Lou Adler is trying to find a place to erect a gargantuan rolled joint, preferably on the roof of a prominent building in Los Angeles. He attempted to put the 33-foot-long, 3-D doobie atop the Roxy, which makes sense not only because of the abundance of big ads on the Sunset Strip and his ownership of the club but because it was a frequent spot for his buds — the inimitable Cheech & Chong — to perform.
Alas, the permit requirements in West Hollywood appear to be too rigid, so at press time he was still looking for a spot. Adler’s 1978 film, Up in Smoke, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week with a DVD/Blu-ray re-release, so he, Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin have joined forces with the Grammy Museum for an exhibit to mark the milestone: “Still Rollin’ — Celebrating 40 Years of Up in Smoke” opens Friday, April 20 (4/20).
Though the fantastic fatty is meant as marketing for the film, if it gets to be seen in L.A., it will punctuate more than the iconic movie. In many ways it will be a testament to Cheech & Chong’s role in bringing marijuana into the mainstream and ultimately, in its legalization.
In the four decades since, Cheech & Chong have sparked attention for cannabis culture like no other, first as part of their live stage show, then on records and finally in films — Up in Smoke, Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, Nice Dreams, Things Are Tough All Over, Still Smokin’, Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers, Get Out of My Room, and Cheech & Chong’s Animated Movie.
“It was something that no one had ever seen before,” says Chong, who credits the almost psychic connection he shares with Cheech for the success of their various projects. “We’re both amateur mind readers. Our lowbrow humor was very easy for each of us to read and understand. I can say a word or even just a look and we both know what we’re thinking. We developed that while we were on the road doing our live act, doing records and in the studio. It was all fun and games. We just love being with each other.”
They’ve been through a lot along the way, too. Chong, of course, went to jail for selling bongs on his website. Then he got cancer. Currently cancer-free, he credits pot with playing a part in his recovery. Marin went on to star in the classic movie Born in East L.A. without his partner, though the original song was from a Cheech & Chong album. It was a huge hit and allowed the actor to later score roles that transcended the stoner stereotype and his Mexican background (such as a detective on Nash Bridges, Hurley’s dad on Lost and several Disney cartoons, most memorably voicing one of the hyenas in The Lion King). Chong’s best-known role post-C&C was more to type, as an aging hippie on That ’70s Show, though he was forced to take the last two seasons off due to the bong bust.
Now that weed is legal in California, where both Cheech and Chong live, no one has more right to take advantage. Hocking a lot more than the smoking vessels that put him the slammer, Chong now sells Chong’s Choice, high-quality medical cannabis sourced from local growers available via his website in prerolls, flower jars, THC oil and infused breath strips. Marin, meanwhile, touts Cheech’s Private Stash, offering buds and prerolls via his own site.
“I went to jail for the sins of the world,” the 79-year-old Chong says, jokingly, by phone last week, though his nine months behind bars was no joke. “But it all worked out well. I enjoy being a martyr.”
Clearly, Chong’s arrest in 2003, during the federal investigations code-named Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter, was intended to make an example out of his celebrity, but it may have backfired. Attempting to trace drug traffic and users through businesses selling paraphernalia, the operations were criticized as a waste of time and money, and the public consensus was mostly on Chong’s side.
In 2014, when he competed on Dancing With the Stars at age 76, the oldest celebrity at the time to do so, he made it to the semifinals thanks to his popularity with the viewing public. The unfavorable clichés associated with cannabis were slowly but surely dissipating, and the “stoner comedy” genre, pioneered by Up in Smoke, and continuing with Friday, Dazed and Confused, Pineapple Express and the Harold and Kumar films, portrayed the drug for what it was — a relatively harmless recreational choice that enhances mood, perspective and conversation. Of course, in the movies, smoking too much could still get you into some crazy situations.
Marin, 71, speaking with L.A. Weekly by phone as well, says even though Cheech & Chong started as a stand-up act and had comedy records, film was the forum they were always meant for.
“When I first saw the dailies, I just knew this was it. I could never really understand how we were so big on records when we were really a stage act,” he says. “It was new for us, and unlike stage it was so intimate. You know, the camera gets right up close next to us. Film was our ultimate medium and we recognized that right away.”
Adler, who directed and produced Up in Smoke, saw the potential for film greatness immediately. “I remember very clearly the first performance I saw from them. Somebody told me I had to see them,” he says. “The first thing I saw as I entered the main room was both of them on their knees smelling each other’s butts going round and round — their dog act. ”
Already a successful music producer, Adler told friends and colleagues that night that he wanted to record Cheech & Chong. “They looked at me like I was totally nuts,” he says. “Also it was a comedy album, which was not what I was doing at the time.”
“When I first saw the dailies
What he saw beyond the dogs, and the spaced-out banter, was storytelling and improvisation and chemistry, chemistry that he knew had to be captured somehow. “I saw all of their routines and I saw how visual the audio was,” Adler explains. “So when the comedy routines were complete for the album, I thought of doing what I call ‘ear movies’ and I added sound effects as opposed to a stand-up comedy album. So we were on our way to a movie from the very first album.”
A script was written with the two lead characters, Chong as Anthony “Man” Stoner and Marin as Pedro De Pacas, meeting on the road and proceeding on a madcap, marijuana-driven adventure that takes them to an L.A. courtroom, to Tijuana and back, where they encounter a manic Vietnam vet, an over-zealous cop and a couple of gals who convince them to compete in a “Battle of the Bands” show at the Roxy. They win the contest (and a recording contract) with a rendition of their song “Earache My Eye,” and the movie ends with Pedro and Man in a car, talking about their future careers as rock stars. Man lights up some hash and accidentally drops the lit roach in Pedro’s crotch, causing him to swerve down PCH, a trail of smoke behind them as the movie’s theme song, “Up in Smoke,” plays and the credits start to roll.
The duo recently rerecorded the movie’s theme song, changing out lyrics to reflect legalization. Example: “Up in Smoke/It seemed/so long ago/When I was young/And now I’m mas viejo/[La chingada]/Some things have changed/And some have stayed the same/Now mota is legal/But I’m still illegal/So nothing’s changed?…?.
Though the narrative was pretty structured, what makes Up in Smoke so special is the dialogue, some of which was improvised on the spot, according to Marin. “We were creating with a unique approach. We were doing improv, so that intimacy and spontaneity was kind of new for the era.”
Also unique and daring for the time were the pot-centric themes themselves. Though smoking grass was a popular activity during the 1970s, when Cheech & Chong emerged, few spoke of or depicted its use so openly. Cheech recalls, “We were just chronicling what was happening in our generation at that time, with the people we hung out with. We saw it as the new norm, and you know, everybody was doing it even if nobody was talking about it. So we were right out front with it, blatantly, because it’s what we saw everywhere.”
Of course, it was a controversial concept for the time, and Adler says the film wasn’t easy to get made. He had to do a negative pickup, meaning he paid for the film himself and then would turn it over if the studios wanted to distribute it. “You’re president of Paramount Studios, I come in off the street. I’m a record producer and I say I’d like to make a film about marijuana with a Chinese man and a Mexican. Are you jumping out of your seat to make it?” But his risk paid off.
For fans wondering if the pair smoked for real during filming, the answer is no — and yes. Fake weed was used, but Chong assures there were some off-set breaks, which surely enhanced the pair’s creativity and ability to play off each other throughout.
And although some have questioned whether Cheech & Chong’s depiction of stoners has been a positive one over the years, the absurdity of their conversations and situations was heady, sometimes deceptively deep, even when it seemed they were just going back and forth about something silly.
The satiric nuance of their work is more evident than ever upon repeated viewing of the 40-year-old film, which has stood the test of time, going from cult hit to a proper classic, not unlike some of Adler’s other releases, which include The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains.
Rocky Horror, of course, became and remains a phenomenon, and Up in Smoke stands right alongside it in terms of cultural significance. With the release of the anniversary DVD and Blu-ray package this week, Up in Smoke is primed to reach a whole new generation of comedy fans and marijuana enthusiasts. Though younger generations will watch the movie through a less stigmatized lens in terms of smoking and toking, they’ll find the film is no less impactful or enjoyable than viewers did 40 years ago, and that is due to the brilliance of its two stars.
“People should come away from the exhibit and the movie today with this: Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, and Cheech & Chong,” says Adler, who donated much of his personal collection to the Grammy Museum exhibit, including movie stills, marketing materials, letters, promo and rare ephemera, to be displayed alongside art from Marin’s traveling Chicano art show. “They are important comedians. That gets lost a bit in the smoke.”
“Cheech & Chong Still Rollin’ — Celebrating 40 Years of Up in Smoke” opens Friday, April 20, at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown; (213) 765-6800, grammymuseum.org.