In 1972, the year after their first self-titled comedy album, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong played the Berkeley Community Theater with jazz-fusion group the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Forty summers later, in 2012, the duo performed at the Gathering of the Juggalos alongside acts like Insane Clown Posse, Twiztid and Blaze Ya Dead Homie.
Weed culture has changed. But Cheech and Chong, now 66 and 74, respectively, remain the same. To prove it, this week they're releasing their first new film since 1984's The Corsican Brothers. Timed to coincide, naturally, with marijuana's most auspicious day of the year, Cheech & Chong's Animated Movie pairs classic routines like "Dave's Not Here" and "Sister Mary Elephant" with colorful cartoons — and yes, animated Marin again wears a belly shirt with confidence.
"In animation, we'll never grow old," Chong says. "Anyway, for a stoner, every day is new."
The project, directed by Branden Chambers and Eric D. Chambers, has been in the works ever since Marin and Chong reconnected after a nearly three-decade estrangement triggered when the two felt frustrated at being locked into their tag-team stereotypes.
"It was a struggle for Cheech to play the dumb Chicano for as long as he did," Chong explains. "He had to do things like Jeopardy! [on which Marin destroyed CNN anchor Anderson Cooper] just to stretch his mental capacities."
Marin adds, "Tommy was characterized as the 'Hey man,' character, but he's a real smart guy and didn't want that to always be his image."
But when the two reunited onstage in 2008 at the Comedy Store in La Jolla, the old rhythms and personas clicked. "We'd been separated for 27 years, and we just walked onstage like we'd been separated for 27 seconds," Marin says. "To be together this long is a testament to inevitability or destiny."
Cheech and Chong met in Vancouver in 1969. Chong was a native Canadian; Marin was a 21-year-old Californian who'd moved North to escape the draft. Recalls Marin, "We both had the same thought at the same time: 'What the hell is this guy?' He looked at me like he'd never seen a Mexican before, and I looked at him like he was Genghis Khan."
They tried to form a band but realized they had so much fun telling jokes onstage that they never actually got around to playing any music. After two shows, they took a gamble that would define the rest of their lives: They moved to Cheech's hometown of Los Angeles.
In retrospect, their long partnership of nine comedy albums and six movies seems natural, but today, they're one of the last, ahem, joint acts in comedy, which no longer pairs off in dyads like Hope & Crosby or Rowan & Martin but instead forms around shifting families à la the Apatows or Sandler clan or, more commonly in the stand-up world, segments itself into solo acts. "It's always Beyoncé," Marin says, "when we were the Everly Brothers singing harmony."
"Quentin Tarantino, Howard Stern, Seth Rogen and that whole crew, they were all influenced by Cheech and Chong," Chong says. "What we did that influenced them — which I think the new comics need to do now — is we showed who we were. We made caricatures of ourselves. What you saw is what you got: the lowrider and the hippie, and you watched these guys stumble through life in the pursuit of happiness."
As their own major influence, Chong cites celebrated '60s stand-up Lenny Bruce. "He was a stand-up comedian that started talking truthfully about pot, about race, about injustices that go on in everyday life, in the '50s — the '50s," Chong says. "Lenny used to say that pot would be legal by the '60s because there's so many law students smoking it. Here we are in 2013, and it's just now starting to come around."
Chong embraces his position as the elder statesman of legalization while noting that it's time for the next generation to "pick up the bong." Fueled by his other favorite green indulgence, freshly pressed vegetable juice, the energetic septuagenarian now crusades against junk food ("The thing is to make a healthy munchie available") and disproportionate prison sentencing. "They got people doing life without possibility of parole for smoking crack," says Chong, who spent nine months at the Taft Federal Correctional Institution in 2003 for owning a company that sold water pipes. "I was part of that system, so I've seen it firsthand."
Last week, the pair hosted advance screenings of Cheech & Chong's Animated Movie for crowds at Cinefamily and L.A. Film School. The film opens in a few select theaters on April 18 and hits Blu-ray and DVD on April 23.
Surrounded by a new batch of comedy fans, they observed firsthand how humor has changed. One discovery: Comic timing has constricted. "In the '70s, the films of that era, like The Godfather, Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, Up in Smoke, the scenes played out in their natural rhythm," Marin notes. "They weren't digitized and edited to two seconds and crammed down your throat."
Hence the idea to work with young directors and layer their routines under cartoons, which also lets them appeal to today's "much grosser, much more graphic" comedy sensibilities. Now, when Cheech and Chong voice Herbie and Ralph, a skit on their million plus–selling album Big Bambu about two stoned dogs defecating on a street corner, they can actually show Herbie's glorious poo. Surprise: It looks like Rodin's The Thinker.
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Today, Cheech and Chong are feeling good with or without herbal enhancement. "You know what my vices are?" Marin jokes. "Sometimes I smoke cigarettes when I play golf."
Adds Chong, "We're like a beautiful pot plant. Right now, we're flowering."
CHEECH AND CHONG'S ANIMATED MOVIE | Directed by Branden Chambers & Eric D. Chambers | Written by Tommy Chong & Cheech Marin | D&E Entertainment | April 18 and 20 | NoHo, Playhouse