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Still Smokin'

Tommy Chong talks about reconciling with Cheech, the benefits of pot-smoking, and the duo’s Friday night show at the Riviera Theatre

Cheech and Chong were onstage in Los Angeles last week at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, introducing their longtime producer Lou Adler. Stick around long enough and it’s the kind of gig you get. As Chong puts it by phone from California, “I’ve started getting them from High Times—I think I’ve got three lifetime achievements from them. They think of excuses to give you an award so you’ll show up and they don’t have to pay you.”

Back on the road for a tour that brings them to the Riviera Theater this Friday night, Cheech and Chong remain nearly unique in the world of live comedy for performing characters and skits rather than standup. It’s a format that arose out of what Chong felt was the limited appeal of bare breasts.

“We were part of an acting troupe,” he recalls. “I started it up in Vancouver in the late 1960s. My family owned a topless bar and after-hours club. I realized that topless dancing gets boring, so I changed the format without telling the audience. We did improv where the girls got naked if they had to. It was all in the timing. It was like hippie burlesque.

“Cheech joined up as a writer. And when the group broke up he was the only one who wanted to keep doing it. I’d been to the Big Show once before with Motown [his band the Vancouvers released an album in 1965 on the Motown subsidiary Gordy records], so I mentored him along, and next thing you know we had a record deal and then were making movies. “

When the duo started performing again in 2008, it proved another show business truism: Time heals all wounds. Their breakup 25 years earlier hadn’t been exactly amicable.

“Breaking up was a shock,” Chong says. “For me, not so much for Cheech. He was an actor who wanted to experience other directors more than anything. But it’s all patched up now. Our timing was impeccable—we broke up right at the height of our career. Had we done even one more movie, we would have never got back together because we would have been on the downhill slide. We got back together to satisfy people who can’t stand the salt shaker being away from the pepper shaker. “

While Cheech developed a busy new career as a supporting and voice actor, Chong stayed with comedy, learning to do standup and working with his wife, Shelby, who now opens the duo’s shows with her own standup routine.

(Given that Chong has been with Shelby since the late 1960s, almost as long as he has known Cheech, which one does he find it easier to work with? “Gotta say my wife. We can write in bed together. I can’t do that with Cheech—he has too much sleeping apparatus.”)

If you want to think of the Cheech and Chong split as a divorce, you can say that Cheech got the Mexican identity in the settlement and Chong the pot profile. Just as the duo put a friendly face on marijuana use in the 1970s, Chong became an unofficial spokesman for the stoner lifestyle—so much so that he spent nine months in prison in 2003 for selling “drug paraphernalia” (bongs) on the internet, charges that are widely viewed as trumped up and motivated by his celebrity.

The sketch comedy team of Cheech and Chong, in the beginning.

Nonetheless, he remains a staunch advocate. He says that he beat prostate cancer, with which he was diagnosed last year, with the use of hemp oil, herbs, and supplements. And contrary to the image of pot making people, well,dopey, he feels it promotes creativity and clear thinking.

“It gives you an incredible insight to a lot of things. I came up with a solution to gun control that I talked about [on The Young Turks show on] Current TV. The answer is insurance. You can have any gun you want as long as you buy insurance for it. That way if anybody gets harmed through your weapon, you’re covered, and background checks are taken care of by someone with money at stake instead of the government.”

So what can fans who haven’t seen them expect from a Cheech and Chong show in 2013? “It’s kind of hard to say—it depends on everybody feels that particular night,” Chong says. “We’ve been having a lot of fun. We’ve been elevated from comedians to icons, so a lot of people are just happy to see that we’re still breathing. You can’t help but be funny if that’s all you’ve done in your life. And we’re very comfortable on stage.”

What’s the biggest difference between the character he plays on stage and the real Tommy Chong? “The difference is blurring now because I will get serious in a surprising way on stage. Sean Hannity saw my standup act and he was very impressed that I was articulate—he thought I was that stoner character all the time.

“I do a standup segment, and the thing about standup is that you can get personal, which we do. I drop some truth bombs in there once in awhile. I’ll talk about the positive effects of pot. It just varies. I’ll be writing some new stuff for this show, because it’s time.

“But when we’re doing skits I can still be that dumb guy.”

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