In the high-flying ’70s, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were synonymous with the pot leaf.
After all, the comedy duo famously portrayed a couple of carefree stoners — and they didn’t have to act much to pull it off.
But by the mid-80s, these normally mellow comics weren’t so mellow with each other. And if their personal disagreements didn’t put the kibosh on their act, the changing mores of American culture — steered by the Reagan era’s Just Say No campaign — surely extinguished the flame on pot humor.
Yet, in the 25 years since the two performed together, the country’s take on tokes has once again shifted, said Cheech Marin, the Chicano half of Cheech & Chong.
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“We’re getting ready to legalize it now, man,” he said. “It’s a matter of time.”
With medical marijuana laws being passed and proposed, what better time for Cheech and Chong to clear the air and reunite, passing their humor on to a new generation?
“It took a while to get into each other’s rhythm and let the past burn off,” said Marin, who appears with Chong at the Avila Beach Resort on May 14. “But it’s fine. We’re having a good time now.”
Cheech might have never met Chong had it not been for the Vietnam War. After attending Cal State Northridge, Cheech bolted to Canada to avoid the draft. There he met Chong, who owned a topless club in Vancouver. While comedy clubs hadn’t exploded at that point, it was a good time for comics.
“It was the heyday of albums,” Marin said. “Some great albums came out at that time, and everybody learned how to make comedy a rock ’n’ roll act.”
Cheech & Chong initially incorporated more music in their act, which worked well for Chong, who started out his career as a musician. But as audiences responded more to their marijuana humor, the stoner personas became a larger part of the act. But again, it wasn’t a stretch —Chong playing a spaced-out hippie musician and Marin portraying the jovial Chicano.
“Tommy used to say that those characters were us when our wives weren’t around,” Marin said. “That’s pretty much true.”
They definitely were into weed, sometimes sharing buds with other celebrities, like Bob Marley, who met them backstage with his band after a gig.
“They were all lying around the dressing room when we came in,” Marin said. “And Marley says (to Chong), ‘Hey, Chinaman — say something funny.’ ”
Their bits included routines like “Santa Claus and his Old Lady,” where Cheech tries to explain Santa to a confused Chong, and a sketch about two dogs, Ralph and Herbie, who get up close and personal. Perhaps their most famous bit, “Dave’s Not Here,” plays on stoner paranoia and confusion.
On the strength of their albums, the two soon found themselves doing movies, starting with the reefer classic “Up In Smoke.” Another album, featuring the novelty hit “Born in East L.A.,” led to a 1987 movie of the same name, starring Cheech but not Chong.
By that time the two had severed their partnership. While Chong continued to perform comedy in clubs, Marin became a successful actor, starring in the TV show “Nash Bridges,” the film “Tin Cup” and several movies by director Robert Rodriguez, including “From Dusk Till Dawn” and the upcoming “Machete.”
He also has provided his voice for several animated films, including “Cars,” “The Lion King” and “Oliver & Company.”
His secret to cartoon voices, he said, is to go all out.
“Yell as loud as you can,” he said. “That way, you’ll stand out. They’ll know it’s you.”
Even with his success in TV and movies, Marin was always known as the guy from Cheech & Chong. And as the 63-year-old Marin and the 71-year-old Chong got older, time became more precious and a reunion looked more appealing than ever before.
“We don’t have time to argue as much,” Marin joked. “We’re
burning daylight here.”
The two had planned to get back together in 2003, but Chong’s conviction for selling bongs and marijuana pipes online resulted in a nine-month stint in federal prison. Cheech visited him once, but prison wasn’t conducive to collaboration, so they resumed their reunion later.
Before going onstage, the duo went through their old records, which provides not only the soundtracks for an upcoming animated show, but also the basis of their “new” routines. While Cheech & Chong are using old bits, they improvise regularly.
“We improvise more or less depending on what Tommy remembers that night,” Marin joked.
When asked if he thought he’d be crawling on a stage acting like a dog into his 60s, Marin offered a short answer.
“I was hoping I would live that long,” he said.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.