing with marijuana -- unless you have M.S. or cancer or glaucoma or some reason [to smoke it]. Really, marijuana is a medicine, and to come right out and legalize it, to say to world, "Hey, kill yourself," I don't really subscribe to that.
If everybody would just mind their own business, everything would be fine. We have a way of equaling things up. So, if marijuana was just treated like cigarettes, you know, no smoking, if you light up, OK, you're in trouble. But that's it, you know, as far as punishing people for taking a substance that actually helps them.
So, I don't know. I'm really at the point where I believe that marijuana should be treated like gays in the military: Don't ask and don't tell.
About the book: I was very impressed that the full title manages to get in two puns.
Where's the other one?
"Meditations From the Joint."
Oh, right, right, right.
This is the book you were fated to write.
"Meditations From the Joint." That is funny.
You've had so many years writing comedy. What was the process of writing this book like for you?
I'm not very organized, you know. I just sort of, it -- Cheech calls it my Chinese ways. I've got a Chinese way of looking at things. You know, the Chinese read from right to left, instead of from left to right like we do. So the writing part -- that's how I think.
I was a little freaked out. I give all the credit to Trish, the editor. You know, I'd been trying to write a book for years, the Cheech and Chong story, and the guy that I was working with on that book, the editor, he just kept sending it back and just telling me no, no, no, this isn't quite what we want, this is what we want. He was sort of a lazy egomaniac in a way. But Trish, she just said send me what you got, and I really give her credit, because she organized it into the I Ching look. And she told me, don't just try to be funny, send me everything. So I did.
When you get personal like that, it's very touchy, because you're baring your soul. And it could be that you're baring your soul to ridicule. And it's a fine line.
Well, unlike so many celebrity memoirs or biographies, it definitely doesn't read like it has the thumbprint of a ghostwriter on it. It reads like ... the story of someone who's done a lot of drugs and is telling their story.
That's what she captured. It's like the movies or records or anything. We never got married to a theme. Cheech and I were never trained -- or me, because I was the guy who kind of instigated the whole trip. That's what made our records interesting, too, because it wasn't one theme that went on forever; we'd jump from this thing to that thing and from this one to that.
I think we accidentally caught the MTV mentality of today.
Because of the jumpiness?
Yeah, the quick cuts. The quick cuts. Because if you watch MTV, or any video, you're drawn in because you want to see more of what they're showing, but they won't let you. They cut to something else, and you're hypnotized, in other words. It takes a lot of maturity and discipline to sit through something that takes a while to unfold. So Cheech and I, when we did our records, and I think it spilled over into this book, the jumpiness is captured. It captured the way people look at things now.
That reminds me that last week was the 25th birthday of MTV. When did you guys get your start?
Cheech and Chong was born on a rainy night in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had worked together in an improv group. I owned a strip club with my family, basically -- I sort of owned it, my brother ran the nuts and bolts, and I provided the entertainment. I sort of was in charge of the show and everything.
I was with Motown [Records] -- I quit Motown and ended up back in Vancouver and had nothing to do. I was in between bands, and so I was hanging out at the strip club and I got bored watching the girls, just one after another got very boring, so I wrote some skits for them, and then I ended up being in the show, and then I ended up forming an improvisational group. And then of course like all improvisational groups they broke up, and when they broke up, the only guy that was left was Cheech, and he had nothing else, nowhere else to go, and so we formed a band. That was in 1969 -- or the Christmas of '68. But we never got around to playing music. It was just Cheech and I, doing skit after skit after skit.
You've had a lot of other things going on over the years. A recurring role on "That '70s Show." Were you bummed when the series ended?
Not really, no. I was very proud. It ended right at the perfect time. Those things end, they end perfectly. It's like a woman giving birth -- it's painful, but then the new baby emerges. And that's what I saw. And they're all young, except for Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp). They were the saddest. I mean Kitty, the mom, was devastated. She cried for a week straight. But the rest of the kids, it was exciting, because they're leaving Point Place, and they're going on their own, you know.
Do you stay in touch with any of them?
Not really, no. There's a bond that will be there for life. So no matter where we go, we see each other, it'll be hugs and kisses forever.
The documentary about your trial, "A/k/a Tommy Chong" was just in New York, and it did really well at last year's Toronto Film Festival.
It just killed. Unfortunately, I'm not really getting along with the director and the creator. That world's a little nutty -- they're nuttier than a fruitcake, when you come right down to it. But I'm very proud of what he did. He hit a home run with that one.
I was looking you up on IMDb, and I see your next project is called "Evil Bong." What's that about?
I did a little walk-on part, a one-day shoot. It's a little exploitation, sex exploitation -- actually they have some pretty good actors. From what I saw. It was a spoof on mysteries, and the Evil Bong creates -- causes people to do everything. [Laughs.]
The reason I'm laughing, I'm sitting here thinking about how for some reason, we end up in a topless nightclub.
I guess that will happen with the Evil Bong ...
Yeah, the Evil Bong ends up in a topless nightclub so we see naked girls all over the place, and the filmmakers were trying to bribe me with naked women.
It could have been worse.
Is it true that you were second only to Michael Milken in terms of mail you received while in prison?
In terms of mail in jail. You know, this one guy, a prominent businessman at one time, been there a long time, he got a kick out of seeing me get all the mail. But he'd get tired of calling my name.
In the book you write about how DEA agents who had been following you for months would show up undercover to get autographs. Have you had any weird things happen, clicks on the phone, anything like that since you've been out?
Yeah, I'm quite sure we have. Life is way too short to be paranoid, and I'm the worst guy to be paranoid, because my whole life is an open book. We still don't lock our doors. The day of the raid, they could have walked in, the door was open. We still leave all the doors unlocked.
I know they bugged the phones for months after. They had some phony reporters call up and do interviews.
What sort of questions would they ask you?
Oh, you know, what are you going to do now? Who else is involved? They were just fishing around. Just looking around, trying to get somebody.
When I was on pre-probation, right after I got busted, we had a holiday planned for Puerto Rico. Normally, they take your passport so you can't travel, but they never took my passport, so I had my lawyer ask them if it's OK to go to Puerto Rico, and they said yeah, it's OK. So when we flew to Puerto Rico, there were these two guys -- I noticed them right away -- there were these two cops sitting right behind me. And when I got off the plane, they just walked past me and they had a little air marshal button and a card to let me know they were there. And I guess because, you know, I was traveling as a fugitive, they put the guys on my tail. I imagine they've been to the show to see what we're doing.
Do you have a message to people headed to prison?
My message to the people is enjoy the ride! That's what I did. I took advantage of my time in prison, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the status, it was like I'm a celebrity. Can you imagine? I went to jail with my fans. It was like a Chong-fest that went on for nine months.
When Martha Stewart went to prison, did you feel like you could understand a lot of what she was going through?
I understood everything. And Martha went in the same day I went in a year later, Oct. 8. The same exact day.
In my heart, I knew that Martha would benefit from this experience, too.