The Pleasant Probation of Tommy Chong
Tommy Chong never was much of a stoner, but one of his most popular characters ("Man") was. So when Tommy's son Paris put Man's 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, Ashcroft's 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 son's 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 might've seemed to anyone watching the ensuing "mission accomplished"-style press conference that Ashcroft was, well, confused. By bringing up Chong's 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 sting's actual name), only one was incarcerated: Tommy Chong.
Let's apply the Justice Department's 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 couldn't 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 we're vulnerable. 'You do something that we don't like, you're going to end up in jail.' That's the message they put out.
"I call this the Tsunami Government. This government is just like the tsunami. It's coming in, it's going to wreak havoc and desolation, and then it'll go out. It'll 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. [Editor's Note: The Marijuana-Logues tour has been cancelled, and Chong barred from performing the play, until his parole is up this summer.]
"When I was doing the show in New York," says Chong, "every day I'd walk to the theater, and I'd be walking on air, because I'm 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."
Chong's 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, who'd been wounded in the war, could be close to a veterans hospital. In Dog Patch, Tommy learned at a very young age that he didn't 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. Chong's 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 O'Reilly, and he looks at Rush Limbaugh, and he doesn't care. I mean, he's like an actor. He's 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 Year's Eve, 1991. Dennis Miller and I, sitting together. He's 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? Let's 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 he's 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 hadn't 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! Didn't go over with his audience, so he recovers with, 'What am I doing? Tommy Chong's here, and I'm 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, 'I'm gonna do this.' So then I went back to L.A. and started, at the little comedy clubs around town. Didn't see Dennis Miller again for 10 years, and then I'm on his show. You should look at the show, it's pretty funny. He's got this little pseudo-Crossfire kind of panel going with these so-called left-wing writers or whatever, and he's trying to get a little [conflict] thing going with his right-wing Nazi attitude. He's telling the writers, 'Didn't the Iraqi election put a smile on your face? I mean, you've got to admit that that's 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, it's nice that the Iraqis can vote, because I can't. You know why? Because your buddies put me in jail for selling bongs, and now I can't vote because I'm a felon. Thanks a lot, man.' And he says something like, 'Oh, yeah. I heard you were ... uh ... – you know, faking like he didn't hear about it. And then I got around to New Year's Eve in Vancouver in '91, and he's kind of, 'Uh ... oh ... I don't really remember.' And I said, 'Well, you were really stoned, so you probably ...' and he really freaked. Says, 'I'm not a bud man! I wasn't stoned!'
"But I understand him. He's a jockey, and the horse he was riding kept coming up second, so he changed horses. And now, with this sucker – he thinks it's gonna win, but it's gonna come in dead last."
"It's like watching someone who's wearing a bad toupee, and they think no one can tell."
One of the requirements of Tommy Chong's 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 results'll be coming in, and they'll 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 haven't been doing drugs?' And I can just see some poor stoner going [does frantically guilty Man voice], 'OK! OK! I did! I did!'
"And the other thing they do is, they look at it to see if there's 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 there's too much water in your urine, they can fail you."
It's been over two years now since Chong has smoked pot.
"I'm 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, I'd kick back. But you can't exercise and be high. It's impossible. You can't do a lot of things when you're high. Like, you can't shoot a movie. You can't 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.
"That's why people that have an education, you know, that's why they spend time in art museums, or reading good literature or listening to good music. Because it affects the body's chemistry in such a way that it produces a very mellow high that you can never reproduce with any kind of drugs. You can't 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 we've never met and other pinko commie leftist lunatic things.
Back at Chong's house, I'm 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. It's been my experience that pads of the wealthy and well-known aren't 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 ... I'm 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 I'd had more coffee.
"Are you familiar with the I Ching?" Chong asks Debbie. "OK, 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, You're going to have a reunion, and it's gonna be great. So everything was good after that. I couldn't be bitter, because of all the years that I've been, you know, doin' the talk, what it came down to was that I had to do the walk.
"Well, here I'm talking about a substance that's 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 I'm talking to an empty phone. Especially when it's that good shit, you know?"
"That's why I'm recording it. Want me to play it into the phone when she calls back?"
The phone rings, but not the one in Chong's hand. Dead battery. Phones throughout the house continue to ring. Chong rushes toward them, but by the time he reaches one, they've stopped. So he finds Debbie's 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. Can't cuss 'em out. If you cuss 'em out they'll stop working on you. Same as your computer. You cuss out your computer, it'll 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 – I'd felt that we had grown above that, you know? But when it came down [Bush again], it was like, 'Oh, well I guess we haven't.' But I owe it to the culture. I can't 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 that's what I've done.
"Yes. Very much so.
"Well, there you go. Unfortunately, the American justice system is just riddled with lies and inconsistencies. Yeah. It's very, very inconsistent in that way. It's hip to have slaves, then it's not hip to have slaves, then it's hip to have slaves again. They call them 'migrant workers.' Or 'kids,' or 'teenagers.' Yeah. But you know, in this country it's all about the vote. And these people are whores for the vote. They'll 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 it's built on lies it'll crumble. Basically.
"Well, see, what happened with Cheech, Cheech has an education. He's 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 don't 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, that's it. That's it. Because by then I'll be into That '70s Show, I'll be into the movie, I'll be into all sorts of stuff. We're lookin' at a tour, doing some new music. Plus, my wife and I, we've still got our act, which we performed two weeks ago in Toronto. We're taking that act, and we're gonna make a TV show out of it.
"OK, 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 "That's it!" and a small "Yaaaaayyy!"
"That's it for the day?" I ask.
"Three-thirty I got a radio thing, then I gotta get into my movie." There's 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 can't 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?"
"That's OK, man. I'll make you coffee." He's 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 you'd 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). It's 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 longer's your probation?"
"Until July. Most of the rest of my probation time will be spent on the road. It's perfect. It'll keep me out of trouble, you know?" Chong will be touring with The Marijuana-Logues through mid-May, after which he'll 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 Chong's 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, Shelby's heading out the door. Says a quick hello to everyone and a warm, quick goodbye to Tommy, and leaves.
"That's the reason why I'm anybody," Chong sighs, smiling a Man smile, still intoxicated, 30 years later, by his wife. "She's the brains behind the operation. Whenever I don't do what she says, I end up in jail."
"So you've done everything she's said except for once."
"Yeah," Chong laughs. "Oh, she's great."