The Pleasant Probation of Tommy Chong
|Photo by Max S. Gerber|
Tommy Chong never was much of a stoner, but one of his most popular characters (Man) was. So when Tommys son Paris put Mans face on the surfaces of seditiously shaped blown glass (bongs, pipes) and was blatantly entrapped into sending 5,000 bucks worth across state lines to undercover feds, Ashcrofts Justice Department took the opportunity to send Tommy to the Wackenhut-managed Taft Correctional Institution for nine magical months, to punish him not only for financing and promoting his sons glass-blowing studio but for, as the federal prosecutor put it, glamorizing the illegal distribution and use of marijuana in entertainment products that trivialize law-enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use.
At the time two years ago it mightve seemed to anyone watching the ensuing mission accomplishedstyle press conference that Ashcroft was, well, confused. By bringing up Chongs so-called glamorizings and trivializings as aggravating factors, the Justice Department appeared unable to distinguish creator from creation, portrayal from endorsement. The result was that, of the 55 people similarly Ashcrofted all over America in Operation Pipe Dreams (yes, that was the stings actual name), only one was incarcerated: Tommy Chong.
Lets apply the Justice Departments rule to lesser crimes against humanity: If, for example, Harvey Keitel and 54 others get pulled over for driving 75 in a 65 on the 405, shall justice be served by sending home the 54 others with speeding tickets but sending Keitel to the slammer, because he played Sport in Taxi Driver, Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs and Judas Iscariot in The Last Temptation of Christ?
All they knew, Chong says, was that my popularity commanded their attention. They couldnt give a shit if it was the stoner character that they put in jail, or me. It was all the same to them. They just wanted to show the entertainment world that were vulnerable. You do something that we dont like, youre going to end up in jail. Thats the message they put out.
I call this the Tsunami Government. This government is just like the tsunami. Its coming in, its going to wreak havoc and desolation, and then itll go out. Itll disappear. So we just have to live through it.
Chong and I are lounging on a Starbucks patio at the far west end of Sunset Boulevard, just down the hill from his house in Pacific Palisades, ingesting government-approved mind-bending caffeine cocktails. Not long after his release from prison, Chong accepted an offer to perform in The Marijuana-Logues, an off-Broadway stage production written by Arj Barker, Doug Benson and Tony Camin and directed by Jim Millan. He spent much of this past winter doing eight shows a week at New York's Actors Playhouse, until Ideal Entertainment Group and Magic Arts & Entertainment picked up the show and sent it out on a North American tour that includes two shows at the Wilshire Theater this Saturday night.
When I was doing the show in New York, says Chong, every day Id walk to the theater, and Id be walking on air, because Im going to do a play! I loved it. Loved it! Any excuse to live in New York and do art. Has to be one of the most rewarding experiences in the world.
Chongs long career began in 1938 in Edmonton, Alberta, where he commanded the attention of his parents by shitting his diapers, dribbling and crying for milk. After World War II, the family moved down to a town called Dog Patch, on the outskirts of Calgary, so that his father, whod been wounded in the war, could be close to a veterans hospital. In Dog Patch, Tommy learned at a very young age that he didnt want to live in Dog Patch, so he quit school, became a musician, moved to Vancouver, co-wrote a minor Motown hit with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, started a comedy troupe called City Works, met Cheech Marin and formed Cheech & Chong. Cheech & Chong performed sketch comedy all over North America, moved to Los Angeles, and put together a wildly popular series of comedy albums and high-grossing movies.
Now 66 years old, Tommy Chong radiates the temperament of a warm and articulate monk. We talk about jazz, we talk about comedy. I mention a recent show at the Universal Amphitheater, a duel between Bill Maher and Dennis Miller.
Mmm! Chong says through his sandwich. Dnna-Mnna!
What were you there?
No. I was just on his show.
So we analyze the (de-)evolution of Dennis Miller. Chongs theory: Dennis Miller morphed into what he really was, which is a trend-seeker. When he was younger, he kept looking for his niche. And when he found out that he could agree with Bush and Ashcroft with no problem, he found it.
And he looks at Bill OReilly, and he looks at Rush Limbaugh, and he doesnt care. I mean, hes like an actor. Hes looking for conflict, you know? The funny thing is, Dennis Miller got me back into comedy.
We were at the same club in Vancouver on New Years Eve, 1991. Dennis Miller and I, sitting together. Hes a very quiet guy. He was very respectful of who I was. Almost in awe, you know . . . Tommy Chong! And I say, What are you up to later, later on in the week? Lets hook up! And he says, Well, I gotta do this little gig. He was doing these little comedy clubs, for spending money. So I went to the show. And before the show I went backstage to the little dressing room, and hes back there pacing back and forth.
He said, Do you still get nervous before you go on? And I looked at him, and I kind of cracked up, because I hadnt been onstage for a long, long time. But I said, Yeah, I guess I do you know, just going along with him. Then I sat in the audience, and he comes out and starts doing pot jokes! Didnt go over with his audience, so he recovers with, What am I doing? Tommy Chongs here, and Im doing pot jokes? Am I crazy? You know, that kind of thing.
Anyway, that night in the club, I looked around and I got caught up in it again, and I thought, Im gonna do this. So then I went back to L.A. and started, at the little comedy clubs around town. Didnt see Dennis Miller again for 10 years, and then Im on his show. You should look at the show, its pretty funny. Hes got this little pseudo-Crossfire kind of panel going with these so-called left-wing writers or whatever, and hes trying to get a little [conflict] thing going with his right-wing Nazi attitude. Hes telling the writers, Didnt the Iraqi election put a smile on your face? I mean, youve got to admit that thats pretty nice, seeing America spreading freedom like that.
So when I got out there, I said, I just want to tell you, Dennis. You know, its nice that the Iraqis can vote, because I cant. You know why? Because your buddies put me in jail for selling bongs, and now I cant vote because Im a felon. Thanks a lot, man. And he says something like, Oh, yeah. I heard you were . . . uh . . . you know, faking like he didnt hear about it. And then I got around to New Years Eve in Vancouver in 91, and hes kind of, Uh . . . oh . . . I dont really remember. And I said, Well, you were really stoned, so you probably . . . and he really freaked. Says, Im not a bud man! I wasnt stoned!
But I understand him. Hes a jockey, and the horse he was riding kept coming up second, so he changed horses. And now, with this sucker he thinks its gonna win, but its gonna come in dead last.
Its like watching someone whos wearing a bad toupee, and they think no one can tell.
One of the requirements of Tommy Chongs probation is regular drug testing. Every time I get tested, I ask questions about it, and I watch how they do it. They try to fake you out. The test resultsll be coming in, and theyll give you that look, you know? Like, Oh . . . mm-hm . . . oh . . . sure is taking a lo-o-ong time to come up. You sure you havent been doing drugs? And I can just see some poor stoner going [does frantically guilty Man voice], Okay! Okay! I did! I did!
And the other thing they do is, they look at it to see if theres excess water in your urine, because people can flush their systems out. You just drink a ton of water and the tests come out fine. So now if they decide theres too much water in your urine, they can fail you.
Its been over two years now since Chong has smoked pot.
Im as clean as a whistle, he says. I never did smoke that much pot; never was a big pothead. I was more of a weightlifter. Maybe once in a while, you know, after a hard day of shooting or something like that, Id kick back. But you cant exercise and be high. Its impossible. You cant do a lot of things when youre high. Like, you cant shoot a movie. You cant be an actor in a movie. I know, because I tried all sorts of ways of being in character, and the best way is to be totally straight. The best way in life is to be totally straight. Because the body has incredible combinations of chemicals that will react just on sight, taste, touch just on your senses. Thats why people that have an education, you know, thats why they spend time in art museums, or reading good literature or listening to good music. Because it affects the bodys chemistry in such a way that it produces a very mellow high that you can never reproduce with any kind of drugs. You cant even come close to that. Maybe heroin, maybe, is the closest. And this is what you learn as you live. But on the other hand, pot is the best recreational substance for teenagers, athletes, people who have naturally high adrenaline. Because the pot takes the edge off the adrenaline, and it also clears your mind of it, and then you can see things a lot clearer.
Chong has a phone interview scheduled with someone named Debbie from something called Pollstar, so we head back up the hill, talking about high-mileage vehicles and biodiesel and the education system and being nice to people weve never met and other pinko commie leftist lunatic things.
Back at Chongs house, Im unwinding on a couch in front of the coffee table, writing a letter of apology to the squirrel I mercy-killed the day before. Chong, meanwhile, sits, then stands, then wanders around the house and repeats the process as he pours himself into that phone interview with Debbie of Pollstar.
Yeah! Oh, yeah! It was great! We sold out every night!
The house Tommy shares with comedian Shelby Chong, his wife and partner for the last 30-plus years, is pretty fucking wonderful. Its been my experience that pads of the wealthy and well-known arent very instantly comfortable, but this one is. Lounging on a comfy couch in a bright and friendly foyer with a wonderful view of lush green gardens out back and a huge skylight directly above . . . Im not used to working this hard this early. So thank you, Debbie of Pollstar, for asking all the things I was going to ask after Id had more coffee.
Are you familiar with the I Ching? Chong asks Debbie. Okay, I threw the I Ching while I was in prison, and the first thing the I Ching told me to do was Get off this the injustice of it all kick. And the second thing it told me was, Youre going to have a reunion, and its gonna be great. So everything was good after that. I couldnt be bitter, because of all the years that Ive been, you know, doin the talk, what it came down to was that I had to do the walk.
Well, here Im talking about a substance thats put people in jail for 20, 30 years. In some cases, life. Just recently up in Utah, some guy got 55 years for selling an ounce of pot to an undercover agent.
Hello? You there? Hello?
Aw, we got cut off, Chong tells me. Shit. I hate it when Im talking to an empty phone. Especially when its that good shit, you know?
Thats why Im recording it. Want me to play it into the phone when she calls back?
The phone rings, but not the one in Chongs hand. Dead battery. Phones throughout the house continue to ring. Chong rushes toward them, but by the time he reaches one, theyve stopped. So he finds Debbies number, sits, sighs and calls back. This is the last one, he tells me, gesturing triumphantly with the handset.
The last phone?
The last phone interview. Hello? Hi, Debbie. No, it was mine. The battery ran out. Yeah. No, you have to be nice to the phones. Cant cuss em out. If you cuss em out theyll stop working on you. Same as your computer. You cuss out your computer, itll just freeze on you.
So . . . where did we stop?
Yeah. So it was easy to be a pot comedian in the Nixon or Clinton era not so much Reagan. You know, I left the country when Reagan got in; I went to France. And when George Bush Jr. got in, my instincts told me it was time to go Id felt that we had grown above that, you know? But when it came down [Bush again], it was like, Oh, well I guess we havent. But I owe it to the culture. I cant run this time. I owe it to the culture to stay, and use whatever they throw at me, and use it like you do karate: Use that energy and turn it around. And thats what Ive done.
Yes. Very much so.
Well, there you go. Unfortunately, the American justice system is just riddled with lies and inconsistencies. Yeah. Its very, very inconsistent in that way. Its hip to have slaves, then its not hip to have slaves, then its hip to have slaves again. They call them migrant workers. Or kids, or teenagers. Yeah. But you know, in this country its all about the vote. And these people are whores for the vote. Theyll do anything they can, say anything they can, to get that vote. To get the power, which means money. But in the long run, what we learn, over and over and over again, is that if its built on lies itll crumble. Basically.
Well, see, what happened with Cheech, Cheech has an education. Hes very bright, and he got tired of being typecast as the stupid Mexican. And so he wanted to show everybody, including Mexicans, that there was a brain in there. And I dont blame him. I respect him for it. He never wanted to break up the act, he just wanted the freedom to go do his own stuff.
No. When I get off probation, thats it. Thats it. Because by then Ill be into That 70s Show, Ill be into the movie, Ill be into all sorts of stuff. Were lookin at a tour, doing some new music. Plus, my wife and I, weve still got our act, which we performed two weeks ago in Toronto. Were taking that act, and were gonna make a TV show out of it.
Okay, Debbie. Bye-bye.
Chong hangs up, raises his arms and makes with a high-pitched Whoo! followed by a big grin, a delighted sigh of Thats it! and a small Yaaaaayyy!
Thats it for the day? I ask.
Three-thirty I got a radio thing, then I gotta get into my movie. Theres also, of course, the matter of the video interview any minute now, as soon as Francis, Josh and Rob, the guys from the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation, arrive. More coffee now or never.
Hey, I say. Is there still coffee left from before? And if so . . . and can I stay for dinner and move in?
Chong heads for the kitchen. I cant decide which is less polite: sitting and waiting on my kind host while he labors over the coffee paraphernalia, or wandering back uninvited into his kitchen to offer to help. I wander.
Anything I can do?
Thats okay, man. Ill make you coffee. Hes toweling out the bottom half of a stovetop espresso pot. I like to make coffee. He spoons out some fine-ass ebony dust into the carrier, screws the top on and brings the fire up on the stove. And we just hang out in the kitchen while the stuff cooks.
The Chong kitchen is just about the nicest, friendliest kitchen youd ever want, filled with all sorts of old-fashioned God-stifling paraphernalia: a pepper mill (that could easily be used to conceal an ounce or more of cocaine); pots and pans (for cooking up batches of methedrine with intent to sell); candles (that could be used to cook heroin or light joints); even a sink with running water (could be used to drown a puppy) (or a squirrel). Its hard to imagine this place on that morning, exactly two years ago, at 5:30 a.m., when DEA agents with helicopters, news cameras, visors, flak jackets, automatic weapons and Fox News trucks went rushing around, kicking in doors, yelling, Clear! Clear!
You know, says Chong, I really enjoyed my time in Taft. We were in the middle of a wildlife preserve. Right in the middle. And it preserved tarantulas you know, the big hairy ones and snakes. Lotta snakes. He also made 60 cents a day to sweep up, clean things. And did some gardening. And meditation. And sweat lodges.
How much longers your probation?
Until July. Most of the rest of my probation time will be spent on the road. Its perfect. Itll keep me out of trouble, you know? Chong will be touring with The Marijuana-Logues through mid-May, after which hell get back to work writing the screenplay for a reunion movie with Cheech, with whom he recently performed, for the first time in 20 years, at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.
Back in the foyer, the MPPF guys are setting up for Chongs next interview, this one with a video camera. So Chong heads back, and I top off my lovely ceramic mug of thick brown drugs and soon follow.
As I settle back down in the comfortable couch, Shelbys heading out the door. Says a quick hello to everyone and a warm, quick goodbye to Tommy, and leaves.
Thats the reason why Im anybody, Chong sighs, smiling a Man smile, still intoxicated, 30 years later, by his wife. Shes the brains behind the operation. Whenever I dont do what she says, I end up in jail.
So youve done everything shes said except for once.
Yeah, Chong laughs. Oh, shes great.
The Marijuana-Logues plays at the Wilshire Theater, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, Saturday, February 26, at 7 and 10 p.m. Call (213) 365-3500 for tickets.
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