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Monday, March 17, 2014

Cheech & Chong Learn to Compromise

Cheech Marin talks about the comedy duo's past, present and future

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After a 15-year run of hit comedy albums and movies, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong parted on hard terms in the mid-’80s. The duo’s 2008 reunion hasn’t completely erased those old tensions, but the self-described “grumpy old stoners,” now 67 and 75 years old, have learned to set them aside on stage. Cheech & Chong are currently touring behind a music-heavy show featuring the funk-rock band War. In advance of their performance Thursday, March 20, at the Riverside Theater, Marin spoke with the Shepherd about the duo's unusual truce.

Are you surprised that an act you originated in the ’70s continues to resonate with new audiences?


Not at all. The marijuana culture gets reborn every generation, or every half-generation. I just expect it to keep happening. The humor holds up, because it’s not about place and time, it’s about state of mind.

Does the possibility of marijuana being legalized make pot-based humor more or less funny?

[Laughs] It makes it more universal! Everybody should legalize. It just spreads the word more and more and more. In the absence of us being on stage for almost 20 years together, our audience grew exponentially in that time without any product.

During that time apart, were you still thinking about the act, brainstorming new routines, or did you mostly put it behind you?


I really put it behind me. I was involved in the things I was doing and I was having a good time doing those other projects, but I knew that there was a crying need and demand in the public for Cheech & Chong, because I would hear it every day. So I mentioned we probably would get back together one day, and we decided on a stage show because that’s the thing we probably argued about the least.

What is it that makes the stage show less contentious?

Because it’s just me and him live on stage. There’s no director. There’s no editor, and nobody is in charge. That was always the source of contention between Tommy and I. We just get out there, and if they laugh, you’re funny, and if they don’t, you’re not. Money talks and bullshit walks.

Has anything about your stage dynamic with Tommy changed over time?

I think it’s gotten much better, because we look at it from the point of view of being a musician. We’re musicians, and I think our timing has gotten better, and our knowledge of music and comedy has gotten better, so it’s much easier. We know more chords now.

You’ve talked on and off again about the possibility of doing another live action Cheech & Chong movie. Is that still a possibility?

[Groans then laughs]. That’s a very illusive one.

Getting any movie made is a tall order.

Yeah it is. Ay, ay. I don’t know. I’m open to it, but you know. Who knows? Arguing about who does what, and why and where—I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away.

Did you and Tommy always have those sorts of arguments?

It was always part of the way we worked together, but then it got worse over time. The thing about how the stage show is different from movies is you have a division of labor in movies: You have a writer, a director, an editor, a cinematographer, and everybody wants to stake out their territory. And I always worked best with Tommy when we worked together, but then there was a point where he wanted to be God, and I don’t believe in God.

And conversely, what is the thing about you that probably most irks Tommy?

That I’m right all the time.

At least it seems like there’s comic potential in that tension between you two. Is that something you’re able to harness?

Oh yeah. Actually the best Cheech & Chong stuff is where we clash. Well, not clash, but meet in the middle and get in a rhythm that’s just unconscious and just do it.

There’s been a big shift in comedy recently to autobiographical, personality-based humor. There aren’t a lot of comedians today doing the kind of sketch and character-based comedy you guys do.

We came out of the school of improvisation. We came out of improvisational theater, and we started our act in a topless bar, which was our mark of distinction. We had this kind of intellectual, sexy act that was involved with that, so we had the best of both worlds as far as I was concerned. There aren’t any acts doing what we do because doing a comedy team involves a lot of compromise, and you have to have two personalities that mesh, but each has to bring something very different to the table. The way it’s set up right now for comics today is they do stand-up, then they get a sitcom, then they maybe get into movies. But our kind of act involves a lot of compromise, which I don’t think too many up-and-coming comics are good at, otherwise there would be more doing it.

Do you think Cheech and Chong’s reputation for drug-based humor hurt you when you made the move to serious acting?

Not at all, because in actuality, we had so much more stage experience than anybody else, because we were on stage every night. And it wasn’t like we were up there like, “Hey a funny thing happened to me on the way to the club…” We were actors. We were acting in skits every night. So when it came time for us to go our own way, we had this huge leg up over everybody else.

Cheech and Chong play the Riverside Theater Thursday, March 20, with War. Doors open at 7 p.m.