Tommy Chong I

  • Print


On October 23rd, The Austin420 had the fortunate opportunity in getting to catch-up with the legendary Tommy Chong; what an honor this was in getting to speak & laugh with one of the biggest comedy pot icons ever! Tommy Chong, born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1938, met a person by the name of Cheech Marin in Vancouver and by 1978, while unknown to the heights that they would achieve, this comedy duo that we would come to know and love as Cheech & Chong set out onto a movie-set for a film called Up in Smoke, and from that point on, would forever be synonymous as being “the iconic godfathers” of the Cannabis counter-culture throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s and even now, in 2012! But beyond the spectrum of comedy, there is also music, inspired activism, harmonious wisdom, Operation Pipe Dream, and then there is Tommy Chong, the person, the individual; the man! On June 9th, 2012, Tommy made the announcement that he had been diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. I asked him of his diagnosis and how cannabis oil had helped in treating his symptoms.

“Oh, really good, really good; cannabis does more than just eliminate the cancer cells, which a lot of things do, obviously, not just cannabis oil. But what it does is that it makes you drink water; water is really the key to health, that’s one thing that they always give ya, you know. (Laughs) So yeah, the cannabis oil helps, it gives you a thirst, and that thirst makes you drink water and that’s healthy, so I’m doing fine.”

When it comes to medical cannabis and the many conditions that can benefit from its use, there are obviously many things one has to consider, but if anything, the most important thing to consider, above all, is the individual themselves.

“Everybody is an individual; you have to look at everything on an individual basis depending on what your problem is, you know, but the thing that I found out about cannabis is that it makes you feel good and feeling good is very important, you know, period. When you feel good your spirits are high, you are filled with spirit when you’re feeling good. And this is what we really are, we are a spirit; we have a physical body in order to complete our education here on earth, but the body is temporal, the spirit is eternal and it’s always good to be full of spirit because that means that you’re full of life, you’re full of God!”

In 2003, Tommy was targeted by American investigators in a sting called Operation Pipe Dream which was run by Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. Tommy was charged for his part in financing and promoting Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, a company started by his son Paris. The case never went to trial; instead Tommy accepted a plea agreement in which he admitted to distributing 7,500 bongs and water pipes on the internet. Tommy pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia in exchange for non-prosecution of his wife Shelby, and son Paris. In turn, Tommy, received a sentence of 9 months in a federal prison and a fine of $20,000, not to mention all the other financial losses and the merchandise seized during the raid. In asking of Tommy’s feelings in regard to Operation Pipe Dream, he calmly replied,

“Oh I always see the good in everything, even though I got busted and went to jail, I found good in it you know. I not only made the best of it, but it revitalized my career, it focused me you know, and I’ve come out on top, when all the other players in that drama, you know, like Attorney General Ashcroft, he got sick and now he’s miserable. And the other one, Mary Beth Buchanan, you know the lady prosecutor who insisted that I get prosecuted, she’s without a job. Now, I think she’s working for one of her husband’s law-firms, so I was the only one that really profited from that bust!”

Tommy served his sentence at Taft Correctional Institution from October 8, 2003 to July 7, 2004, and while incarceration is never the best thing for anyone, as with anything else, it’s in how we react to such adversity that either makes our experiences pleasant or extremely unpleasant, especially in times when family, loved-ones are not as within reach as before.

“That part, what it did, it was a filter you know. It showed me who my friends really were, you know. I think I had one guy call me the night before I went to jail, that was Pat Morita, the Karate Kid guy. And all the other guys, you know, especially my lawyers, the ones I was paying money to, you know they couldn’t even take time off from watching a football game to say goodbye to me, or you know, give me any kind of words of encouragement, you know. And my family, of course, stuck right close to me. It brought everybody closer together. And my wife, she went on and she… (laughs) …made a fortune while I was in jail, you know, with our property’s that we had before I left, and then she focused her attention on all sorts of things that normally we would have just let slide, so, it was a “win-win” all the way around!”

“It was a treat,” Tommy explained in regard to getting to know his fellow inmates, “It was like being embedded with my fans, you know. It’s like doing a concert and instead of going home we all went and got into beds next to each other. (Laughs) It was fun. I met people that I’m still friends with to this day, you know, beautiful gorgeous people from all walks of life, you know. I met a golf caddy that really got me into playing golf, and now that’s my one bad habit (Laughs) or good habit, depending on how you look at it! Everybody was nice to me, even the warden treated me like a celebrity, you know. So, it was a positive thing. I used it more or less like a “spiritual retreat”; I just went into a very spiritual world; I got involved with the Native American Sweatbox Society, and we used to do “the sweat” every Saturday; I learned a lot about the Native Americans, especially the Sioux customs, so I loved that part of it. It was great!”

Once Tommy was released, he immediately became an avid critic of the case that was brought against him by appearing in an off-Broadway show called The Marijuana-Logues (a parody of The Vagina Monologues); he followed that with a 2006 book release about his experiences in jail and his interest in meditation called The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint.

Before the phenomenon of Cheech and Chong came abroad in the late 70s, Tommy Chong had already been quite road-worthy by his experiences in the 60s playing guitar with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, co-writing their biggest hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me” which peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. While this was a strictly music kind-of-gig for Tommy, the spectrum of comedy was always near bye.

“With music and comedy, it came hand to hand. The thing is, when I was a musician I was in a band with a lot of black guys. (Laughs) So, I learned that culture. I learned a lot of different cultures and then I learned the Jazz culture. The world of jazz is very enlightening, very spiritual; they were the ones that got me on my path, because the jazz itself is such an improvisational form of music. It really is spiritual music because you play from the spirit. You have to be really into the music totally, into the moment. So, actually my music education really helps everything I did in comedy, it gave me timing, it gave me the ability to relax and not be funny when I didn’t have to be funny, you know. It gave me timing more than anything; the most important thing about comedy is timing.”

From films such as Up In Smoke (79), Next Movie (80), Nice Dreams (81), Things Are Tough All Over (82), and Still Smokin’ (83), along with albums that include Cheech and Chong (71), Big Bambu (72), Los Cochinos (73), and 1980s Let’s Make A Dope Deal, Cheech And Chong captured the essence of an entire “marijuana” generation. Iconic this comedy-duo became, were they surprised in becoming so iconic?

“Not really, because I live in the moment, I never anticipated anything, especially us becoming as big as we were. When I look back on it, I’m kind of surprised, you know, because a lot of people I grew up with were shocked, you know, that I got where I ended up, because it sure didn’t look like I was going that way when I was younger, but that’s the way it goes. You never know.”

By 1985, after a long and successful journey, the comedy-duo of Cheech and Chong came abroad some creative differences and decided to split. ‘It was like a death in the family,’ Tommy had told journalists. It would be some time before any sort of reunion as the two ventured into their solo careers, really for the first time. From 1999 to 2002 and 2005 to 2006, Tommy went on to appear as a recurring character (and later) a regular character as the hippie “Leo” on That ‘70s Show. While partnering with Cheech (a few years following) in a fictional version of themselves as Cherokee herbalists for an episode of South Park episode called Cherokee Hair Tampons, the reunion of Cheech & Chong officially emerged in mid-2008 with a reunion tour called “Light Up America and Canada” and “The Felimony Tour” which referenced often to Chong’s conviction in ‘03 to Cheech’s recent divorce and subsequent alimony payments.

“Reuniting with Cheech was easy; it was like falling off a log; it was as if we had never been apart, you know. It was weird. When we got together, we started having the same old fights that we had when we were together! (Laughs) Our relationship was more like a family reunion, you know, than a comedy reunion you know. It was like brothers getting back together again after years. Yeah, it was great; it’s been great!”

After all the years of making movies, recording albums, appearing on TV sitcoms and late-night talk shows, appearing on numerous covers of High Times Magazine, the aura that’s Cheech and Chong, as icons, continues today. If not touring with his partner-in-crime, Tommy continues to do his stand-up throughout comedy clubs across America; he is also a strong marijuana activist who regularly contributes to Cannabis Culture Magazine and also sits on the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) advisory board. When asked of any regrets and if he would do it all over again if given the chance, he replied,

“Oh, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not a thing. NOT A THING! The only regrets I have are that I wish I would have kept a few houses as I was impulsive about even then. (Laughs) I sold a few properties that I shouldn’t have sold. That’s my only regret, but even then, that would have changed the course of history, so, no. No regrets at all!”

In getting to meet Tommy and Shelby in 2009, here in Austin, it was an honor then as it was now in getting to talk to the man himself on this recent October day. There is nothing like getting to laugh and talk with the legendary Tommy Chong, respectful, wise, and himself; much respect. In closing, I asked if he had anything to say to the fans here in Austin. He replied,

“What I’d like to say to the people is that every time I get into Austin, Willie Nelson gets me some ‘weed’, but by the time it gets to me, there’s hardly anything left. I’d like to tell all my friends that when Willie gives me weed, don’t touch it, I’ll give ya a little share of it. They’re always afraid that I won’t give them a little taste, so just tell everybody to be cool, and my wishes and my love, goes out to Willie because I heard that he’s got a little bit of health problems.” ~