In the world of comedy, Tommy Chong may not be as highly regarded as Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, but like them, the former Vancouverite--who made his name as one of the dope-smoking stoners in Cheech & Chong--can lay claim to being one of the few comedic performers to have spent time in the slammer because of their acts.
While Bruce and Carlin were arrested on obscenity charges directly related to what they said on-stage, Chong's 2003 prosecution and subsequent imprisonment in California for selling pipes and bongs over the Internet was largely the consequence of his comedy persona. U.S. federal prosecutors decided to make an example of the preeminent stoner of our time when his company was caught selling and shipping the drug paraphernalia to Pennsylvania.
"Going across the state line, you create a federal offence," Chong explains from his home in Los Angeles. "Federal laws in the states can be way different than state laws. There's no state law against what kind of smoking material is being sold in certain stores....It's a commerce law, where you're making money supposedly illegally even though we're paying taxes. My company had a licence and we paid taxes. It wasn't drug money. But they've bastardized the laws down here to include anything that even has the word drugs around it. They can take your possessions--your house, your cars, your money, whatever you got--if you've made money so-called 'illegally'. It's just a typical weapons-of-mass-destruction mentality they got down here."
The 66-year-old entertainer became the only one of 55 people arrested during the Drug Enforcement Administration's "Operation Pipe Dreams" to do time in prison. Although he wasn't thrilled at being found guilty, Chong describes the experience as "the most exciting time of my life".
Before his retail misadventures, the Alberta native made a career out of portraying dope addicts. But things didn't start out that way. Chong, who once ran a strip joint in Vancouver featuring improv comedy ("We had the first and only naked improv group. It was a nice touch because it really kept your interest," he says with a laugh), met Cheech Marin here in 1969. In the beginning, the counterculture duo did very little drug-related material. After two performances at a club in Chinatown at the corner of Pender and Main, Cheech & Chong moved to L.A. to become one of the top comedy acts of their generation.
"The pot humour came out of us opening for jazz groups," Chong recalls. "There were no comedy clubs. There were just black jazz clubs. And we got booked to open for, like, Cannonball Adderley and Carmen McRae and Bill Withers. And we found that the audience responded to our stoner bits, so we started putting them in.
"The guy that my character's based on was a real guy....His nickname was Strawberry. He was a redheaded kid. I've met him a few times since. He morphed into a real businessman with a suit and everything. But [back then] he was a living-on-the-streets hippie with beautiful long red hair and just the best attitude ever. He'd bust us. We'd come off-stage and he'd say, 'Boy, that really sucked, man. No one laughed. Whoa!' That whole attitude just gave us the base for our stoner guy."
That stoner guy is now out from behind bars after serving a nine-month sentence, but he's on probation until July. Which makes his upcoming appearance in The Marijuana-Logues (Friday [February 18] at the Orpheum), a druggie take on the hugely popular Vagina Monologues, somewhat brave. Chong admits to being uncertain about it all, but he passionately explains why he agreed to appear in the comedic play.
"I was a little bit hesitant about performing while I'm on probation, but then I realized it's very unpatriotic of me to hesitate exercising free speech. I can see me not selling bongs, but being afraid to talk, even though part of the [Bush] administration would love to have that effect on me? You got people dying for freedom and liberty, and here I am huddled in my house afraid to go on-stage and talk? I just said to myself, 'Come on!' Because that's one thing that I have to do to honour people like the soldiers and that who are dying in Iraq. I have to do that."
If you're under the impression that you need to be a pot aficionado to enjoy the show, think again. As perhaps the only Georgia Straight writer who's never tried weed, and as someone who doesn't particularly like drug humour, I've seen part of The Marijuana-Logues and found it to be unlike most other comedy aimed at dope heads. It's written and developed by standup comics Arj Barker, Doug Benson, and Tony Camin, all regulars on the American talk-show circuit, who read from notes on music stands and speak in clear, sober tones. Sample line: "I didn't always smoke pot. For years and years, Arj Barker was high on life. But eventually I built up a tolerance."
Chong, who is replacing Barker on this 16-city North American tour--which begins in Vancouver--has inserted his own material rather than sticking to the original script. "I mean, I've got stuff that's been around longer than all of those guys," he jokes. Still, he agrees that this show takes a different look at the culture than his old comedy team did.
"The thing I like about it [the script] is it has insights that I would never think about. A collegiate look at it, you know. In fact, there isn't any kind of typical stoner stuff in the monologues....[It's] funny in an intellectual-playwright sort of way."
Thanks to the attentions of the American authorities, Tommy Chong is enjoying a renaissance. Cheech & Chong recently reunited after 20 years apart, and there's a new movie in the works. Still, the comedian claims to have learned his lesson. When asked what he'd do differently, he responds, "Well, I would never have a bong company to begin with." *
Tommy Chong appears in The Marijuana-Logues at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday (February 18).