My Conversation With Tommy Chong

Grammy Award winning comedian Tommy Chong, one half of the legendary comedic duo Cheech & Chong hits the Winnipeg stage Friday at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival’s Good Neighbours gala at Pantages Playhouse Theatre.
Canadian born Chong is known for his invaluable contribution to American counter-culture with six gold comedy albums, including the 1973 Grammy winner “Los Cochinos.” He also starred in eight films, most of which he co-wrote and directed. The first, Up In Smoke, was the highest grossing comedy of 1978, topping $100 million at the box office. Others were Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (1980), Nice Dreams (1981), Things Are Tough All Over (1982), Cheech and Chong: Still Smoking (1983), and The Corsican Brothers (1984).

Photo by Neil Visel

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Chong began his entertainment career as a musician in a Canadian-based rhythm and blues band. Eventually, he landed a gig with the “Vancouvers”” and co-wrote the band’s 1960’s hit, “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” The band later toured with the Jackson Five.

From there, Chong eventually turned towards the life as an actor. The first step was forming “City Works,” an improvisational group where he met his future comedic partner, Richard “Cheech” Marin. Throughout the 1970’s Cheech & Chong earned a massive following until eventually, the duo had run its course and they both embarked on solo careers. Tommy has appeared in several films including 1990’s “Far Out, Man!”” and “National Lampoon’s Senior Trip” (1995).

Chong recently released his new book entitled Cheech and Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography about the exploits of the infamous duo’s smoke-filled world. This book serves as a follow-up to his New York Times Best-Seller The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint which chronicles Chong’s arrest for shipping bongs across the country as well as his days in jail and the humorous encounters of his 9 month prison stint.

But in some strange twist of fate, Chong shared a cell with “Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort. Chong has said he encouraged Belfort to turn his story into a book after listening to the discredited former broker recall his experiences each night when they would talk.

We caught up with Chong at his Los Angeles home before departing for Winnipeg.

Photo by Neil Visel

First of all, how’s your health. I heard that you’ve had two battles with cancer.
“It’s fine, man. I’m doing really. I had prostate cancer first. That was just annoying at first but I got through it. Then right after I did Dancing With The Stars I found out I had rectal cancer. You don’t ignore that one, man that’s for sure. I thought I could smoke my way out of that one to but then those doctors kept showing me all that research and stuff. And I had the best doctors, man. They used a robotic device and cleared it all up. I had radiation. But weed helped me through that. It kept my appetite up.”

How was Dancing With The Stars? You wouldn’t have been the logical choice as a contestant.
“Cheech made a bet with me that I could never get on that show but I did. He lost. Man, that was an experience. The intensity on that show man is crazy. That’s what brought on my second bout with cancer. The stress of the show. I could only run through the dances once or maybe twice. I was taping my knees and everything else that I could find that hurt just to get through it.”
“But I had a great time. Every time I was on camera the producers had to cut that Mirror Ball because they were afraid of what I might say or do. But the girls were the best. I mean come on, I was dancing with Peta who was 27 years old and me.”
“I wasn’t supposed to last but I kept getting voted back on. I finished fifth.”

The reason why I asked about your health is that I’ve been working on a project for a former football player who battled cancer. He has started a foundation called the Never Alone Foundation to help others who are fighting this disease.
“That’s so cool, man. It’s a terrible disease. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve been, it can hit you. And yes, you do feel very alone. I know I did.”

So you’re coming to Winnipeg for a show on Friday the Comedy Festival. Have you ever been to Winnipeg?
“Oh man yes. Several times. I love Winnipeg. I’m looking forward to coming back. You guys should be getting into your 2 weeks of summer by the time I get there.”

Photo by Neil Visel

Do you have any past memories of Winnipeg?
“St Boniface. I do remember that place. I played a club there and stayed at this dingy little hotel in St Boniface. The bed was propped up with books. Remember those – books. People used to read those things at one time.”

Yes I remember books. I’ve read some and even written a few.
“Cool. Me too. Did you know Cheech just finished one. It’s pretty good. Have you read it?”

No I haven’t.
“It’s pretty good. But you know, man, he really disses me in it. That’s why I’m going to enjoy doing this doing this show. It’s payback. It’s my chance to set the record straight.”

While we’re on that subject of your show, what can people expect on Friday?
“Oh it’s just me trying to remember how to do stand up, man. It starts off like a conversation then who knows where it will go but it’s going to fun.”

After all those years with Cheech, do you like performing solo?
“I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time, man so it doesn’t matter to me. Cheech and I start touring again in May. That’s going to be a blast, man.”

You have been doing this for quite a while. How do you have all this energy?
“I’ve got a young hot wife, man. I have to keep up. The high eventually wears off and one day she could wake up see what she really got herself into. You have to keep the young one’s entertained, man.”
“I remember one time I was hanging out with that writer- Harold Robbins. There was a bunch of us on his yacht and he had it filled with all these gorgeous young ladies. But, man they were so pissed at us because all us old guys were interested in was the food. All we wanted to do was eat and drink Harold’s wine. We weren’t interested in anything else. I think they all finally left.”

Photo by Neil Visel

There’s been some interesting political news coming from the U.S. lately. Any thoughts? How do you like your new President?
“Trump – I love the guy. He’s exactly what the US needs right. I know that’s hard to believe. I’m surrounded by anti-Trump people. Even my wife. She won’t talk to me about him. But look, he never expected to win. It’s kind of like that show The Producers. The worse they tried to make it, the better it was. I think he honestly tried to lose. Now it’s like he’s under house arrest and he can’t get away with anything.
You know I used to call my colostomy bag “The Donald” because it was always full of shit.
But, man he is comedic gold. Jon Stewart certainly retired at the wrong time. But I bet if he was still on, his head would have exploded. There’s so much material to work with now.”

What about our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau?
“His mom partied with Mick and the guys from the Rolling Stones didn’t she? I remember that. She was cool, man. I remember his Dad, Pierre. Man, he looked like a mobster. But Justin looks more like he’s in a boy band. And not the lead singer guy either. You know, man, the quiet one who’s always in the back that can’t dance very well.”

One of the campaign promises he had made was to legalize marijuana and it looks like that will take effect in 2018. Is that enough to bring you back home to Canada?
“Oh hell no. Man, I have enough. I have so much weed around me but I never carry it with me. People always ask me about weed. I’ve become an activist and an expert on the stuff. But I tell them to Google it. If they don’t know what Google is then they won’t know what weed is.
“Manitoba has been growing hemp for a while so you guys are cool.”

You have really made a name for yourself in the weed business. How is that going?
“Yes I have Chong’s Choice and it’s going really well. But the industry is still young. Everyone’s trying to figure out where it’s going to go and how they can make a buck at it.”
“I’m heading to Berlin after the show to speak at a conference. Europe is really coming along with the whole weed business. I love it.”

What next for Tommy Chong?
“I’m really into art now. In fact I’m looking at some of my sculptures as we speak. I want to be the next Van Gogh but I’m not cutting off my ear. I don’t think I want to lose any body parts, man. I have a show coming up in August and I’m really excited about that.”

You’ve had quite the party list like Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon Who was your favourite?
“George Harrison. Man, him and really contacted on a personal and spiritual level. He was a great guy. One of the best.”

Thank you for taking time to chat. I’ve really enjoyed this and I’m sure the show on Friday is going to be great.
“Yes it will be. Are you coming? If you do, come by and say hi. Oh and bring some weed, man. We’ll have a blast.”

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