Cheech and Chong Update: Tommy Chong Talks About His Career and Life at 82

Recently celebrating his 82nd birthday, Tommy Chong has seen many facets of the entertainment business. I had a chance to spend some pleasant time with him, sadly over the phone of course. The conversation started where all conversations start these days.

Tommy Chong: The pandemic? This is the life, it is not one and done. People forget what life was like before penicillin. But me, I am making more money doing Cameos than going on the road, and I have no expenses. I am putting together a podcast. Life is good. My lifelong hobby turned into a life’s work of making pipes and jewelry. My cup runneth over.

Entertainment Today: Take us back, how did entertaining start for you?

TC: I was in the first RnB band in Canada, the only comparable group was Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks [which ended up backing Dylan as The Band]. We were called The Shades, because we had a Native Indian, one Black guy and me part-Chinese. We were kicked out of Calgary in 1958 by the mayor, for being too black and too popular. We changed singers to Bobby Taylor, released “Does Your Mama Know About Me,” and got a hit record [it reached #29 on Billboard’s charts], and we got signed to Motown. But then I was fired because I was out getting a green card and the road manager did not know what that meant.

ET: How did you make the shift from music to comedy?

TC: Cheech and Chong formed in Vancouver 1968. I met Cheech in an improv group that worked out of strip club which was I given. It was Vancouver’s first topless club. Our straight man was fired by his wife. Cheech [nee Richard] played the replacement straight guy. That evolved into a band, but we never made music, only comedy. The Motown experience convinced me to move to LA, and Cheech came with me.

“Cheech was the first Mexican to sneak into America from Canada.”

TC: We had two years paying dues and struggling. My Honda 90 motorbike was the mode of transport, we were going club to club. Lou Adler saw us at The Troubadour and signed us to a record deal. We had nine albums, ten platinum records, and a Grammy. “Dave’s Not Here” was a rehearsal, our one and only. It was a hit out of the chute. So we taped all rehearsals after that.

ET: Tell me about the difference of touring music and touring comedy.

TC: Comedy is different than music, in that you can explore the comedy routine in different ways. But most times the audience wants the band to perform the music the way it’s heard on record. Touring was always fun, but our third trip to Australia was tough. We had three years without a summer. Steve Martin quit at the height of his career, he did not want to write another show. I was the same. I’m the writer of the group. I was getting tired of being on the road, so we did a movie. “Up in Smoke” was the result, instead of doing a greatest hits film. Lou did the movie deal and directed it. I co-directed the last scenes.

ET: You really nailed it with “Born in East LA.” That was a great song and video.

TC: “Born in East LA” may have become more popular than the original. But back to making music. So many bands stayed together too long. I believe you gotta stay hungry, it’s not about the adoring crowds, we have been through that. You gotta do something new.

ET: And now you have something new, right?

TC: We had huge offers when cannabis was legal, but my son correctly held us back. Everything happens when it is supposed to happen. I have always wanted to open my own dispensary, and now we will. Five Point Holdings signed a license deal with us and we are going into business. Cheech and I have waited patiently to find the right combination of talent and the right team to trust with the Cheech and Chong properties.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.