Cheech & Chong Return for One ‘Last Movie’

Tommy Chong has his cellphone pressed up tight against his ear, trying to find out where the person on the other end of the line is; at 85, his hearing isn’t what it used to be. Sitting across from him in the booth of a restaurant, located right off the lobby of an extremely busy hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, is Richard Marin. The 77-year-old actor is usually known by his nickname, “Cheech,” and he’s perusing the menu while his longtime partner loudly issues directions regarding where to meet up later. Marin orders taquitos, and will spend the rest of lunch generously offering up his meal to everyone at the table. Sitting right between the two of them is filmmaker David Bushell, who is asking what it’s going to take to get Cheech & Chong into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. No comedians have ever been nominated, he points out, but these guys are as rock & roll as anyone else who’s been inducted. If not them, then who?

If you’ve followed Cheech & Chong’s career as they’ve gone from two-man stage act to multiplatinum recording artists to movie stars, the idea that this duo deserve a place in that particular pantheon isn’t that far-fetched. Should anyone still doubt their worthiness, we’d direct them to Exhibit A: Cheech & Chong’s Last Movie, Bushell’s documentary on the duo who defined, if not outright invented a certain potent strain of stoner comedy and continue to be icons for generations of potheads. It not only makes a strong case for them being the first “hard-rock comedians,” coming out of the same counterculture that spawned a lot of late ’60s, early ’70s bands and doing the sort of hip, envelope-pushing material that crossed over with that music’s scene. The doc also traces their history together, the ups and downs of a storied career and gives them a chance to air their grievances — with their old collaborators, with their critics, and most pointedly, with each other. (It premiered at SXSW without a distributor. Someone please buy this film ASAP.)

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The fact that no one had ever made the definitive portrait of Cheech & Chong before is, frankly, ridiculous, given how much ground these two guys have covered over a 50-plus year career. “It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Bushell says. Both guys nod in agreement as well. A longtime producer (Sling Blade, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dallas Buys Club), Bushell had been talking to Robbi Chong, Tommy’s daughter about a possible “reunion” film back in the early 2000s. The plan was to make a traditional Cheech & Chong comedy along the lines of Up in Smoke; a number of obstacles, not the least of which was Chong going to prison in 2003, stalled the project.

Still, Bushell and Robbi kept talking, trying to see if there was something they could put together for the pair. Years passed. And then, after something else Bushell had been developing fell apart at the last minute, the filmmaker went back to Robbi and suggested a stem-to-stern look back at their lives, covering everything from the pre-C&C years (Chong had been a guitar player with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, an R&B act signed to Motown; Marin had left L.A. and headed north to avoid being sent to Vietnam, with the idea of becoming a potter) to their break-up in 1985. When they approached the comics with the idea, both signed on. “So much of our career has been, we just did what we were told to do,” Chong says. “‘Oh, you want to do a documentary on us? Ok, when do you need me to show up?’ It’s an extension of what we’ve been doing for years. The plan has always been that there’s no real plan.”

What’s funny is that, as unlikely as that sounds — so a groundbreaking, immensely popular comedy duo just happened to become wildly successful? — it sort of makes sense after you see Last Movie. According to both Marin and Chong, the idea that a Mexican-American from Watts and a Canadian-Chinese musician from Calgary met up at all, much less realized that they could parlay a rapport onstage into something bigger than just an underground novelty act, seems unbelievable even to them. The two words that come up again and again over our hour-long conversation are “serendipity” and “improvisation.” The sheer luck of them finding each other and both realizing they craft comedy out of a shared outside-the-mainstream outlook together felt like pure kismet.

“I remember I was with Johnny Taylor in London,” Chong recalls, “and we’d just done a gig with Jimi Hendrix. We’re all talking about what a fantastic musician he was, and for some reason, I just blurted out, ‘I’m going to be bigger than him.’ The conversation just stops dead. Everyone is staring at me. Finally, the drummer goes, ‘So you’re going to be a better guitarist than Jimi Hendrix?’ And I said, I didn’t say better — I said bigger. I don’t know why I felt that why, I just did. Then later, when I met Cheech, it was immediately like: Oh, now I know why I felt that. This was the reason.”

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“The thing is, there were so many coincidences that happened,” Marin says. “Like the fact that I ended up in this small Canadian town where Tommy grew up. I kept hearing about this Chong guy, because he was the most famous musician who’d come from there. His name was in my ear all the time. Then I get to Vancouver, I see ‘Tommy Chong’ on a poster for a club, and it’s like, Oh! It’s that guy!”

“I don’t think you realized who I was right away,” Chong counters. “But we immediately started talking about childhood, drugs, the draft. Cheech didn’t tell me who he was, because he was careful of saying too much due to his situation in the States….”

“I was not dodging the draft,” Marin notes. “I was just not participating in it. I was part of the Draft Resistance movement along with guys like David Harris. But I wasn’t hiding out. The FBI knew where I was. When I met Tommy, I was writing for a rock & roll magazine. And he had this improv group — ”

“I’d seen Second City, and The Committee in San Francisco, so were trying to be like those guys,” Chong interjects.

“— and they were performing in this topless bar,” Marin continues. “It was like hippie burlesque.”

“Never been done before,” Chong says.

“Never been done before,” Cheech echoes. “Or since! I joined, because I thought it was hilarious. And then when it just became us …we had a set of common references. I grew up steeped in R&B music, and Tommy played it. I grew up in a Black neighborhood, and Tommy moved in that world. If I mentioned something for a sketch or a bit, I knew he’d get it. ‘Oh, yeah, I know what you’re talking about — what if we did this with it?’ Then we’d go onstage, and it would just sort of happen. And the idea of the hippie generation being portrayed by this Chicano lowrider and this half-Chinese dude, and representing different aspects of America? I got that right away.”

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“The humor was not intellectual,” Chong adds. “That’s why stoners and grade school kids both liked it. I mean, you take something like the Sister Mary Elephant character” — he suddenly goes into her nasally voice, familiar to anyone who owns their 1972 album Big Bambu — “‘Class? Claaasss? Claaaaassssssss?!’ You didn’t have to be a genius to find it funny.”

“It takes a certain kind of person to tell a joke that’s both brilliant and stupid simultaneously,” Cheech notes. “It’s not easy. And if you can put those things together, everybody gets it.”

As Last Movie winds through their timeline, you see how their ability to riff off of each other informed pretty much every aspect of their career. When they went from being a stage act to recording albums, the creative process wasn’t much different: take an idea, run with it and see where it goes. The movie goes into how they came up with their breakthrough bit, “Dave’s Not Here” — essentially, Cheech was stuck outside the studio on a sweltering day, continually knocked on the door to get let back in, and Chong just kept fucking with him in real time. “That was basically our rehearsal,” Chong says. “I had one of those tiny recorders going, and I wish I still had that rehearsal tape. It was even funnier than the version we cut in the studio a few hours later.”

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“On stage, we had to figure out what played as funny,” Cheech says. “In the studio, it was about figuring out how to make something sound funny.”

When the two transitioned their signature “Pedro and Man” act to the movies, they came up with a blueprint for a story that left room for them to just do their thing. “The word on Up in Smoke was, ‘Cheech and Chong are making a movie, and there’s no script.’ That was bullshit, because there was a script — I know because I wrote it! Cheech and I hashed out the premise, but then we hired a bunch of folks from Robert Altman’s movies and other actors who knew could improvise. Tom Skerritt was from MASH; Stacey Keach and Strother Martin were great with just rolling with whatever. That was how we made comedy, so….”

Cheech & Chong were already stars. Up in Smoke made them stratospheric. “Luckily for us, we had a producer who made sure we didn’t get too big,” Chong says.

“What he means is, the guy stole our money,” Cheech adds.

“When we on the road or recording, we had money coming in,” Chong says. “When we just making the movie — no money coming in. Later, I got sued over a ‘loan,’ and we discovered some hanky panky was going on, which I can’t talk about because we ended up settling. But I like to think that because we were practically broke, it kept us working a lot, and that’s why we have the legacy we do today.”

“That’s a very nice way of looking at it,” Cheech says, diplomatically.

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The duo kept making movies together until the mid-1980s, at which point they decided to go their separate ways. The fact that Chong was now the de facto director of their films had upset the balance of power. And the sort of Dope-and-Crosby double act they’d perfected for the screen was becoming stifling. Marin recalls a story about making Born in East L.A., the 1987 movie that he made based on his his parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” He showed a rough cut to a journalist, “because I just needed some feedback. The guy asked me a question, I answered him, and then he just stares at me. Doesn’t say a word. Finally, I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he replied, ‘You don’t speak with an accent?!’ Like, he believes I’m really that guy. I thought, I can’t do this anymore.”

Cheech & Chong’s Last Movie gets into all of this, courtesy of a set-up that Bushell uses to move the documentary along. In between archival clips of old performances, vintage interviews and animated anecdotes, he filmed the two of them driving through the desert and shooting the shit. “If you want to see a new Cheech & Chong movie, you want to see them sitting next to each other in a car, joking with each other,” Bushell says. “That’s the classic bit.”

The idea was to use those sequences to transition from one segment or era to the next. Chong, for his part, was game to go along. (“Potheads have bad memories, so I thought, ‘Put us in a car together? That seems new, let’s try it,’” he jokes.) Marin wasn’t so sure, but eventually agreed. Bushell, however, was also hoping that these scenes would give them the space to talk openly with each other — “to trap them in one spot and poke them with a fork a little to see what comes up.” The result is a little like sitting in one someone’s couples-counseling session. The two comics bicker and bring up old grudges. It’s uncomfortable, but also remarkably honest in the best possible way.

Chong acknowledged that filming those sequences was “painful.” But both of them admit it makes the doc better, and underlines a key part of their relationship. “There was a discussion that Dave and I had,” Cheech says. “He wanted me to put my arm around Tommy at one point, and I was like, I’m not doing that. Because it’s didn’t feel true to me. I had to say, Look: Tommy and I are not best friends. We’re brothers. There’s a difference. And the thing about brothers is, you don’t always like each other. You get into vicious fights. But you always have your brother’s back. And that’s what those scenes are.”

The two talk some more, reminiscing about the old days and musing about the fact that you can now walk into a dispensary and buy high-quality weed products — including some that bear their name. (“We always acted like pot was legal,” Cheech says. “Because everywhere we went, and when we were with the people we were hanging out with, it was legal! Everyone else just caught up to us.”) Then they get ready to leave, so they can rest up before they do a surprise appearance in a local club and treat an enthusiastic audience to a rendition of “Mexican-American” from 1980’s Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie.

Before they leave, Marin has one more story he wants to tell. This one’s not in the doc, but it illustrates how, over five decades after Cheech and Chong first started out, they still recognize that what Bushell calls “the combustion of these two guys together” creates something bigger than both of them. It’s 2008, and Tommy had been doing a stand-up act with his wife, Shelby, for a while. They’re playing a club in La Jolla, California, and invite Cheech to come sit in with them. We’re going to be on stage, they said. You just come up and join us when you’re ready

“When I got there, I sort of quietly walked into the bathroom,” he recalls. “And then I walked through the audience and nobody knew it was me, because I just walked right out of the bathroom and on to the stage. I sat down in a chair and we started doing that car bit — we hadn’t rehearsed it, it wasn’t planned and I hadn’t done it in something like 15 years or whatever. And it was like we had done it the night before. It was all right there again.”


So even after all that time, it was just like riding a bike?

“It was like fucking a bike, which is kind of like riding a bike but is even better,” Marin says, and he his partner both crack up. “Neither of us had to think about it. We just did it. It’s just part of our shared DNA now.