TORONTO””It wasn't the marijuana that made Tommy Chong paranoid. It was the jail time. The world's most famous stoner figures he was busted by the U.S. government for being the world's most famous stoner.
When half of the counterculture comedy duo Cheech & Chong had his Los Angeles–area home raided by the DEA in 2003, his first response beat the late-night comics to the inevitable punch line. Asked if there were any drugs on the premises, he replied, “Of course””I'm Tommy Chong.”
A/K/A Tommy Chong, Josh Gilbert's documentary about the comedian's trial and transformation into marijuana martyr and reluctant activist is more chilling than funny as it looks at the lengths the U.S. government went to set the comedian up and send him to jail.
Chong, wife Shelby, and their friend and video biographer Josh Gilbert, are sharing a couch in a corner of the bar at the Hotel InterContinental at the Toronto International Film Festival, and when they hear I'm from the Georgia Straight they smile like I'm a long-lost B.C. bud.
Chong drawls the name and laughs like he's about to launch into a routine. Shelby turns to him and asks, “Didn't Cheech try to get a job writing for them when he came to Vancouver?” Then she turns to me to make sure I know she and her husband are both from Vancouver and share a few stories about running nightclubs in the '60s before we talk about the movie.
The first shock to anyone who followed Chong's case is that he didn't go to jail over drugs: he was busted for selling bongs to states where they're illegal. It was less like charging Al Capone with tax evasion than nailing him for spitting on the sidewalk. Or going into Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and finding...um, whatever it was they found.
In A/K/A Tommy Chong (playing Friday to Thursday [July 7 to 13] at the Vancity Theatre), Tommy says prison changed him but doesn't talk much about how. When I ask in person, he starts with the standup response: “I saw God in prison. They say when you go to prison you will find God. And I found Him. Unfortunately, I left Him in prison.”
We all laugh as he continues the riff. “He's still in prison. Well, they need Him in there. And God's a stoner. It changed me; it made me more humble. In fact, I'm the most humblest guy you'll ever meet. You can't get any more fucking humble than me.”
Shelby's continues with: “It made him better-looking, as you can see in the movie””before and after. That shows you what no drinking and a lot of sleep does for you.”
Chong chimes in that it made him “more needy” .
Shelby grins at him and doesn't miss a beat. “No, you always were needy.” They both laugh, then Shelby stops laughing, her smile vanishes, and she switches gears. “I think it changes how we feel about America. That anybody can come and do whatever they want to you, it made us much more fearful.”
Chong nods. “Well, yeah, we're rape victims basically.”
“Yeah,” says Shelby. “And we're paranoid. I'm a lot more paranoid now.”
She and Chong share a look. Chong's case is full of ironies. A much bigger one was that he wasn't actually directly connected to the crime he was charged with.
Says Tommy: “First of all, it was my son's company. So he was the one that actually committed the crime, his company.”
Then Shelby adds: “But I signed the cheque for the company.”
“She signed a cheque,” says Tommy with a sigh.
“So that means that I...” and Shelby's voice trails off.
“That she was part of the conspiracy,” says Tommy. “I was actually the only one that could have walked because there was no paper on me.”
That gets to the biggest irony. Chong pleaded guilty to a crime he wasn't involved with in exchange for his wife and son's freedom. Says Gilbert: “When this was happening to him and when they were holding his wife and his son's freedom hostage and weren't allowing him to speak about what was going on I said: 'I'll speak for you. This story needs to be told.' I was infuriated.”
The Chongs say they considered moving home to Canada after Tommy's stint in jail but decided there was no point. “Look at Marc Emery and the seeds,” says Tommy. “You can run, but you can't hide from these guys. If they wanna getcha, they getcha. I figured out if they wanted to off me, they would off me.”
Gilbert was given almost complete access to the Chongs' life during the trial and jail term””but he'd had plenty of access before that too. They'd been friends for almost 15 years, meeting when Chong was working on Far Out Man.
“One of my quirks is that I collect weird but talented people, like Cheech,” says the comedian. “Cheech was up in Canada, dodging the draft and delivering carpets for a living and we met””it was like a very cosmic meeting. Josh, it was the same thing. I met Josh at a film company that we did a film with.”
Tommy's most cosmic connection, though, has been with Shelby. He was playing in a band in White Rock when he first saw her. He almost blushes as he says, “When she walked in, my heart and my mouth fell open. I was literally stunned.”
Shelby's eyes are locked on his as she adds, almost under her breath, “and he got me, and he got me.”
“It took a lot of years,” Chong says. “But what happened””we became friends. Because I was married, we were just friends. I owned a nightclub and her and her sister couldn't get into any other nightclub and we were friends for years and the friendship just developed.”
Shelby continues the story. “He was so crazy. I liked him because he was as crazy as me.”
They both laugh before Chong adds: “She's always been my guiding brain. I could be as crazy as I wanna be because she would encourage me.”
Then Shelby laughs again. “Yeah. Look where it ended up. You went right to jail.”