After 27 years apart, counter-cultural icons Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong finally reunited in 2008 to embark on a "Light Up America" comedy tour that has drawn rave reviews and sold out city after city.
These sultans of stoner humor who immortalized Maui wowie in the hit film "Up in Smoke," would naturally have to bring their show to our island.
And thus it came to pass that both Cheech and Chong, calling from separate locations, in between riffing and cracking each other up, talked with The Maui News about their successful reunion, future plans and past exploits including how they came to create their most successful comic routine.
Tommy Chong (left) and Richard “Cheech” Marin
"It was nice, everybody was glad to see us," says Tommy about their reunion. "It was like being reunited with your twin."
"Tommy and I both dug each other's sense of humor," adds Cheech. "We came from really different backgrounds and the things we felt were funny were a lot the same. You don't have too many people with the same wide-ranging sense of humor."
Were they apprehensive at all about how audiences would respond after so many years apart?
* Cheech and Chong bring their "Light Up America" show to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Shelby Chong opens. Tickets are $59.50 plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
"Not at all, there was such a cry for us," says Cheech. "There wasn't a day that would go by when you'd walk out and somebody would be, 'Hey, you going to make another movie? Are you going to get back together?' It never went away."
"Yeah," Tommy concurs, "'Hey, where's your better half, where's the other guy?' I like this one, 'Hey Cheech, Cheech.' I got that yesterday."
Ask what they're enjoying most about their re-teaming and in unison they respond, "the money."
The duo have nicknamed their tour, which has so far included stops in Canada and Australia, the "felimony" tour, referring to Cheech's divorce and Chong's 2003 arrest and nine-month jail term for bong distribution.
Tommy was pilloried as part of the Bush administration's $12 million drug-paraphernalia sting operation, "Operation Pipe Dreams," targeted he believes because of his celebrity status. As detailed in the award-winning documentary, "a/k/a Tommy Chong," it appears he was a victim of DEA entrapment.
"Not even Cheech and Chong in their most paranoid cheebah nightmare from '78 could've imagined that a quarter-century later, the feds would spend some $12 million on Operation Pipe Dreams, an anti-bong escapade that would culminate in the SWAT team-style apprehension and swift imprisonment of the comic stoner duo's mellower half," noted a Village Voice review.
"When they raided my house, I thought they were looking for dope," Tommy reports in the doc. "When the DEA agent said, 'Do you have any narcotics in the house?' 'Of course, I'm Tommy Chong, man.' " And later in the film, "I'm in here because I made a stupid joke that bongs are the only weapon of mass destruction that the Bush administration had found."
Tommy makes reference to the bust and imprisonment in the duo's new show.
"But my wife does more than me," he notes. "My gorgeous wife (Shelby Chong) opens the show, she's a featured act. She runs through the bust and how she had an affair with Cheech while I was in prison."
"It wasn't really an affair as much as community service," Cheech jokes.
"Yeah, he was watching my back," Tommy riffs back. "There was a time when I was in jail when I kind envisioned these moments (touring) coming, but they're sweeter than I could have ever imagined them to be."
"The nicest part is when people come up after the show, 'Thank you for getting back together,' " adds Cheech. "This thing is really bigger than both of us."
Tommy: "You know something is going on when pilots of the airplane that you flew on have to have a picture with you. The pilots, 'Hey man, I've been your biggest fan.' Oh, how much dope is this pilot smoking?"
The show mixes classic skits like Let's Make a Dope Deal and cruisin' with Pedro, with new material and hilarious musical impressions including Cheech's Alice Bowie, and Chong's bluesman Blind Melon Chitlin'.
"It's a mixture of old technique and new technique, and the show has a nice maturity to it that boggles everybody's mind," says Tommy. "It's the kind of show that gets repeat business, people driving 12 hours to see us again, so you know we're on to something."
"The impeccable comic timing remains, and their chemistry was evident," praised a Hollywood Reporter review. "There wasn't the forced camaraderie that's so obvious in so many reunited acts. And the material is as effective as ever."
With fans scooping up armloads of memorabilia at every tour stop - "We have a whole autograph session after every show, says Cheech - the comics are eager to capitalize on their new windfall.
A live DVD will be released soon, and Tommy reports: "There's a DVD of our early record bits that are being animated, and we're working on a feature movie that will hopefully be shooting in the fall. There's a scriptwriting bible about how to write a movie called 'Save The Cat! Goes to The Movies,' and it refers to a celebrity boost where celebrities come in near the end of the movie. So the celebrity boost will be in it. We have to because so many friends want to be in the movie. Everybody wants to be in it."
And there's talk of a lengthy Las Vegas engagement. "We've been doing Vegas and there are some offers to have us to stay in Vegas," Cheech notes. "Carlos Santana is doing 35 concerts. I love Vegas because everybody comes to you."
Cheech and Chong parted back in the mid-'80s partly because Cheech had ambitions to pursue a career as a dramatic actor and distance himself from the stoner persona. Now he's happy to embrace his old role.
"That was part of me that I couldn't access," he reveals. "There was a part of me that I missed. I was half of Cheech and Chong and I couldn't go there."
In their day the duo released a series of cult classic movies and records and opened rock concerts for the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. But not every gig was equally memorable. They both crack up at the mention of an infamous engagement where they were once inexplicably hired to perform at an English all-girls private school.
"They had a fire drill," Tommy recalls laughing. "We got about five minutes into the show when all of sudden they stood up and filed out like very proper English ladies."
As our time together comes to an end, one question remains - one wonders how they came up with their most famous skit, "Dave's Not Here," whose title has been adopted by rock bands (U.S. and Canada) and even a cafe in New Mexico.
Perfectly capturing the paranoia of the drug culture of the time, "Dave" began as improv as the pair were thinking about material for their first album.
Tommy: "I was in a screening room and he was going to go outside in a coat like a drug dealer and I was supposed to let him in. And I turned a tape recorder on."
Cheech: "I'm standing outside in a coat and it's really hot."
Tommy: "Cheech knocked, I said, Who is it? He's saying, 'It's Dave,' Dave's not here."
Cheech: "I was supposed to knock on the door, and I got into character, It's Dave, man."
Tommy: "He's banging and I could hear him getting impatient. 'Open the door, it's hot out here, what are you doing?' "
Cheech: "He finally opens up the door and lets me in and he's just laughing, he says, 'You got to hear this,' and it was hilarious."
Tommy: "We played it back over and over again for an hour, and just laughed. Everybody who heard it cracked up. We recorded it that night, but we never captured the original. Then we sent it out to radio stations, and overnight we went from zero to 100."
* Contact Jon Woodhouse at email@example.com.