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Tommy Chong stood on the night club stage and smiled at his young audience, Long black halt and a long black beard, like a fallen halo, intensified his features. Rimless glasses defined the glitter in his eyes. Also onstage was Richard "Cheech" Marin. His broad back was turned to the audience, thus hiding his I-am-the walrus/Zapata mustache.
"Some day, marijuana will be legal,” Tommy announced. "And that will be nice because then we'll be able to smoke grass at rock concerts."
The audience laughed knowingly.
The youth culture has its music. It has thumbs for hitchhiking and youth cards for trans-Atlantic jaunts. It has its films. It has its own intoxicants. It has its language. Now it possesses a sense of humor and vice versa. There are Lily Tomlin, The Committee, The Firesign Theatre, George Carlin, Uncle Dirty, Chris Fuller, Ed Bluestone, and, perhaps most significantly, Cheech and Chong.
The duo has already mastered that alchemical act of turning vinyl into gold. Now, their second Ode album, Big Bambu, is skipping toward the glittering yellow brick road.
As befitting imminent royalty, Cheech and Chong were holding court in a tiny room at the St. Moritz Hotel.
A writer, a photographer, publicist, people from A&M (which distributes Ode Records), and Bob Orben, one of the private legends of show business, were all hanging out. The television set flashed and chanted. Kevin Sanders of Eyewitness News had interviewed the duo previously, and the people in the room were waiting to notice Cheech, Chong and Kevin, grinning at each other on the tube. Through the window, one could see a muddled creek and trampled grass in Central Park.
Bob Orben, who has been creating jokes for the past twenty-six years, wanted to meet Cheech and Chong. Practically, every comic has used material from Bob's joke books so Cheech and Chong wanted to meet him.
Orben was urging them to try for their own TV show.
"I really think you have more control," he said, "than if you do guest shots."
"Definitely," Tommy agreed. "They had us scheduled for the Marv Griffin Show. The other guests were to be Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Pat Boone, and the Lennon Sisters. It was a Christmas show and the only reason they wanted us is they heard we had a Christmas single out. Can you imagine what it would have been like? 'All right. Where's the Commie? Send out the Commie.' "
"Send out the two Tiny Tims," Cheech added.
"I think what happened," Tommy said, after a pause, "is they saw our picture and said, 'I don't think this is going to be right for us.' "
Cheech and Chong on the Marv Griffin Show?
Cheech: And now it's time to play "Let's Make A Dope Deal"—The show where small time dealers try to parlay their stash so that they can become big-time pushers. And here is our first guest, a former Harvard professor of philosophy, a holder of a PhD., an MA, a BA, and he's a BMF besides, Bob Bitchin. How do you feel Bob?"
Cheech: Did you hear that folks? Bob, what made you drop out?
Chong: Well, my mother thinks it was the four hundred acid trips I took; but that wasn't it, man. One day, I played a Black Sabbath record at 78rpm.
Chong: I saw God, man.
Cheech and Chong on the Merrv Griffin show? Not yet!
Bob Orben wanted to know how the two got together.
They met in Vancouver. Tommy, who had been a musician, was operating a topless night club. He decided to introduce an improvisational revue. It might well have been the world's only topless improvisational revue. Cheech, in Canada because he was avoiding the draft, joined the revue as a straight man. Gradually, attrition set in. One day Tommy Chong and Richard Marin realized they were a team.
"I always hung with the kids who made other people laugh," Tommy told the room.
"I always tended to hang around with a guy I could make laugh," Cheech observed.
The two were asked when they realized they weren't just Cheech and Chong but were CHEECH AND CHONG.
"We saw it," Tommy recalled, "When we played our first gig together. We did that in front of 5.000 people at a rock concert in Vancouver. Cheech was a groupie, as far as all rock bands were concerned. He was a reviewer. He knew what was successful in playing to a rock audience. I was in music and clubs and a businessman and knew what was good and what wasn't good. Cheech and I went out there and fractured these people. I mean 5000 people just shutting up and rolling on the floor. When we saw that, we looked at each other and said it's just a matter of time. We were nothing. We had nothing; but we knew. We had to borrow money to hitch back to the States."
"I came back to the States," Cheech said, "and because of the draft I was still wanted by the FBI."
Fortunately, Cheech had a skiing accident that severely fractured one of his legs. He didn't have to run anymore.
"We never had a problem getting an audience off." Tommy confided. "We just had a problem getting to play for an audience. The clubs told us they don't want comedy."
"Yeah," Cheech added. "They told us comedy is dead. The only places where we had no problem were the black clubs. They had that old format of a floor show."
"The black clubs are a joy." Tommy smiled. "They know how to enjoy what we did."
"Sustaining laughter." Cheech said glowingly. "Sustaining."
Bob Orben accidentally glanced at his watch and realized he was late for an appointment. The three informally agreed to get together in Los Angeles.
Were Cheech and Chong on Eyewitness News yet?
"Today in Washington, Vice President Agnew declared that . . —“
Ron Finkelstein, the publicist, picked up a phone to find out what was happening over at WABC-TV.
Tommy and Cheech looked at the reporter's tape recorder and returned to their narrative. While waiting to be discovered, they found various ways to survive.
"I used to have scams," Cheech recalled. "Like, I used to go into the stores and write down all the addresses of everything I liked. I used to write letters to the companies. It was a form letter. I told them I found something in their food—like, I found a fly in the canned ham. Every day, food would be delivered to our door—ham, gourmet cut steaks, cases of fancy canned goods. I was smart enough not to hit the same people all the time. Unemployment never hurt me or Tommy. We'd just go out there and figure what we had to do to stay alive."
"I've been through all the hard gigs you can name," Tommy observed. "I drove a truck for a year. I was a roofer. I was a laborer. You name it."
"I had all those gigs," Cheech reflected. "I was a janitor. I was a dishwasher. I was a professional potter for a year. I was a singer, a student."
"Remember the Chicago convention," Tommy asked. "All those people were getting clubbed and they were outraged—how dare you club me? Obviously, they had never been off their blocks if they couldn't see how they could get their ass whipped on the street. If you have to hustle on the street, you know the corruption that goes on. You know how to deal with it."
"I think we typify some of the younger people who have been through a lot in a short time," said Cheech. "The whole nation is on the move. It's just hip to get up and hitchhike across the nation."
The years of classic struggle came to an end for Cheech and Chong when they were spotted by Lou Adler, president and personification of Ode Records.
"I just spoke with somebody over at ABC," Ron said softly. "And because of the Democratic Convention, they're not going to have room for your segment now; but they definitely will show it on the eleven o'clock news."
"We're working tonight. How are we going to see it?"
"A friend of mine is into videotape and I asked him to make a tape of it."
The television set was switched off and it was decided to photograph Cheech and Chong in Central Park while some light remained.
In the elevator, Tommy talked about one of the characters he does—Dave, the totally stoned freak.
"He's based on a friend of mine," said Tommy. "He's totally involved in the lifestyle, but his children have no way to go except to be straight. Once, his nine-year-old daughter said, 'Dad, when I bring my friends over to the house, I really wish you wouldn't clean your grass in front of them. I understand; but I don't think they do. Okay Dad?"
Cheech: Okay Bob, it's time for your first question. How many of your fifty kilos are you going to wager?
Chong: All of them.
Cheech: All right. For fifty more kilos—what is your name?
Chong: Uh-I know that one.
Cheech: Begins with a B.
Cheech: You've got ten seconds left, Bob.
Cheech: Right. Now for another one. How much are you going to wager?
Chong: All of it.
Cheech: Okay, here we go. What question do red freaks ask most of the time.
Chong: (puzzled) What?
Cheech: Right you are.
Chong: Hey, man, I didn't even know I knew that one.
Some members of their audience think Cheech and Chong approve of the use of "reds," also known as "downs."
"I don't want red freaks to think it's the greatest thing in the world to be on downs," Tommy declared. "In real life it's funny for a while; but then you find yourself saying. 'enough.' You want to burn your brains? Okay! But don't hang it on me. Red freaks come up to us and say (affecting the particular nasal lag of people on downers) 'hey man, where do you get all your material?' You just stand there and look at them."
The sudden but tasteful splash of Central Park South washed over the group. Cheech and Chong stared at the wide streets and the empty taxis. They talked about some of their problems.
"Working clubs is a hard trip." Tommy said, warily eyeing the traffic, "because you're not working with professionals. The dummy emcee will say something like, 'Let's have a big (pause) hand of applause.. .”
"A big hand of applause," Cheech repeated sarcastically.
"Or," Tommy continued. "they'll say to the audience, 'Now look you guys, we're going to have a lot of other groups here.' It sounds like the guy is a hall monitor, telling them to shut up."
One of the problems with being a new comedian is that one is reminded of the other new comedians. Just as every white woman blues singer has been asked what she thought of Janis Joplin, interviewers constantly ask Cheech and Chong what they think of George Carlin. A negative reaction looks bad and a positive reaction is inane.
"I don't know why interviewers ask that," Tommy wondered. "There's no brotherhood of comedians that I know of."
"I know Carlin gets tired of hearing about Cheech and Chong." Cheech pointed out. "Some friend of mine heard him on a radio interview. The interviewer said, 'What do you think about the things Cheech and Chong are doing?' Carlin said, 'Yeah, but about my new album.' The interviewer said. 'That's pretty much what Cheech and Chong are doing.' Carlin said, 'Yeah, but on my new album . . ."'
A comfortable spot just inside the park was found. Cheech and Chong sat down and the photographer paced about, appraisingly. He gave them a simulated joint made from the two foot square piece of cigarette rolling paper enclosed in each and every copy of Big Bambu. He had filled it with old socks, as prescribed by a routine on the album.
"The kids are just getting used to having comedians who relate to them," Cheech observed. "They treat us like a rock group. Whenever we get into a riff they know, they cheer."
"That doesn't present any problems in performing," Chong explained. "It's like going into a bank to cash a check and finding a line there."
"All you have to remember," said Cheech, "is the days when you didn't have any bread."
"Right!" said Chong. "The problem of meeting a huge success, of getting up early in the morning to do a radio interview, for example, doesn't bother us a bit. A lot of rock groups have a hard time dealing with their money because they're musicians. They'll buy pornographic jewelry or big dumb houses, or they'll hire limos to go hunting."
A gray-haired man with a large black dog deferentially approached. His features and his maroon headband suggested that he might be an American Indian. He stood erect. His voice was soft. Each word was a teaspoon of honey.
"How do you do," he said. "What is your name?"
"I'm Tommy Chong."
"I'm Louis and I'm God's humble servant."
"We all are," said Tommy. "Where are you from?"
"Maine; but it really doesn't matter where we're from. We're all brothers. We're all one. If we're not, we're all dead. The good will die with the bad if we are not one. We have to be one—one mind, one body, one soul, one God, one Universe."
"It's kind of hard, though," said Tommy. "I've never seen one."
"You will see it because you're on the right path. You won't have anyone teach you because it will come to you."
Louis seemed to be looking beyond the trees and in a tone. half-relief and half-apology, asked. "May I go now? I must feed my dog."
"There are angels walking the earth," Tommy asserted, after Louis had stepped away. "If you're very aware or very lucky, they'll find you. It's a rule of life. I was in Boston and a little redheaded angel came up to me. She didn't say a word. She just took me on a beautiful trip. She led me around by the hand, through the park, by the water. It was what I really needed. It cooled my mind out. She didn't say any more than three or four words. She just laughed and gave me a hug."
Angels are messengers. Sometimes the message is a loving hug. Sometimes it is a revelation spun from the universe. Sometimes it is the announcement of a new world that's coming. Sometimes it's a reverberating belly laugh. Sometimes it's all of the above.