After more than two decades apart, legendary stoner-comedy trailblazers Cheech & Chong are seeing double once again
When a mixed-race Calgary R & B band took a floater out of town in the early 1960s—run out by the mayor, no less, because of an overly rambunctious show at a local legion hall—it wound up in Vancouver, leaving this city with sole claim to the biggest stoner comedy act in show-business history.
By all accounts, the Calgary Shades were a tight band. “It was one of the best bands around,” says Tommy Chong, the half-Chinese, half-Scottish guitarist for the Shades. Chong would spend the next 10 years in the Lower Mainland, and would eventually meet Cheech Marin, the yang to his comedic yin. “The only trouble was we were limited. And we never had proper management.”¦We were the Stones without an education, you know?”
Chong was a decent musician, though. In Vancouver he met a 16-year-old kid, Henry Young, who had recently been given the boot from high school for riding his mufflerless Harley down the hall. Young, who was just learning guitar, had a job at a garage, where he’d park his hog. Chong would walk by and admire it, and the two became friends.
“I used to fix his car for him, and he showed me some hot guitar licks and that kind of stuff,” Young says on the phone from his home in North Van. “As I plodded along, he gave me the odd gig here and there, subbing for him.” He must have been a decent teacher, because Young became a full-time musician and went on to play with jazz great Nina Simone on and off for 25 years.
Young, who eventually lived with Chong for a time, remembers Chong as more of a Casanova than a court jester in the early days. “You know something? To tell you the truth, he never was really that funny,” he says. “Tommy was more or less a lady’s man. He was very good-looking, very charming.”¦I guess when he smoked dope, he was like a total different person. And I guess he’d seen his calling, which was to do the comedy thing.”
Chong’s wife, Shelby, a standup comic in her own right, is not as charitable in her description of the young musician. Ten years his junior, the teenaged Shelby Fiddis lived next door to Chong and his first wife on East 15th Avenue. “He was married and bought a house with his wife,” she says on the phone from Nevada the day Cheech and Chong were to be roasted at the Las Vegas Comedy Festival. “That’s how I met him. It’s kind of a sick story. Actually, Tommy was an old pervert in those days. There you go. He was very cool and wore suits, kept his hair back, wore tons of cologne. He owned a club. For him, it was love at first sight. For me, it was like, ”˜You know what? You’re married. I’ll be your friend.’ All my friends were little East 15th girls. He’d get us in the club for free. So that’s how it all started.”
His Lothario reputation and musicianship notwithstanding, there was a hint about his future forte. When Young was living with the Chong family, Chong would dictate what was on the tube.
“He used to say, ”˜Oh, no, you can’t watch wrestling. You gotta watch Dick Van Dyke,’ ” Young remembers. “He was a fan of Dick Van Dyke. He loved, loved Dick Van Dyke and that kind of stuff.”
Chong went on to play in Big Daddy and the Bachelors, which morphed into Four Niggers and a Chink (under pressure, the band was renamed Four Ns and a C.) In the mid-60s, Chong became part of the legendary Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers—house band at the Elegant Parlour, an after-hours bistro run by Chong—which eventually signed with Motown Records. In 1968, he got into the comedy game by way of a topless improv troupe, City Works, that he formed at the Shanghai Junk, a Main and Pender strip joint managed by his brother.
Chong and first comedy partner David Graham, both longhaired hippies, were looking for a shorthaired straight man. Enter Rich “Cheech” Marin, an American who was both writing for a Vancouver rock ’n’ roll magazine called Poppin and delivering carpets. The pair immediately hit it off and Marin was hired to join City Works. Comedy and strippers? What could be better?
“Oh, man, it was so much fun you couldn’t believe it!” Marin recalls. “We didn’t get discovered by anything other than perverts, but it was unbelievable.”
Tommy Chong’s wife, Shelby, reunited the team through a deception or two.
When the troupe broke up, Chong and Marin stayed together. Chong loved Marin’s attitude more than anything else. It was, for lack of a better description, American. Chong always had a big dream of making it in show business. He got a taste of it when Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers reached number 29 on the U.S. pop charts with a tune cowritten by Chong called “Does Your Mama Know About Me” (which could easily have been about his relationship with Fiddis, because, she says, “My mom did not have a clue, until he got famous, then she was like, ”˜I like him now’ ”). But by then the band was no longer in business. Comedy—not to mention THC—was in his blood now.
“Canadians are weird,” Chong says, talking to the Straight while driving with Marin from Portland to Eugene, Oregon, as part of their Cheech & Chong Light Up America and Canada tour, which hits the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on December 5. “Canadians, they get too comfortable. They don’t want to move. That’s why bands break up—because you get good enough but no one wants to go down to the States; no one wants to cut the record. They’re just content where they’re at. Cheech was from the States. And I had a big urge to make it big time. And I knew if you were going to make it big time, you had to go down to the States.”¦Cheech was the only one who still wanted to do it.”
Chong thought music still might be his ticket to fame. He and Marin put a band together, “but our comedy was so strong that we never got around to playing any music,” he says.
So after all of two shows as a duo in Vancouver, Cheech and Chong headed south with “stars in our eyes and holes in our pockets”, according to Marin.
It was a bold move, to be sure. In 1969, comedy wasn’t yet booming, and drug humour certainly wasn’t in the mainstream.
As big a fan as Shelby was, she couldn’t see the success coming. “A Mexican and a hippie?” she asks. “Who’d ever think? That’s incredible when you think about it.”
But it makes perfect sense in hindsight. Although hip and sick comedy had taken hold through the old-school masters, there had yet to be comics speaking to the stoned generation. The comedy team was embraced by their fans, grateful to see anyone reflecting their own lifestyles.
“The audience said, ”˜Hey, we got our own culture; now we have our own comedians—our very own,’” Chong says. “We weren’t comedians doing stoner material; we were stoners being comedians.”
While Vancouver supplied the drug references, Los Angeles allowed them to develop the other key aspect of their act.
“We had pot material,” Marin explains. “We didn’t have that whole Chicano element, because up in Vancouver there weren’t any Chicanos. So in L.A. we started incorporating that into it, and it was great. And all of a sudden the pot element really caught on.”
But Cheech & Chong didn’t abandon its home town. According to Chong, the duo developed some memorable bits at Oil Can Harry’s, the Thurlow Street club that ran from 1966 to 1977. And at the peak of their career, when films came calling in 1978, they made their celluloid arch nemesis an incompetent boob of a cop by the name of Sgt. Stedenko, a nod to Abe Snidanko, the legendary Vancouver RCMP narc.
“Vancouver was very racist, very, very racist,” Chong says. “And they had these cops imported from Ireland and Scotland.”¦They had a right-wing approach to everything. Like, I had friends do time—a year in jail—for selling a dime bag of weed. That kind of thing. And Snidanko, the guy that’s in Up In Smoke, he was head of the narcs in Vancouver and he was always trying to bust us for smoking pot or anything. That’s why I made him famous.”
But fame had its drawbacks. “When he got famous, he got shipped off to Turkey for 17 years. Then he came back and he was on the force for a while, and then they finally retired him. The narcs here called me down in L.A. and had me autograph a poster and send it up for his retirement present,” Chong says with a laugh.
Cheech & Chong broke up in 1985. Like an old married couple, they eventually wore each other down. In interviews they gave individually, it seemed like they might never get back together. In 2006, Marin told the Straight: “It’s two real strong personalities that clash. If we ever want to do anything else, we have to figure out a way around that clash. But at some point, it’s just not worth the trouble.”
Today Chong says, “We were working too hard. That’s a catch-22, you know? You’ve got a lot of money but you got no time to enjoy it. And so you have to break up the band or break up the comedy team or whatever. Then you have too much time and not enough money.”
Now, thanks to a whole bunch of money and some nifty shenanigans from Shelby and their son Paris, Cheech & Chong are back. There had been plans to reunite in the past few years, but the two would always start bickering and nothing would happen.
“We sort of took over Tommy’s e-mails and I had my son answer [Marin] without him knowing it,” Shelby explains. “Tommy had written this kinda not really nasty e-mail, but saying some things that if you were the least bit sensitive, you’d get upset. So I said, ”˜Paris, forget it. Erase it.’ He said, ”˜You’re kidding, Mom.’ I said, ”˜Yes! Just do it.’ So we did it. And the next thing you know, Cheech wrote him a nice e-mail back.”
And, of course, the money eased any potential conflict. “It’s twice the fun for half the work. I love it,” Chong says. “We spread out the work and we get paid a lot of money. It’s great; it’s win-win all the way.”
They also reached deep to find what drew them together in the first place. “We decided not to argue any more,” Marin says. “Things that went on, went on, and let’s see what we can do in the future. And there was enough money there.” He laughs. “We both realized that we each had half of a treasure map and we could not access the treasure without putting those two halves together.”
So on September 5, Cheech & Chong made their triumphant return, after more than two decades apart. According to Marin, the first time back on-stage, in Ottawa, was incredible. “It was great! It was like we had never left. Like we’d been off weeks, not 30 years.”
The tour, which Marin wanted to call Catch Them Before They Croak, keeps on rolling until March. A movie is also in the works. But will they be at each other’s throats before then?
“No, not at all,” Shelby insists. “They love each other and they’re so happy.”
And she is taking no credit for getting the act back together.
“It was meant to happen,” Shelby says. “They both wanted to. They just needed a little nudging here and there. You know how that happens. They have that magic. And who knows what that is? Who knows? When they get together, it’s just magic.”